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!”
They did believe, and thousands accepted his invitation to a free concert that night in the cavernous confines of the city’s convention center. The key claim of those who would dismiss the Wisconsin uprising has always been that it was “just a bunch of union agitators bused in from around the country.” But here, on a cold February night, were 3,500 high school and college students, most of whom had never been union members, many of whom came from families with no union ties. They were hanging on every word of songs about a labor struggle that did not involve them directly but would define their future. When Mike McColgan, the former firefighter turned lead singer of Street Dogs, urged the crowd to raise their fists and sing “Up the Union,” they did just that, with that rare mixture of joy and resolve that is the essential match of movement making. Finishing a song about creating a new labor age, McColgan shouted, “Do it!” And the students and young workers responded, “Yes! Do it!”
Commentators on these times do not turn with comfort or frequency to discussions of real change, of fundamental shifts—let alone to serious consideration of new generations demanding new worlds. What passes for journalism these days respects cynicism rather than optimism; editors and reporters have for the most part become guardians against any leap of faith. The fear of hope is not just a bow to the status quo, not just deference to the powerful. Even among the most progressive observers, there is a disinclination to employ the language of possibility for fear of stirring false faith—and, just as important, for fear of being identified as one who dares to believe that what is to come might actually be better than what was. After all, these have not been progressive times; even when the people have chosen leaders who promise “Change we can believe in,” they have been repaid with compromise we cannot understand or justify.
But on that winter night the only reasonable response was to believe that the next generation might not be so easily defeated. That it might actually renew and extend movements that seemed, just days before, to have been teetering on the brink of extinction. For as long as I can remember, labor activists and their lefty allies have wrestled with the question of how to reach out to youth. Many of the smartest and most committed radicals of the 1960s and ’70s made lifetime commitments to organize, maintain and lead unions. Those who initiated movement-conscious projects like the farm labor organizing and Justice for Janitors campaigns of the ’80s, the anti-sweatshop work of the ’90s and the protests against corporate-friendly globalization that shook Seattle in 1999—all invited a next generation into the struggle. Sometimes they succeeded. But there remained a tentativeness, a sense that the one step forward would be followed by the inevitable two steps back.
But what I saw in Madison on that February night, and what I see even now, as the uprising continues in states across the country, and with the fresh variations of the Occupy movement, has been different. The connection was made—and not just at one show or for one night. The threat of a future without the right to organize, seemingly esoteric but in reality immediate and fully understandable, spurred high school and college students, young workers and the young unemployed to make a movement. They showed up, again and again and again in Madison, for rallies, marches and vigils, and they organized on their own terms: with Twitter and Facebook savvy, with energy, with a rock-and-rap passion that reminded older activists that idealism at its best comes with an edge.
I could not help recalling on that remarkable night the response of Claude Lévi-Strauss to requests that he identify the “golden age” of human civilization. The father of modern anthropology rejected the question as absurd on its face, and absurdly disempowering in its implications. In Tristes Tropiques, Lévi-Strauss explained that “if men have always been concerned with only one task—how to create a society fit to live in—the forces which inspired our distant ancestors are also present in us. Nothing is settled; everything can still be altered. What was done but turned out wrong, can be done again. ‘The Golden Age,’ which blind superstition had placed behind [or ahead of] us, is in us.” Those are not blandly optimistic words. They are demanding. They suggest that we have fewer excuses than we thought, that this is the place, that now is the time and that there is truth in the maxim that we are the people we’ve been waiting for. In Wisconsin, as would soon be the case nationwide, a rising generation accepted that challenge and shouted that, yes, they were ready to “Do it!”