At a gas station in Delafield, Wisconsin, off I-94, two female clerks – one older, one younger – are arguing about the merits of the labor demonstrations in Madison. It’s Saturday, Day 5 of the protests that have grabbed the nation’s attention, and this time the Tea Party is supposed to show for a counter-demonstration.
“I do respect the teachers.” the older woman retorts, as I walk in. “But they don’t have to pay hardly anything for their benefits. A lot of people don’t even get health insurance or a pension. Besides, I believe Wisconsin is rated as having the worst school system in the country. So why should they get all that money when the schools are so bad?” (Actually, Wisconsin is rated among the top in the nation in teaching white kids and among the bottom in teaching black kids.)
I arrive in Madison about noon, park at the East Towne Mall and join a crowd at a city bus stop. Fare is $2, exact change, I’m told. A woman says she’s been waiting 45 minutes; she just missed the previous bus. Labor is operating free shuttle service to the Capitol elsewhere in the sprawling mall, but a man informs us that the line for that service is “a mile long.”
An empty No. 6 arrives. We fill the bus. Almost as many are standing as are sitting. The bus rolls down E. Washington Avenue without stopping until about 10 blocks away from the Capitol, where it picks up a dozen more passengers.
We deboard near the end of E. Washington. I pass a bank of portable toilets, relieving my mind of one anxiety.
Crowds are streaming around the Capitol sporting picket signs. The throng seems like Middle America with students mixed in. The young people add energy, beating drums, blowing horns and whistles, and leading chants, among them:
· “It’s disgusting – union busting.”
· “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Scott Walker’s got to go.”
· “Kill the bill!”
· “Down with Walker – up with the people.”
A West Allis man tells me he was surprised by Walker’s ploy to take away the bargaining rights of public-sector employees. “I knew he was anti-union,” he says. “But I didn’t know he was out to kill the unions.”
The man himself, who does not want his name used, is a union member, but not a public employee. Echoing others, he adds, “If this was just about pay and benefits, there wouldn’t be thousands of people here.” At issue, he says, is the survival of public-employee unions. Walker wants to quash their bargaining rights, the raison d'etre for unions
Equainess Price of Racine quips that he came because his job is to support teachers. He is ESP (educational support personnel) for Gateway College in Racine.
“The bill wouldn’t kill me,” he says, “but I know it would hurt many others.”
I look for the Tea Party. I find only isolated groups of counter-demonstrators. Finally, I find their rally, which is breaking up. The pro-Walker people number in the hundreds at best. The anti-Walker people number in the tens of thousands.
There are long lines to enter the Capitol, which is living up to its name as the people’s house. Madison is, of course, no stranger to protests, which hit a crescendo in the 1960s. One difference between then and now is the police. Then they were hostile; now they’re friendly. To prevent overcrowding, police courteously let in only so many demonstrators at a time.
Legions participate in a continuous rally in the rotunda, where speeches and applause echo. Protest signs and banners adorn walls and railings.
On the fourth floor young people sit at a long table in an office working on Macs. They overflow into the hallway. The Teacher Assistant Association, a union consisting of University of Wisconsin grad students, runs this operation, which is part of the protest infrastructure. The association picks up trash inside and outside the Capitol, runs information booths, supplies marshals, feeds social networks such as Facebook and Twitter, produces flyers (including a ubiquitous one here reminding participants, “This is a peaceful protest”), helps coordinate activities and do sundry other chores.
A harried-looking Alex Hanna, a UW-Madison sociology grad student, heads the 24-hour-a day operation, which he admits is “physically taxing.” He says he broke away only once to go home and refresh himself since Tuesday and he has fallen behind on his school work.
At a rally outside, Mahlon Mitchell, president of the Professional Fire Fighters of Wisconsin tells the multitude: “Gov. Walker said today on TV that he received 19,000 e-mails that were in support of his legislation. Nineteen thousand. I think I have 19,000 behind me and 20,000 over there, 20,000 over here … and that doesn't include those who are in the Capitol right now.”
The protesters hear promises that they will win and expressions of love for the 14 Democratic senators who left the state to deny Walker a quorum and thus thwart action on his proposal to gut public-employee unions.
The rally breaks up. My son and grandson, who live in Madison, pick me up and we grab a bite to eat.
Photos by Gregory StanfordTo replay slide show, click "labor protest" in bottom left corner, then click play button.