The Meaning of Madison

The Congressional and state elections of November 2010 were a sweeping triumph for the ever more reactionary Republicans, with regressive consequences in Washington and state capitals across the United States. Claiming (incorrectly) that "the people had spoken" on behalf of more "conservative" policy in the mid-term elections, the nation's center-right president Barack Obama tilted further to the business-friendly right in the opening months of 2011.


Then came Wisconsin, the rapidly anointed watchword for popular and progressive revival that seemed to have taken off in that state's capital city, Madison, in February 2011. The spark was provided by Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, one of many hard-right Republicans elected with Tea Party support at the state level in November 2010. A fiercely dedicated capitalist ideologue carried away with the sense of his own messianic mission to inflict historic damage on organized labor and the Democratic Party, Walker was not content with center-right business as usual—i.e., balancing budgets on the backs of working people and the poor while handing out tax cuts to the wealthy few. He and his Republican comrades saw a shining opportunity to make capitalist history by breaking the back of unions in the public sector, the last bastion of labor power in the U.S. (government workers currently account for half of the remaining unionized American workforce.) On February 11, Walker advanced a "budget repair bill" that not only significantly reduced the wages and benefits paid to the state's public workers, but also effectively stripped those workers of their hard-won collective bargaining rights.


Speaking to a liberal blogger posing as the billionaire David Koch, while large crowds protested outside his office in the Madison Capitol, Walker likened his stand to that taken by President Ronald Reagan when he fired the nation's air-traffic controllers during a labor dispute in 1981. "That was the first crack in the Berlin Wall and led to the fall of the Soviets," Walker claimed. Walker said he expected the anti-union movement to spread across the country and that he had spoken with the governors of Ohio and Nevada. The blogger pretending to be Koch agreed, telling Walker, "You're the first domino." Walker responded affirmatively: "Yep, this is our moment." Walker admitted to having considered sending agent provocateurs into the crowds to cause disruptions (to provide a pretext for repression), but told the blogger that he had opted instead to wait for the media to lose interest in the protests (R. Foley, "On Prank Call, Governor Discusses Strategy," AP, February 22, 2011).


Consistent with Walker's identification as a Tea Party Republican, the billionaire brothers and leading Tea Party sponsors Charles and David Koch (both fierce union opponents) were among his biggest campaign contributors. Koch Industries' political action committee gave $43,000 to Walker's campaign and David Koch gave $1 million to the Republican Governors' Association, which funded ads attacking Walker's opponent in the run-up to elections. Walker was also backed by the militantly anti-union, right-wing, and Milwaukee-based Bradley Foundation and by the Koch arm Americans for Prosperity (AFP), a leading Tea Party group, which launched a $320,000 television ad campaign in support of Walker's bill on February 23, 2011. "Even before the new governor was sworn in last month," AFP president Tim Phillips told New York Times reporter Eric Lipton on February 20, "executives from the Koch-backed group had worked behind the scenes to try to encourage a union showdown" ("Billionaire Brothers' Money Plays Role in Wisconsin Dispute," NYT, February 21). Sordidly enough, Walker's bill also permitted his administration to sell power plants that heat and cool state buildings to private companies without any bids, letting the Koch brothers' business interests buy up the energy facilities on the cheap. The Associated Press reported that Koch Industries maintained "extensive business operations" in Wisconsin and "recently opened a lobbying office in downtown Madison, a block from the Capitol.


It was one thing for Walker to require public sector unions (above all the Wisconsin Education Association and the Wisconsin chapters of the American Federation of State, Municipal, and County Employees) to make concessions that could be reversed at the bargaining table when state finances returned to greater health. It was another thing for him to combine the demand for givebacks with an attack on the very existence of unions. Walker's assault was widely and quite understandably perceived by much of the state's working populace as an egregious top-down attack on their basic human and civil rights within and beyond the workplace.


Who's Sitting In?


What followed the unveiling of Walker's "budget-repair" bill was remarkable. It deserves to be celebrated by those seeking a long overdue progressive renewal in the United States. Walker expected to pass his bill quickly through both houses of the Wisconsin state legislature in mid-February. He was prevented from achieving this, however, when 14 of Wisconsin's Democratic state senators left the state, preventing the upper legislative body from assembling the number of representatives required under the state constitution to vote on a budget-related matter. The real protest initiative, though, came from the bottom up. Amid the paralysis of the legislative process resulting from the absence of the "Fab 14" (as many union supporters would soon label the in-flight senators), the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison became the site of a remarkable five-week protest that sparked support demonstrations across the country and received statements of solidarity from around the world. From one day to the next, tens of thousands of public union members, activists, and supporters marched and rallied around and inside the Capitol Rotunda. In the first week of protests, schools were closed in and beyond Madison as teachers and other public school employees flocked to the state capital to show their opposition to Walker's attack on labor rights. Marchers carried posters that likened the governor to the U.S.-backed Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak. The Egyptian trade union leader Kamal Abbas reciprocated by sending Wisconsin workers a statement saying, "We Stand With You as You Stood With Us."


