“If you think that by hanging us you can stamp out the labor movement, then hang us. Here you will tread upon a spark, but here, and there, and behind you, and in front of you, the flames will blaze up. It is a subterranean fire. You cannot put in out.” —Haymarket martyr August Spies.
I can only imagine that Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is feeling very proud tonight. He’s proud that his state Republican senators voted 18-1 to strip public sector workers of their most basic collective bargaining rights. He’s proud that teachers, child care workers, ambulance drivers and many more will be pauperized to pay for the tax cuts he handed out to his corporate masters. He’s proud that the thousands upon thousands of people who have demonstrated peacefully at the state Capitol in Madison for three solid weeks will taste bitter defeat. He’s proud that the confederate confines of right-wing radio will be singing his praises tomorrow for taking down the “union thugs” that teach our children, care for our elderly and treat our indigent. He’s proud because Governor Scott Walker is an ignorant man, in the truest, most literal sense of the word.
How else to describe someone who “applauds” his own party’s state senators for destroying fifty years of civil and labor rights in a thirty-minute closed-door session with nary an advance word to the public? How else to describe someone who sent his state into deficit by passing massive corporate tax cuts while preaching “fiscal responsibility”? How else to describe someone who expects people to applaud his desire to sell the state’s power supply using private, no-bid contracts? How else to describe someone who wants to defund Planned Parenthood, eliminate protections for same-sex couples, and then has the gall to preach “family values”?
How else to describe someone who carries the blank-faced cruelty most common to tsars and second-generation presidents?
This is a man who I would venture has never read a history book in his life that didn’t have the word “Reagan” somewhere in the title. Even the most modest reading of history would tell you that people can really only take so much damage and disrespect before they fiercely fight back. As Naomi Klein wrote, “Scott Walker may think this is his PATCO moment. But it’s actually his Waterloo.”
I was in Madison, Wisconsin, during the first week of protests, and amidst the amusing signs and colorful costumes was an undercurrent of rage. The source of the rage really wasn’t the wage cuts or spikes in health care costs, although that certainly didn’t help. It was the fact that Walker said on February 11, before the protests even began, that the National Guard would be mobilized if anyone raised a fuss over his plans to destroy the unions. It was the fact that Walker never gave the impression that such a move was coming during the election cycle. And it was the fact that voter turnout, especially among the young, was so low, he had a massive crisis of legitimacy from day one. People felt like they had moved from “government by the people for the people” to “government by this Walker guy, for the Koch brothers.”
Now Scott Walker has taken Wisconsin, a state so chock-full of “Midwestern nice,” you need insulin after talking to the locals, and turned it into a place where people are talking General Strike. Seriously. There hasn’t been a general strike in the United States since 1934, when the unified shutdown of production hit San Francisco, Minneapolis, and Toledo in the same calendar year. Usually, if you hear someone yelling "general strike!" they’re the person in the community meeting you wish would find something else to do. But now, unions are meeting around the state and the question of a general strike is real. The South Central Federation of Labor, the labor council for the greater Madison area, passed a resolution endorsing a general strike if the public sector unions call such action.
Without question, there are other avenues that should also be pursued. Occupy the capital. Recall Scott Walker. Show up at every town hall meeting where one of the cowardly eighteen state senators dare show their face. But this is “put up or shut up” time for the labor movement. For too long, labor’s power has been slowly eroding like a vintage car left out in the rain. It’s certainly true, as the poet Shelley wrote, that “we are many, they are few.” But a muscle doesn’t mean a damn thing unless you flex.