Working people stand up
to assaults by state government
|Tens of thousands rally in Madison, Wisconsin, March 12 to defend public workers—a “powerful expression of working-class solidarity.”|
BY FRANK FORRESTAL
AND REBECCA WILLIAMSON
MADISON, Wisconsin—A farmer-labor solidarity tractorcade, stretching for more than a mile, descended on Capitol Square March 12, with tens of thousands lining the streets cheering the farmers’ arrival.
The streets surrounding the capitol filled throughout the morning and grew to estimates of up to 100,000 people. They were protesting against Republican governor Scott Walker’s signing into law of a union-busting bill the previous day. The demonstration capped four weeks of street protests in defense of public workers by union members and their supporters at the statehouse and in cities throughout Wisconsin.
Contingents of teachers, hospital, university, transportation, and other public workers from all over the Midwest turned out. Workers from unions in steel, iron, electrical, construction, and meatpacking industries were also on hand. Unionists came from other parts of the United States and from Canada. Many unorganized workers marched with their signs supporting unions.
Students came from Wisconsin and from schools as far away as New York State. Middle-class professionals and some small business owners also marched to show their support.
Thousands carried handmade signs such as “Public workers you are not alone, we got your backs” and “Stop the war on working people.”
Glenn Scott, vice president of the Alberta Union of Provincial Employees in Canada, traveled to Madison with two fellow union members. It’s important to build solidarity with this fight, he said, “In Alberta we have the same attacks on education, and cuts in health-care and child-care funding.”
Farmers join the fight
All morning the city was buzzing about the planned tractorcade in solidarity with Wisconsin’s public workers and against Governor Walker’s budget bill. After assembling some three miles from the capitol, crowds to greet the farmers began to gather along the route.
As the farmers driving the 53 tractors snaked their way toward the protest site, and despite bone-chilling winds, the protest grew and grew. Eventually thousands lined the streets chanting, clanging cowbells, waving signs of support, and giving solidarity salutes.
The Family Farm Defenders and the Wisconsin Farmers Union organized the tractorcade. “We’re determined more than ever to show solidarity, even after parts of the budget repair bill were passed so quickly,” said John Peck, executive director of Family Farm Defenders. Sharp decreases in health care, known as BadgerCare, and cuts in funding for public education are two issues that have drawn the ire of many farmers.
“Around 11,000 farmers and family members will lose their health-care benefits,” said Randy Jasper, a farmer from Muscoda, Wisconsin. “This will hit the small farmers the hardest. They can’t afford anything else.” According to the Wisconsin Farmers Union, one in seven farmers depend on health coverage through BadgerCare for their families.
At the rally following the tractorcade, Tony Schultz, a farmer from Athens, denounced Governor Walker’s attacks on public education. He reported that 14 of 44 teachers in Athens, a small rural farming town of 1,100, had gotten “pink slips.”
Some of the farmers on the farm labor tractorcade included workers who either work as part-time farmers or are from farm families. Brian Borgrud, a grain farmer from Westville, Wisconsin, works part-time as a farmer, and pulls two 24-hour shifts as a union firefighter in Madison. While riding in his cab to the capitol, Borgrud told the Militant he has joined nine protest actions in the past month.
Like many others, Borgrud was picked up by the display of solidarity.
Sam Anderson, a retired member of Teamsters Local 695 who drove his tractor, said, “This is a wake-up call for labor.”
‘Political shenanigans at capitol’
Tod Pulvermacher drove his manure spreader more than seven hours to participate in the tractorcade. This sends a clear message, he said, about what “rural folks feel about the political shenanigans at the state capitol.”
What Walker calls the “budget repair bill” is aimed at the rights of public workers to collectively bargain with the state over anything except wages. On March 10 the governor stripped all spending proposals from the bill in order to proceed to a vote. The legislature promptly voted to approve the measure 53-42. Public workers’ unions will now be barred from negotiating issues other than raising wages up to inflation and must submit to new union representation elections every year. These measures go into effect March 26.
The funding part of the bill that will be voted on contains major cuts in education and social programs.
Many demonstrators carried signs welcoming back and thanking the 14 Democratic state senators who left the state in response to the increasing demonstrations against the bill. Union officials have dubbed them the “Fab 14,” and they were featured speakers at the rally. Their message was to end the street protests and “take this fight to the ballot box in 2012.”
Petitions are being organized throughout the state to recall eight Republican representatives. Many said they were in favor of a recall, but at the same time agreed the assault on working people and the unions is bipartisan. “They both have been taking away,” said Emily Anheier, 19, a student at University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee.
Following the tractorcade the Family Farm Defenders wrote on their website that the protest was a “roaring success.” At the same time, their statement said that “the struggle for justice is not over in Wisconsin, and this powerful expression of working-class solidarity from Wisconsin family farmers has given many more the heart and strength to stand up for what is right… . An injury to one is an injury to all!”
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