This article orginially appeared in The Nation on September 1, 2011.
“My family comes from Oconomowoc and Milwaukee, Wisconsin, my dad from the tradition of Joseph McCarthy and my mom from that of Robert La Follette, so I have been well educated in the tensions between reactionary and progressive populism, the poles of our politics down to thepresent. The Tea Party is the rising counter movement against the rights gained in the sixties and thirties, including the rights of teachers, cops, firefighters and all public sector workers to form unions and bargain collectively. In response to the attacks on these rights by Governor Scott Walker, a great social movement has arisen this year in Wisconsin on which the future of America, and the next presidential election may depend.”
—Tom Hayden, from a speech to the Democracy
Conference, Madison, Wisconsin, August 24
Madison—Thousands marched to the Capitol steps and through the massive rotunda on August 25, “black Thursday,” the day when Republican Governor Scott Walker’s rollback of state worker jobs and paychecks was cutting deep—Wisconsin state employees’ pay was cut by 13 percent. Walker is the point person in a Republican strategy to destroy public sector unions, the steady source of thousands of middle-class jobs and a key institutional base of the Democratic Party. The Republican counter-revolution in Wisconsin has already terminated the dues check-off system that funds unions, such as those for teachers and state workers, wiped out same-day voter registration and made a driver’s license a requirement to vote, and redistricted the state legislature to favor the Republican right. And changing the date of primary elections from September to August disenfranchises a statewide student body that leans blue and green.
Forcing labor unions to go door-to-door to ask their membership for individual dues is expected to result in losses of 35,000–40,000 National Education Association (NEA) members out of over 98,000 total, and as many as 5,000 of 23,000 members of AFSCME, the state and municipal workers union founded in Wisconsin. “Unions are going away,” says Ed Garvey, longtime Democratic leader and former executive director of the NFL Players’ Association, who engineered strikes and won anti-trust decisions against the owners in the 1970s.
Garvey’s worry is understandable. But Governor Walker’s spear, and that of the Tea Party, is bent, and may be broken by an unprecedented social movement that broke out in freezing mid-February, soon to ring the Capitol in numbers exceeding 100,000 week after week. Singing and chanting, the protesters surrounded, stormed and nonviolently held the Rotunda. That massive outpouring spurred all fourteen Democratic senators to become fugitives from the capital in mid-February, in an effort to block the three-fifths quorum needed to push through a state budget that included a non-budgetary item: stripping collective bargaining rights.
When the budget was jammed through (without the proper hearings and procedures), the street movement took to the precincts statewide. Despite oppressive heat and summer vacation pressures, by August the pro-union protesters managed to recall two Republican state senators and preserve the seats of two Democratic incumbents, all in conservative-leaning districts. That left the Senate in Republican hands by just a one-vote margin, 19-18, including one independent Republican, Dale Schultz, with maverick tendencies.
Last week when I visited, the movement was showing no signs of abating, with several thousand demonstrating at the Capitol. The legislature will reconvene in mid-September.
The next target of voter recall is likely to be Governor Walker himself, assuming the movement sustains the energy to collect 700,000 valid signatures this winter. Already Walker is making nervous but thus-far empty gestures about sitting down for talks with his adversaries. Opinion surveys across the Rust Belt show majority opposition to repeal of collective bargaining. In Ohio, an even harsher version of the Wisconsin law is likely to lose when put to a voter referendum in November. The Wisconsin uprising has broken the momentum of the Tea Party in critical Midwest states.
If this were New York City, the New York Times might be comparing the uprising to Cairo on its front page every day. But this is Wisconsin, celebrated as the heartland by the coastal elites, but in reality marginalized in the national political culture. (An exception has been the consistent coverage by MSNBC’s Ed Shultz, who frequently relies on The Nation’s Washington correspondent and Madison resident John Nichols.)
This is a homegrown revolution, not one led or fed by outside forces or agitators in the grip of ideology. International unions and Democratic Party strategists based in Washington, DC, didn’t start the fight, but were drawn into it by their rank and file and thousands of independent citizens across the state (including players from the Packers). Politically active observers noticed the freshness from the beginning. Dawson Barrett, a graduate student active at the University in Wisconsin-Milwaukee, e-mailed me on the first day, saying “crazy shit going on in Wisconsin…this is escalating quickly…high school and university students are having walkouts ALL over the state to support their teachers and family members…. The governor announced the national guard is ready!” The historian Paul Buhle e-mailed from Madison on February 16 that “it seems (for a moment anyway) as if a new era has opened.”
