MADISON, Wisc. - "We will win! We will win!" That was the chant of an exuberant crowd of over 150,000 from across the state and region that rocked the capitol grounds March 12. It was their answer to a bill ramrodded through the Republican controlled state legislature and signed by Gov. Scott Walker last week stripping public workers of collective bargaining rights.
It is said to be the largest political rally ever in Madison.
Despite the legislative setback, there was no sign of defeat on this frigid "spring Wisconsin day." The mood was buoyant as the crowd celebrated the massive movement built in three weeks, the strength of solidarity stretching worldwide and confidence in ultimate victory restoring union rights and taking back Wisconsin state government from the extremist right wing and its corporate backers.
"This is what democracy looks like," said Elizabeth Shuler, AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer. "It's amazing to see the outpouring of support from seniors, young people, community activists and trade unionists all coming together to support collective bargaining and workers rights. I'm inspired and can't wait to continue on this fight. It's not over. We're going on to Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio," said Shuler.
"We're here to make our voices heard. We're here to move on to recall (Republican state senators and Gov. Walker) and build coalitions with others harmed by (Walker's) budget. We're talking about democracy and fairness in the economy," remarked Phil Neuenfeldt, president of the Wisconsin AFL-CIO.
"Look around, we're winning. One battle does not make a war," he said.
The day began with a tractorcade from the Wisconsin Farmers Union and Family Farm Defenders (FFD) that encircled the capitol. Small farmers and their families drove in from every corner of the state and are enraged by the passage of a bill they see as an attack on them as well.
One dairy farmer pulled a manure spreader with a tractor. Over the manure spreader was a sign: "Walker's Bill Belongs Here."
John Peck, director of FFD, told the Cap Times many of who came to Madison are upset by the realization that Walker's agenda is "sacrificing Wisconsin's quality of life for everyone, not just unions."
"If Badger Care (state health care system) is wiped out or scaled back, a lot of these people won't have health care anymore," Peck says.
Speakers from Voces de la Frontera and Coalition of Black Trade Unionists attacked Walker and the Republicans for advancing an agenda aimed at polarizing the state racially, dismantling affirmative action and passing anti-immigrant legislation modeled after Arizona.
While a flood of marchers continued encircling the capitol, the crowd erupted at the afternoon rally when the Wisconsin "Fab 14" made a triumphant return. The Democratic state senators had been in Illinois for the past three weeks to prevent a vote on the measure that is now seen as being illegally and criminally rammed through the legislature. They were ushered to the stage by a contingent of firefighters.
"It's good to be home in Wisconsin," said Democratic Senate Minority Leader Mark Miller, to cheers of "welcome home, welcome home."
Miller declared, "Our fight to protect union rights has become a fight to protect all rights - a fight to protect democracy. You have inspired the nation with your passionate and peaceful protest."
Shalhoub, an actor on the television show "Monk" and who hails from Green Bay, saluted the crowd for what they had accomplished and what there were going to accomplish.
"You are the spark and hope of America today. This is the birth of a nationwide movement of enormous size and scope and you have brought it to life," he said.
Shalhoub blasted the Republican attack on democracy in the state and the vilification of union workers. He introduced one of the union "hoodlums," his sister Amy from Green Bay, a public school teacher and union member.
"The vast majority of Wisconsinites don't support the agenda of soon to be former governor Walker," said Shalhoub to cheers. "What happened this week is not the end of their agenda. They want to unravel the very fabric of democracy. If they succeed, their endgame will make what they did this week look like a halftime show at an exhibition game in Lambeau Field (home of the Super Bowl champion Packers)," he said.
An earlier rally was addressed by actress Susan Sarandan, who then made her way to Ian's Pizza, which has became famous as donations poured in from all over the world to feed those protesting. Sarandan had donated thousands of dollars for pizza.
The massive rally was seen "not as the end, but the beginning of "Phase II." All focus is on the feverish recall efforts underway against 8 Republican state senators. The recall of only 3 and the election of Democrats will shift control of the State Senate into Democratic hands. By law, Walker will not be up for recall until he has served one year in office but plans are underway for that effort as well.
First though is the upcoming April 5 elections to elect a new supreme court justice, county and municipal elections. The Supreme Court contest is seen as the first test and pits a Walker backed candidate, right-wing sitting justice David Prosser against Assistant Attorney General JoAnne Kloppenburg, supported by the rapidly growing statewide people's upsurge.
Photo: John Bacthell