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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