On arriving in Madison some years ago, I went to the huge farmers’ market that winds round the Capitol. Startled by the slow-moving procession of orderly, white shoppers all pacing in the same direction, I dubbed the market throngs “The Million White Person March,” little imagining how in the spring of 2011 this deep-rooted Wisconsin sense of discipline, good-neighborliness and community pride would fire into the largest rallies in defense of labor rights and democratic process that the United States has seen in eighty years.
As the Wisconsin snows gave way to spring, printed signs sprouted in Madison’s gardens, neatly staked in lawns and blooming like strange flowers: Recall Walker. Stop Assault on Unions. Fight Back. Vote for Kloppenburg. Tax the Rich.
Do these signs herald the blossoming of a Wisconsin Spring emboldened by the far-off inspiration of the Arab Spring? Will the Madison Movement take root, ushering in a lake-effect era of new forms of progressive activism and a coordinated, national movement? Or will Wisconsin mark a rout by the Republicans and labor’s last stand?
Progressive Victory or Republican Rout?
The Republicans are playing a high-stakes game in Wisconsin; they know if they can win here, they can probably win anywhere. As Wisconsin goes, so could the nation.
The Madison protests mark an epochal moment. Not for nothing did the Republicans launch their assault on labor in a state fabled for its liberal history. In the early 20th century, Wisconsin was the vanguard of progressive social change, rolling out a startling array of labor reform firsts. A hundred years ago in March 1911, in the wake of the terrible Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, Wisconsin became the first state to introduce worker compensation; then the first state to create unemployment insurance (1932); then the first to introduce collective bargaining (1959). If that weren’t enough, University of Wisconsin professors came up with a design for Social Security, then went on to help found AFSCME (The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees).
From 1901-1906, Wisconsin’s storied Governor, “Fighting Bob” La Follett, pursued policies so liberal Teddy Roosevelt hailed Wisconsin as “the most important state for the development of progressive legislation.” La Follett began his career as a Republican, but came to see the GOP as a platform for “vast corporate combinations,” to counter which La Follett championed a remarkable array of social causes — minimum wage, worker compensation, social security, women’s suffrage, progressive taxation, and child labor laws — prompting Roosevelt to dub Wisconsin “a laboratory of democracy.”
But Wisconsin was also home to a contrary cast of political characters. Republicans like Senator Joe McCarthy, Paul Weirich, (and more latterly Paul Ryan) were Wisconsin sons of a different stripe. In 1962, Senator Javitz (Rep) warned that the Republicans were trying to “repudiate the 20th century,” but the demoralized Republican Party was withered and impotent, seen by the public as tainted by the tactics of McCarthyism and the John Birch Society, and the disastrous Barry Goldwater campaign. In ten years, however, starting with the founding of the Moral Majority and the Heritage Foundation in Wisconsin in 1973, the Republicans began a revival that would become one of the greatest political comebacks of the 20th century.
In 2011, Wisconsin has again become a laboratory for democracy, the crucible for the Republicans’ final effort to repudiate labor and secure a victory in 2012. The critical question is whether the Madison Moment can become the Madison Movement, taking root across the country and energizing a national movement of progressive populism and policy changes. Or will the Republicans force through their long-planned rollback of labor and leave “Fighting Bob” La Follett spinning wildly in his grave?
“Take the Unions Out at the Knees”
The events unfolding in Wisconsin have caused a sea change in how we perceive what the Republicans are up to. A synchronized plan, long in the plotting, has been set in motion across the country with the ambition no less grand than to knee-cap the unions, erase collective bargaining, undo women’s rights and environmental regulations. This corporate war on progressive rights is led by a shadowy network of richly-endowed think tanks collectively called the State Policy Network, emboldened by the recent Supreme Court decision to remove limits to campaign spending. Groups like David and Charles Koch’s Americans for Prosperity (supporters of Scott Walker) and Karl Rove’s American Crossroads have dug deep into their pockets to front the attack, of which Wisconsin marks only the spectacular beginning.
From that first, fateful week in February, when Walker announced his contested Repair Bill, the Republican Governor has insisted that his union-busting bill has nothing to do with union-busting, but is a merely fiscal matter, driven only by necessity and a broken budget. Walker’s bluff was recently exposed, however, by the release of one of Walker’s emails to the Republican fold. In the email, Walker emphatically declares that his bill is the opening salvo of an all-out political war on labor. “Make no mistake,” Walker writes, “this is the first battle of the 2012 presidential race. If we can break the unions’ back in 2011, the Democrats will be on life-support to begin 2012.”
