Smile Politely

Reports from Madison front lines

This past weekend, a caravan of Graduate Employees’ Organization (GEO) members and fellow-travelers from Champaign-Urbana made the trek to Madison, Wisconsin. While there, they participated in protests centering around opposition to legislation proposed by Governor Scott Walker which would curtail collective bargaining rights for state employees.

To get a sense for what the experience was like, we got first-hand accounts from four people (the consensus was that it was quite cold):

  • Peter Campbell, PhD student in Communication
  • Karen Lichtman, MA/PhD Student in Linguistics
  • Neil Parthun, area junior high teacher
  • Michael Verderame, PhD Student in English


Smile Politely: What was your primary personal motivation for traveling to Madison?

Karen Lichtman: I just felt like this was a historic moment, and I shouldn’t miss it. At the time, it was unclear whether the protesters would win, but now that one Republican has caved in, I feel like the tide is turning to the side of the people… we only need three Republican “no” votes to kill the bill!

Michael Verderame:
1. What Scott Walker is doing is wrong, and it’s close enough to us that we can do something about it.
2. If successful, it would spread to other states and endanger public education and workers’ rights throughout the country.
3. I have friends in the UW grad union and wanted to support them personally.

Peter Campbell: I think that the present is a significant moment in United States history; I wanted to be involved in one of the focal points of the struggle over political and cultural future of the country. Also, as one of the lead organizers of the GEO strike, I feel a strong sense of obligation to and interconnectedness with other unionists struggling for workers’ rights. We’re all in this together; a victory or defeat in one specific struggle is a victory or defeat for all.

Neil Parthun: As a union member, I was enraged at Scott Walker’s attempt to bust unions. The bill has nothing to do with the budget. It has everything to do with the breaking of labor unions… Having been the victim of bullying and having had a strong upbringing of the importance of fighting for people, I felt it was my duty to add my voice to the thunderous condemnation of Walker’s toxic, thuggish stupidity.


SP: What exactly did you do while you were there? How would you describe the level of organization of the protests?

MV: I spent most of the time in outdoor rallies. I took a lot of pictures and walked around. I spent a few hours in the Capitol on Saturday which was the highlight of the trip. I spoke at the open-mic in the Capitol. From a logistical perspective the protests were well-organized; people moved around efficiently, there were marshals to help direct people. Law enforcement was very effective and professional. The only less-than-perfect organization was the buses on the way back; it was a very confusing system and people wound up standing in the wrong line. However, the message was very heterogenous and wasn’t over-organized; most of the signs I saw were handmade.

NP: The infrastructure of the protest was very organized. They had shuttles regularly transferring people to and from the Capitol, food, etc. When I got there, I marched with more than 100,000 of my closest friends chanting for the ending of the “budget repair” bill. My friend and I went for some food. Then, we stood in line to get into the Capitol. It took us approximately an hour to get through the line due to the length. Once in, we were awestruck. Posters, signs and solidarity banners were EVERYWHERE. It was a beautiful sight to behold. We saw great signs, very organized protesters inside the Capitol — a medic station, a sleeping material check in/check out station, a child care station, electronics charging stations and more.

KL: First, we delivered several heavy boxes of supplies, including markers, notebooks, first aid stuff, granola bars, and cookies, to the information booth and the TAA booth inside the Capitol building. After that, we walked the picket lines outside until the rally at 3pm. We took a break after the rally to warm up, and then re-entered the Capitol before heading home. I would say that the protests were pretty organic rather than being centrally organized. The rally was well-organized, but other than that, it was just rank-and-file union members and citizens deciding what to chant and where to go.

PC: The level of organization was amazing. I was floored. I had a GEO water cooler drum, so I did a lot of marching around the capitol, joining in with other percussion, and using the drum to punctuate chants when they started up.


SP: What was the most encouraging part of the experience for you and why? Most discouraging?

NP: The most encouraging part of the experience for me was the solidarity being expressed. The police union supporting the demonstrators, firefighters with a visible presence and numerous police officers coming into the Capitol telling the protesters that they were in the right because the Capitol was the people’s house. The most discouraging pieces have been the recent refusal to let people into the Capitol (arguably illegal) Monday and the shutting of windows to prevent food and supplies from reaching the occupiers. This is thuggish behavior from the governor.

PC: The sheer number of people there was encouraging. But most direct action is different than the GEO strike — in that situation, we had a legal procedure for putting significant pressure on the administration. Of course there was a real possibility of failure, but there was a more specific end-game, and it felt like a situation over which we had more control — as long as we could continue to convince membership to participate, the strike could succeed. In most direct actions, success is MUCH more long-term, which can be difficult. This is the importance of solidarity: you have to be able to sense, affectively, the support and energy of those around you.

MV: Nothing about it was discouraging. The most encouraging were the sheer volume of people, the cleverness of their signs, and above all the total impression of being in the Capitol.

KL: The most encouraging part was seeing so much participation (in temperatures in the teens; I don’t think that gets enough coverage!) from people who hadn’t been previously involved in politics. On the bus back to the parking lot, one woman said, “This is the beginning of a whole new era for me… I always voted, but I never did anything else. That’s changing now.” These people really, really cared about this; enough to stand outside in absolutely frigid temperatures for hours and hours. I also loved the creativity of all the signs, being a linguist. I would say that the most discouraging part was Walker’s continued refusal to listen. The protesters are really making a lot of noise, but Walker seems to continue to think he’s in the right. There must be something wrong with the guy! I think he’s going to lose, but it would be nice of him to admit that he went against the will of the vocal majority, the silent majority, the majority in general!


If you enjoyed this article, there’s an event this evening (Thursday, March 3) that you’ll probably be interested in:

WHAT: “The Battle for Wisconsin: Eyewitness Reports from the Front Lines”

WHEN: Thursday, March 3 @ 6 p.m.

WHERE: University YMCA 2nd Floor (Wahl Room), 1001 S. Wright St.

Event description: Hundreds of thousands of workers and students have descended on Madison, Wisconsin over the past two weeks for protests, rallies, and an ongoing occupation of the state capitol building to fight Gov. Scott Walker’s draconian attacks on collective bargaining rights. Come hear from graduate students and undergraduates returning from the front lines of the struggle.

Speakers include: Leighton Christiansen, Officer-at-Large, Graduate Employees Organization and Rebecca Marcotte, Undergraduate-Graduate Alliance, International Socialist Organization

AND A Live call-in via skype from a Wisconsin public sector worker.

Organizations are listed for purposes of identification only. Forum sponsored by the International Socialist Organization. This event is part of the Graduate Employees Organization 24/7 vigil in solidarity with Wisconsin workers. Call 415-713-6260 or email [email protected] for more info.


Photo swiped from Neil Parthun’s Facebook page.

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