After wiping out 50 years of union rights in Wisconsin, GOP state senators from the badger state made the journey to Washington, DC on Wednesday to attend a $1,000-a-head corporate fundraiser hosted by the BGR lobbying firm.
But since they had traveled so far from their home state to collect their corporate prize money, workers and other activists in the nation’s capital wanted to make sure that the Wisconsin Republicans felt right at home.
So, while over a thousand of them held a boisterous picket outside the lavish site of the fundraiser, more than 200 pushed through the guarded gold-plated doors and into the lobby, occupying the multi-storied marble and glass atrium for up to an hour. The shrilling echo of whistles and workers chanting “What’s disgusting? Union-busting!” bounced off of the high walls and protestors got an exhilarating taste of the empowering solidarity seen in Madison, Wisconsin over the past several weeks.
As the fundraiser event was getting underway, the number of trade unionists and supporters outside the building swelled to a thousand, forming a long picket line that stretched beyond the length of the block on 13th Street in downtown DC. Several hundred suddenly stormed the entrance, easily overwhelming security. Protestors climbed the double staircase and unfurled a banner that read “Respect Workers Rights!”
Demonstrators inside and outside cheered and declared, “This is what democracy looks like,” while a few bewildered fundraiser attendees could be seen peering over the crowd from their shadowy balcony perches a few stories above. Members and staff from a number of unions, including AFSCME, the sheet metal workers, Teamsters, firefighters, the Amalgamated Transit Union and others, chanted along with young activists holding signs that invoked the traditional axiom of the labor movement: an injury to one is an injury to all.
A number of Wisconsin natives, including two high school girls, spoke through a bullhorn to the crowd occupying the building, thanking DC workers for standing with their brothers and sisters in Wisconsin. Others who spoke praised efforts to recall the GOP senators in Wisconsin and some called for more planning around escalating tactics to include job actions and strikes.
Joslyn Williams, president of the Metropolitan Washington Council of the AFL-CIO, emceed the rally inside and called the liberated space in the building “the hallowed ground of the middle class,” which he dubbed “Freedom Central.”
After an hour of raising hell in the building, Williams led the crowd back outside, chanting “We’ll be back.” But the bold demonstration – which was organized by the AFL-CIO, Moveon.org, International Socialist Organization and Public Citizen – did not end there. When the hundreds inside reunited with the hundreds more still picketing outside, protesters spontaneously took over the street in front of the building during the peek of rush hour traffic.
Protestors disrupting traffic is hardly a remarkable occurrence in DC, but this was not just a group of ragtag anarchists and radicals. Most of the people who took control of the busy street were union members and local labor leaders who rallied around a circle of youth banging drums as they danced and chanted “Who’s got the power? We got the power! What kind of power? Union power!”
The energy pulsing through the throng of demonstrators was electric. Police squad cards largely yielded to the momentum of the crowd which then held an unpermitted and impromptu march to the White House. There, workers expressed their frustration with President Obama’s failure to support workers under attack in Wisconsin and other states – it appears that no one at the White House can find that comfortable pair of shoes that candidate Obama said he would put on before joining workers on the picket line.
Not content with having given a piece of their minds to the president and Governor Walker’s co-conspirators in the Wisconsin state senate, protesters left the White House and paid a visit to the anti-union forces at the US Chamber of Commerce just across the street. A brief and daring occupation in the lobby of that building ended quickly before workers marched back to the fundraiser and rallied outside late into the evening.
Given the defensive crouch that the labor movement has been in for decades, such audacious actions like these are extraordinary. Perhaps not since the days of the global justice movement have we seen direct actions like these organized by liberals, unions and radicals working side by side. But then again, these are extraordinary times – or “the new normal,” as the president calls it.
Wednesday’s protest by local labor unions and supporters was a reminder that the enormous display of resistance and worker solidarity in Wisconsin – which has put that state at the center of the political map in the fight against budget cuts and union-busting – is now a national affair. And it’s just a small example of what labor can do when unions mobilize their numbers to make their presence felt on the street and in the workplace.
With news on Friday that a Wisconsin judge has issued a temporary restraining order blocking the anti-union law rammed through the state’s legislature last week, the fight remains urgent. And along with all the other urgent work that must be done – including job actions, recall efforts and strikes where appropriate – the labor movement needs to see actions like the one on Wednesday in DC as part of its overall comeback strategy. It must also join with other forces calling for the one solution to budget crises that doesn’t take so much from those who have so little: tax the rich.
Wherever the Wisconsin GOP lawmakers go, whatever other out-of-state corporate fundraiser they find themselves at next, working people must make sure that these union-busters do not feel homesick.
The proud, enraged spirit of Madison must follow them everywhere they go.
BRIAN TIERNEY is a labor journalist in Washington, DC.
First published at The Progressive