“Words Can’t Articulate the Joy”: Wisconsin Workers Celebrate Scott Walker’s Defeat

Kathy Wilkes November 9, 2018

Peppi Elder celebrates Gov. Scott Walker's defeat with the other Solidarity Singers--who have met 1,999 times on weekdays at noon to protest Walker--at the Capitol rotunda in Madison on Nov. 7, 2018.

Joy is the order of the day as 100 peo­ple or so con­gre­gate at the rotun­da of the Wis­con­sin Capi­tol in Madi­son just hours after incum­bent Repub­li­can Scott Walk­er con­ced­ed the guber­na­to­r­i­al elec­tion to Demo­c­ra­t­ic chal­lenger Tony Evers, a for­mer teacher who heads the state’s edu­ca­tion department.

It’s an emo­tion­al cel­e­bra­tion. Old friends and allies greet one anoth­er with warm hugs, hap­py tears, cheers of delight and sighs of relief. They form a cir­cle for, lit­er­al­ly, the 1,999th gath­er­ing of the Sol­i­dar­i­ty Sing Along,” an hour-long, infor­mal event held every Mon­day through Fri­day at noon.

Songs of sol­i­dar­i­ty and protest have filled the Capi­tol, buoyed spir­its and lift­ed hearts dur­ing the eight years that pur­ple Wis­con­sin bled beet red after the dis­as­trous midterms of 2010. Upon tak­ing office, Walk­er and state­house Repub­li­cans imme­di­ate­ly moved to strip pub­lic sec­tor work­ers of union rights, spurring an upris­ing that erupt­ed in Feb­ru­ary 2011 and con­tin­ued into 2012 and beyond. Mas­sive protests, bit­ter recall elec­tions and mul­ti­ple occu­pa­tions of the Capi­tol cap­tured the atten­tion of the nation and the world.

Through­out it all, the his­toric bust of Fight­in’ Bob La Fol­lette peered from its perch under the Capi­tol dome like the Ghost of Repub­li­can Pro­gres­sivism Past. Between 1880 and 1924, this pro-work­er, anti­war, life­long Repub­li­can served as a dis­trict attor­ney, U.S. sen­a­tor, Wis­con­sin gov­er­nor and pres­i­den­tial can­di­date on the Pro­gres­sive Par­ty tick­et. He fought for farm­ers, work­ers, pub­lic edu­ca­tion, checks on cor­po­rate pow­er and reforms to curb polit­i­cal corruption.

La Fol­let­te’s bust became a touch­stone and ral­ly­ing point in 2011 for a new gen­er­a­tion of Pro­gres­sives who protest­ed, got arrest­ed and were exon­er­at­ed for exer­cis­ing their First Amend­ment rights to assem­ble, speak freely and peti­tion the Gov­ern­ment for a redress of grievances.”

Ron Edwards was among them. He is here still. And he’s no spring chick­en. Retired oh, 10 to 15 years ago,” Ron was a cus­to­di­an at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Wis­con­sin Wais­man Cen­ter and a mem­ber of AFSCME Local 171. He’s been a fre­quent Sol­i­dar­i­ty Singer, when­ev­er weath­er per­mits him to take the bus from his home eight miles away. He brings a cow­bell — it’s the only instru­ment I know how to play” — and although he walks painful­ly with a cane, he can shake his booty with the best of them when the music moves him. He loves when impromp­tu bands pop in with ban­joes and trom­bones. You just keep mak­ing noise,” he says. That’s the best thing to do. I’ve been union all my life.”

Walk­er made a fatal error piss­ing off peo­ple like Ron, espe­cial­ly teach­ers, the high­ly-respect­ed edu­ca­tors legal­ly respon­si­ble for the K‑12 kids in their care. Start­ing with the 2011 pas­sage of anti-union laws and a new bud­get, Walk­er cut already-mod­est wages and ben­e­fits, as well as edu­ca­tion fund­ing, caus­ing a rash of res­ig­na­tions and mak­ing replace­ments dif­fi­cult to recruit. By 2016, a quar­ter of school dis­tricts report­ed an extreme short­age” of qual­i­fied teach­ers. Dur­ing his fail­ing pres­i­den­tial cam­paign that same year, Walk­er com­pared protest­ing teach­ers to ter­ror­ists,” which only strength­ened their resolve and the move­ment to invest in pub­lic education.

Retired teacher Don­na Palmer is real­ly exhil­a­rat­ed for Wis­con­sin” now. Walk­er, she says, broke the union. It was a very per­son­al affront to democ­ra­cy over which we are hav­ing a vic­to­ry today.”

Inter­views become impos­si­ble as the crowd swells and echoes of bois­ter­ous songs bounce off the mar­ble walls. Escap­ing to the qui­et of a near­by ladies room” is nec­es­sary to hear retired teacher Cee Cee Cohen, who is inter­rupt­ed only once by a flush­ing toilet.

