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Teachers Walk Out in Madison to Join Protests Over Public Employee Bill in Wisconsin

(photo: Mary Bottari; used by permission of the artist)

The Madison School District will shut down today, after large percentages of teachers called in sick to protest Governor Scott Walker’s proposed budget bill that would strip them and most other public employees in Wisconsin of most of their collective bargaining rights. Thousands of teachers, students, activists and other public workers are expected to descend on the Capitol this morning for another day of protests against the budget plan. Hundreds stayed overnight inside the Rotunda, setting up makeshift tents and bunking for the night.

Those who stayed wanted to be heard at the only public hearing on the legislation, known as the budget repair bill. Thousands demanded to speak at the hearing, which lasted at least 14 hours and well into the night. Lawmakers eventually allowed citizens to register their opinion on the bill on a blue slip of paper but not to make a public comment. But many who didn’t get a chance to speak stayed at the Rotunda, as the statements continued in the hearing room.

Madison was not the only Wisconsin town to see protests yesterday. Governor Walker’s home in Wauwatosa had 1,000 protesters out in front of it Tuesday night, blocking traffic on the residential street.

But Madison was clearly the hub for activism yesterday, with reports of up to 10,000 protesters participating. “The vote is planned for Thursday, so we want twice as many people there today and twice as many as that tomorrow,” said Mary Bottari of the Center for Media and Democracy in Madison. Bottari is also a parent, and her daughter came home with a a note from the school superintendent yesterday afternoon basically explaining that many teachers would be walking out tomorrow. At the time, local schools were still scheduled to be open, but it was clear from the message that they would not be operating under a normal schedule. By last night, 40% of the 2,600 teachers had called in sick, and the school district did not have enough substitute teachers to replace them.

Bottari described the protests yesterday – separate ones at midday, and another in the early evening after teachers got off work – as lively. They included workers from all over the state, including firefighters, who are exempt from the collective bargaining changes under the bill. “They ran buses from parking lots on the outskirts of the city into the Capitol,” Bottari said. A couple Democratic lawmakers in the Capitol unfurled a large banner reading “Solidarity” during the protests.

So far, the teacher “blue flu” walkout is the only one scheduled, but the possibility exists for other wildcat strikes over the next couple days. In particular, the prison guards have been angered by Governor Walker referring to them in his ill-timed National Guard comments. It appeared that he originally said he would bring out the Guard to disperse crowds, but his office clarified that they could be used to fill in for prison guards if they walked out on the job. “I talked to some prison guards today and they’re pissed,” Bottari said. “They didn’t like being singled out.”

Senate President Mike Ellis said yesterday that he had the necessary votes to pass the budget repair bill. But he only promised 17 votes. That would be the bare minimum necessary to pass the bill. Republicans hold a 19-14 advantage in the State Senate. The rumor is that two Republican Senators have dropped off the bill, leaving no margin for error for passage. The final vote is expected Thursday.

The labor movement has rallied and brought far more attention to this issue, bolstered by Walker’s National Guard comments, than anyone expected just a week ago. Ordinary Wisconsinites have joined the public employees at the protests in large numbers, in particular students who walked out with their teachers. “It was a shock that this Governor decided to take this on,” Bottari said. “I think everyone can see that if this can happen here, it can happen anywhere. So it’s time to fight back.”

One of the best places to get the latest news on the rally is at this Twitter list.

(photo: Mary Bottari; used by permission of the artist)

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David Dayen

David Dayen