Protesters at the state Capitol in Madison, Wis., Sunday, Feb. 27, 2011, during a demonstration to oppose the governor’s bill to eliminate collective bargaining rights for many state workers. (AP Photo/Andy Manis)
This essay is adapted from John Nichols’s Uprising: How Wisconsin Renewed the Politics of Protest, From Madison to Wall Street, published in February by Nation Books.
The uprising of February 2011 made a single word, “Wisconsin,” not just the name of a state but the reference point for a renewal of labor militancy, mass protest and radical politics. But it did something else. It signaled that a new generation of young Americans would not just reject the lie of austerity. They would lead a fight-back that has extended from the Capitol in Madison to Zuccotti Park in Lower Manhattan and across the United States.
A remarkable transition has happened since Wisconsinites occupied their streets and their Capitol. Progressives have moved from despair to hope. Not to victory, but to a sense of possibility. That is the radical progress that students, young workers, rockers and rappers demanded from a political process too prone to cynicism and surrender—and it is the radical change they have made. To understand how radical, consider where things began.
Governor Scott Walker, a Republican narrowly elected in the GOP sweep of 2010, proposed just weeks after taking office to strip teachers and other public sector workers of the collective bargaining rights and union representation that provide the last thin layers of protection in an era of globalization, privatization, downsizing and deep cuts. The governor and his party had the upper hand, with control of both houses of the state legislature, a dysfunctional Democratic opposition, weakened unions, a pliant press and a right-wing machine funded by billionaires like Charles and David Koch.
By the estimate of most pundits, even those who sympathized generally with labor and specifically with the Democratic Party, defeating the governor’s project was a hopeless struggle. But someone forgot to tell the students. Days after Walker’s announcement, 1,000 members and supporters of the Teaching Assistants’ Association at the University of Wisconsin—the oldest graduate employee union in the world—gathered at the Capitol to raise handmade signs and teeth-chattering voices in protest.
They kept rallying, joined first by other embattled public sector unions and then by members of private sector unions who saw that their rights were threatened as well, then by retirees, farmers and small-business owners. The Capitol was surrounded and then peacefully occupied, with students leading their teachers through the doors. The numbers steadily grew, reaching close to 100,000 just one week after that first rally. Democratic state senators, after hearing the shouts of “Kill the bill!” from outside and inside the Capitol, bolted, fleeing across the state line to deny the GOP the quorum it needed to rubber-stamp Walker’s agenda. Their exit created the opening for a mass movement, as the rallies and marches spread to communities across the state. Nothing was going as planned for the governor, his party or their paymasters in the executive suites. But nothing was going as planned for the unions or their allies either.
This was an uprising, uncharted and uncontrolled. Into the thick of it strode Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello and a ragtag band of rockers who had come to sing labor songs for the tens of thousands rallying outside the Capitol. It was an electric moment that saw Wisconsinites from toddlers to septuagenarians jumping to the most rhythmic version anyone had ever heard of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land Is Your Land.” Morello then led the crew into the Capitol, where thousands of students, workers and their multigenerational supporters had packed the rotunda and every cranny of the sprawling century-old building. Leo Gerard, the burly Steelworkers union president, grabbed a bullhorn and told the crowd, “You have inspired this fat old white guy.” Morello was equally inspired. He told participants in the most sustained mass protest in recent American history, “Governor Walker…didn’t count on you. He didn’t count on your resolve!… This is going to be the first domino to fall in a new resurgence of labor and student power around this country. You’re setting an unprecedented example—in my lifetime, in this country, for people around the world. Believe it!”