Newt Gingrich, who campaigned for Walker’s gubernatorial push, is likewise unabashedly frank about what is at stake: “We are witnessing one of the most important struggles in modern America. A life and death struggle with the forces of the old order.” As Gingrich puts it: “A victory for the forces of reform in Wisconsin” has the broader aim of igniting similar union-busting efforts across the country in “Ohio, New York, New Jersey and elsewhere.”
Just days after Walker announced his bill, Ohio’s Republican Governor, John Kasich, followed suit with a union-busting bill of his own, gutting bargaining rights for Ohio’s public workers and outlawing strikes. Iowa’s Republican House rolled out a law that would have ended collective bargaining had the Democrats not snuffed the bill in the Senate. Idaho promptly passed a bill that slashed collective bargaining for teachers, and Alaska, Tennessee and Indiana swiftly passed union-gutting measures nearly identical to Walker’s Bill. All told, more than 20 state legislatures suddenly and simultaneously rolled out bills radically attacking collective bargaining rights for public workers.
That Walker’s Bill was not Walker’s brainchild, but the opening gambit of a coordinated assault on labor was illuminated by University of Wisconsin historian William Cronon, a self-styled political centrist and independent, who set out to trace the political roots of this sudden “explosion of radical conservative legislation” and surprised himself by finding that these roots lead, not only to groups like Koch’s Americans for Prosperity, but to a shadowy group called ALEC (The American Legislative Exchange Council).
ALEC, it appears, is a murky legislative body that drafts right-wing “model bills” that Republicans across the 50 states can implement to gut progressive programs. ALEC was founded in 1973 by none other than Wisconsin’s Paul Weirich, also founder of The Heritage Foundation and The Moral Majority which ignited the think-tank Republican revival. In a fit of pique at Cronon’s temerity for exposing this history in the blogosphere, the Republicans lashed back, calling on UW under the Open Records law to release Cronon’s (evidently humdrum) emails for Republican scrutiny. His emails duly vetted, Cronon was exonerated of any untoward evildoing. Undaunted, Wisconsin Republican Senator Vos called on UW to “discipline” all professors using university email for “inappropriate politics.” As it happens, Vos is the Wisconsin Chair of ALEC. Michigan’s Mackinac Center has quietly followed suit, calling for the release of emails by three University of Michigan’s labor history professors with incriminating words like “protests,” “unions,” and “Rachel Maddow.”
The Republicans evidently see this as their no-holds-barred, defining domino moment. A week after the first Madison protest, the editor of the Buffalo Beast, Ian Murphy, placed a prank call to Walker, pretending to be David Koch. Evidently not averse to taking calls and, potentially, bribes from big lobbyists, Walker was revealingly chatty. Murphy secretly recorded the conversation, in which he punked Walker into making some embarrassing disclosures (Walker admitted to having toyed with the idea of planting provocateurs amongst the protestors). Walker spoke approvingly of a Republican list of governors who were poised to follow his attack on labor.
“You start going down the list,” Walker told Murphy. “There’s a lot of new governors who got elected to do something big.” Said Murphy: “You’re the first domino.” Replied Walker: “Yep. This is our moment.”
The Koch group, Americans for Prosperity, recently summed up the Republicans’ intentions with rather brutal clarity: “What we would really like to see is to take the unions out at the knees.”
You take the unions out at the knees, you effectively take out the Democrats.
“Scott, You have Wakened A Sleeping Giant.” The Madison Uprising
Then something remarkable happened. For nearly three months now, startlingly large crowds of fired-up, outraged and passionate protestors have been turning up at the Madison Capitol, in sleet, snow and thaw, to swell huge pro-labor demonstrations the likes of which have not been seen in the U.S. since the 1930s.
On February 15th, thousands of students, faculty and supporters, including myself and my students, marched to the Madison Capitol in the first of the rallies that would swell over the coming weeks from 6,000 to over 180,000 protestors (almost half of Madison’s population). On that first, frozen, mid-February day, as the crowds deepened and the snowflakes swirled, the protestors erupted into rapturous roars. A banner had been unfurled inside the Capitol with the words SOLIDARITY emblazoned in big letters. People were waving at us. These were the Democratic Senators, soon to be dubbed The Fab Fourteen and hailed as heroes for doing an overnight runner to Illinois (State Troopers in hot pursuit), denying the Republicans a quorum and stalling passage of Walker’s bill. The Madison movement had begun, swelling in a few weeks into a populist momentum that shows no signs of lessening.
