Ten years ago this month, in February 2011, Governor Scott Walker and the Wisconsin Legislature proposed Act 10, also known as the Wisconsin Budget Repair Bill, which effectively ended collective bargaining rights for public sector employees (with the exception of police and fire unions), and significantly weakened union power. To commemorate the 10th anniversary of the massive protests against Act 10 and explore the anti-worker effects of the law, we interviewed Susan Ruggles, a retired member of the American Federation of Teachers Local 212 in Milwaukee and a photojournalist who took part in the demonstrations against the bill as an activist and photographer. Ruggles shared her experience of the protests and her thoughts on the legacy of Act 10, labor issues facing teachers and unions today, the late activist and singer Anne Feeney, and much more.
What drew you to Madison to join the mass protests against Act 10, and what was your experience like?
When Walker dropped the Act 10 “bomb”, we saw it as a direct attack on our union, and on the rights of all public employees in the state. Our AFT Local 212 executive board at Milwaukee Area Technical College (MATC) voted to mobilize our members and organize buses to Madison. We were there that first week, and watched in amazement as the numbers of protestors grew to tens of thousands. Schools and universities shut down, and students marched with us. Firefighters and police joined us, even though they were exempt from Act 10. Richard Trumka from the AFL-CIO and Rev. Jesse Jackson spoke to huge rallies. It was inspiring! Some of our members camped out at the Capitol overnight to testify at public hearings on the bill that went on until the wee hours. Our union also worked with the Milwaukee Area Labor Council, the MTEA, the NAACP, and other community groups to organize solidarity rallies in Milwaukee. We support we received was just overwhelming. By the second week, we participated in a march and rally of 100,000 at the Capitol, in the middle of a snowstorm! Every union in the state was there. The news had gone national, so we had support from all over the country. Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul and Mary sang union songs, and Bradley Whitford from “The West Wing” brought a message of solidarity from the Screen Actors Guild. For some of our younger members, and for the students who supported us, it was their first experience as activists, and it left a lasting impression. For me, it was a powerful affirmation of what we as working people can accomplish when we stick together and organize to defend our rights.
As a photojournalist, how did covering and capturing images of that historic moment compare to your other work in that role, before or after?
I was the staff photographer at MATC for 25 years, but always considered myself a photojournalist at heart. I used my camera to support social justice movements in Milwaukee — peace, labor, immigrant rights, racial and gender equality, and the environment. I also freelanced for Rethinking Schools and the Shepherd Express. When Act 10 happened, I became one of the labor movement’s “official” photographers. I had seen a lot of big demonstrations, including protests in D.C. and at the State Capitol, but nothing quite like this. It was like being in the middle of a whirlwind, with events every day, and huge mobilizations on the weekend. It was exhausting, but also exhilarating. We were making history, and I was determined to cover every aspect of it. Even though I’ve retired, I remain active to this day. Now I share my photos and video of Day Without Latinos, Women’s March, and Black Lives Matter events on social media. I believe that many of these movements drew their inspiration from Act 10 protests.
Ten years after Act 10, what has been the legacy of that law? What about the legacy of former Governor Scott Walker, who overcame a recall attempt and then rode his fame to unsuccessfully run for the GOP nomination for President in 2016?
Wisconsin was the first state in the nation to pass a collective bargaining law for public employees back in 1959. But Act 10 decimated the union movement in Wisconsin, along with our progressive tradition. By taking away our right to organize, Act 10 struck a blow against public schools. As teachers’ wages fell, and the work environment became more difficult, the quality of education suffered. Many teachers and support staff retired early, moved, or left the profession entirely. Public employee unions had their contracts thrown out, and were forced to hold membership drives and annual recertification elections. Our union, AFT Local 212 at MATC, survived mostly intact, thanks to strong leadership and an active rank-and-file. But many unions simply failed, and union membership fell across the board. Walker admitted that his intention with Act 10 was to “divide and conquer,” and in that he succeeded. He topped off his anti-union agenda with a “right to work” law that took away the rights of private sector workers as well. But Walker ultimately failed the people of Wisconsin. Act 10 left of trail of destruction across the state, including depressed wages, increased inequality, reduced access to health care and public services, and a deep and lasting political polarization. Walker’s actions sparked a recall campaign in which more than a million people signed petitions. Even though he survived that recall and won again in 2014, his political fortunes fizzled after that. Walker’s presidential bid never took off, and he got voted out of office in 2018.
