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General News    H1'ed 2/17/11

Mass Mobilization to Save Workers' Rights: From the Front Lines in WI

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by  lil bird

Wisconsin is in the middle of a massive popular uprising. Last Friday, our newly elected Tea-Party governor, Scott Walker, introduced a "budget repair bill" clearly aimed not at fixing our budget at all, but at eliminating public sector unions in Wisconsin.

This is a naked power grab designed to make the current right-wing control of our state government permanent. It's telling that the only unions exempted from the sweeping provisions are firefighters, police and state troopers - all of which endorsed Walker in the elections. In true dictator style, Governor Walker has threatened to call in the National Guard to suppress resistance if necessary.

This is an unprecedented assault on worker's rights, and the working people of Wisconsin are fighting back. I'm furious about what is happening, but also incredibly inspired by the passion and grit of the people all around me.

The protests began on Monday with a crowd of 1,000 people, which swelled to 13,000 yesterday and as many as 30,000 today. So many local teachers called in sick that school was canceled. Even public unions exempted from the changes, such as the firefighters, showed up in force.

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Folks have been packing the inside of the state Capitol chanting, driving the decibel level up to that of a chainsaw.

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People are angry, and rightly so. This bill is being rammed through the legislature at top speed; it was only announced on Friday and the governor wants a vote on it by tomorrow.

In their determination to pass a bill that they know the vast majority of the Wisconsin public is against, the Republican leadership has repeatedly abused their powers to limit public input to the voices they want to hear. The only public hearing, scheduled for Tuesday morning, was announced late Monday by posting a piece of paper in the Capitol building. Seriously, a piece of paper. No notice was given through the website nor any other modern method of communication. Oddly, however, by the time that paper was hung in the Capitol, the right-wing Americans for Prosperity and the Club for Growth had reportedly already reserved buses to bring their members to the state capitol to testify.

Right-wingers were also given VIP treatment at the hearing itself. "Reserved" signs were used to hold open about 30 seats in the small, packed room until the public testimony was about to start, at which point a crowd of right-wing activists waltzed in to testify in favor of the bill. When grilled about this breach of procedure, the Republican leadership claimed that they were just trying to "accommodate" people's schedules. However, those of us who had already waited nearly three hours in line and in the hearing to testify against the bill weren't given any such "accommodations".

Despite repeated assurances that the hearings would be kept open until everyone had a chance to testify, last night the Republicans decided that they'd heard enough from the public, even though hundreds of people were still signed up to speak. This triggered mass pushback, as people jammed the halls chanting loudly and demanding to be heard.

When the Republicans announced that they were cutting short the public hearing, the Democrats, severely in the minority, tried valiantly to convince them to allow the hearings to continue until everyone had their say. But at about 2:30am last night, the Republicans walked out and went home, leaving only the Democrats to continue hearing testimony by themselves. About 1,000 people camped out inside the Capitol building overnight, many waiting to get the chance to speak.

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The sheer number of people who testified was stunning. Thirty-five hours after the hearings began, the testimonies finally concluded - and since each person had only two minutes, that translates into a heck of a lot of angry people. Today the Democrats continued to be the only ones present to hear the testimonies; the Republicans moved on (and to a different room) to consider the vote on the bill.

Despite the coordinated attempts to bus in right-wingers to testify in favor, the public testimony has been overwhelmingly against this bill. And not just against, but passionately so; many testified with tears in their eyes, and some broke down crying in front of the legislators. One woman late last night launched into an absolutely beautiful rendition of our national anthem during her testimony, drawing heartfelt cheers from everyone watching.

Tonight people are once again camped out in the Capitol, and more rallies are planned for tomorrow. Folks are talking about civil disobedience, recall elections and massive strikes. I do wonder if Scott Walker knows what he's gotten himself into.

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