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The Spirit of Wisconsin | The Nation

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The Spirit of Wisconsin

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Trade unionism has deep roots in Wisconsin. It was here that the forerunner to AFSCME was founded in 1932 and that pioneering labor laws were enacted, including the first state law allowing local government workers and teachers to engage in collective bargaining, signed by Governor Gaylord Nelson in 1959.

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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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Wisconsin has often been a political outlier. More than a century ago Robert La Follette forged the Progressive movement in the state. It grew so strong that when the former Wisconsin governor ran for president in 1924 as an independent radical backed by the Socialist Party and the labor movement, he beat the Democratic and Republican presidential nominees in Wisconsin. The maverick strain was maintained through the twentieth century by liberals and radicals who briefly governed the state under the banner of the Progressive Party; by Milwaukee voters who kept electing Socialist mayors well into the 1950s (even as a right-wing populist, Joe McCarthy, was winning statewide and stirring a red scare nationally); and most recently by former Senator Russ Feingold. Pride in the Progressive tradition runs so strong that as many as 10,000 people gather each September for an annual “Fighting Bob Fest” in rural Sauk County, where invariably there is a reading of the words of the man who inspired La Follette, former state Supreme Court Justice Edward Ryan, who said in 1873: “There is looming up a new and dark power…. The enterprises of the country are aggregating vast corporate combinations of unexampled capital, boldly marching, not for economical conquests only, but for political power.”

When students affiliated with the Teaching Assistants’ Association, the oldest graduate student labor organization in the world, marched from the University of Wisconsin to the Capitol in one of the initial protests against Walker’s bill, they decorated the area around the bust of La Follette. And as protesters slept in at the Capitol while Democratic legislators kept hearings going twenty-four hours a day in the early stages of the struggle, union activists like AFSCME’s Ed Sadlowski kept a vigil at the La Follette bust. But it’s not just nostalgia or tradition that distinguishes Wisconsin in general and Madison in particular. Madison was a hotbed of 1960s protests and has remained a center of activism and independent media. There are strong community stations like WORT-FM, and even commercial radio hosts like John “Sly” Sylvester have given daily coverage to the protests. Progressive TV and radio hosts like MSNBC’s Ed Schultz, Democracy Now!’s Amy Goodman and radio’s Thom Hartmann have broadcast from Madison in the past, and Schultz and Goodman returned for live broadcasts as the current dispute developed. Local elected officials tend to be progressive and pro-union; Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney played a critical role in easing tensions at the Capitol, making it possible for demonstrators to maintain a sleep-in after the governor and GOP legislators tried to force them out. That infuriated Walker so much that he and legislative allies initiated a clampdown limiting access to the Capitol before a judge ordered its reopening. Mahoney responded that his deputies weren’t “palace guards.”

Wisconsin’s history and progressive infrastructure created a sense, expressed by many in the state, that was perhaps best summed up by an instructor at Madison Area Technical College, Mary Bartholomew, who declared, “I’m so glad it came here first. But I know it’s going to have to go everywhere.” Bartholomew is right; it does have to go everywhere. But that will not happen easily. While Walker is not backing down, other Republican governors will be smarter than Walker, as will Democrats who seek to make cuts in public employee pay, benefits, pensions and workplace protections. Noting the news from Wisconsin, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder announced, “We’re going to go negotiate with our unions in a collective bargaining fashion to achieve goals. It’s not picking fights.”

But even if other governors avoid Walker’s divisive rhetoric and extreme tactics, that does not mean the labor movement and progressives can’t learn powerful lessons from this fight. The first is that even after years of right-wing messaging, Americans—at least in key swing states—don’t have much taste for unionbusting, even in the public sector. A Public Policy Polling survey of likely Wisconsin voters, released February 28, found that if they were electing a governor today, Democrat Tom Barrett would defeat Walker by a 52–45 margin. And other surveys have found solid support for collective bargaining rights. Recent national polls suggest that Americans favor protecting collective bargaining rights by a 2–1 margin. That’s important when public employees and teachers are under assault from conservative think tanks and their media echo chamber.

The second lesson is that when the assault comes, it is vital to be bold and flexible. Members of the Teaching Assistants’ Association were among the first to start sleeping at the Capitol, and that inspired others. So did a decision by members of Madison Teachers Inc., the city’s education union, to take four days off to march and lobby against the bill. When Walker tried to set police and firefighter unions against the broader movement by exempting them from the worst assaults, MTI’s John Matthews immediately went to firefighters and got them to join the protest in solidarity; the initiative was so successful that firefighter and police union members became key players. When the teachers went back to school, parents and private-sector union members stepped into their places on the picket line. When Walker tried to portray the unions and their members as greedy, union leaders made the not wholly popular choice to concede on a host of economic issues so the focus would remain squarely on the fight to keep collective bargaining rights. When Walker claimed that the demonstrators were being bused in from out of state, marchers began carrying signs naming the towns, villages and counties they came from; many state and local employees showed up in their work uniforms. The international unions certainly provided tactical and economic support, but they did so with an awareness of the need to be open to new ideas and approaches learned from the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle; indeed, the Seattle influence was so deep that some of its slogans were adopted, particularly “This is what democracy looks like.”

The third lesson is that Democratic politicians can act in smart and courageous ways, especially when they see tens of thousands of their constituents through their office windows. The decision by State Senate Democrats to leave the Capitol to deny a quorum for the governor’s bill was essential in giving its opponents time to build their numbers and rally communities. The marathon resistance by State Assembly Democrats, who forced a sixty-plus-hour debate led by younger legislators like Mark Pocan, Racine’s Cory Mason and Milwaukee’s Tamara Grigsby, strengthened opposition and further expanded the movement. This outside-inside strategy was critical for protesters and legislators. Ultimately, some Democrats still disappointed, and communication between the unions and the Democratic senators was stilted and at times dysfunctional. The Democrats are not a labor party in any classic sense, but the best of the Democrats championed labor’s cause at critical junctures.

The final lesson is that the influence of corporate money in our politics must be highlighted, in order to show how fiscal crises are often manufactured or twisted for political gain. Even when the problems are real, the answers offered by Republican governors like Walker are not. One of the most popular signs on the streets, distributed by National Nurses United, said, Blame Wall Street. Instead of concessions, the nurses argued, it’s time to focus on the corporate CEOs and speculators; as they point out: “In U.S. states facing a budget shortfall, revenues from corporate taxes have declined $2.5 billion in the last year. In Wisconsin, two-thirds of corporations pay no taxes, and the share of state revenue from corporate taxes has fallen by half since 1981.” The same is true in other states. These facts must be stressed, repeatedly and aggressively, if the debate is going to shift from cuts in public services and education to demands for fair taxes and the revenues necessary for services and schools.

For all the excitement of Wisconsin, for all the hope the protests have generated, we are still only at a point where we can talk about changing the terms of the debate. But that’s a big deal. After the policy compromises of 2009 and the electoral setbacks of 2010, which were so disappointing to progressives, the upsurge in Wisconsin has inspired people so powerfully that national labor leaders like United Steelworkers president Leo Gerard were ecstatic as they addressed the crowds of students, young teachers and state employees at the Capitol. “You have inspired this fat old white guy!” Gerard said.

But it’s not just the labor leaders who are inspired, and that’s the most important lesson. “Something about this has struck a chord of fairness and humanity that runs deep in all of us,” Sarah Roberts told me as she waited for her mom. “We’ve been pushed around for so long, told we didn’t have any power for so long. But I think our grandparents and our parents, they planted something in us, some values. And if we get pushed too far, we are going to push back. I think it started here, and I am so excited to see where we take it.”

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