Wisconsin Struggle is a Teachable Moment: America Ain’t Broke

Roger Bybee

Jo Scheder looks through hundreds of signs removed from the Wisconsin State Capitol on March 8, 2011 in Madison, Wis. Some unclaimed posters will be acquired by the Wisconsin Historical Society.

MILWAUKEE — Public opinion in Wisconsin over collective bargaining rights continues to turn more strongly against Gov. Scott Walker’s effort to crush public-sector unions here. The new Republican governor’s scheme for a Reaganesque PATCO-destroying example has instead produced a massive blowback.

Wisconsinites have come to recognize that Walker’s campaign against public-sector unions is just one part of a larger plan to essentially repeal all 20th century reforms. Walker isn’t just after workers’ rights, but also the environmental protections, quality public education for all, women’s rights, privatization of the highly-esteemed University of Wisconsin-Madison and fair taxation of corporations and the rich.

However, crucial work remains: Activists must go beyond erecting a massive defensive barrier against the Right’s onslaught to develop a set of coherent themes that can revitalize a powerful, independent grassroots movement among labor and its allies. This would also provide direction to a Democratic Party that has been drifting aimlessly in recent years. 

The very first task is shoring up the 14 fugitive Democratic state senators whose absence deprives Walkers and the GOP of a certain victory against public-sector unions. They need to be encouraged from Wisconsin and across the country that the potential for a victory over the anti-union provisions looks promising — if they stay strong.

The 14 Democratic runaway senators, taking refuge in Illinois, are holding firm so far, despite clumsy efforts by Walker and his allies to divide them. But don’t forget, the Democrats, when it comes to hanging tough and negotiating hard, have a deplorable role model in Barack Obama. Obama’s ingrained tendency is to agree to every key Republican assumption and concede on vital issues even before he reaches the bargaining table. We have good reason to fear that this has become an acceptable strategy for Democrats, allowing them to crow about bipartisan deals — even if they gave away the store.

Fortunately, Gov. Walker is petulantly asserting that he won’t return to the bargaining table because he claims the Democrats gave him mixed signals on what they would accept. This stance serves to further isolate Walker. Fully 65% of Wisconsinites believe that Walker should compromise, according to a poll by the far-Right Wisconsin Policy Research Institute. But we need to keep in mind that labor has already given up everything it can, and that the right to unionize is not negotiable.


The hundreds of thousands of pro-union protesters at the State Capitol in Madison have begun to translate their outrage into very focused and high-energy efforts to recall 8 of the 19 Republicans in the State Senate, 18 of whom are supporting the anti-union provisions.

For example, in the district just north of where I live, hundreds of people lined up around the corner this past Saturday to get into a meeting to chart out the recall of State Sen. Alberta Darling, who has cynically played the role of Republican moderate” while voting with her party whenever the chips were down.

In a single weekend, the recall campaign gathered 25% of the signatures that will be needed by May 1 to force a recall election for Darling. Even at an upper-middle class suburban shopping strip, the recall petitioners were greeted enthusiastically. In contrast, right-wing efforts to recall Democrats have drawn gatherings of 20 to 40 people scattered across otherwise vacant auditoriums as shown on local TV news programs that refrained from providing estimates of the pathetic numbers.

Meanwhile, as if their troubles weren’t deep enough, Walker and the Right have been mass-producing more enemies.

His complete budget proposal released last week, premised on shielding the super-rich and corporations (as previously noted, about 62% of corporations with revenues of $100 million or more pay nothing in state corporate income taxes) from any tax increases, contains $900 million in cuts to public education, vast cuts to cities and municipalities, privatization of the Univeristy of Wisconsin-Madison, the removal of recycling programs in defiance of state law, and cuts off all funding for family planning and preventive healthcare for women’s reproductive systems, and also encourages insurers to exclude prescription birth control from their drug plans.

So local public officials, school administrators and school board members, university administrators and faculties, parents of schoolkids, environmentalists, healthcare professionals, and women — if not previously infuriated by Walker — are certainly getting fired up now.


The Right, which had been licking its chops a few weeks back at the prospect of a quick and decisive victory, is feeling rudderless, powerless and is lashing out blindly. As UW-Madison political scientist Ken Goldstein observed with some understatement, He’s [Walker] not winning the message battle at this point.”

So Walker is left to sputtering about paid, professional protesters” coming into the state. Similarly, Republican State Sen. Glenn Grothmann called the demonstrators slobs” in a futile attempt to marginalize them as long-haired 1960s hippies, a myth belied by the constant TV images of neatly-dressed burly Middle American firefighters, cops, truck drivers, and fashionably-dressed teachers, nurses and librarians who have made up the huge crowds in Madison.

These kind of attacks not only strengthen the resolve of the pro-union protesters, but further indicate how profound out of touch the Republicans are.

On March 12, Midwestern farmers are planning to travel to Madison for a tractor-cade” around the State Capitol to coincide with one of the biggest rallies held thus far. The entrance of family farmers into the pro-labor coalition seems like a flash-back from the 1930s when the Depression produced alliances of dirt-poor farmers and urban workers in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and other Midwestern states.

This further diversifies an incredibly broad base of support that extends from Catholic archbishops to the Super-Bowl winning Green Bay Packers.


All good, so far. But I have some concerns over the long haul.

Labor activists have successfully persuaded most Wisconsin citizens that public employees are not the cause of the $3.6 billion budget shortfall, that public workers did not take away their shrinking health and pension benefits, and that the budget cannot be balanced by depriving public workers of their union rights.

We have succeeded in persuading the majority that the Wisconsin budget shortfall is being handled with a chainsaw by Scott Walker, but most people are not yet fully seeing the big picture. A majority of Wisconsin still accepts the notion that the budget crisis is deep and necessitates cuts in services and inftrastructure, as well as some reductions in public workers’ wages and benefits.

Filmmaker Michael Moore boldly sketched out the larger backdrop of the Wisconsin battle last Saturday at the Capitol when he stressed, America is not broke.” The problem, he explained, is that income and wealth are so intensely concentrated at the top. Working people and the poor afford to spend to get the economic recovery really rolling, and corporations and the banks refuse to spend on U.S. job creation, preferring either to sit on their $2 trillion in reserves or invest in low-wage nations like Mexico, China and India.

Our crisis is not one of public over-spending, but largely the result of state and national treasuries being deprived of tax revenues by corporations and the super-rich taking advantage of every tax break, subsidy, and tax haven imaginable.


At the same time, the ongoing recession caused by the Wall Street meltdown — whose perpetrators have all recovered nicely, with not a single wrong-doer going to jail — reduces the incomes of working people, harms small businesses, and deprives the state of tax revenue

The present moment thus provides a very unique opportunity to popularize that message and begin to turn around labor’s light both in Wisconsin and nationally. If we are bold and tough enough, it also gives us an unexpected chance to seize victory from the jaws of a devastating defeat that would be felt across the nation.

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Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer and University of Illinois visiting professor in Labor Education. Roger’s work has appeared in numerous national publications, including Z magazine, Dollars & Sense, The Progressive, Progressive Populist, Huffington Post, The American Prospect, Yes! and Foreign Policy in Focus. More of his work can be found at zcom​mu​ni​ca​tions​.org/​z​s​p​a​c​e​/​r​o​g​e​r​d​bybee.
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