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Norman Stockwell: Teachers' role huge in protests' success

Norman Stockwell: Teachers' role huge in protests' success

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A number of events — including a rally at 4:15 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 14, at the Capitol — are planned to commemorate and analyze the protests of last February and March that began with Gov. Scott Walker's announcement of his plan for a budget repair bill. As the labor history books are written, one event that needs more attention is the four-day sickout by Madison teachers in mid-February.

One year ago this week, Madison teachers voted overwhelmingly to walk off the job, and walk into the Capitol to protest the budget repair bill (later known as Act 10), which stripped public employees of most of their collective bargaining rights. As journalist John Nichols noted in a recent speech, "The teachers felt they had to go to the Capitol, because the Legislature had forgotten them."

The decision was not taken lightly, as Madison Teachers Inc. Executive Director John Matthews recalls: "I got notice of what the governor planned to include in his budget repair bill, and it was more than financial issues, it was going to start attacking workers' rights and that goes to the very core of the operation of what a union does, what it can provide for those it represents. When the word came that he was going to attempt to do away with public sector bargaining in Wisconsin, we're talking about 50 years of work that we have put into developing not only rights but wages and benefits."

Matthews noted that the timing happened to coincide with meetings that were already scheduled: "That very evening I had a scheduled meeting with the MTI board of directors and they immediately said, well, just get us the list of all of our reps and their phone numbers, we have reps at every one of 60 different work sites. … And they sat there at that time calling those reps. ... Frequently in February and March our board of directors meeting is followed the next day by a representative council meeting. We had 120 people show up at that meeting. And I gave my same presentation, and immediately a motion came from the floor: We need to go to the Legislature tomorrow. And that motion passed immediately with little debate. The only discussion was are we gonna call in sick or are we going to call in well and simply tell the school district that we aren't going to be at work tomorrow?"

Matthews held a press conference around 6:30 that evening, and at about 11 p.m. on Tuesday, Feb. 15, School Superintendent Dan Nerad announced that all of the schools would be closed the next day. The Madison schools remained closed through the following Monday, with teachers returning to work on Feb. 22.

During the month of February 2011, many actions occurred; some were formally organized by labor unions others simply bubbled up from the grass roots. The sickout of Madison teachers was sort of a mixture of these. It was immediately followed by a solidarity walkout by 700 East High School students coordinated through Facebook, and then walkouts at several other schools.

Matthews says he was encouraged by the support that the teachers received: "There was a great deal of parent support. Usually at these times I get some nasty calls or nasty emails, but those were so minimal. People simply understood and supported the protests because of the negative impact it (the governor's action) has on the employment of public sector workers."

How serious and effective was the teachers' action? J. Eric Cobb, former executive director of the Building Trades Council of South Central Wisconsin, feels it was very effective. "I hope the history books will someday say that this was a general strike in Madison." A general strike?

Looking back at what took place during the teachers' action, we may actually have had that general strike in Madison during those four days in February.

What is a general strike? Labor activist and strategist Jerry Tucker was in Madison twice to do workshops with local unionists on the concept of a general strike. Tucker said in an interview last summer, "A general strike does not mean what some people might think it means necessarily. It doesn't mean that everybody stops work, that a job action is so total and complete, spreads across every sector, every workplace. A general strike in the historically classic sense can be a fairly narrow but critical element of the workforce."

The sickout by Madison teachers certainly had that ripple effect that is so important to a general strike. When the teachers did not go to work, the parents of the younger students were obligated to stay home with their kids, which meant they too did not go to work those days.

Referring to the entire broad combination of actions taking place in February and early March in the Capitol, journalist John Nichols, in his new book "Uprising," says, "I am often asked why organized labor did not call a general strike, pulling out every union member and every worker that could be attracted to the cause. … In fact, there is a good case to be made that labor's mistake was a failure to declare that what was happening was, if not a general strike, then something akin."

Labor journalist and author Lee Sustar, who spoke at Madison College last December about the history of the general strike, noted that sometimes general strikes are not planned, they just happen: "General strikes are often called formally, but just as often they are not called, they flow out of a generalization of struggle, a traumatizing event … in which broader issues of the class become welded around one particular struggle in which other people join in in solidarity, and advance it."

There are now more than four books about the Wisconsin uprising, many short videos, and at least two feature films in the works. But as Wisconsinites celebrate and reflect on the struggles of a year ago, it is important to remember the actions taken by Madison teachers in those early days. 

Norman Stockwell is a freelance journalist and operations coordinator at WORT-FM.