MADISON, WI – More than a month has passed since Wisconsin governor Scott Walker announced he would attach proposals to a minor budget repair bill to strip away the rights of public employees and teachers to organize the workplace and engage in meaningful collective bargaining. More than a month has passed, and the crowds of impassioned protesters continue to grow by the thousands.
Once again, the quiet Midwestern state of Wisconsin has become what AFSCME (American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees) president Gerald McEntee called “ground zero in the fight for labor rights in the United States,” in an address he gave at the capitol in February.
The first time Wisconsin became “ground zero” was in the early 20th century, when then-Governor Robert La Follette prompted President Theodore Roosevelt to call the state a “laboratory of democracy.” The state became the successful testing ground for many social reforms in the United States including worker’s compensation, unemployment insurance, and public employee bargaining.
University of Wisconsin professors, the same professors who also helped design Social Security, founded AFSCME itself, and Wisconsin reformers eventually led the nation in natural resource conservation through the efforts of some of the nation’s first ecologists, including the famous author Aldo Leopold.
This is the political history that eventually became the progressive tradition in the Dairy State, and as Walker’s bill threatens to undo more than fifty years of this social reform, hundreds of thousands of public workers and their supporters took to the streets in Madison to demonstrate their anger and frustration.
Celebrity speakers like Michael Moore, Tony Shaloub, Susan Sarandon, and Nation journalist John Nichols took turns speaking over a public address system that could be heard down Madison’s State Street, punctuated by rallying speeches from farm workers, teamsters, public schoolteachers, firefighters, policemen, and supporters from all walks of life.
Some pro-Walker counter demonstrators walked the streets among the seemingly boundless throngs of protestors, carrying signs with such slogans as “Democrat runaway hotline: 1-800-COWARDS,” in reference to the 14 Democratic senators who fled the state in response to Governor Walker and 19 Republican senators’ refusal to negotiate the passage of the bill, “Get back to work!” and “deport anti-Walker protestors.”
The controversy over Scott Walker’s actions morphed into raucous rallying cries for revolution among the hundred-thousand strong crowd of protesters, citing Walker’s known connection to billionaire campaign financers Charles and David Koch and Walker’s previous open support of the Citizens United v. FEC US Supreme Court decision as symbols of the GOP and American government’s at large connection with the 1% wealthy elite in the country.
This conduct by Walker, coupled with newfound sentiments among protestors that extend far beyond collective bargaining, provoked a level of divisiveness and vehement partisan hostility that have long been off the table in the quiet state of Wisconsin.
Demonstrators have made it known that they will continue to organize en masse around the Capitol building in Madison, while rallies across the state and the rest of the country in support of the movement have begun to take shape. Protestors in Wisconsin organized efforts of direct action such as signing recall petition pledges, and vocally supporting self-described “radical” judge Joanne Kloppenburg for the State Supreme Court elections in early April.
What remains to be seen is what may happen if the movement has its local victories – the repeal of the Bill, the ousting of Walker, and the appointment of Kloppenburg to the Supreme Court; will this new and powerful sentiment against the country’s wealthy elite and major government spurn a larger movement outside of Wisconsin?
At a rally in Hayward, Wis., last Saturday, Democratic senator Bob Jauch called the movement “our young people’s modern-day Civil Rights Movement,” giving the atmosphere a tenor of far greater importance than simply restoring collective bargaining rights to public employees in Wisconsin.