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Madison teacher proudly remembers breaking the rules
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Madison teacher proudly remembers breaking the rules

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Susan Cohen

Susan Cohen remembers wondering if the vibrations of the protesters inside the Capitol would bring down the dome.

Susan Cohen wondered if the Capitol dome would come crumbling down from the cacophonous vibrations during the Act 10 protests.

Gov. Scott Walker’s proposal to strip collective bargaining rights from public employees motivated Susan Cohen, a Madison middle school science teacher, to do something she had rarely contemplated — break the rules.

“It’s hard to break the rules when you’re a teacher because we understand rules are made to keep things moving along, keep things safe,” she said. “But we all recognized that taking away the union and our bargaining rights was going to make it very difficult.”

As she gathered with fellow teachers at a friend’s house after school to formulate a response to the legislation, she held hands with her sister, also a teacher, and said, “What are we going to do? Do we go down fighting or do we just let them take us?”

They looked at each other and agreed, “I guess we’re going to go down fighting.”

The group decided to orchestrate a one-day walkout on Feb. 15, 2011, the day after the legislation was introduced, to protest at the Capitol in hopes of drawing attention to it. The school where she worked closed for the day after teachers notified the administration they would be protesting.

“I’m proud to say I have a reprimand in my file,” Cohen said.

When Cohen and her group arrived at the Capitol, she saw thousands of shivering people, their collective breath rising over a sea of signs as they tried to get into the Capitol rotunda. There they sang and chanted. Cohen felt a vibration and wondered if the frequency of their voices would be enough to bring down the dome or shake loose some of the stones from the structure.

“It was that kind of sound that goes through your chest, that grabs your stomach and twists your heart and makes you feel sort of weak, it was very, very powerful. ... And I thought, ‘Oh gosh, we’re going to break the building down,’” she said.

As a legislative stalemate stretched into weeks, Cohen and her fellow protesters spent nights sleeping on the marble floors of the Capitol. Local businesses donated food. Demonstrators swept out the bathrooms, organized trash runs and even hung signs on the walls with blue tape to avoid damaging the paint, Cohen said.

“The night the vote went down, the Capitol just exploded,” she said. “We were everywhere (in the building) just screaming, and screaming and screaming and they went and passed it anyway.”

Everything that Cohen and her fellow protestors worried would happen came to pass, she said.

“Act 10 devastated the teaching profession, and if you devastate the profession that provides education, you pretty much mess up education,” she said. “We still have to keep trying to reconstruct what we had in the classroom before they took it away.”

— Elizabeth Beyer

Editor's note: This story is part of a series marking the 10-year anniversary of Act 10. Click here for more stories from people who experienced the historic events firsthand. 


Watch now: The Great Divide | 10 stories about Act 10

The most seismic political story of the last decade in Wisconsin began on Feb. 7, 2011, when Republican Gov. Scott Walker informed a gathering of cabinet members of plans to unilaterally roll back the power of public sector unions in the state. He "dropped the bomb," as Walker would describe it afterward, four days later.

The audacious proposal, to be known forever after as Act 10, required public employees to pay more for pension and health insurance benefits, but also banned most subjects of collective bargaining and placed obstacles to maintaining union membership.

The proposal laid bare the state's deep, at times intensely personal, political divisions as tens of thousands of protesters descended on the Capitol. The month-long, round-the-clock occupation drew international attention, but failed to stop the bill.

A decade later, the aftershocks of one of the biggest political earthquakes in Wisconsin history continue to be felt. Taxes have been held in check, and state finances have improved. But public unions are vastly diminished and the state is more politically divided than ever.

Here are 10 stories from people who experienced the historic events firsthand.

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Former Sen. Mark Miller and Rep. Peter Barca tried to slow down passage of the legislation to force a compromise.

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A decade later, former Gov. Scott Walker said he views Act 10 as one of the best things he's done for the state.

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Susan Cohen wondered if the Capitol dome would come crumbling down from the cacophonous vibrations during the Act 10 protests.

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Dale Schultz believes the state's ability to solve people's problems was greatly diminished by Act 10.

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Longtime Madison Teachers Inc. leader John Matthews explains why collective bargaining still matters.

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Former Capitol Police Chief Charles Tubbs said his mission was communicating with protesters and voluntary compliance.

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During the peak of the Act 10 protests, Ian's Pizza was delivering 1,200 pizzas a day to protesters. 

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Sen. Joan Ballweg saw the recall elections that resulted from Act 10 as the people getting a chance to have their say.

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Michele Ritt remembered her son Josef Rademacher wearing a hole in the soles of his snow boots during the protests.

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Jason Stein was amazed to find himself in the midst of the No. 2 story on the New York Times home page.

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