March 2011 Issue • Volume 39 • Issue 3

download pdfDownload full issue pdf

Tell me what Democracy looks like

Sociologists remain active in the fight for union rights
in Wisconsin and beyond.

Wisconsin collage

Sociologists have been involved in a remarkable protest at the Wisconsin state Capitol over the past month. They have been helping to organize protestors, donating money, and even flying out to attend what Myra Marx Ferree, University of Wisconsin, referred to as a "Wisconsin-nice demonstration." The focus of the protest is a piece of contentious legislation initially proposed by Governor Scott Walker on February 14, 2011. According to Walker, the legislation is necessary to cap an expected $137 million state budget shortfall. The measure would, in part, strip faculty at all campuses of the right to form a union as well as all collective bargaining rights. Most state, county, and municipal workers would be stripped of collective bargaining rights (except for bargaining for wages held under a cap set by the inflation rate) and unions would lose the ability to collect dues.

"For a protest, this was amazingly low key and friendly," said Jennifer Glass, University of Iowa. "These were mostly middle-class, middle-aged people, many toting children and sharing sidewalks with firefighters and police officers who had joined them in the fight against Walker’s legislation. Inside the Capitol everything was peaceful and friendly as well."

wisconsin state capitol

For more than three weeks, and in spite of the bitter Wisconsin cold, protesters in support of teachers and other city employees, wearing Packers or Badgers sweatshirts and ‘cheese heads’, have occupied the state Capitol or carried signs of protest outside of the building for an eight block radius. At the height of the protest, there were, by some estimates, close to 100,000 people in attendance, many chanting, "What does Democracy look like? This is what Democracy looks like!" and "We are Wisconsin!" To give that number perspective, the population of Madison is estimated at 235,000. Noted by Ferree and Glass, it was a community-wide mobilization that gave those in attendance a feeling of support.

Before the legislation was even proposed, TAA, the union that represents teaching assistants, was organizing to protest expected cuts to public university funding in Walker’s "budget repair bill." Because they already had a social network presence and had created signs saying "I ♥ UW", they helped to generate a sizable turnout to the first protest. "The TAA was just marvelous," said Ferree. "Passions here are running high, the TAA is helping to keep everyone peaceful and nonthreatening. They were organized, calming, and quick to set up a PayPal account for donations." The donations from people from every state and 20 countries bought pizzas and later fresh fruit from local coops.

Bad News, Good News

wisconsin protests

Fourteen Democrat state senators (referred to as the Fab 14) fled to Illinois in protest of the proposed legislation. A legislative committee broke a stalemate that had kept the law in limbo for weeks when they met without the 24-hour notice required by Wisconsin’s open meetings law. The Republican-controlled Legislature passed the measure and Walker signed it March 11. At the time of publication a Wisconsin judge had just issued a temporary restraining order blocking the state’s new collective bargaining law from taking effect.

For more information, see the UW Faculty Organizing for Change Facebook page at

Back to Top of Page

Print this article discuss this article

Special Announcement:

ASA Annual Meeting Graduate School Poster Session

Back to Front Page of Footnotes | Table of Contents