This was a qualitative shift of forces exceeding anyone’s imagination. Only months before, the conservative elements of Wisconsin populism reared up to defeat Senator Russ Feingold, the very embodiment of the La Follette tradition. Tea Party–led Republicans were frothing against Barack Obama and the Democrats for seeming betrayals of their 2008 promises, and Feingold was among the fallen Democrats. No one predicted the governor’s overreach nor the cycle of progressive revolt that soon followed.
The revolt’s authenticity is shown in the inventiveness of many slogans, posters and lyrics produced by the protestors themselves. Some example:
“Cheese, Brats, Beer, Unions!” Wisconsin produces 600 kinds of cheese. Cheeseheads are prominent at Packers games, where they often nibble on fried cheese curds. The president needs to know that the derogatory “cheesehead” epithet came from Illinois football fans in the 1980s, and was quickly embraced by Wisconsin sports fans.
“Walker is a weasel, not a badger!” The badger, the state animal, is a short-legged, heavy omnivore and the mascot of the university’s sports teams. More recently, the badger has been the mascot of Hufflepuff House, with its underground tunnels, in Hogwarts School of Witchcraft in Harry Potter.
Impromptu chants were typically good-natured, from “Screw us and we’ll multiply,” to a dog carrying a “Paws to Negotiate” sign, to the ubiquitous “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!”—a chant repeated at any gesture of solidarity, especially when the cops and kilt-clad firefighters, in spite of Walker’s policy of sparing them from the cuts, sided with the demonstrators.
These examples suggest an important clue to social movements: that cultural or identity factors play a critical role alongside those of class, race and gender. Wisconsin was a homeland for populist, labor and socialist politics among European immigrants a century ago. “Sewer socialism” was a description of the success of Socialist Party mayors, especially German ones, in my parents’ youth. On February 17, Buhle wrote: “As I moved along with the tight-packed crowd, late in the afternoon, coming out of the demonstrator-filled Wisconsin capitol building and passed the statue of Hans Christian Heg [Norwegian immigrant, Union Army officer] toward the street, I touched the engraved lettering. ‘Fell at Chickamauga.’ It occurred to me that my great-great-grandfather, farmer-abolitionist Ezra Fuller, did not fall at Chickamauga, and that makes me a lucky survivor of another civil war.” (Readers’ guide: Hans Christian Heg joined a Wisconsin militia called “The Wide Awakes,” which tracked down slave-catchers before the Civil War. He joined the abolitionist Republican Party and fought in the Civil War, dying under Confederate fire in 1863. There are at least eight memorials to Heg scattered around Wisconsin towns.)
Not only was immigrant memory a unique factor, but can anyone remember the last time when the forces of law and order have sided with the trespassers in taking over government buildings for weeks at a time? The very legitimacy of Walker’s authority and legislation fell under siege after he threatened to lock the Capitol and deploy the National Guard, a unique moment in modern political history. The daily, months-long cooperation between the Madison and state police, firefighters, teachers, construction workers, students and homeless people far surpasses the momentary links between “Teamsters and Turtles” at the WTO protests in Seattle in 1999.
The common demand, says three-time Madison Mayor Paul Soglin, is “fairness,” a phrase broad enough to include collective bargaining rights, resistance to cuts in education and public services, the steady privatizing of the university, and deep populist rage against Wall Street, corporate power and particularly the billionaire Koch brothers, who are considered the deep pockets behind the Republican strategy.
The Wisconsin demands are, on the one hand, for a restoration of well-established rights, but the fervor here contains a revolutionary spirit that should make Wall Street Republicans—and timid Democrats—shudder at the force they have awakened. When old labor and progressive songs are intertwined with the deepest of local identities, the ghosts of an earlier time are being born anew.
On Wisconsin! On Wisconsin!
For schools and public workers,
Here we make our stand.
Fight, fight, fight!
On Wisconsin! On Wisconsin!
La Follette’s home,
Beneath the dome,
We sing to thee!
