An Outside Agitator in Wisconsin

By Joe Richard

About 6 months ago, I had the incredible good fortune to be offered a plane ticket to Madison, Wisc., to participate in the massive protests and union mobilizations which had only recently begun there. I’d been following developments closely, and with the popular revolution having just toppled Hosni Mubarak in Cairo only days before, it seemed like workers in the US had finally caught the bug of popular resistance. I loaded a backpack full of flimsy Florida cold weather clothing, notebooks and pens and flew out the next day. I was an outside agitator on the way to cause as much trouble as I could for Gov. Walker.

What I witnessed in Madison was unlike anything I’d ever experienced before. Walking through the doors to the occupied capitol (which had been held by the workers movement for a week or so at this point) was a sight to see. Thousands of union members, students and community members packed every level of the rotunda, chanting, cheering, singing, hugging and making speeches and appeals for solidarity. The teachers wore red shirts, thousands strong. The teamsters in black. AFSCME members in green. Thousands of posters, placards, pledges of support and encouragement, union banners and flags decorated the walls of the capitol, like an honor roll of every union across the country. Supporters used the bull horn to read out declarations of solidarity from every corner of the country, and the globe. A message from the Egyptian textile workers was read out. Then the Iranian bus drivers union. And the Brits, French and Greeks alike. “Hold strong, brothers and sisters,” they read, “and trust to your own strength.” The US working class had once more burst onto the stage of history, and they knew it.

The whole city was infected with the spirit of rebellion against what the old Wisconsin populist “Fighting Bob” LaFollette had termed the “new and dark power” of corporate domination. Every business which didn’t want to be shuttered immediately posted pro-worker placards in their windows. Workers from each and every trade wore their work uniforms out on their days and nights off, finally proud to be a member of the working class in a society which cynically sneers at their position. Ironworkers and plumbers roamed the streets and held court at bars, proudly wearing their hard hats covered with union stickers. Nurses and hospital workers wore their scrubs, while the university cafeteria workers boasted their chef coats and firefighters wore their helmets.

The feeling was infectious. Absolute strangers embraced each other on street corners or high-fived each other as passersby on the sidewalk, exhilarated that finally our side had stood up for itself and started slugging back. You could start up a verse of “Solidarity Forever” or “Which Side Are You On?” outside a pub at any time of night in any part of town and other voices would rise up to join yours, echoing up and down the streets. People had pride in what they did for a living, and what they had just done at the capitol. And they should have too. Occupying a capitol building for weeks on end to block anti-worker legislation against the wishes of the vicious right wing governor, and the Democrats as well, took courage, and there was plenty of it to go around in Madison.

You could watch people’s ideas changing. Talking with thousands of other ordinary folks made people realize that their own “private” struggles in their daily lives were actually part of broader problems. People felt their own power, many for the first time in their lives. And it was exciting. Conversations ran late into the night, every night, both inside the capitol and outside. My skin shivered when I sat with a table of union stagehands, electricians and a lesbian firefighter, who was explaining to the brothers how “the bosses use homophobia to divide the workers against each other.” They all paused for a moment, mulling it over. “She’s right, goddamnit!” yelled the husky electrician, before buying the next round.

Perhaps the feeling of solidarity was all too infectious for some people. By the end of February, the top leadership of Wisconsin labor at the statewide level decided to call off its participation in the protests and the capitol occupation, under orders from the Democratic Party. But their own members didn’t listen, and continued to pour into Madison day after day and weekend after weekend, forcing the leadership to play catch up. Even more frightening to the leadership had been the talk of widespread strike action in protest of Walker’s anti-union bill, possibly even culminating with a general strike, which for a time was a very real possibility. And within the capitol, a constant, running political battle was being played out, by the forces inside the movement who wanted to maintain the occupation as a continuous direct challenge against Scott Walker and those who wanted to abandon it.

From the very beginning, the official Democratic Party was opposed to the occupation. When it began by spontaneous attempts to block the entrance into the Senate gallery, the Democratic Senators had no choice but to flee the state to prevent quorum from being reached. As the weeks panned out, again and again the Democratic Assemblymen came inside the capitol, urging people to leave and abandon the most effective tactic used since the Sit Down Strikes of the 1930s. Despite the massive outpouring of support from all around the country and the world, and the shifting in popular opinion towards public sector workers (because of that very occupation of the capitol), we were told that we would only fuel the fire of anti-union sentiment, and that the occupation was hurting our side’s image. Eventually, by working with the police to slowly dwindle down the occupation, the Democrats were finally able to push the occupiers to abandon the capitol.

People felt their own power, many for the first time in their lives. And it was exciting.

We were told that instead of direct action, we should go knock on doors for the recall elections, the Democrats’ magnificent plan to flip one house of the legislature into their own party’s control. Instead of pressing home the offensive with the singularly effective tactic of blocking the capitol with non-violent civil disobedience, the movement was almost entirely de-mobilized and sent out into the wilderness of rural Wisconsin for 5 months, knocking on the doors of ultra-conservatives and asking them to vote out the very same people they had just elected, because of their Tea Party conservatism. Labor spent millions of dollars and sent thousands of volunteers into the field to campaign for Democratic candidates who didn’t even pledge to overturn Walker’s anti-union legislation after it was passed.

It was a bad plan from the start. And it didn’t pan out. The Democrats were only able to pick up two seats in the Senate out of a possible 6. Now they still have no majority in any chamber of the legislature of Wisconsin. And they spent millions of dollars and thousands of volunteer hours on it. It’s a textbook case of how to snatch defeat out of the jaws of victory. I imagine that many people who participated in the occupation and the workers movement in Wisconsin are very disoriented right now. Many are demoralized. Some will walk away from any sort of activism or politics altogether. But some won’t. And many of these people won’t forget the lessons they learned from the movement, and will apply them again in the next battle. The uprising in Madison was only the first major battle of the Great Recession. More will come. And next time our side will do well to heed the words of our brothers and sisters around the world, maintaining our political independence, and “trusting to our own strength.”

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