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Ironworkers Local 383 Union member Guy Gamboeck holds an American flag as thousands of demonstrators gathered inside and outside the State Capitol building Tuesday. They were protesting a proposal by Gov. Scott Walker that would strip many powers from public employee unions. John Hart/Wisconsin State Journal

What's happening now in Wisconsin, with thousands of workers flooding the Capitol to protest Gov. Scott Walker's move to snuff the collective bargaining power of public employees, is much more than backlash against a union-busting maneuver, labor activists and their supporters said Tuesday evening at a forum at the Orpheum Theatre in downtown Madison.

It is, they insist, the first counter-strike in a class war being waged against workers.

The urgency for reform of an economic system that enriches the few from the labor of the many was a recurring theme as some 100 workers and friends gathered to pledge mutual support and strategize on how to build on the momentum loosed at the historic Capitol rally earlier in the day that drew more than 10,000 demonstrators.

Their weapons?

Protests, sit-ins, filibusters, work stoppages, boycotts of businesses that support Walker's legislation or that funded his candidacy. Civil disobedience. And most potent of all: Solidarity!

"What's happening now is political theater — let's keep it going as long as possible," said Scott Erlenborn, a Baptist pastor.

Republican leaders in the Assembly and Senate report that they have the votes to pass the governor's Budget Repair Bill, which he says is aimed at a $137 million deficit in the current fiscal year. A vote could take place as early as Thursday.

Several speakers at the Orpheum Tuesday conceded that the GOP majority has the votes to pass the bill, including Lester Pines, a Madison attorney who has represented many public workers.

"There's only one way to stop them, and I don't think that's going to happen: take over the Assembly and the Senate and don't let them come in," he said.

Even if the legislation passes, that doesn't mean the end to collective bargaining, Pines said. Workers' power to negotiate comes not from any state law recognizing them, he said. It is seized.

"The power comes from people coming together and organizing and telling employers they want to bargain."

Although touted as a budget fix, the removal of collective bargaining rights from most public workers on everything but salary, as Walker proposes, would have no impact on the deficit, Kathy Wilkes, a retired writer and editor, said in an interview. "He's demonizing workers as the cause of the economic collapse — that we know came from Wall Street and the shipping of jobs overseas — instead of talking about the corporate elite and their gargantuan salaries. This is a class war."

State Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Madison, told the crowd Tuesday that conservatives are "trying to shove this down our throats, and this is where we draw a line in the sand."

The role of social media in spreading the word about worker actions was cited by several speakers, as were websites with information backing up their arguments about the catastrophic impact of destroying public worker unions on the state's economy. University of Wisconsin-Madison sophomore Scot McCollough spoke of sending Walker copies of all the assignments produced for UW classes to give him an idea of how much work goes on there. "They are backing people into corners here," he said. "We cannot roll over. We will never give up."

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Madison ironworker Anthony Anastasi, a private sector union member, spoke to the struggle that in the last century won the rights that are now threatened for public employees. "People literally died for our rights," he said. "I want the public sector to know we have your back 110 percent."

The solidarity required to challenge the entire economic system will need to extend beyond public and private union members to the general public, activists said. Carmen Clark urged fellow union members to talk with friends and family about what the resistance to "the owning class" is about. "Many of them have unionism somewhere in their family closet," she said.

Labor activist Ron Blascoe declared that the time was right for a general strike -- a refusal to work by all public and private workers -- to pressure politicians to enact reforms. The call for such action will not come from union leadership, he predicted. "They will tell us it is too radical, but Walker's plan is too radical. This is no time to be cautious."

It's very important to enlist private sector workers, because it is their envy of the the pensions that public workers still enjoy that the right wing uses to mobilize antagonism against unions, said Earl Silbar, a Chicago labor activist. "Unless we organize inside and outside unions for a class fight, we are not going to get anywhere," he said.

The success of a grass-roots uprising in Egypt in toppling strongman Hosni Mubarak was a source of inspiration for many of those who brainstormed Tuesday in Madison about resistance to attacks on U.S. workers in several states.

It helped fire a passionate expression of solidarity by Bryan Pfeifer, an organizer of part-time faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit. "We are calling on people from throughout the Midwest to descend on Madison and make a stand. We did not create the economic crisis and we are not going to pay for it," he declared to cheers and applause.

"Fight like an Egyptian!"