Twenty-Five Faces of an American Uprising

Twenty-Five Faces of an American Uprising

Twenty-Five Faces of an American Uprising

Wisconsin groups and activists have for a full year maintained an epic mass mobilzation on behalf of labor rights. 


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.”

State Senator Fred Risser

The longest serving state legislator in the United States, Risser was first elected when Dwight Eisenhower was president. Distinguished and well-regarded by members of both parties, the former state Senate President stepped up immediately to decry Walker’s actions. He brought historical perspective, and he did not mince words.

State employees have the right to negotiate in good faith with the state. Without a willingness to even discuss what concessions need to be made with state employees, the governor comes across more like a dictator and less like a leader,” said the dean of the Senate. When the state Senate minority leader Mark Miller led fourteen Democratic senators out of the Capitol in order to deny Walker’s Republican allies the quorum needed to pass the budget bill—and to provide the protest movement with time to build momentum—younger legislators such as Lena Taylor, Chris Larson and Jon Erpenbach emerged as prominent spokespeople. But none were any bolder than the chamber’s oldest member when it came to defending the best Wisconsin tradition of placing the will of the people above the demands of political and economic elites.

Dane County Supervisor Melissa Sargent

At a point when most local officials were shellshocked by the governor’s move, Sargent leapt into action, getting the local government of the state’s second-largest county (and the home of the state Capitol) to take an unequivocal stand on behalf of labor rights. The resolution Sargent (with the support of allies such as Supervisor Dianne Hesselbein got passed declared: “The Dane County Board of Supervisors supports the Wisconsin worker and supports the right to organize and collectively bargain. We stand opposed to Gov. Walker’s attack on the middle class and on the rights of Wisconsin workers.”

Sargent’s bold move inspired other local officials across the state to rise up against Walker’s agenda. And it marked her as a new-generation leader who, this fall, will compete for an open state legislative seat.

Voces de la Frontera

On the day Scott Walker announced his plan, the Milwaukee-based civil rights and immigrant rights group Voces de la Frontera beat many state and national labor and political organizations to the frontlines. Voces executive director Christine Neumann-Ortiz, decried the law, saying: “This is a vicious attack on the basic freedom of association, enshrined both in our US Constitution and federal labor law. Labor unions built our middle class. In addition, Walker’s statement today that he is prepared to utilize the National Guard against opponents is both a direct threat of violence and an admission of its unpopularity.… We join public unions across the state in calling on all Wisconsin workers to make their voices heard in opposition to this plan, and we will continue to fight its passage in any way possible.”

Voces never backed down. It’s members were at the forefront of marches and rallies. And Voces built an alliance with the labor movement so strong that, when the group’s annual immigrant rights march was held May 1, 2011, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka was the keynote speaker at a “Wisconsin Solidarity March and Rally for Immigrant & Worker Rights” that drew a crowd of 100,000.

State Representative Mark Pocan

The former co-chair of the legislative Joint Finance Committee challenged Walker’s budget numbers from the start, noting that the governor had signed measures cutting corporate taxes before declaring a “budget crisis.” Pocan’s critique revealed the false premises underpinning Walker’s agenda. When the governor threatened to layoff protesting state employees, Pocan unfurled a banner from his office window in the Capitol that read: “Governor Walker Your Pink Slip is Coming.” When the governor’s legislative allies (brothers Scott Fitzgerald, the Senate majority leader, and Jeff Fitzgerald, the Assembly minority leader) violated open meetings laws and legislative rules to secure passage of measures, Pocan coined the term “Fitzwalkerstan.”

“Don’t recognize your state? That’s because it’s not your state anymore. The Republicans have spent the past two months quietly trying to form their own junta aimed at dismembering Wisconsin,” explained Pocan. “Welcome to FitzWalkerstan, where Wisconsin is open for special interest give-a-ways and closed to the middle-class.”

