Perspectives on the Battle
for Human Rights in Wisconsin, Part II
“The Double-Edged Sword of Electoral Politics: Damned If You Do, Damned If You Don’t” •
“The Importance Of A Radical Workplace” • Fred Schepartz
“The Utter Joy of Protesting” • Fred Schepartz
“Favorite Memory of the Capitol Protests” • Fred Schepartz
On Saturday, May 14, a good 20,000 people showed up for a rally at the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison, despite chilly, drizzly conditions, thus demonstrating that the movement that started exactly three months earlier still has a fair amount of steam. That’s most reassuring considering that things have felt pretty dissipated for the previous month.
It’s not surprising that we’re no longer seeing crowds of in excess of 50,000, let alone the nearly 200,000 who showed up for the March 12 rally and tractorcade. Those kinds of numbers are really extraordinary, unbelievable. Off the charts. And not really sustainable over the long term.
However, what the May 14 rally showed is that the energy is still there. As for the degree of involvement, it’s more than likely that it’s diffused rather than dissipated as people have gotten involved in other smaller-scaled activities, including several in the electoral arena.
There was the JoAnne Kloppenburg campaign for Wisconsin Supreme Court where our champion won until the Waukesha County clerk managed to find the entire set of votes for the city of Brookfield, thus giving incumbent and Republican Party hack David Prosser the victory, which was confirmed by a statewide recount, though a possible court case over mishandled ballots looms.
There was the effort to urge Kloppenburg to request a recount. There’s the recount itself.
And there’s the various recall campaigns, which will result in recall elections for six of the eight Republican state senators eligible to be recalled.
And finally, there’s the effort to organize for an upcoming recall of Governor Scott Walker.
So, it’s not like people are back home, chugging beer and watching American Idol. People are out there doing real work.
Before I say anything else, I have to commend the incredible hard and exhausting work being done by so, so many people. Back in February, Kloppenburg was not even considered a viable candidate, and yet, she almost won (or did win if you believe, as I do, that Kathy Nickolaus actually counted the Brookfield votes twice). There have been only a handful of Wisconsin legislators who have been recalled, because it’s not an easy process. Yet we got enough votes to trigger recall elections for six. This is utterly amazing.
The secret is people-power. People mobilized, got out there and busted ass and accomplished some amazing things.
Therein lies the dilemma.
Electoral politics is a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you don’t proposition. If we don’t vote, we get Scott Walker and his merry men who are bound and determined to gut our government to such an extent that it cannot provide services and cannot prevent big business from running roughshod over the populace.
By getting involved in the supreme court election and the recalls, we have the opportunity to take back our government or at least restore some semblance of balance between the parties.
I made phone calls for Kloppenburg. I spent a frustrating afternoon canvassing for the Recall Mary Lazich campaign (and got called Gestapo by some old codger who gets all his news from Fox). I’m already working on organizing my neighborhood around the Recall Walker campaign.
If we can take back the senate to limit the damage done by Walker and the Fitzgerald brothers, I say go for it. If we can boot Walker out the door, I say go for it.
However, I also have to say that we need to be well aware of the pitfalls of electoral politics. First, our involvement does not end when we cast our votes. That should be painfully obvious to everyone by now.
Second, it can serve as a distraction, which is especially dangerous if the game is rigged. I invested a lot of emotional energy in the Kloppenburg campaign. I cannot say for sure if the election was stolen, but certainly what happened two days after the election and for the last several weeks in Waukesha County is extremely suspicious. And certainly, George W. Bush did not win in 2000, and he did not win in 2004.
Fighting against a set of loaded dice can be emotionally devastating. Even without blatant cheating, there’s still the issue of the other side having so much more money than our side, which is even more pernicious following Citizens United.
You can only bang your head against a wall so many times before you end up buying a six-pack and sitting at home to watch American Idol.
Lastly, we have to be aware of the limitations of electoral politics. For the most part, I believe our Democrats here in Wisconsin are pretty good, but overall, I feel strongly that Democrats are not the be all and end all. The Democratic Party does not stand for all the aspects of what I would consider to be positive and progressive change or if they do, they all too often are all to willing to compromise what should be basic human rights.