I drove to Madison to observe and assist this exceptional labor protest on Saturday, February 19, a day when Tea Party activists vowed to hold a rally in support of Walker. I joined a sea of chanting, whistling, drumming, joyous and diverse pro-labor humanity surrounding a comparatively tiny assemblage (500-1,000 people tops) of angry "Tea Partiers," organized by the Koch brothers-funded AFP. The Tea Party contingent was outnumbered by at least 60 to 1—unreported in Chicago's evening news broadcasts, which portrayed the day as pitting 2 roughly equivalent protests against one another.


It wasn't just size that differentiated the two sides from one another. Equally significant was their comparative spirit and mood. The Walker forces were sour and irritated at the requirement to gather collectively and make noise. Brandishing posters that depicted Obama as a Soviet-style Communist, they spewed bitter accusations at the supposed reckless "socialism" of "radical left" big government Democrats. The Tea Partiers' mean-spirited message was clear to the workers and professionals who teach the state's children and plow its highways and clean the bathrooms of its state, county, and municipal buildings: "Shut the hell up, go back to work, and be thankful for whatever we see fit to pay you."


By contrast, the pro-labor mass was a model of festive good humor with music and street theater, including a pro-union Fife and Drum corps in colonial-revolutionary garb, a man dressed as "Darth Walker," and the impressive bagpipes of kilt-wearing members of the Firefighters' Union. Joyful and supportive conversation was free and easy among participants. The protestors' signage included:


"This is Not a Tea Party"

"No Tea for Me"


"Wississippi: The Walker Tea Party Agenda"


"Don't Drink the Tea"


"Union Blood is Thicker Than Tea"


"Corporate Street Walker"


"Wisconsinites Love Beer and Bratwurst—Nobody Ordered Tea"


"Governor Walker, You Have Awakened a Sleeping Giant: The Working Class"


On the 19th and throughout subsequent pro-union actions inside and beyond the Capitol Rotunda, protestors and speakers repeatedly eschewed the standard discourse of "defending the middle class" to describe themselves and their struggle in terms of the working class.


Unlike the Obama-obsessed Tea Partiers, the pro-union crowds in and around the Rotunda seemed uninterested in the question of who sat atop the national media-politics extravaganza. With tens of thousands of them circling the Capitol and thousands occupying the structure itself, it seemed as if the protestors were channeling the late radical historian Howard Zinn's wisdom on how "the really critical thing isn't who's sitting in the White House, but who is sitting in the streets, in the cafeterias, in the halls of government, in the factories. Who is protesting, who is occupying offices and demonstrating—those are the things that determine what happens."


Three days later, on February 22, the Madison-based 97-union South Central Labor Federation (representing 45,000 public and private sector union members in southern and central Wisconsin) passed a resolution in support of exploring the possibility of calling a general strike (technically illegal under U.S. labor law) if and when Walker's legislation passed. The federation appointed a coordinating committee to contact European unions with experience conducting general strikes (S. Verburg, "Labor Group Calls for General Strike if Budget Bill is Approved," Wisconsin State Journal, February 23, 2011).


Put Down Your Posters And Pick Up a Clipboard


More than two months after the onset of the Madison protests, it is clear that the "Spirit of Wisconsin" can easily be over-celebrated on the left. On the evening of March 9, Walker and his Republican allies passed legislation abolishing public Wisconsin workers' collective bargaining rights by separating the anti-union measure from budgetary matters, releasing them from the requirement that the 14 missing Democratic senators be present to hold a vote on the bill. No strike of any kind (general or otherwise) followed this brash move. Even before the bill was rammed through, left labor journalist Lee Sustar noted, "Talk of a general strike—frequently discussed among activists during the three weeks of protests at Wisconsin's Capitol in Madison—dissipated as union leaders pressured union members to approve contracts that contain at least a 7 percent pay cut." From the start, the state's labor "leadership" was disturbingly eager to deal away worker salaries and benefits in order to keep their dues money—the source of their privileged, coordinator-class salaries, threatened by a portion of Walker's bill that bans the collection of union dues through automatic workers' paycheck deductions. At the same time, labor leaders stayed mostly quiet about other anti-worker provisions of Walker's initial bill, including steep cuts to Medicaid and BadgerCare (Wisconsin's health insurance program for low-income people) and the privatization of power plants at the University of Wisconsin's flagship Madison campus ("The Labor Movement After Wisconsin,", April 2011).