Now a candidate for an open Congressional seat (in a race with another fine legislator, Kelda Helen Roys), Pocan promises to be just as tough on national Republicans.

Madison Teachers Inc.

When MTI, the union that represents Madison-area teachers and school staff announced on February 16 that its members were leaving the classrooms and heading to the state Capitol, they were joined by students and parents and the crowds swelled. And MTI executive director John Matthews, a local labor leader with more than forty years experience, used all his connections to bring other unions into the fight. Matthews and the thousands of MTI members are among the stalwarts who have kept the protests going all year at the Wisconsin Capitol.

Madison Firefighters Local 311

Firefighters Local 311 president Joe Conway Jr. moved quickly to bring firefighters into the the movement, despite the fact that public safety personnel were exempt from the attacks on collective-bargaining rights. The sound of the firefighter’s bagpipes was heard at some of the first rallies at the Capitol, and delivered a solidarity message that encouraged other unions to step up.

State Firefighters union president Mahlon Mitchell became one of the most prominent faces of the movement, and is now much discussed as a potential candidate for governor, lieutenant governor of other offices.

John “Sly” Sylvester

Former rock DJ Sylvester had a popular commercial talk radio show on Madison station WTDY-AM. On the day the fight in Wisconsin launched, he switched over to all protest, all the time. He hasn’t stopped since. Sylvester’s show has for a year now provided four hours of pro-labor programming every day. And the message is so popular that his advertisers now cut commercials touting their support for the union cause.

Peg Lautenschlager

Former Wisconsin Attorney General Lautenschlager could have stood on the sidelines of the struggle in her state. Instead, she threw herself into it, as a lawyer representing key unions and as one of the most aggressive and articulate challengers of the governor’s policies.

Lautenschlager does not live in Madison. She’s from Fond du Lac in the northeast of the state. And, like many of the ables advocates, she poured her energies into working on her home turf. She even helped organize a winning recall campaign by her friend Jess King against one of Walker’s closest allies in the state Senate.

Matt Wisniewski

A series of short videos made by Madison photographer Matt Wisniewski chronicled the emotional power of the protests so ably that they drew international attention and praise. Wisniewski’s work, which captured the energy and enthusiasm of the first rallies and the initial occupation of the state Capitol were so moving that they quickly went vital, attracting millions of Internet hits.

Eventually, scenes from one of of Wisniewski’s productions was featured in a video by rocker Tom Morello. And Chrysler grabbed a few seconds for the much-discussed Super Bowl ad featuring Clint Eastwood. Unfortunately, Chrysler obscured or covered up many of the union signs. See Wisniewski’s originals. They’re magical.


Madison’s great community radio station, WORT, provided steady coverage from the start of the protests, employing not just traditional radio reporting but Twitter, Facebook, flip cams and everything else at its disposal. Norm Stockwell, Molly Stentz and the rest of the WORT crew also provided a base of operations for programs such as GRIT-TV, independent radio producers and filmmakers.

Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca

If there was a "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" moment in Wisconsin, it came when the leader of the Democratic minority in the state Assembly confronted Republican allies of the governor who were gaming the rules of the legislature to pass the most anti-labor components of Walker’s proposal. Barca, a former congressman, raced to a legislative conference committee with a list of objections and amendments — as well as some reminders regarding the rules. When state Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, a key Walker lieutenant, ignored Barca, the usually mild-mannered assemblyman bellowed: "This is a violation of the open meetings law… This is a violation of the law!"

The scene, captured on video, was replayed tens of thousands of times, and Barca became a hero to those who objected not just to the governor’s agenda but to how it was being advanced. Working with young Democratic legislators such as Cory Mason and Tamara Grigsby, Barca emerged as a defender not just of labor rights but of the rule of law. Indeed, he got such high marks that, when he spoke at an anniversary rally organized by the Wisconsin Wave movement, there were chants of "Barca for Governor."