But what can we do? Because of the two-party system, the Democrats are just about the only game in town.
The big problem is the system itself. Even if somehow JoAnne Kloppenburg gets declared winner, even if we take back the senate and give Scott Walker the boot, we’ll end up fighting to save the few scraps we have left. The system itself is corrupt. Until we get big money out of politics, until we find a way to reduce the influence of lobbyists, until we are able to give a bigger voice to the politically marginalized, we will continue this death-march of three steps backward for each step forward.
For the past thirty years, they’ve been taking, taking and taking from us. Now, they’re coming for our basic rights. There’s just not much left for them to take.
We need a mass movement that will assert our rights as citizens and our rights as Americans. We need a mass movement that will counter the billions of dollars corporations and big business are willing to pump into the political system. And we need a mass movement that will remind our leaders of what we consider to be important.
Of what we want and what we need.
Working on electoral politics is crucial, but we must remember that direct action is equally important. And yes, if that means a general strike, so be it. We must be willing to at least organize ourselves so a general strike is at least within the realm of the possible.
Remember, Walker and the Fitzgerald Brothers originally figured on passing the budget repair bill by February 17.
They didn’t. It’s going on four months later, and they still haven’t succeeded in passing the legislation to outlaw public sector collective bargaining.
Hundreds of thousands of people protesting at the Capitol in the cold and snow made a difference. Storming the Capitol and taking it over, despite it being under lockdown made a difference. Thousands of people living inside the Capitol for nearly three weeks made a difference.
We the people make a difference, especially when we are willing to use all the tools that are available to us.
I’ve never appreciated my place of work as much as I have during the Capitol Protests.
For those of you who don’t know, I’m a cab driver. I work at Union Cab, which is a 100-percent worker-owned-and-operated cooperative cab company in Madison, Wisconsin. And let me be clear. Union Cab being a cooperative means something in a real, tangible way.
Seniority pay increases mean that I’ve seen my real wages increase over the years, which is especially amazing considering that so many Americans have seen their real wages drop over the last few decades.
Union Cab is a democratic workplace. That means it’s a cool place to work because we have a say over what kind of workplace it is. But in a more tangible sense, it means my rights as a member, as a worker and as a human being are protected.
After 23 years, it’s easy to take these things for granted, yet these are, sad to say, radical ideas. However, we make these so-called radical ideas work in a way that makes us a successful business that is able to live up to our core principle of providing jobs that pay a living way in a humane work environment.
Indeed, I take for granted that I work in a radical workplace. Or at least I did until the Capitol Protests.
Pretty much since word go, Union Cab has taken a highly visible as well as a leadership role in the protests. During the first week of the protests, our board of directors passed an official position in solidarity with the public-sector workers. I cannot stress how big a deal this was for us because we seldom take political positions, for obvious reasons, though it is our belief that this issue transcends politics because it’s about human rights.
We printed up handbills outlining our position for drivers to hand out to passengers.
We formed the Solidarity Committee to discuss our role in the protests and plan official Union Cab protest activities. We established a fund to provide free cab rides for protesters as needed. We even provided free cab rides for people going to and from the polls on election day in April. Our driver’s room was partially converted into a protest sign-making shop, loaded up with yellow poster board, magic markers and sticks.
And, of course, we staged several Union Cab parades and marches. There’s many the photo posted on Facebook of a long line of cabs on State Street, accompanied by people marching on foot, heading toward the Capitol.
I feel very proud of the work we’ve done over the last few months. And I think the public is appreciative as well. My favorite memory of such a thing is the day after the spring election, when we were all walking on air after JoAnne Kloppenburg’s apparent victory. I was stopped at a traffic light. A car across the intersection saw me, smiled, waved and gave me a democrabeep.
Union Cab was able to jump right into the protests because we are a radical workplace. We tend to attract people who are well informed and politically astute. As a workplace, people are allowed to feel comfortable about expressing their political views. And our leadership is strongly invested in empowering individual members as well as the cooperative as a whole to engage in activism when appropriate. I cannot stress enough how important that is, not just for us, but for all the other workplaces that could be equally as radical because they could form a bulwark for powerful movement.
