Wisconsin State Senator Chris Larson (D-Milwaukee) is one of 14 Democrats hiding out in Illinois, participating in a “filibuster with our feet” to slow down the budget repair bill, which would strip collective bargaining rights from public employees, among other things. By walking out of the state, Senate Democrats have denied Republicans the 3/5 quorum needed for passing legislation with a fiscal intent. Larson and his 13 colleagues and their whereabouts have become a major part of this unfolding story, but he’d rather the focus go to the legislation on offer and the constituents out in the streets in Madison and elsewhere.

“Ever since we stepped away, there’s been a lot of attention on us,” said Larson in an interview last night from his undisclosed location in Illinois. “We’re trying to focus it back on this ridiculous legislation.”

Despite the disadvantage of being outside the state, Larson believes that he and his colleagues have been able to get their message out. “There have been huge rallies in Wisconsin. Not just in the capital, but in our districts in support of us and against this legislation,” Larson said. He believes that the stalemate has forced a spotlight on what Governor Scott Walker and his fellow Republicans have been doing since taking office. Trying to ram this budget repair bill through the legislature in a matter of days, with radio and TV ads on the air from the Club for Growth before Democrats ever got a chance to see it, is a symptom of how Walker and the Republicans, who control both houses of the legislature, have been operating.

“This has been happening since they got in there,” Larson said, referring to several bills rubber-stamped by the legislature in January, including a series of corporate tax cuts totaling over $140 million at a time when Gov. Walker and his party keep talking about a budget crisis. “Frankly, there hadn’t been much public outcry because of the Packers. People weren’t paying attention. It’s not a coincidence that it’s a week after the Super Bowl when people wake up and say, ‘what the hell is going on?’”

Contrary to the opinions of A.G. Sulzberger in an article in the New York Times today, Larson said that his constituents fully understand the difference between labor concessions on pension and health care contributions, given the tough economic and budget environment, and the stripping of virtually all collective bargaining rights. Most labor groups have agreed to the givebacks but not the loss of their bargaining rights. Larson attributes this awareness from the public to the long tradition of organized labor in the state. He cited one event in particular that sticks in the minds of Wisconsinites.

“My district is in Bay View, south of Milwaukee. A hundred and twenty-five years ago, workers there decided to strike for 8-hour workdays and weekends. They had enough of 16-hour days and poor work conditions. The governor said at the time that if they strike and march on the factory they’ll get shot. Seven people died at Bay View. We started this back then. We were the first state in the nation to provide public employee bargaining rights. The first AFSCME local is here. People get worker rights in Wisconsin.”

The Bay View massacre of 1886, coming up on its 125th anniversary on May 5, is an important corollary to what’s happening in Madison today. The striking workers spent two years building their movement for an 8-hour workday, warning noncompliant businesses that they would call a nationwide strike if they didn’t meet the demand by May 1886. When that date rolled around, labor leaders spent several days marching through Milwaukee, picking up new recruits at each factory and workplace along the way. The strikers shut down every factory in Milwaukee except for one, the North Chicago Railroad Rolling Mills Steel Foundry in Bay View. They could not get entry into Rolling Mills, and after a one-day standoff, Governor Jeremiah Rusk gave the order:

Rusk called the Mills and told Captain Treaumer of the Lincoln Guard “if the strikers try to enter the mill, shoot to kill.” Captain Treaumer then ordered his men to pick out a man, concentrate and kill him when the order is given. The strikers spent the night in open fields nearby while the Militia camps stayed at the Mills with sentries posted. During the night the sentries were shooting at anything that moved. A Navy tug brought provisions for the guard.

May 5: Around nine in the morning the strikers gathered again chanting “eight hours,” a reporter who slept with them reported that it was odd that this was a group with no real leadership, but everyone was united in one single purpose.

The crowd approached the mill and faced the militia who were ready to fire. Before Treaumer knew the crowd’s real intentions he ordered halt, but the strikers, who were about two hundred yards away, did not hear him.

He ordered the militia to fire. The crowd was in chaos as people fled the scene. The Milwaukee Journal reported that six were dead and at least eight more were expected to die within twenty four hours.

Meanwhile, some strikers called for revenge on the militia but to no avail. For several days afterwards a few strikers were still marching throughout the city but no one would join them. The dead included a thirteen year old boy who tagged along with the crowd wondering what was going on and a retired worker who lived in Bay View. He was struck down by a stray bullet, as he was getting water and was not part of the strike.

Public sympathy after the massacre (and others like it, such as the Haymarket riot in Chicago) eventually led to widespread change in Milwaukee county and city governments. Socialists were voted in during the next election in 1888. Eventually, workers won the right to an 8-hour day. They did it through collective action. These are the hard-fought rights that Gov. Walker’s measure would basically take away from public employees – the ability to bargain in their interest for appropriate pay, benefits and working conditions. These rights were won with blood.

There’s a kind of eternal recurrence here. Mike Elk reports that the Southern Central Federation of Labor, a 45,000-member AFL-CIO local in the Madison area, just endorsed a general strike if Gov. Walker signs the budget repair bill and strips worker rights. Only individual unions and not the labor federation can call a strike, so the SCFL announcement takes care to say it “begin educating affiliates and members on the organization and function of a general strike.” Many public sector unions and some construction unions could go out on strike as part of this effort.

Larson did feel a certain burden as part of the group of Senators leading what has become a nationwide effort to fight back against an assault on worker rights. The State Senate committee in Wisconsin has raised $330,000 in a matter of days in online contributions from ActBlue, thanks largely to efforts by the netroots and progressive groups. But Larson said he was trying not to let that go to his head, believing instead that he was part of a continuum with the Bay View marchers.

“People have always stood up for labor,” Larson said. “This has happened for 50 years. People have been spit on, beat up, punched, shot at for protecting their rights. We’re just one piece of that.”

He said he understood the plight of those workers who had decent wages and health insurance and a good pension, and lost it during the Great Recession. “Those people look at the public sector and their union protections. They can either say I hope everyone rises up to that level, or I hope no one does. I don’t fault people who get frustrated, but I hope they say, I don’t have that but I’d like to. The right wing’s counting on the middle class fighting amongst themselves and the rich getting richer.”

Larson continued. “Scott Walker is trying to pit the middle class against itself. If anything it’s brought the middle class together. I’m getting emails and phone calls, people stopping by my office, people who never would stop by my office, people who aren’t in unions are coming out. Walker doesn’t get it. He’s not understanding why we’re upset.”

I’ll have more from Chris Larson on some of the specifics of the bill and the negotiations in a follow-up post.