As I was taking notes on the Capitol steps, a pleasant middle-aged woman standing next to me introduced herself as my cousin, Maureen, “one of the Garitys of Oconomowoc.” It wasn’t an utter shock, more a pleasant surprise, since family ties and connected networks go deep in this Wisconsin movement. My mother was indeed a Garity, one of eleven sisters and a single brother, whose distant forbears included Emmett and Owen Garity. Several of the Garitys are buried in Sullivan Township near Oconomowoc, a town of 10,000 off the interstate between Madison and Milwaukee, amidst the lakes and railroad tracks where I spent my boyhood summers. The Garity farm was an outpost on the Underground Railroad.
Maureen turned out to be a state worker who was personally insulted by Walker’s early decision to take back the rotunda with troopers, metal detectors and padlocks. For Maureen, the Capitol and its massive rotunda have never been an alienating citadel of power but a “people’s house” which has always been open. The association goes back to the days of Governor La Follette who famously threw the doors open to the people during the Progressive Era.
As we exchanged family stories, the spirited rally on the steps seemed to be coming to an end. The thousands didn’t pick up their signs and trudge away, however, but instead picked up their energy and were led by the firefighters’ marching band, straight into the domed center of the building under the relaxed eyes of the police. This was the new normal of participatory democracy, and it happened twice on this particular day. Earlier, between noon and 1 pm, I stood with 250 people who took over the rotunda space for the 141st consecutive day (some said it was the 144th). There they belted out twenty-four revised protest longs in a “solidarity sing-along.” Paul Buhle pronounced it the longest such sing-along in the history of the world, with lyrics such as these:
I never knew how much I loved Wisconsin
’Til I stood in the Capitol dome
Signs on the walls and drums in the halls…
All of us standing together
Teachers in red, cops in blue
Hundreds of thousands
Show people have power
So tell me are are we gonna do?
Scotty, we’re coming for you!
The sing-along ended promptly, followed immediately by couples breaking into polka dancing. (Readers’ guide: not to be confused with a square dance, the polka was a dance craze among immigrants to Wisconsin that “coincided with the political and social upheavals of the 1840s,” according to a PBS history. “In elite Paris salons and in humble village squares and taverns, polka dancers flaunted their defiance of the staid dance forms, the minuets and quadrilles, which had preceded this raucous and, for the times, scandalous new dance.”
The Wisconsin drama is central to the 2012 election, as is the Tea Party Republicans’ broad assault on the base of the Democratic Party, and the state’s place in the Rust Belt electoral vote. Barack Obama won here in 2008 with a healthy 56.22 percent. But having beaten the respected Russ Feingold in 2010, Republicans hope to make it competitive in 2012. Wisconsin is also critical for maintaining Democratic control of the US Senate in 2012. Democratic representative Tammy Baldwin, a strong progressive, would become the first openly gay or lesbian member of the Senate.
Obama had been a regular visitor to Wisconsin until the fight over collective bargaining broke out in February. In a national television interview, he criticized the attack on labor rights, but he has been mostly silent while the drama unfolded. Many speculate that Obama and his advisers are concerned that too close an association with militant labor demonstrations will lose middle-class votes in several swing states. In addition, the president’s team may have believed that class war in Wisconsin was inconsistent with his negotiations to avoid default by achieving a budget deal with the likes of Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan. For Democrats in Wisconsin, however, the sense of abandonment by the White House has been real, and could erode Obama’s public support in 2012. Even on his Midwest listening tour in August, Obama’s bus rolled right past the Wisconsin border.
“If Obama had come here in February,” says Paul Soglin, “there would have been 150,000 people in ten-degree weather.” Among many labor leaders, John Matthews, the longtime director of the Wisconsin teachers’ union who pushed the original February walkouts, agrees with the need for Obama to step into the battle.
As long as Obama appears to be disengaged, his support is waning in Wisconsin. He must resume his frequent appearances in Wisconsin, or send Vice President Joe Biden or Labor Secretary Hilda Solis. Walker’s challenge to Wisconsin Democrats is at the forefront of the Republican challenge to Obama. In addition, Wisconsin will be the center of a hotly contested US Senate race that may determine control of the upper chamber in Washington. “If Elizabeth Warren can beat Scott Brown in Massachusetts and someone like Representative Mazie Hirono wins the open Hawaii seat, Wisconsin will be the key to holding fifty-one seats,” Nichols argues.
Democrats in Wisconsin also need Obama, according to Nichols, to help mobilize the African-American vote in places like Milwaukee to supplement the white liberal forces opposed to Walker’s draconian budget cuts.
The Tea Party has thrown down the challenge in Wisconsin. Time will tell how well the president can polka.