Obviously, this is a labor struggle, and obviously, we have seen many, many aspects of labor represented at the protests and not just the ones with the immediate stake in the fight. Not just the teachers, but cops and firefighters who are actually exempt—for now. Not just AFSCME, but Teamsters and Longshoremen and Boilermakers and ironworkers and various other trade unions.
Still, I have to wonder how the organizational structure of some unions affects their ability to mobilize. For instance, I recently was surprised to discover that the Madison local for one of the trade unions does not have shop stewards. They have business agents who deal with the various businesses who hire their members, but they don’t actually have a union representative among the rank and file at any of the various work sites.
This needs to change.
Unions need to do more than bargain collectively and organize political donations for labor friendly political candidates. Unions need to realize that their structure can serve as a conduit for activism and direct action. But it has to be understood that it’s about structure, and it’s about deciding that the ability to mobilize comes out of what happens every day on the shop floor and in the break room. The rank and file needs to be actively involved every day, not just when it’s a dire, dire emergency.
Again, the unions stepped up in a truly extraordinary and beautiful way during the Capitol Protests. What needs to happen next is for Unions to keep this momentum going and take it back to the shop floor and the break room in order to create truly radical workplaces.
Years ago, I swore to myself that I would not become bitter and angry as I got older. As I stumbled into middle age, I didn’t really believe that was coming true.
Then came the Capitol Protests and I suddenly realized that the unthinkable, unspeakable had in fact happened.
I came to this realization by noticing the absence of something. I didn’t feel so angry. I didn’t feel so bitter. Well, I was angry. I was angry with Scott Walker and the Fitzgerald Brothers, but it was a wonderful, focused, righteous anger.
I have to say that being out there day after day in the cold and the snow felt good. I suddenly realized I was happier than I had been in years. Also, I was much more generous toward people than I had been in quite some time.
I didn’t look around at my fellow citizens and think I was smarter than they were or better than they were. They were my friends, my fellow workers, my comrades. As I wrote last issue, something Walker will never understand is that all of us out there protesting, we had a strong fellowship with each other, even a love for each other even.
Day after day, I felt like I was seeing something truly beautiful as I joined thousands or tens of thousands of people to say enough is enough.
Maybe that’s the crux of the matter for me. Working people have been under attack for thirty years. In some ways, the changes to our society have been so subtle and gradual they escape our notice until we think back to how things used to be.
Then it’s truly shocking.
But to see people on a mass scale decide it’s time to fight back, well, it puts a lump in my throat and a tear in my eye, especially because so many of these people are just ordinary people. Even the night we took back the Capitol it was still a cross-section of well, everybody. All of us. There. Together. Finally at the breaking point, fighting for the common good.
I didn’t mind being tired. I didn’t mind that the house needed to be cleaned. I didn’t mind the occasional scratchy throat. Hell, I didn’t mind the cold and snow. The coming of spring and summer feels weird. I almost sometimes find myself wishing for colder weather.
With these protests comes such a feeling of togetherness. You see a total stranger and raise your fist in the air. They smile and return the gesture because it’s a gesture of fellowship and love.
I’m driving in my car and see somebody carrying a protest sign. I democrabeep. That’s a gesture of fellowship and love.
Granted, I can’t help but wonder if the protests themselves become addicting. I have to figure that chanting releases endorphins, which might be the real cause of my protest euphoria. Certainly, I’ve been feeling a bit depressed since the protests have died down, so maybe it is more of a biological thing.
Or maybe it’s more a collective feeling of fighting back, of the genuine solidarity that we create by hanging together rather than hanging separately. After all, there is nothing weaker than the feeble force of one.
Let’s us remember that this is far from over. This really is only just the beginning. Or, as Churchill said, “This is not the end or the beginning of the end, but the end of the beginning.”
It is imperative that we remember that our collective action has shown results. We have made a difference and will continue to make a difference, but only if we remember that we are strongest when we act in solidarity with one another.
Favorite memory of the Capitol Protests? Despite so many amazing experiences, this is a no-brainer:
The night we took back the Capitol.
Sometime after 5 PM, March 9, Facebook was ablaze with reports that the fiscal elements of the budget repair bill had been removed. Passage of legislation essentially outlawing collective bargaining for public employees was imminent.
