More than 10,000 workers and students took over the Wisconsin State Capitol Building in a dramatic action protesting the bill promoted by Gov. Scott Walker that would strip public-sector workers of the right to bargain collectively. The following is an interview conducted at 10:30am CT today, Feb. 16, with Austin Thompson, who is at the scene of the protest.
Liberation News: We’re talking to Austin Thompson, who is in Madison and is giving an eyewitness report about the mass demonstrations that took place yesterday and are continuing today. Austin, can you tell us what is happening now in Madison?
Austin Thompson: Sure. Well first, yesterday was actually Day Two. Day One was a series of student walkouts as well as a demonstration at Gov. Scott Walker’s house.
It escalated on Day Two. Estimates I’ve seen are that as many as 10,000 people were there. There were workers from many unions—AFSCME, United Steelworkers, SEIU, teachers’ unions, firefighters’ unions—as well as students who walked out of their classes again and teachers who are on strike in Madison.
They went to the State Capitol for a rally. The crowd surrounded the State Capitol. There was a scheduled program and also organic actions by the large crowd. It was similar to Tahrir Square, that’s the only thing I can think to compare it to. There were people with loud speakers over a mile-long space.
There was a contingent of firefighters who won’t be affected by Scott Walker’s bill, but they came out anyway. Walker wanted to keep the firefighters and police out of this to avoid a backlash from that sector of what are more conservative voters. But the firefighters came out in solidarity and were met with thunderous applause.
There were also many nurses and others people who take care of the sick.
Once the rally started, the presidents of several unions spoke. Another interesting thing happened was that, inside the State Capital building itself, workers in the Congress held up a banner that said “solidarity.” This action was met with thunderous applause in the crowds. Even in the midst of the most conservative legislation that’s been passed in this country in a long time, people inside are totally in accord with what this action is about.
People began to leave the rally because there was a lobbying action scheduled for a small contingent after the bigger rally, but a group of students on their own initiative stormed the Capitol Building, leading rank-and-file workers into the Capitol rotunda. There, literally throngs of people, four floors of people, were chanting “tax the rich,” “recall Walker” and “kill the bill,” which was referring to the bill Walker’s trying to get passed.
It was such a thunderous moment, with the chants going, people stopping and dancing in celebration of taking back the people’s house. The entire building began to shake. Youth and students were at the forefront of leading that action along with rank-and-file workers who stood in solidarity.
That was only the second day. The bill is going to be voted on Thursday. So today is a “do-or-die” day for the workers and unions who are facing this right-wing attack.
Liberation News: The students that you referred to, were they high school or college students?
Austin Thompson: It was both. High school students walked out. College students from at least Madison and Milwaukee came on buses. The high school students were amazing, they were extraordinary to see, as well as the college students.
Liberation News: What is this bill say specifically? Why is it so threatening to the workers?
Austin Thompson: The bill that Scott Walker has proposed is one of the most conservative bills ever with regard to union rights, at least in the past 40 years. This is an effort from the right wing, the rich, corporations, and governors to use this as a model. They are not just taking on union benefits but the right of public sector workers to collective bargaining, which is something workers have fought for over the last 50 years or more in this country—to have the ability to negotiate with management about health care benefits, hours that you work and the quality of the work itself.
Scott Walker’s right-wing extremist bill would literally destroy collective bargaining rights for public-sector workers. This will have a tremendous effect of lowering the standards for public-sector workers.
Why is Scott Walker taking such an extreme action in the state? Keep in mind that Wisconsin is known as a progressive state. It’s not a right-to-work state. Workers could have some pensions and health-care benefits. Now Scott Walker has been elected as a darling of the Tea Party Movement with a right-wing agenda. In order to cut the budget, they have to do it on backs of public-sector workers.
They are trying to pit private-sector workers against public-sector workers. There are commercials every day—from the morning news to late-night tv shows—with a very advanced and very romantic appeal to workers in Wisconsin, telling them that public-sector workers are getting a deal you aren’t getting, telling them to call their state senator and support Scott Walker’s plan to crush union benefits and collective bargaining rights for public-sector workers. They are using public-sector workers as a scapegoat.
There is a corporation called Johnson Controls in Wisconsin that received hundreds of millions of dollars in stimulus funds from the federal government. But they have not hired a single person in the state of Wisconsin despite the fact that they enjoyed record profits in last quarter. Their profits were $1.5 billion domestically and $4.5 billion overseas. The CEO got $17.6 million as his salary.
When Scott Walker says we’re in a budget crisis and having trouble funding services, it’s because he is deciding to side with corporations who don’t pay taxes, who have their assets overseas, who refused to hire people when they got stimulus money.
That’s why, when I was in the throngs of rank-and-file workers, I was hearing “tax the rich.” People were comparing Scott Walker to the U.S.-backed Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak, who was forced to resign last week after 18 days of protest. They are calling him “Hosni Walker” because only dictators side with the tiny minority.
Workers are aware of these contradictions. Nobody anticipated 10,000 people would be at the Capitol yesterday. It’s because of the inequality and hypocrisy of the Walker administration that people are outraged.
Liberation News: Is there anything you would like to add?
Austin Thompson: Scott Walker has already had conversations with the National Guard in order to fight against any strike or direct action from public-sector workers. He has raised the National Guard.
There have already been cries among the people who are part of the demonstrations that the National Guard themselves are workers and Scott Walker’s anti-worker agenda is going to destroy the families of the National Guard. So the rank and file are calling on the National Guard to side with the worker’s rights movement and not the special interests, rich and corporations who only want to put the brunt of this budget crisis on the backs of the poor and working people.
That’s very important to point out. This is not business as usual. The right wing is ready to use violent force to crush the power of working-class people. That needs to be known.
Let’s stand with these workers who are making sacrifices and fighting for all workers, not just union workers.