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Inside Labor's Epic Battle in Wisconsin

How big labor and progressive groups pulled off the biggest protests in 40 years.

| Fri Mar. 4, 2011 3:01 AM EST
As many as 100,000 protesters massed outside the Wisconsin state Capitol on Saturday, Feb. 26, to protest Governor Scott Walker's "budget repair bill."

They piled off of buses and out of cars, filling the streets of Madison, Wisconsin, and surrounding the towering Capitol. Thousands crowded inside the building’s beautiful rotunda, their cheers echoing throughout the domed structure. An estimated 100,000 people had descended on frigid Madison to protest Republican Governor Scott Walker's "budget repair bill," a sweeping piece of legislation that would strip 170,000 public-sector workers of their right to collectively bargain.

Last Saturday's "Rally to Save the American Dream" was the culmination of two weeks of protests and a 24-7 sit-in inside the Capitol. Not for 30 or 40 years have unions and progressive groups come together in such an outpouring of support for workers' rights. What makes the Madison protests even more incredible is how spontaneous they have been: There has been no master plan, no long-anticipated strategy to turn Madison into ground zero for a reenergized labor movement.

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What follows is a behind-the-scenes account of how the massive Wisconsin rallies came together, based on interviews with a dozen people who were intimately involved in them. It is by no means an exhaustive or complete account. But it offers a window into how the unions and their allies responded, swiftly and effectively, to what they saw as an existential threat.


Bracing For a Fight

Wisconsin Democrats sustained a historic beating on Election Day 2010, losing majorities in both chambers of the state legislature. Voters ousted the state senate majority leader and majority caucus leader, both Democrats. The Democratic assembly speaker didn't even bother to run a reelection campaign, so confident was he that his working-class constituents would back him for another term. He lost, too.

But what really worried union members was the election of Republican Scott Walker, who won the state's gubernatorial race by 5.7 points over Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett. The unions feared that Walker, part of a new wave of conservative governors, would make Wisconsin a "right-to-work" state, joining 22 others where workers who don't want to be part of a union can simply choose not to pay dues. Unions vehemently oppose right-to-work laws, saying they result in lower wages for all workers, endanger workers' safety and health, and are unfair to workers who do pay union dues. "We had all these losses on November 2," says Stephanie Bloomingdale, the secretary-treasurer of the AFL-CIO in Wisconsin. "On November 3, we began prepping for a right-to-work battle."

In the weeks following the election, the Wisconsin AFL-CIO and other unions began plotting their anti-right-to-work campaign. "Don't Let Politicians Take Your Union Away," read the postcards Bloomingdale and her team mailed to every AFL-CIO member in the state. In early December, on the day that a group of state union honchos were set to talk strategy, the first bomb dropped: "GOP leader floats right-to-work law," blared a headline in the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel. The Republicans wouldn’t be in charge in Madison for another month, but the fight was already on.


"We All Expected the Worst—And It Was Worse"

"Thank you, Scott Walker, for showing us…that we need to get off our duffs and fight for our futures," says one union member.

Governor Walker took office on January 3. He wasn't scheduled to unveil his "budget repair bill," a set of cuts and stopgap measures aimed at plugging a $165-million hole in Wisconsin's 2009-2011 budget, until the second week of February. But in the days before Walker's announcement, bits of information trickled out about the governor's plan, recalls Robert Kraig, the executive director of Citizen Action of Wisconsin. The rumors put Kraig on edge. "We'd heard they might go after the unions, maybe even try to repeal bargaining rights," he says. "Still, we thought that was the long-shot option."

At 6:45 p.m. on the Thursday before the budget announcement, the second bomb dropped. Someone in the Walker administration leaked a skeleton summary of the "repair" bill; Kraig got a copy from The Wheeler Report, a no-frills political website run by veteran Wisconsin reporter Dick Wheeler. He was stunned. Walker's bill didn't just attack unions: It was a move to wipe them off the map.

According to the leaked summary, the bill would eliminate collective bargaining for most public-sector unions, a move affecting 170,000 employees statewide. It would require public employees, who'd already taken a 3 percent pay cut in the previous two years, to contribute 5.8 percent of wages to fund their pensions and 12.6 percent of wages to pay for health care premiums. (Currently, they pay 0.2 percent of wages into their pensions and 5.6 percent of wages for health premiums. However, state employees fund 100 percent of their pensions through deferred compensation. Walker is demanding more money on top of that to fill a deficit in the pension fund.) Another provision would force unions to vote each year to maintain their union status—an unprecedented move by the governor.

Word of the bill's contents spread like wildfire in the labor community, and Kraig was inundated with calls. On a voicemail to Kraig, Bruce Colburn, a top official with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), exclaimed, "Robert, they're going for everything!"

"We all expected the worst—and it was worse," says Kraig.

By the time Walker officially unveiled his "repair" bill a day later, unions across the state had sprung into action. Some were setting up makeshift war rooms a block from the Capitol at the Concourse, the only unionized hotel in Madison. Volunteers piled into the offices of the Wisconsin Education Association Council, the state's largest teachers union. Over the next two days, they called all 98,000 of WEAC's members. That weekend, SEIU members hit the phones and Facebook to contact members and to pull together a rally on the following Tuesday.

Soon the hallways of the University of Wisconsin hospital were buzzing about the bill and the rally. Tim Swanson, an SEIU member and resident nurse in the hospital's neuroscience intensive care unit, says coworkers started coming up to him and grilling him about Walker’s bill. At first, he says, organizing union members at the hospital was a challenge, "like dragging people out there to be active." But as their anger mounted, people didn't need any nudging. "Thank you, Scott Walker, for showing us what we need to do," Swanson says with a half-laugh. "That we need to get off our duffs and fight for our futures and our children's futures."

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