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Showdown in Madison: A primer for the Wisconsin protests

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It's been a tumultuous week in Madison, Wisconsin. Tens of thousands of state workers, teachers, and students have packed the state Capitol building to protest Republican Gov. Scott Walker's plan to weaken public unions.

In a move ostensibly aimed to balance the state budget, Walker proposed a bill on Friday, February 11 that would dislodge collective bargaining rights for all public workers except for police, firefighters and the state patrol -- some of the few public employee unions that supported Walker's gubernatorial campaign. In addition, the bill will require most state workers to pay significantly more for pensions and health premiums.

Armed with scores of clever signs, demonstrators are rumbling through Madison, chanting "Kill the bill" and "This is what democracy looks like!" To delay the passage of Walker's controversial bill and forge negotiations, 14 state Senate Democrats fled the state on Thursday, leaving the chamber with too few lawmakers to take a vote.

Roger Bybee of Working In These Times explains why the protests in Wisconsin are vital to America's labour movement. "America's labour movement is enjoying a great start in this epic battle to hold onto fundamental union rights in Wisconsin. It's already had vast repercussions across the nation," Bybee writes.

For the people?

Walker claims that the Democrats' boycott is disrespectful to democracy. Further, he contends that his anti-union bill is representative of the people since he fairly won the election and Republicans gained control of both houses in the Wisconsin state legislature last November.

But John Nichols of The Nation argues that Walker's elected position does not give him total free reign over the state: "Democracy does not end on Election Day. That's when it begins. Citizens do not elect officials to rule them from one election to the next. Citizens elect officials to represent them, to respond to the will of the people as it evolves."

This week, Wisconsin workers have embraced their First Amendment right to "peaceably assemble and petition the government" and are making sure their voices are heard.

Furthermore, according to Colorlines.com's Kai Wright, the current assault on public workers is racialized. He writes:

But as governors and columnists have painted pictures of overpaid, underworked public employee in recent weeks, I have also seen the faint outline of familiar caricatures -- welfare queens, Cadillacs in the projects, Mexican freeloaders. It's hard to escape the fact that, in the states and localities with the biggest budget crunches (New Jersey, California, New York…) public employees are uniquely black.

Young people rallying

Emboldened by the bill's potential to destroy the quality of their education, students have helped the protests gain momentum. While graduate students led a "teach-out," undergraduate students organized a "walk-out" from university classes and a sleep-in at the capital's rotunda.

Micah Uetricht of Campus Progress writes, "If public sector union workers -- indeed, all workers -- are to gain dignified work and lives, it will take a mass cross-generational mobilization that engages students and workers of all ages and industries. In other words, it will take the kind of movement in full bloom in Madison right now."

Here comes the Tea Party…

Tea party activists will meet head-to-head with union protesters on Saturday, as many are flocking to the state Capitol for a massive counter-demonstration in support of Walker's bill. Led by the conservative group American Majority, and other conservative pundits like Andrew Breitbart, Jim Hoft and Joe "The Plumber" Wurtzelbacher, Stephanie Mencimer of Mother Jones reports that "the organizers of this anti-union protest do have the resources and know-how to stage a big rally. … But more important, the scheduled protest appears to be resonating with Tea Party activists across the country, who have been praising Walker for taking on unions."

Historical perspective

Wisconsin was "the birthplace of public sector unions" 50 years ago, which makes Walker's proposal a significant break from the state's pro-labour past. Even worse, "other state legislatures could see Walker's assault on public employees and their unions as a blueprint for how to fix their own budget catastrophes," notes Mother Jones' Siddhartha Mahanta. "Such plans are already under consideration in places like Ohio, Indiana, and Tennessee, where the GOP scored major electoral victories last November." Thus, the bill is an attack not only on Wisconsin's workers, but on the rights of public workers across the country.

From Egypt to the Midwest

So does this make Walker the Mubarak of the Midwest? In light of Egypt's recent uprisings, The American Prospect's Harold Meyerson examines the glaring double standard surrounding Wisconsin's protests:

American conservatives often profess admiration for foreign workers' bravery in protesting and undermining authoritarian regimes. Letting workers exercise their rights at home, however, threatens to undermine some of our own regimes (the Republican ones particularly) and shouldn't be permitted. Now that Wisconsin's governor has given the Guard its marching orders, we can discern a new pattern of global repressive solidarity emerging -- from the chastened pharaoh of the Middle East to the cheese-head pharaoh of the Middle West.

But, wait: There's more! Here are some other notable stories from Wisconsin:

The Progressive's Josh Healey provides a list of ten things you should know about Wisconsin’s crusade for workers' rights.

Adele M. Stan of AlterNet describes Walker's cozy relationship with the Koch Brothers' deep pockets.

On GRITtv, Milwaukee's Ellen Bravo reveals state workers struggle for basic rights, while Ev Liebman shares her similar experience in New Jersey.

Free Speech Radio News interviews Wisconsin Senate Minority Leader Mark Miller  from an "undisclosed location."

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about the Wisconsin protests by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. For more news on Wisconsin, follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, health care and immigration issues, check out The Audit, The Mulch, The Pulse, and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

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