Get organized, develop alliances, and think no small thoughts.
That was the message Wisconsin activist Peter Rickman delivered to a series of Ottawa audiences on Tuesday, June 14.
A key organizer in the protests that shut down the Wisconsin state capitol and garnered international headlines, 29-year-old Rickman spoke at an event organized by CUPE 4600, CUPE 2626, and Campus United at Carleton University, and then again at the Public Service Alliance of Canada building that evening.
The timing of his message was appropriate, given the Harper government’s willingness to use heavy-handed legislation to interfere in labour disputes.
When it happens, you’ve got to be organized
Rickman told his audiences that the protests in Wisconsin didn’t just develop spontaneously. There was a strong foundation of organization between students and workers groups in place leading up to the critical mass—when Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker introduced the Budget Repair Bill that, Rickman said represented “a full frontal assault on the labour movement.”
For Rickman, it began on November 12, 2010 with what he described as a long conversation with one of his mentors, a former professor and activist who had a message for Rickman. His mentor said to him that Wisconsin workers weren’t in a position to fight back on their own.
“He told me that if there was going to be a real fight back … it was going to come from the campuses,” said Rickman. The conversation gave him the push he needed to begin a new movement on campus—and he set out to do it the next day.
“We built an alliance, not a coalition” said Rickman, pausing to emphasize the difference. “A coalition, in my mind, takes on one fight, one campaign at a time, and can get people aligned just where their interests overlap. We built a student-worker alliance on our campus starting on November 13, knowing there was going to be a proposal to privatize our university, knowing there was going to be a proposal to take away our collective bargaining rights.”
The threat of privatization on campus and in the broader public sector, attacks on collective bargaining rights, and attacks on pensions and health care all became part of the common framework Rickman and other activists used to develop these key alliances.
Organizing the old-fashioned way
Rickman and his campus colleagues set towork on a campaign, I (heart) UW, in support of better funding for higher education in Wisconsin.
However, despite the now-common perception that organizing and political action ought to have a strong online presence, the I (heart) UW campaign took shape through a more classic means: on campus, in student offices, with a photocopier and a phone bank. Rather than looking to email lists, Twitter and Facebook, Rickman said they drew their inspiration from a tested source: Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers.
“Facebook and Twitter are just a tool” said Rickman. They can be used very effectively to support traditional organizing, but nothing tops one-to-one communication.
He cited an example from an interview he’d seen with Chavez about how he managed to organize one of the most dispersed groups of workers in the U.S. Chavez’s answer was simple. “First you talk to one person. Then you talk to another. Then you talk to another.”
Rickman and his fellow activists relied on the idea of building a common framework where people would get behind broader issues, rather than just a single focus. And they went out to speak about this broad-reaching issue with as many people as they could find.
They collected thousands of signed postcards and were prepared to march on the Wisconsin capitol to deliver them. But once word got out about Walker’s new budget bill, Rickman said a planned union meeting suddenly resulted in a very quick change of direction.
“Because we had built, over the months preceding, a student-worker alliance that had … a shared vision for what we were doing… on the night that we heard about this we changed approaches,” explained Rickman.
“It was a very unanimous decision and a very enthusiastic decision to immediately shift the event … from an event about higher education funding to one about … workers rights. And we set about mobilizing people we’d been organizing for months.”
Reaction and action
Alliances already in place and with a new focus, Rickman and others turned a protest of several hundred students into something much larger.
“We turned out thousands of people and marched on the governor’s office. We packed the capitol,” explained Rickman. “We jammed the hallway and there was this huge media frenzy.”
But the media wasn’t simply interested in the occupation of the capitol. A large part of the story was the surprise that a protest about public worker rights had been led first and foremost by student activists.
“This just blew the minds of so many people in the United States and in Wisconsin and in our community that someone would fight for what they saw as someone else’s fight.”
The fact that students were leading the protest changed the tone of the coverage. It demonstrated the power of different groups of people with different interests coming together, because they saw how their causes were linked.
It wasn’t long before word spread and support rushed in. Thousands more would join, surrounding the capitol, while inside, Republican lawmakers began to worry about the strength of the protests and decided to cut mandatory hearings on the bill short. Luckily, Rickman and others reacted quickly.
“I ran around the capital saying, ‘Sit down! Sit down! We’re not leaving! We’re not leaving!’” Rickman told the audience.
“We staged what I’d like to call a sit-down strike for democracy, for workers rights… We said we’re not leaving until everyone gets to talk, until people know how terrible this bill is for every single working family across the state of Wisconsin.
“And we didn’t leave for 17 days.”
Support poured in from all over the world. People travelled great distances to join the protests. Others sent cash. Food donations came from seven different continents. One pizza delivery came from a stunned driver, who said the order had been called in from Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt.
Despite massive public outcry against the bill, Governor Walker and his Republican majority eventually managed to force the bill through, but not before the world took notice of what was happening.
The work continues, organizing never stops
From the protest emerged a viral video, and then a coalition effort called We are Wisconsin, which remains a powerful force in the ongoing struggle. The group is building the groundwork to recall the governor and other politicians who’ve shown such a disregard for working Wisconsin families.
The fight goes on in Wisconsin, but it may be just beginning here in Canada. Harper’s new majority government has already shown a serious disregard for workers’ rights just months into their new term. Stronger tactics are sure to come. If there’s a lesson to take from Wisconsin, it’s that it takes a foundation of strong organization and alliances to make a statement—and the will to make it happen.
“There’s a phrase I like to use; think no small thoughts,” Rickman told his audience. “We said, ‘you know what? We’re going to build a movement, and we’re going to do it right here. And we took ourselves seriously.’”
Just a few months later, the rest of the world did too.
Wisconsin still needs your help! The push for recall elections in the state is in full swing. We Are Wisconsin is accepting donations and looking for volunteers to help with the cause.