After the bill passed, if not before, Wisconsin labor officials focused on legal challenges and the difficult, drawn-out process of trying to recall eight Republican State Senators, whose removal would give the Democrats control of the State Senate. The "final mass labor rally in Madison March 12," Sustar notes, "was a kickoff of an electoral campaign rather than struggle at the workplace." An electoral campaign, that is, on behalf of the Democrats, whose 2010 gubernatorial candidate Tommy Barrett criticized public workers' supposedly excessive wages and benefits. "Thank You Fab 14" was a common statement on signs distributed by rally organizers. Paying excessive homage to the 14 senators who likely left the state largely out of their own self-interested reliance on unions' political donations and electoral power, while ignoring the critical role that rank and file workers (Madison teachers above all) played in driving events from the bottom up, the organizers channeled popular energies into that timeworn "coffin of class consciousness" (to quote the late radical American historian Alan Dawley), the American "two party" ballot box.


At the time of this writing (mid-April 2011), Walker's bill has been temporarily blocked—for violating the state's open meetings law—by a Dane County court. It awaits a decision from the Wisconsin Supreme Court, which seems likely to uphold the anti-union legislation. (Labor and the Democrats recently failed in their effort to elect a pro-union judge to that court.) The state's labor leadership has squelched direct action sentiment, prodding workers back to their job routines and encouraging union members and their supporters to focus on the effort to recall Walker and return the other state-capitalist austerity party to nominal power. "Put down your posters and pick up a clipboard" was the actual command issued by one state Democrat speaking to tens of thousands of workers and their supporters outside the Madison Capitol Rotunda on March 12.


Beyond Wisconsin


Meanwhile, savage attacks on public sector workers, the poor, social justice, civil and voting rights, and livable ecology are underway in numerous other states. Bills to eliminate or curtail collective bargaining, ban teacher strikes, and/or limit union-dues deductions are being advanced in more than a dozen other state legislatures. After dominant media had pushed the Madison protests to the margins of public attention, Ohio's right-wing governor John Kasich signed into law a bill that severely restricted the collective bargaining rights of 350,000 public workers—twice the number of workers impacted by Walker's bill. The Ohio bill prohibits unions from negotiating wages, eliminates automatic pay increases, and bans strikes. It applies to teachers, nurses, and many other government workers, including police and firefighters, who were exempt in the Wisconsin measure.


While not yet ready to spark a direct confrontation with his state's public workers, Michigan's right-wing Tea Party Republican Governor Rick Snyder has signed into law a bill that gives unelected "emergency financial managers" unprecedented power to shred union contracts, privatize city services, and consolidate or dissolve local governments. Described as "financial martial law" by one approving Republican state legislator, Snyder's measure was drawn up by a right-wing think tank (the Mackinac Center for Public Policy) that is funded by some of the same hard-right millionaires and billionaires that backed Walker and his anti-union legislation.


While there have been impressive Wisconsin-style protests in Columbus, Ohio, Indianapolis, Indiana, and Lansing, Michigan, none of the legislation passed or proposed in other states has sparked labor and popular demonstrations remotely close in size or durability to the ones that rocked Madison.


It's Not Just Republicans


The state-level labor rebellion that emerged in response to right-wing provocations was a most welcome development. Still, it is one thing for existing labor institutions and leaders (themselves heavily integrated into the nation's reigning state-capitalist order) to rally popular masses, it is another thing to wield and expand popular power proactively and to capture and act meaningfully on the legitimate popular anger that the Tea Party and the broader right has, at times, been able to exploit and misdirect. Political observer Chris Green raised a good question in a private communication on February 22, 2011."Is this progressive movement going to operate within traditional limitations, especially those imposed by the union leadership? That is, are they only going to protest Republican governors and not protest Democrat governors in places like New York, California, and Illinois? This will be the challenge, not to get co-opted by the Democrats."


Conscious that the austerity party is not limited to the GOP, left commentator Doug Henwood offered some sage and sobering advice at the end of a generally optimistic take on the early labor eruption in Wisconsin: "It may be that had Walker not gone for such a maximalist agenda, this sort of protest might not have happened. Other governors may take note and opt instead for the death by a thousand cuts instead of one giant machete chop. But, of course, it's not just Republicans. Democratic governors like Jerry Brown and Andrew Cuomo also have it out for public sector workers, since, as everyone knows, you just can't tax the fatcats these days. And you do have to wonder how aggressive unions in California and New York will be in protesting Democratic governors" ("Wisconsin Erupts," Left Business Observer, February16, 2011).