I’ve been here at the Capi­tol since Day One,” she says, so this elec­tion is glo­ri­ous. The fact that Walk­er was beat­en by a teacher is the cream on top!”

As thrilling as defeat of an arch­en­e­my may be, activists here take noth­ing for grant­ed. It’s a fool me once, fool me twice” kind of thing, the result of recalls and elec­tions that came only so close to restor­ing the comi­ty Wis­con­sin was once known for and the long-cher­ished pro­gres­sive tra­di­tions that, before Walk­er et al, had been in place for more than 100 years.

On the Repub­li­cans’ watch, union mem­ber­ship plum­met­ed 40 per­cent, with only a slight uptick by the end of 2017. A report sum­ma­riz­ing mul­ti­ple eco­nom­ic analy­ses shows slug­gish job growth, stag­nant wages, a shrink­ing mid­dle class and gap­ing income inequal­i­ty. Peo­ple of col­or are espe­cial­ly hard hit.

Walk­er and Repub­li­cans also pri­va­tized pub­lic lands, slashed reg­u­la­tions and hand­ed out huge tax breaks to cor­po­rate inter­ests, includ­ing $4.5 bil­lion to high tech com­pa­ny Fox­Conn—a move that left most vot­ers cold. It was all done under the pre­text of pros­per­i­ty that, for most, nev­er materialized.

Repub­li­cans will retain con­trol of the leg­is­la­ture. That’s thanks to their ger­ry­man­dered dis­tricts and vot­er sup­pres­sion laws, says Kevin Gund­lach, pres­i­dent of the South Cen­tral Fed­er­a­tion of Labor (SCFL, appro­pri­ate­ly pro­nounced scuf­fle”). Now they are look­ing at ways to lim­it Tony Ever­s’s pow­ers as gov­er­nor. The more we win, the more we force the Repub­li­cans to cheat!”

Vic­to­ria Gutier­rez is a proud union RN with SEIU Health Care Wis­con­sin” and an active SCFL del­e­gate. She jokes about get­ting slight­ly buzzed lat­er with a cel­e­bra­to­ry cock­tail, but after eight years in the trench­es, is under no illu­sions. We need­ed this vic­to­ry, but I don’t want the momen­tum to stop: There is so much work ahead to undo what Walk­er and com­pa­ny did these last eight years against Wis­con­sin work­ers. This was a momen­tary reprieve to regain strength to con­tin­ue onward: One day longer. One day stronger!”

Bill Franks, chief stew­ard emer­i­tus of WPEC/AFT Local 4848, cau­tions that re-estab­lish­ing work­er rights will be slow. Walk­er made his name decreas­ing com­pen­sa­tion and increas­ing costs for 100,000 pub­lic sec­tor work­ers by three quar­ters of a bil­lion dol­lars. The effects on the state econ­o­my have been devastating.”

Char­i­ty Schmidt was an activist with the Teach­ing Assis­tants Asso­ci­a­tion at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Wis­con­sin when Walk­er launched his scheme to bust pub­lic sec­tor unions. She went on a few years lat­er to work with SCFL and is thrilled almost to the point of speech­less­ness about the election.

Words can’t ade­quate­ly artic­u­late the joy I feel watch­ing Walk­er lose. Final­ly. But our nar­row mar­gin of vic­to­ry means that we need to keep peo­ple engaged and push for polit­i­cal solu­tions to improve peo­ples’ every­day lives.”

In a deli­cious bit of irony with a side of kar­ma, Walk­er can’t con­test that nar­row mar­gin” because of a law he signed in 2016 to lim­it recounts. It’s a hot top­ic among the Sol­i­dar­i­ty Singers and admir­ers who, accus­tomed to years of one-hour, lunch-break ses­sions, dis­perse quick­ly into the grey of the near-freez­ing autumn afternoon.

How dif­fer­ent it is from the peak of the upris­ing in ear­ly 2011 when the Capi­tol and sur­round­ing streets were jammed with as many as 150,000 demon­stra­tors, often led by Wis­con­sin AFL-CIO pres­i­dent Phil Neuen­feldt.

Sad­ly, Phil died just two months after retire­ment and two days before the 2018 midterms. He missed the biggest, best protest of all — over 1.3 mil­lion strong — march­ing to the polls and final­ly pre­vail­ing in kick­ing Walk­er and his top offi­cers to the curb.

Phil and Fight­in’ Bob would have loved that.

Kathy Wilkes is an award-win­ning labor writer and edi­tor, and a for­mer union orga­niz­er, co-founder, offi­cer, nego­tia­tor, and com­mu­ni­ca­tions direc­tor. She is based in Madison.
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