With Wisconsin's Protesters: A Cold Night in Madison

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Jeffrey Phelps / AP

Protesters rest inside the State Capitol in Madison, Wis., Feb. 21, 2011.

It's 9 p.m. on Sunday night but the sound of beating drums, saxophones and maracas continue to reverberate against the Wisconsin State Capitol's stone walls. Hundreds of people are cheering and clapping from three levels above, peering down into the circular rotunda where an impromptu 50-person band plays. Black-clad Wisconsin state troopers keep watch. The siege of Madison, Wisconsin goes on, with the protesters—teachers, union organizers and their supporters—preparing for the long haul as they bring the weight of mass protests against Wisconsin's Republican governor budget slashing agenda. It is the third day of demonstrations in what may turn out to be long, cold campaign.

The chanting and playing continues for another hour on Sunday night and then the protesters begin creating makeshift beds out of blankets, thin air mattresses and winter coats. The hallways are full of people trudging around with food, sleeping bags and other supplies. The marble and granite floors are cold. Volunteers wander throughout the night picking up trash. The bathrooms remain clean. Surprisingly there's very little sound of cell phones ringing. Meanwhile, the power to the elevators has been cut off. The capitol doors are locked. If anyone leaves they aren't allowed to return until eight the next morning. Rumors of eviction from the capitol spread through out the night.

The thousands that had swelled the capitol during the day have filtered down to a few hundred. (The Tea Party counter-protesters are nowhere in sight.) But the homemade signs, which state troopers had forced protesters to take down earlier, have returned and cover much of the capitol. "Don't penalize the working class," "This is a peaceful protest," and "We should invest in children, not corporate tax cuts." The cheering still goes up intermittently in the hallways until after 1 a.m. Even at 4 a.m., some protesters are still up, discussing strategy and goals in small groups.

Since the new Republican governor, Scott Walker, proposed and, on Feb. 11, tried to quickly pass an aggressive anti-union bill that would slash collective bargaining rights as well as pay and benefits, confusion has swept a state known as the birthplace of such unions as the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFCSME). Wisconsin was also the first state in the country to enact unemployment and worker's compensation legislation. "This is a personal attack, not only on history, but the livehood of working class families," says Bill Schuwulst, 39, of Milwaukee whose father belonged to a brewmaster union. "This is about keeping a 40-hour work week so parents can take their kids to a ballgame and not have to work a second job."

The capitol late Sunday night is a mix of college students, teachers, prison guards and firemen as well as the unemployed, private and public union members and professionals. Among them is John Hendrick, 57, the First Vice-Chair for the Dane County Board of Supervisors, the county in which Madison is located. Instead of sleeping at home on a "comfy queen-sized bed" he's opted to crash in the capitol with his two daughters, Rowan Viva, 26, who flew in from Austin, Texas, and Megan, 29. "I've done this once before," says John Hendrick with a laugh. "Only on the capitol lawn in the 1970s to protest the Vietnam War."

Originally Megan Hendrick was going to fly to Texas to visit her older sister, a student at University of Texas, for some much needed sunshine. But once the protest started, she got a refund on her ticket and sent the money to her younger sister to fly into Chicago. Compared to the warmth of Texas, "it sucks," Rowan Hendrick says. "But it is worth it. This is a historic event and I wanted to be a part of it. People need to be heard and be a part of the democratic process."

"I saw on Facebook they needed bodies," says Kira Bailes , 42, a Madison mother of two. Her eight-year old roamed the halls passing out organic lollipops. Nearby is Mike Ketchpaw, 22, an assistant manager at Jimmy John's who is handing out miniature sandwiches. Many check for updates on their phones. Supporters in countries from Egypt to Denmark and almost every state in country have donated to money Ian's pizza, located a block from the capitol, which has then sent the protesters free pies.

The confrontation had started with the Teaching Assistants Association Union. It had already planned a "Don't Break My Heart" demonstration for Valentine's day, Feb. 14, to ask Gov. Walker not to slash funds for the University of Wisconsin. About a thousand members of the union converged on the capitol to deliver Valentine's Day cards signed by citizens demanding that Walker desist from the budget cuts. They were additionally motivated by Walker's introduction of the controversial Special Session Bill on Friday Feb. 11. That put in motion a legislative procedure that literally set the stage for protests: citizens being allowed to deliver two-minute public testimony before the finance committee all day Valentine's day until 3 a.m. Feb. 15. Meanwhile, Democratic senators went into hiding in Illinois to prevent the formation of the necessary quorum to vote on the bill on Feb. 22.

Many union members are concerned that Walker's bill is just the start an attempt to turn Wisconsin into a right-to-work state. Right-to-work supporters say such legislation would protect the right of individual employees to make choices free of the decisions of labor unions; opponents say it would decrease the rights of workers as a whole by virtually outlawing collective bargaining through unions. "This is about our ability to join together and improve our condition," says Andy Olson, who spent the night in the capitol and once worked for former Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson's Alternative Fields Task Force. "Tommy Thompson [a Republican] was willing to negotiate. Walker has no sign of doing that. It's his way or nothing."

Walker's legislation would limit collective bargaining strictly to wages in an attempt to gain control of the huge legacy issues (pensions and health benefits) that are threatening state budgets in Wisconsin. How the state deals with the crisis—and confronts the public outcry — may be a bellweather for the rest of the country.

"It's not just about the money," says David Pederson, 20, a student at Minneapolis Technical College who came in from Minnesota to join the protests. He has volunteered for Services Employees International Union (SEIU) in the past. "It's about being able to keep a safe working environment, being able to have days off and being treated when something happens. No one realizes they need these rights until their legs are cut off in an accident."

With 40% of teachers calling in sick as part of the campaign against Walker's bill, school is out for most kids — resulting in some parental frustration. Shala Werner, 38, the Wisconsin State chapter president of the Sierra Club, is unhappy that her five-year-old son, Darwin, is missing schoo but she sees the importance in what teachers are doing and has begun babysitting the kids of friends who are growing impatient with state school closings. "We will lose everything if we don't have collective bargaining, if we go back to business as usual," says Werner, 38. "It's a huge game of chicken. Everyone is waiting for the other to blink."