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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 4:01 AM EST

Going Nuclear

"Fuck Scott Walker." Tom Bird wrote those words on his Facebook page shortly after reading about the governor's "repair" bill on Friday, February 11. His next thought was, Well, we probably can't do anything about it. A skinny 22-year-old from Oshkosh, Bird is getting his master's in nuclear engineering at UW-Madison. His specialty is plasma physics, not labor activism.

In the days after the bill came out, Bird started stopping by the protests. He joined a student walkout, trudging through the snow up to the Capitol with a friend. He says he didn't fully join the cause until the state Senate’s 14 Democratic members fled the state on Friday, February 18, preventing a vote on Walker's bill. (Nineteen state senators are Republicans; financial bills in the state senate require a quorum of twenty members.) After that, Bird started hanging out inside the Capitol, meeting people and marveling at the swelling crowd inside the rotunda. Before long, he was joining the raucous drum circle at the heart of the protest and manning the megaphone, always wearing his Wisconsin baseball cap.

On the ninth or tenth day of the protest, Bird and a group of diehards created the Capitol City Leadership Committee, an umbrella group of the half-dozen factions—the medics, TAA, protest marshals, and more—behind the occupation of the Capitol. The committee’s main job was to ensure that the protesters remained peaceful and respectful while still voicing forceful opposition to Walker's bill.

The Wisconsin protests have radicalized Bird. One night, when I met him and some friends for drinks at an Irish pub in Madison, he pointed to his upper arm. "A few of us might get tattoos of the Wisconsin solidarity fist," he told me. "Except on mine I want the Polish version: Solidarność."


A New Sense of Purpose

On Monday, February 21, Governor Walker gave his first press conference since the protests had erupted. By then, the controversy surrounding his bill was national news and the unions felt that they had the wind at their backs. Walker's embarrassing 20-minute phone conversation with a prankster pretending to be right-wing billionaire David Koch only added to the unions' momentum.

Two weeks later, the fight in Wisconsin rumbles on. Walker refuses to negotiate with the unions on the issue of collective bargaining, despite the unions' willingness to make concessions on health care and pension contributions. The 14 Democratic state senators remain out of state, though it's unclear how long they'll stay away. On Tuesday, Walker released his budget plan for 2011-2013, a grab bag of proposals that drastically cuts aid to schools, local government, and women's health programs.

Whether the unions' round-the-clock organizing and protesting will stop Walker and the Wisconsin Republicans remains to be seen. A complete victory is all but impossible considering that they have already agreed to negotiate cuts to wages and benefits. But the past few weeks have been a test of organized labor’s ability to still flex its muscles in the face of powerful opposition, and that has left some supporters feeling a new sense of purpose. "Everyone has their turf," says Diane Palmer, the state chapter president of the SEIU. "But this fight has united labor. We sit in one room, at one table, on one accord."

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