Protests, teacher walkouts mount in Wisconsin

Milwaukee schools closed

By Tom Eley
19 February 2011

The movement of Wisconsin workers and youth against budget-cutting and attacks on government workers continued to spread on Friday, with tens of thousands more teachers and students walking out of their classrooms, while the major demonstration in Madison continued unabated.

Demonstrations that began on Monday with an unexpectedly large march of 1,200 University of Wisconsin graduate and undergraduate students have since drawn hundreds of thousands more into struggle. The crowd surrounding the capitol building on Tuesday grew to between 13,000 and 20,000, and demonstrations have been estimated at between 20,000 and 30,000 on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. A major demonstration is also expected today.

Friday may have been the largest demonstration yet. Buses brought an estimated 11,000 students and university workers to Madison from the University of Wisconsin campuses at Milwaukee, Eau Claire, La Crosse, Superior, River Falls, Green Bay and Stout, while teachers and government workers continued to arrive in large numbers.

Inspired by the protests in Cairo’s Tahrir Square that brought down Egypt’s US-backed dictator Hosni Mubarak, thousands of occupiers, mainly students, have continuously occupied the capitol building since Tuesday.

The largest demonstrations in the history of Madison, and perhaps in the history of the state, have been peaceful, but there is a heavy police presence, and behind that the threat of Governor Scott Walker to deploy the National Guard.

Right-wing Tea Party groups have called for a counter-protest on Saturday near the state capitol in Madison. One Tea Party announcement for the gathering told supporters to “bring cleaning supplies to clean up the pigsty the liberal union goons left behind at OUR house.”

Walker, the newly-elected Republican governor, is pushing a bill that would force government workers to more than double their out-of-pocket contributions to health care and pensions funds, resulting in pay cuts of between 8 and 20 percent, according to various estimates. Workers would lose the right to negotiate the terms of their work, and pay raises would be locked at or below increases in the Consumer Price Increase. The measure also arrogates to the governor new powers to fire workers if he declares a state of emergency.

In a bid to delay passage of the bill—under conditions where this would have set up an explosive political confrontation between the legislature and mass public opposition to Walker’s cuts—Democratic state senators fled Wisconsin yesterday. This maneuver stripped the Republicans of the three-fifths-present quorum required to vote on bills.

This is mere grandstanding by the Democrats, however, as they and the trade unions support similar social cuts as those proposed by Walker in other states, as well as in Washington—where President Barack Obama is preparing a budget call ing for over $1 trillion in cuts overwhelmingly directed against the working class. The Democrats’ maneuver aims to stabilize the political situation and allow negotiations to continue between the big business parties and the trade unions to secure passage of the cuts.

However, on Friday thousands more workers and youth from across the state joined a growing wave of walkouts and school closures, effectively refusing to hand over their struggle to the state Democratic Party and union heads.

On Friday, the walkout movement of Wisconsin school teachers forced the closure of Milwaukee Public Schools, by far the largest district in the state. Even before the start of the school day Friday, nearly 600 teachers had declared sick days in this city of 600,000 in order to attend demonstrations, forcing the shutdown of over 200 schools in the city. Only a day before, Superintendent Gregory Thornton had boasted to the media that he had succeeded in blocking the movement from reaching Milwaukee by threatening teachers with “disciplinary action.”

For the third day in a row, the second-largest school district in the state, Madison Public Schools, was also totally shut down by the teacher strike. Fifteen other school districts in the Madison area remained closed. Teachers also walked out in Janesville, an industrial city of 60,000 hard hit by the 2010 closure of a decades-old General Motors assembly plant. Dozens of other school systems were closed by teacher absences Friday.

To date there is not a published list of the number of schools that have been shut down by what is, in all but name, a strike wave, but it numbers at least in the hundreds—there are over 200 schools in Milwaukee alone. It has encompassed upwards of 10,000 teachers and has affected at least 200,000 students.

At the same time, a movement of student walkouts affecting cities, small towns and college campuses across the state has continued. Dozens of schools have been hit and tens of thousands of students have been involved. By all accounts the walkout movement has been organized by students themselves, via Facebook and other social media, as well as word of mouth.

Students in the University of Wisconsin system, both undergraduate and graduate, have played an important role in the demonstrations. Graduate students, who typically work as teaching and research assistants, could see their tuition waivers and benefits cut under Walker’s plan. Undergraduates and their families are suffering under the weight of spiraling tuition costs that began under Walker’s Democratic predecessor Jim Doyle, and which could increase by as much as 10 percent next year.

The scope and intensity of the movement of workers and youth in Wisconsin has captured the attention of the national media and the Obama administration. They fear the rapid spread of similar demonstrations and strikes beyond Wisconsin.

There are signs this is already developing. Thousands of government workers have in recent days protested in Columbus, Ohio against a similarly reactionary law being pushed by Governor John Kasich.

In Indiana, some 600 steelworkers descended on the capitol building in Indianapolis to protest against so-called “right to work” laws that would further gut workers’ rights.

Over 100 students walked out of Southeastern High School in Detroit yesterday, protesting against ongoing cuts in funding of the fine arts.