10 Years After Wisconsin’s Act 10 Sparked Capitol Protests

How the law still plays an active role in the new school year

Madison, WI – Ten years ago, labor organizers rallied their workforces and thousands of allies to make their voices heard around the world. In February 2011, the Wisconsin State Capitol drew international headlines and hundreds of thousands of protesters as a then-newly-inaugurated Republican governor, Scott Walker, promoted a bill that would, among other things, disintegrate the collective bargaining rights of most public sector unions.

The most visible bloc of protesters were public school teachers and others in the education community.

In fact, high school students around the state staged local protests themselves, walking out of class in support of their schools and educators and often visiting the capitol to join the jam-packed coalition of labor leaders, families, and citizens reacting to the governor’s effort to cut public school funding by way of teacher compensation, expand a taxpayer-funded private school voucher program, and secure his right to do so again by weakening the workers’ unions most equipped to push back.

Ten years later, this effort — Act 10 — is still the law of the land. Students across Wisconsin are heading back to school amid a 259% increase in COVID-19 cases, on the back end of a crushing state budget tussle that left most of Wisconsin’s surplus withheld from public schools, and in a state with a Supreme Court-quashed mask mandate.

As a generation of kids has graduated and become adults in Wisconsin, Act 10 continues to bind together the goals and needs of the organizers and advocates most committed to labor and education — who don’t want another generation to graduate in the same conditions.

But the hill for those organizers is steep.

Graduating students in Wisconsin are noticeably less attracted to education today than they were before Act 10. Reports suggest that students cite a lack of interest in being associated with teaching today than they were a decade ago. Former Governor Walker has hinged much of his messaging on portraying teachers’ unions as villains, in order to pass Act 10 in 2011, to defend it in the intervening years, and to expand his influence to the national level.

And in the past year, anti-labor rhetoric has been tied to COVID-19 in ways that make advocates’, students’ and educators’ jobs harder than they already were.

As debates over masks and vaccines have turned partisan and visceral, local organizers looking to support safety measures and defend public education in the process have had to combat campaigns over 10 years in the making. Even the smallest of communities in Wisconsin have seen organizers spring up in an effort to combat anti-union and anti-public school messaging at the height of the pandemic.

Between corroding state budgets, rising needs, a pandemic, and a shrinking teacher workforce, Act 10 has left its mark on education in Wisconsin since passing in the face of massive protests a decade ago. Its anniversary highlights the immense challenges public school advocates face today.

It also underlines the fact that the persistent organizers who brought hundreds of thousands to the capitol in the dead of winter then are still hard at work today.

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