The View From Inside the Wisconsin State Capitol

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MADISON -- "I am suffering from audio nausea from all these drums and shouting. I am on overload. I'm exhausted," sighed 42-year-old AFSCME staff representative Edward Sadlowski. The Wisconsin Local 40 member had been sleeping on the cold marble floor of the Wisconsin state Capitol in Madison for over a week when I caught up with him. "I can barely hear, talk, or see straight," he said. "However, I am loving every moment of it and wouldn't want to be anywhere else."

Sadlowski's comments sum up what it has been like to be in the Capitol as pro-union protesters occupy it for the second week in a row. Amid the noise and confusion, it's also been an exhilarating experience for its many of its participants, who feel they have found their collective voices in the banging of drums and singing of "Solidarity Forever." Others -- mainly younger -- feel like they are discovering who they are as they converse with the like-minded strangers who have thronged the halls and rotunda of the Capitol.

"My father always said during a strike is when we would rebuild the labor movement," said Sadlowski, a veteran organizer whose father famously vied to head the United Steelworkers of America in the late '70s. "We are proving it right here."

Older union organizers have been sharing their experiences organizing in the workplace with students who have never engaged with the labor movement before. Some youngsters have been so inspired that they are talking about dedicating their lives to it.

"Everyday I come down here I just feel like we are winning," said Andrew Cole, who is in his twenties. "We are just a bunch of people standing around a Capitol talking together and singing songs, but through this collective voice we have been able to define the national debate about unions."

Likewise, young and optimistic organizers have been giving older ones, beaten down by years of anti-union actions, new ideas -- and new hope that it might be possible to rebuild the much-decimated labor movement.

Sadlowski has served as a bridge between the two groups, often coordinating communication among protesters occupying the Capitol. "I think what we created here is the first true labor temple" he said. "Coming down to the Capitol is a lot like coming to church. It's rejuvenating; it's a spiritual experience for a lot of people."

But unlike a church, where people go home at night, hundreds of protesters have turned the Capitol into their temporary home. People have been sleeping there overnight since Tuesday Feb. 15. They eat meals there, and go to nearby houses and dormitories to take showers.

In the early days, the Capitol occupation was almost entirely coordinated by the Teaching Assistant's Association, the union of teaching assistants at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. But other unions have become more involved in occupying the Capitol since, organizing groups to clean the building and provide food and supplies for people camping out there. Local pizza businesses have been experiencing a mini-boom as people from all over the country and even the world have called in delivery orders for the protesters, while Midwestern grandmothers with thick Wisconsin accents stop by to deliver trays of food cooked at home. In one back hallway, you can find tables full of food as well as boxes of donated supplies like toilet paper, water, toothbrushes, soap, spare hats, scarves, and gloves that are free to take. This level of organization is what has made it sustainable for hundreds of people to more or less live in the capitol building of a major Midwestern state.

Activities have been organized to create a festive environment. There are bands and drum circles that play throughout the day. People put on street theater performances and organize arts and crafts projects. One night I spotted a group of women knitting. Another night, a group of people doing meditation.

When everyone goes to bed, you can walk around the Capitol and find young college couples cuddling and kissing in one corner, while families with children bed down for the night in another.

The presence of blue collar workers in the Capitol has made it more difficult for Republican Gov. Scott Walker or Capitol Police to kick protesters out. "Each night one union will take a shift and send down a hundred of its member to sleep in the Capitol. One day the firefighters will come, the next the construction unions," said Sadlowski. "The labor movement understand they have to stand in solidarity with the young people who started this occupation."

"In a struggle such as this, we have proven that numbers and masses determine what happens," said Dave Pokilinski, president of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 2304. His union is planning to stay in the building Saturday night, when some of the rooms being occupied will be become contested territory and protesters risk being kicked out.

As the political stalemate deepens in Wisconsin -- and the size of protests dampens -- the political importance of occupying the Capitol has risen. Teachers who were out on strike for the first few days of the protest have returned to the classroom, creating a sense of normalcy for most people in Wisconsin, even as the sit-in has continued.

"Right now the only thing we are disrupting is this Capitol," said Sadlowski. "As long as we hold onto this Capitol, we have a chance."

Thumbnail image credit: AP Photo/Wisconsin State Journal/M.P. King

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Mike Elk is a labor journalist and third-generation union organizer based in Washington, D.C. He writes frequently for In These Times, AlterNet, and the American Prospect. You can follow him on Twitter at @MikeElk.

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