The Spirit of Wisconsin

The Spirit of Wisconsin

How Scott Walker’s unionbusting spurred a popular uprising.


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.’”

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?

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.

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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