On Sunday, February 13, 2011, a few hundred union members gathered at the state capitol building in Madison, WI to confront Gov. Scott Walker over a bill designed to strip public employees of their right to organize. The next day, they were joined by over a thousand teaching assistants from the state’s two public universities. The day after that, Madison schools were closing because teachers had moved from the classrooms to the front lines; news reports estimated 10,000 people inside the capitol, and another 3,000 protesting outside in the winter cold.
By the end of the week, 70,000 people filled Madison’s streets, and 14 state legislators had fled to Illinois rather than give Walker a quorum to vote on his horrible bill. The numbers continued to snowball, until the protest peaked at 180,000 people early the following week. Glenn Beck was booted off his Madison radio affiliate. The entire state was radicalized — setting the stage for a similar showdown when Gov. John Kasich of Ohio attempts a similar bill a few weeks later.
It’s a thrilling story that progressives need to hear, know, write on their hearts, and tell over and over for decades to come. These are the moments we tell our grandkids about, the ones where we say, proudly: “We were there.”
On Tuesday morning of the Take Back the American Dream conference, a standing-room-only crowd got to hear the story told by nearly a dozen of the people who lived it. The conversation, moderated by John Nichols — a Wisconsin-born journalist for The Nation who found himself at the center of the story — was given deeper context by the Occupy Wall Street protests, which everyone recognized as the next step in the movement that they started.
“This is bringing Wisconsin to Manhattan,” Nichols. “Those who are elected are not to rule as despots for four years.”
Mahlon Mitchell, the president of the firefighters’ union (who is now challenging Walker for his job in the coming recall), recalled the transformational moment that the firefighters — who had endorsed Walker, and had been exempted from the rights-stripping effort in return — marched up to the capitol in their dress uniforms, with a band of bagpipers announcing their arrival.
“When he told us he was going to [strip everyone else's bargaining rights], we not only told him ‘no;’ we told him ‘hell, no,’” recalled Mitchell. “We knew that it was a divide-and-conquer tactic, and we knew they’d be coming after us next.”
On the way to the march, the firefighters stopped off at the Madison M&I Bank and collectively withdrew $290,000 in personal funds — enough to cause a run on the bank, and put it out of business. They then headed over to the capitol, with their bagpipers. “We were just responding to an emergency — that’s what cops and firefighters do.” Mitchell said. “There was an emergency in our state, and we needed to be there.”
(Mitchell offered another piece of sage advice for organizers everywhere: “Never go anywhere without bagpipers.”)
The first national union to take up the cause was the United Steelworkers, even though they’re not a public employees’ union and weren’t threatened by Walker’s bill. Mike Pyne pointed out that their interests converge: “It has a lot to do with our membership, because our members pay taxes, which have a lot to do with city and county services. We are intertwined; one can’t survive without the other.
Doug Burnett of ASCME became the point man on the attempt to recall Republican state senators who supported Walker’s putch. “We’re blessed with some good history,” he said, noting that the first recall law in America was put on the books in Wisconsin by progressive legend Bob LaFollette — and it was put there specifically to allow the state’s citizens to oust would-be union-busters. But before this year, it had only been used twice in over 80 years on the books.
AFSCME was the natural leader for this fight. “We’re the only union that gets to elect our bosses,” he said. He also pointed out that the recall mania that followed the protests was started by the Republicans, who launched the first recall effort against one of the Democrats who’d left the state to prevent the bill’s passage. “They picked the fight, but we beat them back — hard.”
Courtney Foley of the UFCW picked up the story of how the protests moved into Ohio on February 18. In one day flat, the legislature introduced and passed a union-stripping law, and Gov. Kasich signed it. But they had their revenge: eight weeks later, the unions had collected 1.3 million signatures – enough petitions that they threatened to break the floor of the secretary of state’s office when they were delivered. Those petitions are now on the November ballot as Issue 2.
“One of the things we’ve learned is that we have to stop trying just not to lose,” said SEIU organizer Bruce Colburn. “As we do these fights, we have to make sure that after every fight, we’re stronger than when we entered the fight.” He also pointed out that a big part of the Wisconsin story was in the small towns where people organized in support of the recalls — a point echoed by Mary Bell of the teacher’s union, who pointed out that when Walker went after teachers, voters saw that as going after their own kids’ educations as well — and the resulting rage fueled much of the backlash.
“Who is coming up with these bad ideas?” asked Mary Bottari of the Center for Media and Democracy. She and her colleagues came up with the answer, doing the deep research on the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC). “We know that Scott Walker is not the brightest bulb on the planet,” she said dryly; he couldn’t be coming up with all this mischief on his own. The CMD’s research uncovered the link to ALEC — a national conservative group that develops model policy and rolls it out across the states — during the Ohio campaign. Bottari noted that conservative efforts to gut public sector jobs will be the death of many small towns where public sector jobs are the only decent jobs left. “Take those way, and people have got nothing.”
Scott Goodstein was among the organizers doing on-the-fly organizing as people and resources flowed into Madison. He emphasized the essential role that social media played in bringing crowds together. When several musical groups, including Street Dogs, MC5, and members of Rage Against The Machine, decided to do a show in support of the Madison protests, they promoted it on Facebook, and turned out 6,000 mostly young protestors literally overnight. When Michael Moore announced at noon that he was coming to speak at the firehouse, they passed the word to people by phone. Just a few hours later: “When they pushed open the door of the firehouse, there were six thousand teachers and firefighters, with the bagpipers, waiting for him.”
What comes next? Of course, there’s the Ohio vote on Issue 2 on November 8, and the expected recall of Scott Walker in early 2012. In addition, an activist from Phoenix announced that ALEC is having a three-day summit meeting from November 30 to December 2 to indoctrinate new members of the Arizona legislature; protests are now being planned. In New Hampshire, where Republicans outnumber Democrats in the legislature by two-to-one, they’re also fighting the full ALEC agenda, which is being rammed through despite consistent vetoes from the Democratic governor. There, too, people are organizing.
And what lessons should we take away from the days of rage and glory in Wisconsin and Ohio? John Nichols offered some reflections in closing. A protest has to be deeply rooted in the progressive history of the place where you are. Invoking Wisconsin at a protest in Oregon won’t resonate as well as another story that roots the protest in a piece of Oregon’s own culture and history. “Every state has its own heart and soul. Dig deep into who you are.”