The Spirit of Wisconsin | The Nation


The Spirit of Wisconsin

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Late on a frigid Wisconsin afternoon, an hour before another of the evening demonstrations that brought thousands, then tens of thousands, then more than 100,000 public employees, teachers, students and their allies to the great square that surrounds the Capitol in Madison, Sarah Roberts was sitting in the Ancora coffee shop warming up. With her blunt-cut blond hair and hip retro glasses, the library sciences grad student looked the picture of urban cool, except perhaps for the decades-old factory ID badge bearing the image of a young man. “A few weeks ago I asked my mom, ‘What made my grandfather such a civic-minded man? Why was he always there to help someone who had lost their job? Take food to someone who couldn’t make ends meet? Serve on the City Council? What made him so incredibly engaged with his community and his state?’ Mom looked at me and she said, ‘Labor.’”

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John Nichols
John Nichols
John Nichols, a pioneering political blogger, has written the Beat since 1999. His posts have been circulated...

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So it was that the granddaughter of Willard Roberts—a forty-five-year employee and proud union man at the Monarch Range plant in the factory town of Beaver Dam—pulled out her grandpa’s ID and pinned it to her jacket when she learned that Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker was proposing to strip state, county and municipal employees and teachers of their collective bargaining rights. “This state was built by people like him; this country was built by people like him. I think we all kind of forgot that until the governor woke us up,” she said. “Walker thought he could bust the unions, privatize everything, give it all away to the corporations. But that was a great misfire. Because when he attacked the unions, he reminded us where we came from. We’re the children and grandchildren of union workers and farmers and shopkeepers. That goes deeper, way deeper, than politics. This legislation is an affront to my whole family history.”

After three decades of attacks on public sector unions, dating back at least to Ronald Reagan’s breaking of the air traffic controllers in 1981, the mass uprising against Walker’s attack has revealed a popular understanding of the necessity of the labor movement that is far richer than even the most optimistic organizer imagined. The bonds are not just economic or political; they are emotional and personal. And when the determination of corporate interests and their political pawns to destroy unions—not by slow cuts, as is so often the case, but all at once—is revealed, all that talk of building coalitions, of creating movements linking union members with those who have never joined, suddenly moves from theory to practice. Thousands of students show up for an impromptu show by rocker Tom Morello and pump their fists in the air as they shout the lyrics of union songs they are only just learning. Tens of thousands of citizens—not just public workers fearing for their livelihood but students fearing for their future and small-business owners fearing for their community—chant in unison as they rally in cities across the state, “An injury to one is an injury to all.” After we finished talking, Sarah Roberts told me she couldn’t go to the demo just yet: “I’m meeting my mom here. She’s driving in. She wanted to be here to honor her father and to stand on the side of the workers.”

The remarkable events that have transpired in Wisconsin since February 11, when Governor Walker announced he would attach proposals to a minor budget repair bill to strip away the rights of public employees and teachers to organize in the workplace and to engage in meaningful collective bargaining, have made Wisconsin, in the words of AFSCME union president Gerald McEntee, “ground zero in the fight for labor rights in the United States.” They have also created what the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who rallied more than 50,000 demonstrators on a freezing Friday night, describes as “a Martin Luther King moment” for supporters of economic and social justice. The size of the demonstrations, which have filled the central square of this capital city in much the way that demonstrators filled Tahrir Square in Cairo just weeks earlier, has focused more attention on an American labor struggle than has been seen in decades. This struggle—all but certain to see legislative disappointments, legal challenges and dramatic electoral twists and turns before it is done—raises key questions about whether mass movements can forge not only a new and better economy but a new and better politics. Walker will get his way on some issues—too many issues. But that’s not the most important story out of Wisconsin. The most vital story is the one that people on both sides of this struggle least expected: after years of efforts by unions to rebrand and reposition themselves as “partners” and “constructive collaborators” with employers, many Americans still recognize that perhaps the most important role of the labor movement is as a countervailing force not just in the workplace but in politics. And this at a time when public services and education are under constant assault from corporate privatizers and billionaire political donors who are more than ready to “invest” in election results that will lower their taxes and serve their interests.

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Joel Greeno, a dairy farmer from western Wisconsin, finished his chores on a Saturday morning one week after mass demonstrations prompted Democratic state senators to flee the state in order to deny Walker’s legislative allies a quorum to pass the bill. Greeno then drove his truck to Madison to join what would turn out to be probably the largest demonstration in Wisconsin history and one of the largest pro-labor demonstrations in American history. “The big corporations are organized. They’re in this fight with all the money in the world,” he shouted above chants of “What’s disgusting? Unionbusting!” “The big-money guys, they know what it’s all about: if they can take away the collective bargaining rights of unions, if they can shut them up politically, we’re all finished. How are farmers going to organize and be heard? If this goes through, none of us stand a chance.”

