No Concessions Protest Jazzes Up Madison

Challenging the Wisconsin governor's anti-union measures and service cuts, and also concessions offered by public sector union leaders, thousands of protesters joined a jazz funeral march to the Madison statehouse. Photo: NNU.

Wisconsin showed its lively protest colors March 3 with 7,000 protesters joining a jazz funeral march to the Madison statehouse.

The action challenged not only Governor Scott Walker’s anti-union measures and service cuts but also the concessions offered by public sector union leaders.

Jazz funeral marches are a New Orleans tradition, complete with brass bands. In Madison, death was represented by the countless social service cuts planned by the governor. The state budget Walker introduced last week contained $1.5 billion in cuts to education and local government, and could throw 70,000 people off Medicaid rolls.

The funeral march featured protesters draped in black shawls and coffins carried by pallbearers wearing top hats. A brass band played Dixieland jazz.

Soon after Walker announced his “budget repair” bill February 11, leaders of the statewide teachers union (WEAC), AFSCME, and the Service Employees publicly agreed to accept Walker’s health and pension takeaways—an 8 percent pay cut. As WEAC President Mary Bell explained: “We are prepared to implement the financial concessions proposed to help our state in these tough times. But educators will not allow their voices to be silenced by denying their right to be part of a real union.”

The offer seemed a hurried “public relations” response to the governor, made without consulting members.

A no-concessions meeting organized by the National Nurses Union February 27 had drawn 70 attendees and a panel of speakers that included two prominent Madison-area labor leaders, Jim Cavanaugh, president of the South Central Federation of Labor, and J. Eric Cobb, Building Trades Council executive director.

Participants said benefits takeaways and Walker’s sweeping cuts to social services should be opposed with the same vigor that labor opposed the removal of collective bargaining rights.

Out of the meeting, a committee planned the “no concessions, no cuts” march four days later.

Barbara Smith, a state employee who works on energy efficiency, said the “no concessions” theme has struck a chord with the rank and file. The march turnout was one indicator: it was planned with only a couple days’ lead time.

“It was so big I never actually saw the coffins, and I could barely hear the band,” said Smith, a member of Wisconsin Professional Employees Council/AFT Local 4848.

The “no cuts, no concessions” group planned further actions at a Sunday night meeting.

They had a lot to talk about: Walker has threatened to lay off 1,500 state workers if his bills slashing social spending and attacking collective bargaining aren’t passed.

The state has sent 30-day layoff notices to the unions of all state employees. Smith describes the notice as a “vague statement saying the state’s planning to lay off workers in that bargaining unit.”

If Walker actually goes through with the layoffs, individual workers will get an “at risk” notice 14 days ahead of the layoff, Smith said, adding that management has used these “at risk” notices effectively in recent years to intimidate people into retiring or leaving voluntarily.

“Often they are handed out in a discriminatory way to the most senior workers,” she said. “The union stewards try to tell workers they should not get intimidated because senior workers have bumping rights and can push the layoff to less senior people in their job classification. But many workers bolt anyway.”

Wisconsin's Department of Employee Trust Funds, which counsels state workers on retirement options, says it handled 5,500 calls last week, five times more than normal.