Women and Power in the Wisconsin Uprising

Photo courtesy of Peter Patau.

When Wisconsin governor Scott Walker opened his assault on collective bargaining in February 2011, few people realized it would open the door to the election of Tammy Baldwin to the U.S. Senate in November 2012. Baldwin, the first woman to represent Wisconsin in the Senate and the first openly gay senator in U.S. history, had been backed by many women’s organizations since her first run for Congress in 1998, but Walker’s successful attempt to roll back the collective bargaining rights of 360,000 public sector workers brought together an unprecedented coalition of labor and women’s groups.

Walker’s bill, WI Act 10, exempted some unions—those of safety workers, the police, state troopers, and firefighters—whose members were mainly men. Instead, it focused on unions where women predominated—teachers, health workers, and public sector clerical workers. Nationally, by 2011, women represented 57 percent of the public-sector work force. Over 80 percent of teachers, nationally and in Wisconsin, were female, and 90 percent at the elementary level were women. In 2010, there were 54,510 registered nurses employed in Wisconsin; 95 percent of them were women.

Women unionists quickly took their place at the forefront of the WI Uprising. The president of the WI branch of the National Education Association, the Wisconsin Education Association Council, set up a phone bank and email system and reached out to other unions, including those in the private sector. The Association of Federal, State, County, and Municipal Employees, representing 68,000 members, started running busses to Madison from distant parts of the state. Meanwhile, Madison Teachers Inc. (MTI), the city’s major union in education, considered its options. On Wednesday, February 16, about half of Madison 4,700 teachers called in “sick.”

The teachers—as well as health workers—objected most strenuously to the de facto destruction of their power to negotiate other terms of their contracts, as had been the case for decades: workplace issues such curriculum, class size, schedules, support staff—in short, the daily life of the classroom.

Huge contingents of students showed up, not so much college students as middle- and high-school students. They marched miles to the Capitol Square, interspersing chants of “We are the students, the mighty, mighty students” with cries of “Union Power.”

Alongside the unions, members of women’s organizations entered the fray. Prominent was Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin, which early on recognized Walker’s longstanding opposition to reproductive rights. Amanda Harrington, the organization’s media relations person, had reviewed Walker’s nine-year record as a member of the Wisconsin Assembly and correctly concluded that he would act aggressively to show “across the board opposition to women’s health” and fulfill his long-standing anti-choice agenda. She was joined by members of the Wiscons...

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The Kurds

[W]hen we refer to all Kurdish fighters synonymously, we simply blur the fact that they have very different politics. . . right now, yes, the people are facing the Islamic State threat, so it’s very important to have a unified focus. But the truth is, ideologically and politically these are very, very different systems. Actually almost opposite to each other. —Dilar Dirik, “Rojava vs. the World,” February 2015

The Kurds, who share ethnic and cultural similarities with Iranians and are mostly Muslim by religion (largely Sunni but with many minorities), have long struggled for self-determination. After World War I, their lands were divided up between Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Turkey. In Iran, though there have been small separatist movements, Kurds are mostly subjected to the same repressive treatment as everyone else (though they also face Persian and Shi’ite chauvinism, and a number of Kurdish political prisoners were recently executed). The situation is worse in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey, where the Kurds are a minority people subjected to ethnically targeted violations of human rights.  

Iraq: In 1986–89, Saddam Hussein conducted a genocidal campaign in which tens of thousands were murdered and thousands of Kurdish villages destroyed, including by bombing and chemical warfare. After the first Gulf War, the UN sought to establish a safe haven in parts of Kurdistan, and the United States and UK set up a no-fly zone. In 2003, the Kurdish peshmerga sided with the U.S.-led coalition against Saddam Hussein. In 2005, after a long struggle with Baghdad, the Iraqi Kurds won constitutional recognition of their autonomous region, and the Kurdistan Regional Government has since signed oil contracts with a number of Western oil companies as well as with Turkey. Iraqi Kurdistan has two main political parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), both clan-based and patriarchal.

Turkey: For much of its modern history, Turkey has pursued a policy of forced assimilation towards its minority peoples; this policy is particularly stringent in the case of the Kurds—until recently referred to as the “mountain Turks”—who make up 20 percent of the total population. The policy has included forced population transfers; a ban on use of the Kurdish language, costume, music, festivals, and names; and extreme repression of any attempt at resistance. Large revolts were suppressed in 1925, 1930, and 1938, and the repression escalated with the formation of the PKK as a national liberation party, resulting in civil war in the Kurdish region from 1984 to 1999.

Syria: Kurds make up perhaps 15 percent of the population and live mostly in the northeastern part of Syria. In 1962, after Syria was declared an Arab republic, a large number of Kurds were stripped of their citizenship and declared aliens, which made it impossible for them to get an education, jobs, or any public benefits. Their land was given to Arabs. The PYD was founded in 2003 and immediately banned; its members were jailed and murdered, and a Kurdish uprising in Qamishli was met with severe military violence by the regime. When the uprising against Bashar al Assad began as part of the Arab Spring, Kurds participated, but after 2012, when they captured Kobani from the Syrian army, they withdrew most of their energy from the war against Assad in order to set up a liberated area. For this reason, some other parts of the Syrian resistance consider them Assad’s allies. The Kurds in turn cite examples of discrimination against them within the opposition.