How do you respond to those who protested Act 10 but call the uprising inconsequential for not succeeding in stopping the bill?
The protests against Act 10 may have failed in their immediate aim to kill the bill, but they launched a powerful movement. Tens of thousands of people learned the value of organization and solidarity, and stayed active in their communities. Unions developed new tactics and overcome huge obstacles to reorganize themselves. Since 2018, we’ve seen a wave of strikes as public school educators fight for funding and smaller class sizes. The #RedforEd movement really took off, and it paved the way for walkouts and protests during the pandemic. All this organizing has paid off, since Gov. Evers is now proposing rollbacks in Act 10. This sets up a fight with the legislature, with the outcome uncertain. But community support for teachers and healthcare workers has never been higher — especially during a pandemic. The tide may finally be turning in our favor.
Do you think the 2011 Madison protests against Act 10 can be placed as part of other economic populist uprisings that followed in the past decade, such as Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, the George Floyd protests of 2020, and worker activism during the pandemic?
Absolutely! The protests against Act 10 rolled directly into the Occupy movement, which used many of the same tactics. Occupy Milwaukee overlapped with the recall campaign in Wisconsin. “We are the 99%” rallies and marches demanded money for jobs, education, and health care as a right. Many of the organizers went on to become leaders at the state and national level in the struggles that followed. The culture of activism and political engagement continues to this day in Immigrant Rights, Women’s March, Black Lives Matter and Fight for $15. All of these social justice issues have taken on new urgency during the pandemic.
As a member of the American Federation of Teachers at the time, what is your sense of the labor issues facing teachers and unions today? Where do they go from here?
Unions are in an organizing and rebuilding stage, and their efforts are especially critical now, as we battle a pandemic. Community support for teachers, health care workers, and unions is increasing, because people see what an essential role they play. Teachers unions are demanding a seat at the table to decide when schools can reopen safely for in-person instruction. Public schools need the resources, safety protocols, and vaccines to protect teachers, staff, and students. Increasing the minimum wage, expanding access to healthcare, paid sick leave, affordable child care, addressing the student debt crisis, fixing our infrastructure, and protecting the rights of students — these are all union issues. By taking on these fights, we can strengthen our communities, build resiliency, and improve the lives of all working people.
You knew the legendary labor and folk singer-songwriter Anne Feeney, who died this month of COVID. She took part in the Madison protests to lead the crowd in a stirring rendition of “Solidarity Forever” inside the state Capitol. In a recent piece, journalist John Nichols called her “the greatest of the musicians” to show up for the uprising. Tell us about Anne and how we should remember her.
Anne Feeney was a fighter, a fierce defender of the rights of workers. She gave up a career as a lawyer to tour the country and the world singing labor songs. She was there to lend her support and lift the spirits of whatever movement or cause needed her help. I first met her at a Workers Memorial Day event in Milwaukee, when she sang “Solidarity Forever” at Zeidler Union Square Park. The Wisconsin Committee on Occupational Safety and Health (WisCOSH) invited her back for a return engagement later that year. Then we ran into her again at the massive protests against the Free Trade Area of the Americas (FTAA) in Miami in 2003, where we all braved tear gas and risked arrest. Anne Feeney risked arrest again at the Act 10 Solidarity Sing-Along in Madison. “Have You Been to Jail for Justice?” was her anthem, and she practiced what she preached. I would have loved to see her perform that day. I never really got to know her personally, but Anne was a union sister all the same. She seemed to be everywhere, like the legendary Joe Hill. “Where working folks defend their rights, it’s there you’ll find Anne Feeney.” That’s as true now as it ever was, because she inspired a generation of activists, and her songs live on.
Interview by Adam Schendel. Email questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. Top image of the 2011 protests in Madison by Justin Ormont/CC BY-SA 3.0