Governor Walker actually agrees with Greeno. It was clear from the beginning that Walker’s initiative, backed by big-money TV ad campaigns and by such national conservative groups as the Club for Growth, had more to do with politics than balancing budgets. His bill, like similarly motivated if not quite so draconian measures proposed by GOP governors in other states, uses a fiscal challenge as an excuse to achieve a political end. The governor says he must eliminate most collective bargaining rights to deal with shortfalls in revenues. But State Representative Mark Pocan, a Madison Democrat who is former co-chair of the powerful legislative Joint Finance Committee, says, “Wisconsin can balance its budget. We’ve actually dealt with more serious shortfalls. This isn’t about revenue and spending. This is about finding an excuse to take away collective bargaining rights and to destroy unions as a political force.” The governor disputes Pocan’s argument, and there is great debate over whether this budget repair bill is needed. Pocan points to a review by the nonpartisan Fiscal Bureau that suggested the state might be able to end the year with a slight surplus if a tax dispute with Minnesota and issues regarding Medicaid payments are resolved. While Wisconsin faces a genuine shortfall, it is much smaller than the one former Governor Jim Doyle and Democratic legislators sorted out two years ago in cooperation with state employee unions.

Walker’s real goal has always been clear. Let’s consider some context. A year before the governor took office in January—after winning a relatively low-turnout fall election that also saw Republicans take charge of this traditionally blue state’s Assembly and Senate—the US Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. FEC decision removed barriers to corporate spending in election campaigns. GOP candidates reaped tremendous benefits from that ruling, which cleared the way for former White House political czar Karl Rove and fellow operatives to spend hundreds of millions on federal and state races. The Republican Governors Association, having collected a $1 million check from billionaire right-wingers Charles and David Koch and smaller contributions from other corporate interests, invested at least $3.4 million in electing Walker. As Lisa Graves, who heads the Madison-based Center for Media and Democracy, noted, “Big money funneled by one of the richest men in America [David Koch] and one of the richest corporations in the world [Koch Industries]…put controversial Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker in office.” Walker’s debt to the Koch brothers, whose PAC donated $43,000 to his campaign, was highlighted in the governor’s budget repair bill—which in addition to attacking unions outlined a plan to restructure state government so Walker could sell off power plants in no-bid deals to firms like Koch Industries, while restructuring state health-insurance programs so that tens of thousands of Wisconsinites could be stranded with no access to care.

The Koch-Walker connection became a central issue of the Wisconsin uprising when the tape of a prank phone call—in which the governor can be heard talking over strategy with a blogger impersonating David Koch—was released to the public. On it, Walker talked about coordinating spending campaigns to shore up GOP legislators who back the bill. But even more telling is the governor’s repetition of the phrase “This is our moment.” At one point, Walker recalled a dinner with cabinet members on the eve of his announcement of the antiunion push. “I said, you know, this may seem a little melodramatic, but thirty years ago, Ronald Reagan…had one of the most defining moments of his political career, not just his presidency, when he fired the air traffic controllers,” said Walker. “And, uh, I said, to me that moment was more important than just for labor relations or even the federal budget; that was the first crack in the Berlin Wall and the fall of Communism…. And, uh, I said this may not have as broad of world implications, but in Wisconsin’s history—little did I know how big it would be nationally—in Wisconsin’s history, I said this is our moment, this is our time to change the course of history.”

Walker certainly understands the stakes. Across the United States, but particularly in the swing states of the Great Lakes region and the upper Midwest, public employee unions like AFSCME, the American Federation of Teachers and affiliates of the National Education Association are more than labor organizations. They are the best-funded and most aggressive challengers to attempts by corporate interests and their political allies to promote privatization, to underfund schools and to win elections. If unions in Northern states are disempowered—as they are already in much of the South, where “right to work” laws are common—a debate already warped by the overwhelming influence of corporate cash will become dramatically narrower and even more deferential to wealthy donors and big business.

Progressives have been talking about these concerns for a long time. They have tried to create movements to push back, sometimes with success, sometimes not. The same goes for organized labor. So what is different about Wisconsin? And, more significant, what potential is there to build a movement that extends far beyond one state?

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