Wisconsin: An Incredible Month for Progressives, But What's Next?

March 15, 2011 -- Kathleen Mulligan-Hansel
Solidarity Forever

Solidarity Forever. Courtesy Kathleen Mulligan-Hansel

It's been an incredible few weeks for labor, and the progressive movement more generally, in Wisconsin. By now, it seems everyone in the US and beyond knows what's been happening here. In an incredibly brazen - and apparently miscalculated - power grab, our new governor included in a so-called budget repair bill a set of provisions that would effectively kill collective bargaining for public employee unions across the state.

A rapid and intense response from the public produced a political situation that few could have predicted. Tens of thousands of people flocked to the state capitol day after day, week after week, to oppose this effort. Labor union leaders and members agreed to concede the economic issues, which amounted to about a 12% pay cut for middle class workers across the state. This concession placed the real issues in stark relief. It's not about the money, and it's not about public workers refusing to pay their fair share. It's about worker's rights.

The events of the last week have only fanned the flames of public anger. Wednesday, March 9, Republican leaders engaged in a bizarre set of questionable procedural and substantive maneuvers to force a vote on collective bargaining, a vote that they (predictably) won.

But the fight is not over. Legal challenges to these actions are underway. Meanwhile, last Saturday's protest was the biggest and most powerful yet, with estimated attendance ranging from 80,000 to 120,000. And citizens are quickly collecting signatures to force recall elections for the Senate Republicans who led these efforts.

What are the lessons for our movement? Three come to mind.

  • The broad progressive concern about corporate power, rising inequality and the disappearance of the middle class resonates. After frustration with the economy produced tea party wins in November, many wondered how we could refocus attention on the trends that caused the crash - deregulation, unchecked corporate risk-taking, and lack of accountability. It turns out, people do see the connections.
  • The scope and quality of public involvement should transform our expectations about what's possible. Who could have predicted, or expected, 100,000 people to turn up in Madison and to participate in sustained way over weeks, to show support for worker's rights? Everyone I know who has been involved - from wizened progressive elders to everyday people who don't have much of a political identity - has been inspired and transformed by these events.
  • We have to find a way to connect these events to a more sustained conversation about government's role in creating shared prosperity and a more equitable economy. We don't know yet how this story ends in Wisconsin, or in the other 8 or so states considering similar measures. But win or lose on this front, our challenge is to tap into the energy created by this fight and carry it forward.