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Tuesday, November 25, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 22.0° F  Mostly Cloudy
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Wisconsin labor, student groups organize protests against Walker's public union plans
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Demonstration participants will be asked to visit their state legislators and staff and lobby them to oppose the budget plan.
Demonstration participants will be asked to visit their state legislators and staff and lobby them to oppose the budget plan.
Credit:Kristian Knutsen

Wisconsin public employee unions and their supporters are currently engaged in planning their response to Governor Scott Walker's program to curtail negotiating and organizing rights via a budget bill announced Friday. Three public protests and lobbying efforts at the state Capitol in Madison are planned for next week, and at least one longer-term plan for a sustained campaign against the governor and his Republican and associated allies are in the works.

"Governor Walker is attempting to unilaterally end collective bargaining with all Wisconsin public unions," says Peter Rickman, an activist in the TAA at UW-Madison and a vice-president at large of AFT-Wisconsin. "By breaking faith with Wisconsin's public sector unions, he's attempting to signal to everyone in the state that it's open season on working folks."

The first action -- titled I ? UW :: Governor Walker, Don't Break My ? -- is set for noon on Monday, February 14 at the Capitol. UW-Madison activists are planning on delivering "at least one thousand Valentine's cards" to Walker's office, imploring his administration to not impose budget cuts on the UW System.

"It's a cute idea and, more importantly, a way to get a crucial point across in a more approachable way," noted Emily Mills about the Valentine's-themed demonstration, which was planned well in advance of today's formal announcement of Walker's plans for state employees. Given the flurry of reactions from unions and Democratic legislators in opposition to them, including one from former Senator Russ Feingold, it's possible the originally planned tone of the holiday-inspired delivery will not be so cheerful.

More demonstrations are planned for Tuesday and Wednesday. Union members, working for both public institutions and private companies, along with their supporters and anybody opposed to Walker's program, are invited to turn out at the Capitol for a series of rallies and lobbying efforts. Additionally, organizers say activists from elsewhere around the state, including Racine, Wausau, and Manitowoc, among other communities, are coming to Madison to join in the activities.

As currently planned for both February 15 and 16, organizers are meeting at 10 a.m. in the Masonic Temple on 301 Wisconsin Ave. to brief participants on what is planned for the day, and to provide basic training on how to lobby legislators face-to-face. A rally at the Capitol will follow at 11 a.m. at the traditional protest location atop the steps facing State Street. After the rally, around 1 p.m., people will be asked to visit their state legislators and staff and lobby them to oppose the budget plan and its unprecedented approach to transforming labor relations in Wisconsin in favor of the government over employees.

"We anticipate that Republicans are going to slam this through by Wednesday," says Rickman. "This shows how radical and extreme that they know this is, that they have to push it though before people have a chance to respond to it. It's a total nuclear option, and doesn't even pass the smell test."

Whether or not these demonstrations succeed in convincing Republican members of the state legislature rumored to be on the fence to oppose the governor's plans, more demonstrations against Walker are being planned.

"I think that the leadership within the labor movement in Wisconsin realizes how serious this is," says Ben Manski, a progressive activist and recent Green Party candidate for a state Assembly seat. "And to say that would be an understatement."

The Liberty Tree Foundation, headed by Manski, along with the Center for Media & Democracy, will be announcing a campaign against the budget next week, complete with branding and a website. [Disclosure: I worked at as an assistant the Center six years ago.]

"We're going after where the power actually is, and that's Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce," says Manski. This campaign will begin with actions on Wednesday, February 23, at that organization's statewide conference to be held at Monona Terrace, and will include a lunch-hour picket and a late-afternoon rally. "These individuals have no understanding of labor law," declares Manski, referencing Walker and his allies in and out of government. "It's been interesting to me to hear them talk about how they're going to eliminate public sector unions, as if this is not going to energize them."

Even more energizing for, or perhaps more directly, infuriating to Walker's opponents is the governor's statements about preparing the National Guard to respond in case of labor strife. While these contingency plans are assumed to mean the Guard will be utilized as replacements for striking state employees, prison guards for example, labor organizers see Walker's comments on the issue as unnecessarily provocative.

"I really think it shows the governor has allowed himself to get carried away with delusions of his own authority," says Manski. "It will be important for all of us, meaning those who want to protect the Wisconsin tradition, that we act with discipline, that we not hold back, and that we not be provoked. I think it's clear the regime in the state Capitol is looking for trouble, and I think those statements about the National Guard were an incitement."

Both Rickman and Manski note that organizing against Walker's proposal is ongoing concurrently in Milwaukee and elsewhere around Wisconsin.

"I think Gov. Walker hopes working people in general don't get word about this," says Rickman. "But people are smart, and know that after they come for public sector unions, they're going to try to drag down working standards for everyone else in the state."

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