Consistent with Henwood's concern, California Governor Jerry Brown is pushing public worker unions to accept concessions beyond the $400 million they accepted last year. That state's union leaders are giving Brown a free pass, embracing his call for "shared responsibility" as he advances budget proposals that will devastate working people. New York's Democratic Governor Andrew Cuomo is threatening to lay off 10,000 state workers if he doesn't get $450 million in union concessions, even as he calls for ending the state's so-called millionaire's tax. Illinois Governor Pat Quinn and his state's fellow Democrats are pushing legislation that would slash union protections for teachers. The relentless, state-level attacks on public workers come from Democrats and Republicans alike, but union officials have been unwilling to offer a serious push back in states where Democrats hold power.


Obama's Distance


Henwood could easily have added comments about the corporate-friendly, center-right direction of the national Democratic Party and the White House. The Obama administration appears to have pinned its hopes for an expanded economic recovery (vital for his chances of re-election) on further appeasement of the right and the business class. Obama's failure to align with the public workers was consistent with his centrist campaign pledge to be a "post-partisan leader" ready to take on his own party's union base. It matched his support (over the opposition of teachers' unions) of charter schools and "performance-based" teacher pay; his advance of corporate neoliberal free trade deals opposed by labor; his public strengthening of ties with business leaders; his refusal to move in any meaningful way on campaign promises to reform the nation's management-friendly labor laws; and his federal workers' salary freeze (a move that angered public sector union members). Before the progressive labor rebellion broke out, Obama had already gone far down the path of joining business and the right in advancing the false narrative that American prosperity was being undone by overpaid public workers and excessive government regulation, not by the real culprits on Wall Street who recklessly crashed the global economy in 2008 (Robert Reich, "Obama's Republican Narrative of Our Economic Woes," The Berkeley Blog, December 2, 2010).


There is no basis for the right's claim that Barack Obama intervened on behalf of, or even sparked, the Midwestern protests. As Wall Street Journal reporter Jonathan Weisman observed in the second week of the Wisconsin upheaval, Obama stepped back from the state-level battles after initially seeming to support labor in Wisconsin. Top Democratic officials told Weisman that this was because Obama "is eager to occupy the political center…to forge a bipartisan deal on the nation's long-term finances that could strengthen his position heading into the 2012 election" ("Obama Sits Out State Fights," February 24).


In early March, New York Times correspondent Jackie Calmes learned that the White House had intervened in anger against the national Democratic Party's initial efforts to support the labor rebellion, which administration officials found contrary to its message: "The White House mostly has sought to stay out of the fray in Madison, Wis., and other state capitals where Republican governors are battling public employee unions and Democratic lawmakers over collective bargaining rights." Further, "When West Wing officials discovered that the Democratic National Committee had mobilized Mr. Obama's national network to support the protests, they angrily reined in the staff at the party headquarters…. Administration officials said they saw the events beyond Washington as distractions from the optimistic 'win the future' message that Mr. Obama introduced in his State of the Union address, in which he exhorted the country to increase spending for some programs even as it cuts others so that America can 'out-innovate and out-educate' its global rivals" (March 3, 2011).


"This is Not a Peace Demonstration"


A progressive resurgence that confronts Democratic and Republican variants of the same diseases will have to take place on the national as well as the state level if we are going to make meaningful popular-democratic progress against the staggered, narrow-spectrum, candidate-centered, big-money, and big-media "electoral extravaganzas" (Noam Chomsky) that the masters stage for us every two and four years, telling us "that's politics"—the only politics that matters.


Speaking of empire, a leftist I know sent me a disheartening note in the midst of the inspiring mass protests for public worker rights in Wisconsin: "Some friends of mine were 'asked' not to display their 'Money for human needs, not war' signs in the Wisconsin Capitol building from someone with AFSCME saying, 'This is a labor protest not a peace demonstration'…. Except from U.S. Labor Against the War, I haven't seen mention of these state budget problems being related to military spending. [AFL-CIO president] Richard Trumka has been fighting tooth and nail to keep these wars from being opposed by labor. I think what is playing out with peace views being suppressed is an attempt to, as [United Steelworkers' President] Leo Gerard said he was going to do, 'cover Obama's back'…. Obama's military spending should be blamed. I cannot believe one labor leader said in speeches in Wisconsin something like, 'Here we have Obama and Congress approving $35 billion on a new military boondoggle and we are struggling to defend our livelihoods'."


It was an interesting comment to read just as Obama and NATO's Libyan adventure helped the corporate media push the Madison struggle to the margins of the daily political news and punditry industry.


Paul Street ([email protected]) is the author of many books, including The Empire's New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Paradigm, 2010) and, with Anthony DiMaggio, Crashing the Tea Party: Mass Media and the Campaign to Remake American Politics (Paradigm, May 2011).