I walked to work yesterday. Even when I was still a couple miles out from downtown, there were people walking that way and waiting for buses to get to the Capitol Square. This is pretty unusual in the midwest in February, but parking and traffic downtown are a mess right now. Hoards of people have been marching, walking, or meandering down State Street, which runs between the University of Wisconsin and the state capitol building. (The store I work at is just off State Street.) Through traffic has been patient about crossing, with many drivers honking in support of the marchers. But with the mild weather we’ve been having, most people who actually want to attend the protests are leaving their cars at home.
This was my third day of checking out the protests on my way to work. Wednesday the whole thing seemed spontaneous, and most of the marchers with signs were either teachers, fire fighters, or university workers. A few kids were downtown, mostly the young children of striking (OK, “sick-out-ing”) teachers. I also saw a few skateboard punx liberated from East High, coming to check out the excitement. But mostly it was people like our upstairs neighbors TAA (a teaching assistants’ union), who were well informed about the politics of the situation and had been preparing for days. In the week since Governor Walker announced his budget repair bill, TAA had assembled hordes of sign makers and organizers, who took over our upstairs meeting room coordinating their part of the rally. As a union, they’re extremely serious about this whole thing.
By Friday, there were a lot more families up on the Square, and everything was more convivial. I passed a table set up by one union that was passing out free hot dogs and sodas. Everyone was in red shirts and jackets, as if this were a Badger home game. By this time, school was out for the third day in a row in Madison, and other towns were also striking (enough white-washing), with their local union affiliates sending buses of protesters to add to the crowd. By this time, a lot of people had funny signs, and some were in costumes. I was in a hurry, since I had to stop at the bank on my way to work, and had to zig-zag my way through crowds of stroller-pushing activists, and a guy dressed up as some kind of golden Liberty statue who was being interviewed by a local radio station.
By Saturday, the day of my walk, I was ready to take a closer look. So I checked out the articles about the protests in my Kindle edition of the New York Times, read a bunch of Facebook posts from all over the country, and headed out the door.
By the time I got up to the Square, I was part of a stream of people. Police manning the barricades directed us to the proper areas for Tea Party and Union.
The first corner of the Square I came to was the Tea Party’s enclave. There weren’t as many of them as I was expecting, maybe 500 or 1000. A few had anti-union signs, like one that showed a bunch of pigs at a trough, captioned “Feeding Time is Over.” But mostly, the protesters here seemed like state residents who wanted a balanced budget passed. They liked chanting: “Go Scott Go” (Governor Scott Walker, that is) and “Pay your share!” Not a terribly angry bunch, and what anger they displayed went mostly against the senators who took off to force a postponement of any voting on the budget bill. Predictably, one guy had a sign that said “Where are the 14 girlie men?” Others claimed they wanted the absent senators to be arrested, or worse.
At one point a woman who sounded like she was getting over a cold started that fixture of protests everywhere, the call and response: “What do we want?” “Pass the bill!” “When do we want it?” “Now!” She joked about her hoarse voice, but no one else would pick up the “call” part of it, so she kept on yelling.
My favorite sign, conservative division: “Sorry I couldn’t be here yesterday, but I had to work.”
Coming out and rounding the corner, “Kill the bill!” rapidly replaced “Pass the bill!” Now that I was out of the Tea crowd, I could almost see their speaker, who ended his speech about how neither party was really listening to the people with a well-received “God bless Wisconsin!”
Outside of Tea Land, the people looked about the same but the costumes and signs got more creative. Alongside the mass-produced Teacher’s union signs, people carried clever home-made ones with slogans like “Stop the Badger Despair Bill” (the real one being named the “Budget Repair Bill”). Just as I was wondering about the significance of the father and son Darth Vaders and the guy dressed up like a banana, a parade of sorts came by–a bagpipe band, followed by firefighters with helmets perched way up where they were easy to see, followed by lots and lots of teachers and other rank-and-file state employees and kids. Alongside them was a line of neon-vested police officers–ostensibly as security, but it they looked more like part of the march. Police and fire unions are solidly behind the anti-bill protesters, even though the bill exempts them.
