When Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker announced on February 11, 2011, that he would use a bureaucratic “budget repair bill” as a vehicle to attack collective-bargaining rights, civil-service protections and local democracy, he expected a reaction. The governor went so far as threaten to call out the National Guard to prevent protests from getting out of hand. But Walker and his aides were certain that they would be done with the fight in a week. Now, a year later, Walker faces ongoing demonstrations, increasing legislative opposition, multiple legal challenges and a recall election threat that arose when one million Wisconsinites signed petitions seeking his removal from office.
Walker should have known he was in trouble when the first protests began and a young woman who worked at the State Historical Society showed up with a white T-shirt pulled over her winter coat. With a place pen, she had written: “I Am Not Afraid of the National Guard!”
The governor’s attempt to intimidate Wisconsinites into accepting an austerity agenda that assaulted not just labor rights but the state’s open government and small-“d” democratic traditions was a failure from the start. Instead of scaring citizens into submission, Walker provoked an uprising that continues to this day.
The courage, optimism and steady determination of Wisconsinites, many of whom had never engaged in public protest or political action before, is what undid Walker’s best-laid plans. Even as he succeeded in enacting elements of his program, the push-back was so intense that two of his key legislative allies were defeated in the state Senate recall elections of last summer. And, now, he and his lieutenant governor face a similar fate.
This was a people-powered uprising, But even the most spontaneous of revolts requires information, messaging and calls to arms. The movement had some national allies. Union leaders such as Jerry McEntee of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (who declared Wisconsin to be “ground zero in the struggle for labor rights”) and Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers came early, as did the Rev. Jesse Jackson. Rocker Tom Morello played Woody Guthrie songs for the crowds, and wrote a great song of his own: “Union Town.” Democracy Now!’s Amy Goodman and MSNBC’s Ed Schultz broadcast live from Madison, as did GRITtv’s Laura Flanders.
But the mass movement that made “Wisconsin” not just the name of a state but a new name for resistance would not have been possible without visionary groups and individuals who stepped up at critical stages in the struggle. Here are a few that ought never be forgotten:
The University of Wisconsin Teaching Assistants Association
The oldest graduate student union in the world (now an American Federation of Teachers affiliate) “got it” immediately. Within hours of the governor’s announcement, the TAA declared: “What we do in the next 5 days will determine whether we keep our union, and our professional lives as educators, researchers, and public servants.”
TAA members were front and center at the first rallies on campus. They organized the February 14 march that brought protesters into the state Capitol and to the door of the governor’s office. TAA members took the lead in maintaining the presence in the Capitol that would eventually see thousands of Wisconsinites sleeping in around the clock. State Rep. Mark Pocan, a Madison Democrat who helped organize round-the-clock hearings in the Capitol says: “While a lot of unions brought people in volume, I don’t know if anyone else brought them in as continually and consistently.”