When the news about Act 10 broke, Madison middle school teacher Michele Ritt went to the Capitol, where a few hundred or so people had begun to gather. Over the next few days and weeks, that crowd grew to tens of thousands of protesters as news about the legislation spread.
Ritt’s son, Josef Rademacher, was 10 years old at the time. He joined his family as they marched around Capitol Square for nearly 10 hours a day during the occupation, to the point where the soles of his snow boots were worn through.
“The kids were pretty little, we talked to them about what was going on and why it was so important,” Ritt said. She remembered being struck by the fact that neither one of her two children complained about the long hours spent marching in solidarity.
“There was an overwhelming sense that this was needed to happen and that’s where we needed to be and there was no complaining about the cold or anything,” she said. “It certainly affected my life and how I’m walking through the rest of my life and I know that my kids have been raised knowing that activism is not something that you just do on a Saturday afternoon for a couple of hours. ... It’s the way that you have to walk through life.”
Rademacher, now a freshman at UW-Madison, said he and his sister were used to attending teachers union meetings, but the Act 10 protest was an entirely different situation.
“It was one of the first times I was Downtown. There were just so many people, and that’s the thing that caught me most off guard — the number of the people there and the collective energy and emotion of everyone,” he said. “Everyone was enthusiastic to be there and I think that’s one of the main reasons why I wasn’t bored out of my mind or didn’t hate it, as a child.”
He said the joy and passion effused by the crowd and seeing his own teachers as well as his parents standing up for what they believed in left a lasting impact. He even recently won the 2020 Wisconsin Labor History Society essay competition after writing about his experience during the Act 10 protests.
“I never believed I had a role to play in helping others until I witnessed the empathy and strength of others,” he wrote in the essay. “The words and actions of the public union workers fighting for their rights ... taught me that my voice can help ensure that others don’t lose theirs.”
— 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.
Act 10: Full Coverage
- 10 years later, workers still seek a seat at the table despite lack of collective bargaining
- 10 years later: Wisconsin's Act 10 has produced labor savings, but at a cost
- Opinion: Act 10 was dark time with mixed results
- Looking back a decade later, 10 stories about Act 10
- Video highlights of the fight over Gov. Scott Walker's anti-union legislation
- Relive the story of the historic Act 10 protests in 20 photos
- Front pages from historic Scott Walker protests
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.
Former Sen. Mark Miller and Rep. Peter Barca tried to slow down passage of the legislation to force a compromise.
A decade later, former Gov. Scott Walker said he views Act 10 as one of the best things he's done for the state.
Susan Cohen wondered if the Capitol dome would come crumbling down from the cacophonous vibrations during the Act 10 protests.
Dale Schultz believes the state's ability to solve people's problems was greatly diminished by Act 10.
Longtime Madison Teachers Inc. leader John Matthews explains why collective bargaining still matters.
Former Capitol Police Chief Charles Tubbs said his mission was communicating with protesters and voluntary compliance.
During the peak of the Act 10 protests, Ian's Pizza was delivering 1,200 pizzas a day to protesters.
Sen. Joan Ballweg saw the recall elections that resulted from Act 10 as the people getting a chance to have their say.
Michele Ritt remembered her son Josef Rademacher wearing a hole in the soles of his snow boots during the protests.