Wisconsin Wave

Veteran organizers in Wisconsin quickly recognized that what was happening in the state was remarkable. But it was, at core, a response to Governor Walker’s policies. The organizers of the Wisconsin Wave movement drew together unions, farm groups and comunity organizations with an eye toward advancing a broad agenda of democratic and economic reforms. In particular, they sought to emphasize the importance of resisting corporate influence on politics and policy-making. Wisconsin Wave rallies became forums for some of the boldest messages of the Wisconsin struggle — including Michael Moore’s "America Is Not Broke" speech. And the group remains a dynamic force on the ground in Madison.

Joel Greeno and Tony Schultz

When famers Joel Greeno and Tony Schultz attended some of the first pro-labor rallies at the Capitol, they decided something was missing: tractors. With the Wisconsin Farmers Union and Family Farm Defenders, they organized a tractorcade that brought farmers from across the state to the mass rally on March 12. Their message: workers and farmers have to "Pull Together,"

Greeno noted that farmers use collective bargaining when they join cooperatives and seek to negotiate prices, and declared: "When Governor Walker attacks the rights of workers, he attacks the rights of farmers." Schultz celebrated the renewal of "an old populist tradition of workers and farmers standing together against corporate power." And their message resonated, as rural Wisconsinites became some of the most engaged backers of the drive to recall Governor Walker.

Washburn, Wisconsin

On the day of the largest protest in Madison, the crowd estimates were as high as 180,000. That’s almost as many people who live in the city.

But on that same day, in the city of Washburn on Lake Superior, Governor Walker was attended a fund-raising event for local Republicans. Outside the hall, more than 2,000 activists rallied. That’s a more people than live in Washburn.

The big numbers on the north that day provided a powerful reminder that the Wisconsin uprising was not just a Wisconsin thing. Some of the biggest protests took place in some of the smallest towns.

Secretary of State Doug La Follette

The veteran constitutional officer was the only Democrat to win a statewide race in 2010. Walker paid La Follette no attention until it came time to certify the governor’s anti-labor legislation.

The Secretary of State slowed things down, following proper procedures, consulting with local officials, cooperating with Dane County Circuit Court Judge Mary Ann Sumi as she reviewed whether an open meetings law violation had occurred, and providing the space that allowed many municipalities and school districts to settle contracts before the new law went into effect.

Walker was furious. But La Follette was steady in his resolve. He emerged as a lonely defender of the rule of law.

National Nurses United

The union had a small presence in the state but it stepped in at a critical moment with a message that the real culprits were not state and local workers, or teachers, but Wall Street banksters. Their “Blame Wall Street” signs are still on display all across Wisconsin. And their message was echoed in an epic speech by filmmaker Michael Moore. The NNU and Moore interventions gave a young protest movement an economically populist and militant message that anticipated Occupy Wall Street.

Ian’s Pizza

The pizzeria located barely a block from the Capitol started getting calls almost as soon as the building was occupied. Folks from outside Madison wanted to pay for pizzas to be delivered to the protesters. During the eighteen days of the occupation, Ian’s delivered thousands of pizzas to the demonstrators on behalf of callers from all fifty states, more than sixty countries and Antarctica. There was even a donation from union workers in Egypt.

And what did Ian’s do with the money?

“We have decided to give back,” the staff announced. With advice from the community, Ian’s made substantial donations to groups that were engaged in and supporting the protests.

Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney

When Mahoney, a veteran lawman, announced that his deputies would not serve as Walker’s “palace guard,” it was a signal that police forces were going to maintain not just public safety but the right to dissent. Off-duty deputies from around the state joined police officers from Madison and other cities joined protests, proudly clad in “Cops For Labor” T-shirts.

Leslie Peterson and Her Red Balloons

The first protests at the state Capitol took place on St. Valentine’s Day, Students presented cut-out hearts at the governor’s office, asking Walker not to break their hearts by cutting unversity funding and attacking union rights. Someone brought a red, heart-shaped balloon. It got loose and floated to the dome of the Capitol. It remained there for months and became something of a symbol of the ongoing protests.

