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It Started In Wisconsin: Labor Fights Back Across The U.S.

By Diane Krauthamer

When public school teacher Kathy Ponzer started protesting state budget cuts in February, she didn’t think she would be igniting a mass labor movement. But when she heard that the state would be taking away her rights and the wages and that she, her three children and her fellow teachers need in order to survive, she knew she had no choice but to fight this battle.

“Most of us make less than $50,000 a year. We’re not living the fat life, we’re just making a living,” she said. Now, Kathy is protesting recently-passed legislation that imposes severe budget cuts and strips workers of collective bargaining rights, amongst other things. “It is going to hurt everybody,” she said.

On March 11, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker signed into law a “Budget Repair Bill” which strips public-sector unions of collective bargaining rights regarding all workplace issues other than basic wages. With the new legislation, workers will not have a legal say in their pensions, their healthcare plans, workplace safety, or any other issue. Walker says the bill is estimated to save $30 million to help pay down a $137 million budget deficit, but the cuts are being taken directly out of the public sector. Workers, in turn, will be paying off the deficit out of their own pockets.

Walker unveiled his budget repair bill on Feb. 11, 2011. In the days following, unions and public workers mobilized opposition to the bill, and by Feb. 15 large-scale protests took place, with thousands of demonstrators occupying the Capitol and millions more holding solidarity rallies in cities throughout the country. On Feb. 17, the situation escalated as 14 senate Democrats fled to Illinois to block passage of the bill. In order to pass any fiscal-related measure, 20 senators are needed to make quorum, and the remaining eight Republicans could not fit the bill. In the week that followed, massive protests continued with demonstrators and support spreading throughout the world. By Feb. 23, the South Central

Federation of Labor (SCFL), a federation of over 97 labor organizations representing 45,000 workers, endorsed to educate and prepare for a general strike—a resolution which the IWW played a key role in endorsing. As the people of Wisconsin continued to mobilize, so too did the politicians. At 1:00 a.m. on Feb. 25, the Republicans in the state assembly outnumbered the Democrats and abruptly voted to pass the bill, with Democrats and protestors chanting “Shame!” as they exited the chambers. Massive demonstrations followed, yet the remaining senators unanimously passed a resolution finding the missing 14 Democrats in contempt, threatening to layoff and arrest them if they returned back home.

On March 9, a committee stripped some financial elements from the budget repair bill—a maneuver which Republicans said made it legal for a vote to occur even though no Democrats were there—and the Senate passed the bill. Finally on March 10, the bill went back to the Assembly for approval, and the Assembly voted 53-42 to pass it. Governor Walker immediately signed it into law on March 11. As the Republicans played dirty tricks to ensure that the Democrats had no voice, even senatorial power could not invoke the change needed. People are angry, but they haven’t been defeated. They know that passage of Walker’s bill is only a setback in the larger struggle. If they felt that once a law became a law the battle was lost, they wouldn’t continue fighting.

On March 12, the day after legislation passed, the largest demonstration in Wisconsin’s history took place. More than 100,000 public and private sector workers, community supporters, elected officials, students, syndicalists, and people from all walks of life joined together on the streets of Madison to call for a general strike, demand a recall, and sing renditions of such hits as “Solidarity Forever” and “Which Side Are You On?” from the IWW’s brand new Very Little Red Songbook.

“It has been very encouraging to get the support from other unions and from those people who aren’t even in unions but who can see that this [bill] is going to be hurting a widespread part of the population,” said Kathy Ponzer upon entering the march.

Russ Faulkner, an IWW member from Mississippi who recently moved to Madison, agreed. “We are building a coalition with as many people as possible. This is not just about organized labor,” he said. Russ is working with dozens of active IWW members from Madison, the Twin Cities, Chicago, and the surrounding area in order to “spark worker consciousness and actual have some ‘meat and potato’ changes in this country.” The IWW is organizing 24 hours a day, seven days a week to agitate for a general strike.

