Here are some more notes from Friday’s Madison rally. I spent longer writing this, so it is longer. I think I’ll re-arrange out of chronological order to include the part of the most general interest first. The minority of you with a taste for my more personal musings can skip to the end, where I recap my understanding of how the week’s events unfolded and summarize what I saw when I looked at the TV news coverage of today.
Out at the 5:00 rally, lots of singing, union songs plus God Bless America. Late start on the talks. A Assembly Democrats come out and talk about having a “surprise” for the crowd. Say he’s going to tease a bit, talks about other things. I’m thinking, “Oh, Wow, there’s been a concession.” Finally says, “The Republicans have adjourned to Tuesday!” I’m certainly confused about why he’s sounding so happy about this. He says “Isn’t that a wonderful surprise?” People around me are saying, “What is the surprise?” It turns out he’s trying to say (not real clearly) that having the Assembly adjourn to Tuesday is a victory because the process has been slowed down. Then more speeches from really hard working teachers from union families who love their jobs and are worried. Sorry I’m getting a little jaded at this point. I’m cold and hungry and it is already 6pm, the time I thought the 5pm rally would be ending. I’d heard Jesse Jackson was going to speak, but I decided I couldn’t hold out any longer, so I left. Later, checking local news clips, I discovered that this is what had happened according to two local television reporters: The Republicans called a session for 5pm. Then they actually started early, without the Democrats, and took votes on some amendments and were about to vote on the main motion when the Democrats arrived. The Democrats yelled and there were angry exchanges. The result was that the Republicans agreed to rescind the votes on the amendments out and adjourn until Tuesday, meaning that Democrats can still offer amendments on Tuesday. None of these goings-on in the assembly made it to the national news broadcasts, but the local FOX affiliate covered it, including the Republican confession that it had been a “bull run” and the the print version on the FOX website mentions it.
Earlier in the day (my more personal travels through the event)
I eventually managed to find the TAA’s command center in the Capitol while trying to find my way to the testimony room. I expected a warm greeting as I know so many people who were there, but was surprised at it being treated like an act of solidarity to be there. Nobody even asked me to do any work—it seemed like showing up itself was something. Several said “it is nice to see faculty support.” I think there are actually a lot of other faculty who are supportive out in the crowds, but there was no public information available anywhere about how to find the TAA command center, and I think only the faculty who are AFT members and were doing work knew where it was. I’m not in the AFT (go ahead, throw bricks if you want), and I only knew they had a command center at the capitol just because I happened to be following the personal twitter feed of one of the TAA leaders due to his trip to the Egypt protests. (He went straight to the union office from the airport when he returned.) Again, I felt like the faculty dropped the ball in the communication front – all those official messages from the administration repeatedly telling us not to use our official email to do anything to promote protest had a repressive effect on us, and we were fearful of using our most efficient communication tool to find out from other people what was going on. The Department of Geography had a banner hanging in the Capitol, and more than one of us said on Thursday “Ah, we should have brought the sociology banner,” but no coordinated action occurred.
On my way back into the Capitol on Friday after my break, one person at the door was giving a somewhat confusing speech with a bullhorn, calling on public workers to not shop for one day – Sunday, I think she was proposing – as a sign of our importance in local economies. She said “I know this will hurt local business, and that isn’t good, but I feel we need to do it to show how public workers are an important part of the economy.” Someone at the door also gave me one of the pink slips that were being passed out everywhere, urging us not to engage counter-demonstrators in any way. Don’t talk, don’t argue, they have a right to say what they believe. Stay calm, don’t engage them at all. I know there is intense work going on this evening (Friday) to prepare marshals for Saturday when the Tea Party is expected. There are exhortations to nonviolence, avoiding confrontation everywhere.
After my break, I waited to take my turn giving my statement to the rump session of the Joint Finance committee. They’ve been listening around the clock since Tuesday to the reports of people about the impact of the bill on them. Hundreds of people have spoken. A teacher from a small town 100 miles away said that the teachers in their district met to discuss what to do, decided to “work to rule” Thursday, but as they had an in-service scheduled for Friday, asked administrators to let them make up the work day in June, and were given permission to take the day off to go to Madison. She said that this was an example of negotiation and working things out.
I just spent several hours looking at the national and local TV news coverage. This year’s claimed deficit is $136 million; most national news outlets are citing the governor’s projected deficit of $6.9 billion (with no mention of the time frame of that projection), which makes no sense at all, as it is over 50 times the deficit this year. CNN, ABC, FOX and MSNBC (!) use the $6.9 billion figure and emphasized embattled governor making tough financial choices in the face of angry workers who don’t want their own salaries cut. CBS used the $136 million figure. NONE report that Walker inherited a small surplus from the previous Democrat governor and that the deficit is
entirely due* to tax breaks the Republicans passed in January. CNN portrays the protest as being organized by Obama’s Organizing for America and opportunistic unions. FOX at least portrays it as organized by the workers themselves, but the reporter refers to the protesters as “Democrats, state employees” and says “this is what a governor gets when he challenges the power of the unions.” MSNBC opens with Bahrain and says “from Mideast to Midwest.” It’s framing also emphasizes the tough financial choices of a state with a huge deficit. It also gives coverage to Black parents in Milwaukee stranded with their children and no school. CBS frames the story as taxpayers versus worker’s rights and has, all things considered, the the most muted treatment of the protesters.
