With Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker poised to sign a bill gutting public-sector union power, organized labor must use its power now, argues Lee Sustar.
March 10, 2011- After three weeks of demonstrations and an occupation of the Capitol building, the labor battle in Wisconsin was coming to a head after Gov. Scott Walker's Republican allies suddenly rammed through legislation aimed at gutting the bargaining power of public-sector unions and crippling them financially.
The question now is whether unions will push back with the kind of job actions that launched the biggest labor mobilization in decades–or allow Walker to drive a legislative steamroller over half a century of public-sector unionism in Wisconsin.
The immediate reaction to the legislative sneak attack was furious. Thousands of protestors swarmed into the Capitol building in Madison–six days after an occupation had ended. "General strike!" was among the most popular chants, along with "This is what democracy looks like!"
Asked if he supported the call for a general strike, Joe Conway, president of Madison Local 311 of the International Association of Fire Fighters, said, "I'm in total agreement. We should start walking out tomorrow and the next day, and see how long they can last."
Mike Imbrogno, an executive board member of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 171 at the University of Wisconsin (UW), described the scene inside the Capitol:
People keep asking, "When are we going on strike?" There is the broad mix of workers here who have been out for the last three weeks: boilermakers, AFSCME members, teachers, firefighters, graduate employees of the UW Teaching Assistants' Association, lots of building trades people.
Many students and parents are here with their children, too. People got the e-mail that this was happening around 5 p.m., and they immediately rushed here. As the crowd swelled outside, the cops abandoned the doors and let everybody in. This is a turning point. People's anger is overcoming their fear.
While thousands jammed the ground floor, a few dozen protesters, many of them TAA members, made their way into the state Assembly chambers, where they planned to sit in to block that body's vote on the final version of the anti-union bill, scheduled for the morning of March 10.
Even Democratic State Rep. Brett Hulsey, who last week actively urged protesters to abandon the occupation, this time gave up on trying to limit the action. UW graduate student Aongus Ó Murchada said, "I shouted at him, 'You going to lead us out again, Brett? We're not leaving.' He said, 'I don't blame you,' and just walked away."