My wife Georgia came home from her internship. I broke the news to her and said I had to go up to the Capitol. She wasn’t feeling well and decided to stay home.
“Are you going to get arrested?” she asked.
“I don’t know,” I replied.
“You going to call your girlfriend, Laura Flanders?” she asked. That’s a running joke. Laura of GritTV and formerly Air America had made two trips to Madison since the protests began. I’d met her last summer. She contacted me prior to her first trip here. I’d helped her out by driving her around town as needed. We’d become friends. But I was so freaked out by what was happening I’d forgotten about Laura. I sent her a quick text.
“Keep the news coming,” she texted back. “I’ll be on Ed tonight.”
I wolfed down some soup and headed up to the Capitol a little after 6:00 PM. When I arrived at the King Street entrance, there were already several hundred people there. More people poured in. The Square was jammed with cars, honking continuously.
Protesters crowded at the King Street doors, chanting “Let us in! Let us in!” No surprise, all the doors were locked. Somebody yelled, “doors are open at the next entrance.” Some of the crowd moved to the Martin Luther King, Jr. entrance and then the South Hamilton entrance. Doors would open briefly then close.
I ran into Butch Hanson, a fellow worker at Union Cab. Butch is also president of our board of directors. We moved to the West Washington entrance, which is one of the smaller, enclosed entrances. Around 50 people crowded in at the doors. Suddenly, I became nervous, fearing that something bad was about to happen.
For some stupid reason, a quartet of State Troopers worked their way through the crowd because they had to get in at THAT entrance. A door opened. Two troopers entered the building. Protesters tried to push their way in. I couldn’t tell for sure, but the remaining troopers either were pushed or pulled out of the entrance. The door shut, and the troopers were stuck in the middle of what could have been an angry crowd. My stomach tightened. I expected the troopers to pull out their nightsticks and start swinging. Instead, they worked their way out the crowd, holding onto each other. No one bothered them.
We moved to the State Street entrance where another substantial crowd had assembled. Doors opened. A few people got inside. Doors slammed shut. A marshal announced, “If you get inside, be aware you may be arrested. Don’t fight with the police.”
Butch and I ran into Ingrid Stark, a long-time Union Cabbie who’d recently retired. “I’m too old to get arrested,” she said.
Ten minutes later, the doors flew open, all of them. Butch and I looked at each other as the crowd poured through the open doors, not sure what to expect.
There were no cops anywhere. We’d done it. We’d taken back the Capitol.
I promptly texted Laura: “I’m in!”
Later I texted her, “It’s like the storming of the Bastille!”
Laura texted back, “Wowed.”
The scene inside the Capitol was about the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen in my life. Tons of people, all kinds of people. I even ran into my chiropractor.
All the rules went out the window. People brought in signs—on sticks! People brought sleeping bags, noisemakers, loudspeaker systems. I saw several dogs, but no snakes. And food. Almost immediately, a stack of Ian’s pizzas arrived. The information booth on the ground floor was transformed into a buffet.
I ran into an old friend who used to work in politics and is a long-time political observer. He was a bit tipsy. Despite the overall feeling of euphoria, his mood bordered on despondent. We sat on the steps and talked. He told me he was going to be driving his tractor in from Blue Mounds for Saturday’s tractor-cade.
I urged him to draw inspiration from the crowd, from the scene, from the little thing we had done on this night, just when things looked to be their darkest.
“One way or another,” I said, “we will find a way to win.”
“I hope you’re right,” he replied.
In retrospect, it’s hard to say what we really accomplished that night. We didn’t keep the Capitol for a prolonged period of time, and it’s near impossible to quantify what long-term affect our action had. And by the way, what we did was the largest direct action I’ve ever witnessed. As I commented to several people that night, each and every person inside the Capitol broke the law.
However, the proof is in the pudding. The law that would outlaw collective bargaining for public sector employees has still not been implemented. And don’t forget, the original plan was for it to be passed by February 17.
As Laura said in a text, following the initial temporary restraining order by Circuit Judge Maryann Sumi, “Amazing. Look what you did.”