Socialist Worker

Wisconsin - how we built a mass movement

by Bob Peterson, a teacher in Milwaukee
Issue No. 2241

Bob Peterson (on the megaphone) with his primary school class protesting in Madison  (Pic: Barbara J Miner)

Bob Peterson (on the megaphone) with his primary school class protesting in Madison (Pic: Barbara J Miner)

On Friday 11 February governor Scott Walker declared war on public sector workers in the US state of Wisconsin by trying to ban trade unions.

Many people are shocked at Walker’s proposals, but he has done one thing to help progressives – he is radicalising several generations of Wisconsinites who see that his attacks are nothing short of class war.

Walker claimed his “budget repair” bill was needed to fill a $137 million shortfall in the current biennial budget. He blamed the crisis on the so-called excessive pension and health insurance benefits of public employees.

His solution was a frontal attack on the basic human right to collectively organise. His bill bans all unions in the state university system, the University of Wisconsin-Madison hospital, and among state childcare workers.

It essentially eliminates collective bargaining rights for all other public sector unions. It requires that all unions have annual recertification votes—which means that 51 percent of all workers in a workplace must vote to be in one union.

If recertification fails workers face a compulsory year of no union representation.

It also prohibits union dues to be collected through payroll deduction.


Within 30 minutes of Walker’s announcement, the right wing Club for Growth had TV commercials broadcast portraying public sector workers and their health and pension benefits as the cause of the budget crisis.

It was the same message as Walker’s – that public employees were the “haves” and the rest of the population were the “have nots.”

The day after Walker proposed his anti-worker plan he placed the Wisconsin National Guard on alert. He also asked the Republican-controlled senate and assembly to pass his proposal immediately.

The legislative leaders, who had approved $117 million worth of business tax breaks a week before, put Walker’s proposals on the fast track.

But a funny thing happened on the way to passing the bill.

Wisconsin workers woke up and Wisconsin Democratic legislators discovered their backbone.

What started as a small picket line two days after the announcement led to a round the clock occupation of the Capitol building – and daily, growing demonstrations.

By Tuesday thousands had gathered at the State Capitol. That night, 2,000 people picketed Walker’s home in a suburb of Milwaukee.


By Wednesday 16 February the 4,000-strong Madison teachers’ union had shut down schools in Madison and turned out to protest, inspiring other teachers to take action. Mary Bell, the state president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council, called for “our members and all citizens of Wisconsin to come to Madison both Thursday and Friday to go to the Capitol for peaceful demonstrations.

“If you can’t walk up to the Capitol, get as far as you can and sit down.”

Madison teachers and teachers from 23 other districts called in sick on Thursday, shutting down their districts. Other teachers risked disciplinary action and came by the thousands. High school students walked out of their schools.

The 14 Democrat state senators fled the state that evening – preventing the senate from reaching a quorum and bringing deliberations to a halt.

By Friday, teachers had forced Milwaukee schools to shut down as well as other large districts across the state including Racine, Wausau and Janesville. Some 20,000 people poured into Madison.

On Saturday an estimated 35,000 people gathered at the Capitol and protests spread across the state. While most teachers went back to work the following week, tens of thousands of other workers, from the private and public sector, came out to protest. Many brought their families.

By the end of the second week, on 26 February, an estimated 100,000 protesters gathered in Madison.

It is the biggest demonstration in the state’s history. And the mobilisations are continuing.

Bob Peterson is a teacher in Milwaukee and a founder of Rethinking Schools. Go to

Protesters sleeping in the occupied Capitol building in Wisconsin (Pic: Barbara J Miner)

Protesters sleeping in the occupied Capitol building in Wisconsin (Pic: Barbara J Miner)

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