*edit: A relatively balanced local story on these claims and counter-claims notes that the $121 million “surplus” does not count some bills worth $258 million that become due in mid-June and concludes there is a deficit this year, but agrees that the Walker tax cuts in January made it worse.
Local news is quite different. As I said above, Channel 3 (the CNN affiliate) focused on the political story and the Republican attempts to do a bull run on passage; channel 47, the local FOX affiliate also covered the bull run and portrays the story in a “two sides” frame that treats both the workers and people who oppose them as locals. I couldn’t find any copy on line of what channel 15, the NBC affiliate, broadcast, but their web page has a large collection of video links organized into two different sections, one titled “Wisconsin Workers Protest End to Collective Bargaining” (note they are called “Wisconsin Workers,” not “state employees” or “state unions”) and the other is a series titled “UPDATE: Democratic Senators Remain Out-Of-State” and contains links to videos with titles about “budget battle” and (earlier in the week) “labor dispute”. I didn’t have the stamina to click on all the links. But there is an important lesson about the lack of coupling between the national framing and the local framing by its affiliate.
Development of the Protest
My version of the protest build-up so far. (This is somewhat removed, so you should view it as subject to correction by the grad students who were on the lines, as they are freed up to report.) The Governor made his announcement Friday Feb 11. The major emphasis on Friday was that workers was have to double our pension and health insurance contributions; there was also discussion around here of the impact on the University and concerns about schools and medicaid. The attack on collective bargaining was not given as much play initially. The first day’s protest on Monday was a student protest organized by the TAA, the teaching assistant’s union, an AFT affiliate, to present Valentines to the governor saying I [heart] UW. Backstage, the TAA was caucusing with other unions to see what else could be done. I was not privy to those discussions, I just know they were happening.
Edit due to more correct information from some TAA (teaching assistant union) members: Unions got the first word of Walker’s planned announcement from Democrats Thursday night and were immediately planning a response. The attack on collective bargaining was the central issue for unions from the start. The governor announced his plan Feb 11 and ads in his favor immediately started hitting radio and TV. The timetable called for pushing it through and voting by Thursday Feb 17. Unions immediately started planning rallies for Tuesday and Wednesday. The TAA is an AFT union that always has strong connections to other unions and was at the table from the start, partly because they had already been planning a pro-UW event for Monday Feb 14. There was some discussion about whether to cancel the Monday event, as it was on another issue (the “Badger partnership” giving more support for UW) but decided to go ahead with it. This whole thing unfolded very fast. (There have been lots of backstage reports of confusion and poor coordination among different groups, but when you consider just how fast this had to come together, the whole thing has been truly amazing.)
The second day, there was a confusing series of messages [to me anyway] from the TAA and various Facebook sites about a “teach out” and gathering at 10 for a march and noon rally. (The TAA called on us not to hamper our student’s education because every minute of education if valuable so don’t cancel class but to keep the campus empty by rescheduling classes or moving them elsewhere. As this is not easy to do on 12 hours’ notice, I don’t think I was the only person who was confused about exactly what we were supposed to do.) The unions had also been organizing, and there was a good-sized crowd for the noon rally. The firefighters were already marching in solidarity, there were lots of people in the crowd wearing union T-shirts and jackets from AFSCME, SEIU, and various other unions. Tuesday night Madison schools announced they would be closed due to the high volume of “sick” calls from teachers for Wednesday, and it is possible a few other Madison-area schools also closed. I did not attend the Wednesday protest due to a conflict, but I heard it was bigger than Tuesday. I think it was around Tuesday or Wednesday that the state teacher’s union started calling for actions. I don’t know whether any other public unions called for their workers to miss work en masse. Thursday morning about 15 school districts in southern Wisconsin were closed; Milwaukee stayed open despite heavy teacher absences. As I said before, Thursday’s rally was predominantly local-area people, but had wider attendance from around the state and lots of buses bringing people in. Friday Milwaukee schools closed and, I think, lots of other schools around the state. Attendees were from all around the state and obviously having a good time enjoying the spectacle of the protest. In addition, there were a growing number of out-of-state union people showing up to protest in solidarity. There was a clear call to cancel classes on Friday and students were asked to march to the Capitol from campus. I went down to the Capitol before the student march, and it was already jammed with people.
The “worker’s rights” frame is certainly accurate — the bill does virtually or completely eliminate collective bargaining rights for most state unions. And the workers want to stress that they will take cuts, they just don’t want to give up bargaining. But as the protests narrow to worker’s rights alone, it does distract attention from all the other horrific elements of the 144-page bill. This particular protest has announced that it can be settled by abandoning the collective bargaining provisions of the bill and leave everything else intact. Only a minority are even saying that the most important thing is to slow the process down to see what else people might want to protest about.