“We are working towards the general strike because we know it’s the best and most powerful tool the working class has against big business and their puppets,” he said. “Others are putting efforts into recall, but as we all know: direct action gets the goods.”

As the momentum towards a general strike is growing in Wisconsin, the IWW is working with public and private sector unions and allies in building a diversity of tactics to oppose similar legislation across the country. Such proposed legislation is sweeping the country in Iowa, Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, Idaho, Missouri, Colorado, Nebraska, Tennessee, and New Hampshire, just to name a few.

In Indianapolis, Indiana, thousands of unionists swarmed the State House every day for nearly three weeks, beginning on Feb. 21, to oppose 11 anti-labor bills. Following the lead of Wisconsin, Democratic senators fled to Illinois to block legislation from passing. In turn, the Republicans were forced to shelve the right-to-work bill.

On March 11 in St. Louis, Missouri, upwards of 5,000 carpenters, laborers, pipefitters, boilermakers, teachers, autoworkers, teamsters, janitors, nurses, policemen, glaziers, machinists, electricians, and insulators stood together to oppose bills that would hurt working families, including Right-to-Work-for-Less legislation (SB 1), Minimum Wage Repeal (HB 61 and SB 110), and the Child Labor Repeal

(SB 222). On March 14, the right-to-work bill had a hearing in the Missouri Senate. After debating the bill for three hours, Republican senators couldn’t muster up enough support for a vote, and the bill was shelved.

In Columbus, Ohio, at least 20,000 public and private sector unions and allies gathered at the Ohio State House on March 8 to oppose SB5, a harmful anti-worker bill being pushed by Governor Kasich and Republicans in the state legislature which seeks to strip public employees of their collective bargaining rights.

In Michigan, thousands of workers are coming together to oppose a slew of bills which are designed to severely undermine workers’ rights. This includes legislation which would give the state the power to terminate union contracts in schools and repeal the state’s “prevailing wage” laws. Currently, labor activists are focusing attention on a right-to-work bill (HB4054), introduced on Jan. 13. In effect, the bill has the potential to create county-wide right-to-work zones—it would lower wages and limit public employees’ collective bargaining rights. On March 8, hundreds of firefighters and union members from around the state stormed the rotunda of the Michigan Capitol building in Lansing to protest. One week later, on March 16, an estimated 10,000 demonstrated inside and outside the building, “filling the rotunda…[ with] high energy,” according to the Lansing Workers’ Center.

Detroit IWW member Christian Alexander said the rise of labor opposition and growing momentum of union activity was inspired by Wisconsin. “With the recent upsurge of anti-austerity organizing and especially the great work of our Fellow Workers in Wisconsin, many of us are inspired to rebuild and work to expand our presence here,” said Christian.

The same holds true in Nebraska, where there are nine bills being presented in the state legislature that would ban public employees’ rights to engage in collective bargaining and destroy the Commission of Industrial Relations (CIR), which is the non-partisan arbitration panel that handles disputes between the state and public unions. Inspired by the resistance in Wisconsin, IWW member organizer Tyler Swain said he and the recently-chartered Nebraska IWW are organizing in Omaha to oppose this legislation. “We’re growing steadily, and with all the attention from Madison, it seems to have opened several doors for us,” he said.

As anti-union legislation is spreading rapidly, solidarity and working-class consciousness are on the rise. Public and private sector unions are putting their differences aside to fight on the same front, and in many cases, are winning. This movement began with school teachers and other public employees in Wisconsin, like Kathy Ponzer, who are merely fighting to hold onto their basic rights, but it ignited

a fire that is now rapidly spreading across the country. The fire is burning down the barriers that divide us by race, religion, gender, and political affiliation. It is bringing us together across those divisions and uniting us around our struggles as workers. By continuing to stand together, the working class of this country has the ability to do what’s necessary in taking back our rights, our wages, and our lives.

For more information, please visit http://www.madison.iww.org and http://www.facebook.com/wigeneralstrike