The article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To listen to a podcast of the author discussing his time in Madison and the larger meaning of those protests, click here.
In the February weeks I spent in snowy Madison, Wisconsin, that line of Joan Didion’s, the opening of her 1967 essay “Goodbye to All That,” ricocheted through my mind as I tried to make sense of the massive protests unfolding around me. What was I witnessing? The beginning of a new movement in this country—or the end of an existing one, the last stand of organized labor? Or could it have been both?
None of us on the ground could really say. We were too close to the action, too absorbed by what was directly in front of us.
Of course, the battle between unions, progressive groups, and Wisconsin Republican Governor Scott Walker is not over. Not by a long shot. A county judge recently blocked “publication” of Walker’s anti-union legislation, saying it was possible Senate Republicans violated Wisconsin’s rigorous open records law when they rammed through a vote on his bill to do away with the collective bargaining rights of state workers. The case could end up before the state Supreme Court. But that didn’t stop the state’s Legislative Reference Bureau from publishing Walker’s bill anyway, touching off another round of arguing about the tactics used to make the bill into law. As of this writing, its actual status remains unclear. If a judge does force a new vote, it’s unlikely the outcome will change, though even that’s not certain.
Either way, the meaning of Madison, and also of what similar governors are doing amid similar turmoil in Columbus, Indianapolis, and other Midwestern cities, remains to be seen. Without the ability to bargain collectively, unions may indeed be fatally weakened. So, you could argue that the wave of attacks by conservative governors will gut public-sector unions in those states, if not wipe them out entirely.
On the other hand, those same efforts have mobilized startling numbers of ordinary citizens, young and old, educated and not, in a way none of us have seen since perhaps the 1930s. I know this for a fact. I was there in Madison and watched hundreds of thousands of protesters brave the numbing cold while jamming the streets to demand that Governor Walker back down. The events in Madison radicalized many young people who kept the flame of protest burning with their live-ins inside the Wisconsin State Capitol.
What remains to be seen is whether the new spark lit by the Republican Party’s latest crusade against unions can in some way fill the space left by those unions which, nationwide, stare down their own demise.
“Take the Unions Out at the Knees”
Madison was the beginning. When Scott Walker threatened to use the Wisconsin National Guard to quell a backlash in response to his draconian “budget repair bill,” it set off a month of protests. Almost as soon as Madison erupted, Ohio Republican Governor John Kasich, a former executive at Lehman Brothers, unveiled a union-crushing bill of his own, known as Senate Bill 5. Kasich sought even more power to curb unions than Walker, proposing to curb bargaining rights for all public-sector unions—Walker’s exempts firefighters and cops—and even outlaw strikes by public workers.