Wisconsin's Fight: Can It Inject New Life Into the Progressive Movement?

March 7, 2011 -- Kathleen Mulligan-Hansel

The community-labor alliance that is the hallmark of the Partnership for Working Families network has a chance to earn real gains from what is happening in Wisconsin. The question is, what can we do with it?

From the beginning, our partners have played important roles in this effort.

On the ground here, Citizen Action of Wisconsin, home to the Good Jobs & Livable Neighborhoods Coalition, has been deeply involved in organizing these protests, documenting the stories of everyday workers and what is at stake for them, and pushing the story out to the national media. This effort has drawn on the Partnership's broader commitment to community-labor organizing, and has provided Citizen Action with opportunities to increase its base of support. They've received 111 earned media hits, including guest stints on Fox News shows, and expanded their online and social media presence.

The Los Angeles Labor Federation organized a delegation to Madison in solidarity, including Madeline Janis and Nancy Cervantes among them.

Across the country, many of our affiliates participated in solidarity rallies. Like in Wisconsin, they have noticed a renewed energy for a conversation about inequality. With little time to do deep turnout, they have nonetheless staged or participated in big events that have tapped into a widespread shared anger about the increasing isolation and disempowerment of working people.

It's been inspiring and transformative here on the ground, and I hear that out there in the rest of the world, you are feeling it.

But what does it suggest for our work?

Three elements of this fight have direct resonance with our work locally and nationally.

First, the labor movement and progressive allies have hung together. When the budget repair bill came out, no one in Wisconsin was surprised to see police and firefighter unions exempted from proposed changes. These unions had backed Governor Walker in his election bid last fall. But rather than accept this effort to divide and conquer, police and firefighters unions jumped into the fray and supported the opposition movement. The participation of these unions generally, and the behavior of their members, has been among the most moving aspects of the entire event. Their union leaders have spoken out publicly and passionately against the proposal. In the first few days, ralliers reported that police were frequently seen joining in with the protest chants. I have seen numerous delegations of firefighters marching in the protests. It is hard to capture in words the power of this display - in the midst of a packed statehouse with barely enough room for a single person to maneuver, crowds have parted to allow parades of uniformed firefighters to pass through, carrying helmets and signs reading "Firefighters for Labor," often accompanied by bagpipers.

The progressive community has shown up in droves, belying the media's attempts to call these "government worker protests." Voces de la Frontera, Milwaukee's leading immigrant rights organization, marched alongside Jesse Jackson during the first week of protests. Campaign Against Violence, a youth organizing movement, has helped with turnout and visibility. And that's just the beginning.

What has been awakened is real solidarity. We all know there are divisions among us. Not all union leaders and union members and progressive community leaders see eye to eye and we spend more time than we should arguing over those differences. But at the core is a deep belief in justice for working people, and in collective bargaining as an avenue to achieve that. This fight has tapped into that shared core belief and reminded many of why we are in this movement.

Second, the environment at these protests has been positive, peaceful and affirming of broader social movement ideals. A relative social justice movement novice, I've been involved in labor/community organizing for 15 years. It's maybe not surprising that I can say I've never seen anything like this. What has been surprising to me is how many lifelong movement leaders have said they, too, are blown away by the size, scope and mood of this effort. Hundreds of people have packed the capitol rotunda; thousands more have picketed outside for hours. The mood among these protestors has been a tremendous source of strength and inspiration to many. Inside the capitol, there has been a constant low-level roar from chanting, which occasionally erupts into a deafening din. Protestors have worked to keep the capitol building clean, to emphasize respectful occupation, including recycling (!), to ensure food and water are available for those staying inside, and to ensure the protests remain peaceful. The graduate student union at the University of Wisconsin-Madison set up shop on one of the upper floors. Graduate students were encouraged to hold office hours and do their prep work there. While much has been made of the police presence and its deterrence of violence, in fact, the protestors themselves have created the peaceful vibe that has permeated this event.

Capitol police, to be sure, have been a tremendous source of support. On several occasions, administration officials have demanded that capitol police clear out the protestors. They have refused to do so, insisting that there is no threat to public safety.

What this vibe has helped make clear is that these protests are about engaging core democratic principles. Efforts by national media, and our own elected officials (I'm talking to you Congressman Paul Ryan) to brand these protests "riots" have been laughable. While our side is engaged in peacefully forcing a teachable moment about the limits of executive power, the other side has attempted several times to clear out the capitol. Most recently, as Governor Walker prepared to give his budget address, protestors were not allowed in the building. In fact, no members of the general public were allowed to enter the capitol unless a legislator verified that they had a valid appointment. Protestors already inside the building were allowed to stay, though eventually there were reports that windows were being screwed shut and food deliveries were not permitted.

Literally, the screws are tightening. But the protests themselves have looked more like a street festival than an expression of anger, with creative signs and artistic displays.

Finally, this series of events has reignited a public discussion about the critical role of collective bargaining and the labor movement in Wisconsin, and has tapped into shared anxiety about overwhelming corporate power. Who knew that people would respond to what might seem like a fairly narrow and technical labor union issue like collective bargaining? But they have.

It's not just the numbers of protestors that bear this out. It's also the tableaux they present.

The groups arrayed at these protests don't look like the standard group of people we are used to seeing at every progressive social justice rally. There is a much more broadbased response playing out.

I spent one recent day at the protests with extended family members who have a range of political views. Some are more to the left. They vote but don't participate in any more extensive way. Others are much more to the right. I'm sure some of them voted for Scott Walker last November. But to a person they oppose this action and were willing to come out and be heard, possibly for the first time in their lives. At different points during our afternoon together, I heard them speaking from my script, explaining the important role that unions have played in securing workplace freedoms and benefits for all workers, not just their own members.

I know I'm not the only person who has had this experience.

All the polling data bears this out. Every poll to date - conducted by progressive and right-wing firms alike - has shown a majority of Wisconsin residents are against Walker's union-busting agenda. National polls confirm that across the country voters believe collective bargaining is a critically important protection.

For me, the events of the past few weeks confirm that the tea party movement has harnessed anger and frustration about the economy but pointed it at the wrong culprit. Walker's overreach has reminded working people that their own willingness to help share the burden of fixing our economy has too rarely been reciprocated by corporate power.

Wisconsin is showing that people are angry and they are hungry for a political conversation that recognizes their pain and struggles. And they're not willing to jump on the bandwagon and blame unions - the one thing that has existed to protect them - for everything that's happening.

It's up to us to figure out what to do next.