Leslie Peterson, a local businesswoman, and other activists began bringing heart balloons to demonstrations at the Capitol. The governor’s aides objected, and tried to prevent balloons from being brought into the Capitol. Peterson started showing up everywhere with balloons, making sure that they became a symbol of the protests. She was even attacked by a Walker backer, who popped a balloon — earning statewide headlines.

Now, at least one candidate in the spring election for Dane County Board, is using an image of a heart-shaped red balloon on her campaign yardsigns.

The Center for Media and Democracy

The Madison-based center, which has long specialized in discrediting political and corporate spin recognized an incredible opportunity when Scott Walker and his allies brought the austerity lie to Wisconsin. CMD’s Lisa Graves and Mary Bottari steered the group’s staff out of research cubicles and into the thick of the struggle as reporters, photographers, bloggers and investigators. The CMD blog broke big stories and got so good that national media outlets were soon grabbing quotes and video from it.

CMD fostered and encouraged grassroots journalism, highlighting Twitter and Facebook communications that became essential drivers for the movement. And as the struggle continued, the group focused on the financial and ideological underpinnings of Walker’s agenda to reveal the role played by the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council in shaping legislative enacted in Wisconsin and other states. The ensuingAlec Exposed project was produced in conjunction with The Nation.

The Solidarity Singers

These occupiers of the state Capitol began singing labor songs in the rotunda and never stopped. Despite efforts by the Walker administration to ban them, the Solidarity Singers return each day—sometimes hundreds strong—to deliver a cappella versions of civil rights and union tunes. Sometimes, you’ll even hear a state legislator joining the chorus.

They’re so popular now that they are recording a CD.

United Wisconsin

Scott Walker and his amen corner claim he’s being targeted by “big union bosses” and “the national Democratic Party.” But the recall challenge he faces was created in large part by the tens of thousands of volunteers who forged the “United Wisconsin” movement.

Started as a website that collected names of Wisconsinites who wanted to recall and remove the governor, the movement eventually turned its list of 200,000 Walker foes into a statewide movement, with trained coordinators in every one of the state’s 72 counties, local offices in most of them and a volunteer network that did not quit.

They gathered not just 1 million signatures to recall Scott Walker but 850,000 to recall his lieutenant governor and the better part of 100,000 more to recall the state Senate majority leader and three other senators allied with the governor.

Lori Compas

When the wedding photographer from Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin, learned that her legislative representative, Senate majority leader Scott Fitzgerald, had violated state open meetings laws to push through Walker’s assault on collective bargaining, civil service protections, public education and public services, she knew he had to go. But Democratic strategists said Fitzgerald’s district was too Republican to sustain a recall drive.

So Compas launched one on her own. Using Twitter, Facebook and old-fashioned shoe leather, she drew together a cadre of volunteers that collected more than enough signatures. Now, the political newcomer is being talked up as a potential challenger to the most powerful legislator in the state.

Sean Michael Dargan and Ken Lonnquist

Folkies, rockers and rappers have produced such an incredible collection of songs about the Wisconsin struggle that it is tough to single anyone out. The brilliant Ken Lonnquist has produced a whole album of tunes, recounting details of the struggle with songs such as “14 Senators”—the story of the exit of Democratic legislators—which includes the line: “2,000 Monday, 10,000 Tuesday, 15,000 Wednesday, 25,000 Thursday…”

But Sean Michael Dargan, a veteran songwriter whose old band The Kissers was a rally favorite in Wisconsin, nailed it with the song he debuted at the rally to kick off the recall movement against the governor: “On the Day Scott Walker is Recalled.”

John Nichols’ new book on protests and politics, Uprising: How Wisconsin Renewed the Politics of Protest, from Madison to Wall Street, has just been publshed by Nation Books. Follow John Nichols on Twitter @NicholsUprising.

Ad Policy