A huge, thick line of people was waiting to get into the Capitol building. I didn’t join them because I didn’t want to get stuck in there. I had to grab some lunch before work, and couldn’t afford to run late.
By Saturday, everyone seemed hyper-aware of the fact that people are paying attention to the protests. Everywhere, I heard people discussing all the national coverage, and I saw the most loud-mouthed and outrageously dressed protesters hogging the cameras and getting lots of applause. People from all over the state and beyond crowded every side of the Capitol Building, as well as the entire length of State Street.
I stood for a few minutes at the top of the Capitol steps, looking out over the top of the live band in mid-set and towards work, and made a guess that this would be another busy day at the shop. Because with all these teachers and others coming to town, our business is booming. Our little store is making all kinds of sales to teachers and others in town for the protests, and doing record business for the middle of February. I doubt it’s what Governor Walker has in mind about “putting Wisconsin back to work,” but I doubt he’d object either. We sure don’t.
Favorite sign, liberal division: “Wisconsin is not open for business–it’s closed for repairs.”
As I edged past the band and onto State Street, I overheard one man telling others about some doctors who would write a “sick” note for anyone who wanted one. Much as I despise this sort of shenanigans, I understand that people are afraid of losing their jobs, especially if the unions are weakened. From what I’ve seen, if the bill were just about asking state workers to pay more towards their pensions and medical care, this wouldn’t be happening. People would grumble, but looking over their shoulders at taxpayers like me who are lucky to be able to get any insurance at any price, they’d probably go along with cuts. It’s the idea of dismantling their union and the protection it gives them that brings workers out in such numbers.
Chin’s wasn’t crowded at all, so I got my Thai tofu stir-fry without incident and made it to work. The shop was crowded all day. Periodically, we’d go check out the action outside. At one point Union Cab ran a parade of yellow taxis for the entire length of State Street. That was cool.
And yes, sales were excellent. We had such a great day that I had to keep the shop open late, and missed my usual bus, which can make things complicated an a weekend night. I walked back up past the Capitol to the bus stop, minus iPod for once. The restaurants and streets were still crowded, though the Square was mostly empty now. Some organizers walked behind me, chatting about how glad they were to have come to town. “We made enough contacts and talked to enough people that it was definitely worth the trip.” Outside the Irish bar, a bunch of smokers were haggling good-naturedly about who was really “from here” and who wasn’t. Near the bus stop, a bunch of cops stood on the sidewalk, laughing and joking and comparing notes about their day. Things were winding down, and snow was in the forecast.
When the bus finally arrived, a group of three people ran up to get on it with those of us who’d been waiting. Two guys and a woman, all very, very drunk. They started up a conversation in the back of the bus with a guy from the United Arab Emirates, which for some reason they thought was part of India. Each of them was blathering about how much Native American they had in them. Then the woman told him how she’d come to town today because “I just love a good protest,” and started chanting, “Hell no, we won’t go!”
Which, of course, doesn’t have much to do with collective bargaining. But then neither does a lot of the rest of this. From what I saw, both sides more or less want the same thing–a budget that’s fair to everyone, and that won’t drag our states finances down the tubes. We just have differing ideas about how that’s to be done. What we need is discussion of the issues with everyone at the table, including the unions. We need our legislators and teachers to get back to work.
It’s not good government for the governor to make unilateral changes to union protection and disguise it as a simple budget matter, nor is it good government when our state senators flee in order to postpone the inevitable. Posturing is what it is, feeding the camera with sound bites and funny pictures and scare tactics. (Governor Walker called in the National Guard for a prison workers’ strike that seems to have existed nowhere but in his mind.) When people know the world is watching, everyone becomes a performer.