Certainly one would be hard-pressed to call Madison diverse, but the crowds that have packed the Capitol square and jammed the Rotunda have been remarkable in their populist diversity: a defiant mix of families and workers, schoolchildren and the elderly, city folk and suburbanites, the well-heeled and the unemployed, parents pushing strollers, high-school pupils marching miles from schools, faculty and students, Veterans Against the Wars, the disabled on crutches, the elderly in wheelchairs, and workers of every ilk: teachers and nurses, cops and carpenters, sheet-metal workers and farmers, faculty and fire-fighters.
But if the Democrats have the masses, the Republicans have misrule. Legislative shenanigans, lack of transparency and a frank contempt for the rule of law have characterized Walker’s governorship from the outset, in a tenure marked by arbitrary displays of power, indifference to judicial process and abrupt about-turns. Locals have dubbed the goings-on at Walker’s Capitol corrupt Fitzwalkerstan.
Early on Wednesday evening, March 9th, the Republicans hard-balled a legislative dodge through the Senate, splitting the collective bargaining part from the budget part of the Bill and ramming the bill through in less than twenty minutes. But by splitting collective bargaining from the budget, Walker effectively proved that his attack on workers had nothing to do with the budget, the opposite of what he had been arguing for weeks. A poster quickly spread: “Liar. This was never about the Budget.”
If the bill seemed set to end fifty years of labor rights in Wisconsin, Walker can’t have bargained for the uproar of defiance that erupted. That Wednesday evening, rallied by tweets, Facebook and email, thousands of us converged on the Capitol, driving, biking, running, cars racing through the dark toward Madison from outlying towns, honking horns in unison to the rhythm: “This is what democracy looks like.” Thousands of furious and defiant protesters jammed the Rotunda, chanting and drumming, singing the national anthem, and tweeting the news to the world.
The next day, bagpipes swirling, hundreds of firefighters in full regalia marched from the Capitol to the M&I Bank to close their accounts. So began the canny Move Your Money Movement to protest M&I’s support for Walker. On March 12th, the Fab Fourteen Senators returned to Madison, drawing the largest rally yet, an estimated 180,000. People were packed shoulder to shoulder so thickly in every street around the Square it took me twenty minutes to move a few feet. The Farmers Tractorcade, a cavalcade of about thirty farmers with tractors festooned in defiant signs (“Weed Out Walker,” “Plowing Forward with Democracy,” “Don’t Farm Out Our Jobs”) rumbled from outlying farms to the Capitol, where they paraded round the square engulfed by jubilant throngs.
On April 4th, two historic moments merged. April 4th was the 43rd anniversary of Martin Luther King’s assassination in Memphis, where King had travelled to support the black sanitation workers’ campaign to join AFSCME, the federation originally formed in Wisconsin. A young Jesse Jackson had accompanied King at the hotel when he was murdered. Now on April 4th 2011, the Reverend Jackson lead thousands in the “Memphis to Madison March” to the Capitol. If King had gone to Memphis to support the right to collectively bargain, now the people of Wisconsin were to vote to protect that same right to collectively bargain. The crowds were awash with emotion. “Thank You! Thank You! Thank You!” everyone roared when Jackson’s speech drew to a close. I saw many people weeping.
Next day, Wisconsinites went to the polls in a critical Supreme Court vote, that could ultimately decide the fate of Walker’s Bill. David Prosser, a Walker supporter and twelve year incumbent, faced a challenge by the Democratic Assistant Attorney General, JoAnne Kloppenburg. When the votes were in, Kloppenberg had won by a small but decisive margin. The Madison moment, it seemed, had triumphed. Then abracadabra, seemingly from nowhere, Cathy Nickolaus, a clerk in Waukesha county, “found” 14,000 missing votes on her personal computer, enough to put Prosser in the lead. Uproar ensued. Nickolaus is a former employee of Prosser, with a history of electoral hanky-panky. She had also violated a security directive to store election data in the county database, not her private computer. Klopenburg decided not to challenge the election and Prosser returned to the Supreme Court. With Walker’s Repair Bill stalled under judicial review, the Republicans suddenly did another legislative about-turn, and put the collective bargaining part of the Bill back into the rest of the Bill. Then in June, the Wisconsin Supreme Court passed the protested Walker Bill.
Walker’s Wisconsin has become a topsy-turvy Through the Looking Glass Country: “Well, in our country,” said Alice, still panting a little, “you’d generally get to somewhere else, if you ran very fast for a long time, as we’ve been doing.” “A slow sort of country!” said the Queen. “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.”
Something Wicked This Way Comes. Corporo-Fascism or American Spring?
With the eerily bland self-confidence of someone convinced he is channeling God, Walker has responded to the protests under his window by pretending they don’t exist. His plan, he told Ian Murphy on the phone, is to wait them out until they get tired and go away. And if democratic process gets in the way, Walker has considered one option for getting democratic process out of the way.
The media spotlight on Wisconsin has thrown into shadow the ominous turn taken by Michigan’s Governor, Rick Snyder. In early April, Snyder passed the “Emergency Financial Management” law which gives the Governor the right to unilaterally fire the entire government of any town or school district, break contracts, seize assets and replace elected officials with an unelected CEO. On April 15th, Snyder fired the government of Benton Harbor, a community that is 92% African American and that has an annual median household income of $17,471. Joseph L. Harris, the new unelected Emergency Manager, summarily prohibited all action not authorized by himself. Corporo-fascism was thereby quietly spawned in Michigan.
Walker and Snyder seem hell bent on an unholy alliance and Madison’s Capitol Times reports that Walker is planning something similar for Wisconsin.
Whatever his short-term victories, Walker has overreached, igniting a populist protest that is spreading far beyond Wisconsin. The Recall efforts proceeds apace, with more than enough votes now in to recall six Republicans. Walker’s popularity in the polls has plummeted and there is a strong chance he will be recalled. The Move Your Money Movement is expanding, alongside a Boycott Walker movement. The Wisconsin Wave held a weekend of teach-ins, beginning the essential task of forming a coordinated coalition of anti-Walker, pro-union dissenting groups. And US Uncut has come to town. On Tax the Rich Day, our local chapter joined with Wisconsin Resists and MoveOn.org to target M&I and Chase Bank for tax evasion. Hundreds of US Uncut actions were held across the country, and solidarity protests and teach-ins are spreading throughout California, Michigan, New York and elsewhere across the country.
One critical victory for the country at large has been won in Wisconsin. Austerity guru Paul Ryan (Rep-Janesville, Wisconsin) took his Budget Plan and the proposed Republican attack on Medicare to his own constituencies, and began to look increasingly harried as he was met with boos and hostile questions. Images of rowdy town hall meetings from Kenosha were featured on national news, picked up in Washington, and the GOP backed off from Ryan’s plan to use Medicare to enrich the private insurance companies that backed his campaigns.
However one looks at it, Wisconsin is at an epochal standoff. The Republicans have now passed the most restrictive voter ID bill in the US, legalized concealed weapons, and plan to expand the school voucher program, deregulate telecommunications and move up the statutory schedule to redistrict, all before the recall elections take place.
The stakes are very high, not just for Wisconsin but for the country. The critical question now is whether the huge energies of the Madison demonstrations can be transformed into a national movement with genuine electoral and policy-changing power. Or are we witnessing the sprouting of a huge, bitter weed in the garden of democracy: the long-planned Republican defeat of labor and the demise of democratic process?
Whichever way events turn, something remarkable has flowered in the Wisconsin Spring, emboldened by the far-off Arab Spring. We are witnessing the promise of a new populism, an energized youth movement, the mobilizing power of the social media, a labor revival, and the innovative strategies of US Uncut. An unprecedented coalition has emerged that might just channel populist anger and defiance into an invigorated national movement sufficient to quell the Republican corporate surge.
The Madison Movement has shown that small events have epochal effects. Republicans like to talk of the “Madison bubble.” The Tea Party claims the crowds are just the radicals. Walker pretends the crowds outside his window will go away with the snow, but I have seen action build upon action, and protest build upon protest. I have seen mothers trailing kids, bank workers supporting the unions, men in work boots, cops holding posters, firefighters in kilts. I’ve seen suits and deer-hunter jackets and hoodies and graduation cloaks and Harley Davidson jackets and walking sticks and wheelchairs and pink hair. I’ve seen men in Packers jackets, nurses in caps, children with pets, Veterans for Peace, and fathers with newborn babies. I have seen the face of a long-overdue liberal populism awakened from an eighty year slumber. And driving weekly to the Capitol, I have learnt how to honk my car horn in unison with other protestors to the rhythmic beat: “This is what democracy looks like.”
The Republicans in their hubris, dreaming of establishing on earth their vain Ayn Rand Republic, where each is pitted against each and one against all, a republic ruled by the same fiscal brigands whose ruinous plunder produced the crisis in the first place, have awakened the Republicans’ worst nightmare: the revival of the liberal populism of the 1930s.
I have learned many things over the past few months. I have learned that collective bargaining and Medicare are among the things most Americans agree they want to keep. I have learned that united we bargain, divided we beg. I have learned that courage is contagious. I have learned that indifference is not an option. During these past weeks, an Afghan saying has come repeatedly to mind: “Drop by drop, the river is made.”
All photos copyright Anne McClintock 2011.
This entry was previously published in Counterpunch Magazine.