Postcard from a New American Progressive Movement: The Wisconsin Strategy
Thomas M. Bird was a mild-mannered graduate student from Oshkosh, voting Democratic but paying only slight attention to politics, before Scott Walker announced his budget repair bill. He didn’t make it over to the Capitol in Madison until February 17, four days into the protests. Within a couple weeks, he was a ranking member of the Capitol City Leadership Committee, an umbrella organization made up of the different groups performing tasks in the building – the megaphone people, the Teaching Assistants’ Association, the volunteer marshalls, the information station coalition, the medical station volunteers, and the Wisconsin Workers Solidarity Sit-In. Bird participated in meetings coordinated under their own democratic rules. “The group meets regularly and we ensure that each meeting has an even number of people. Any business is put to a democratic vote. If there is a tie, there are 3 rounds of debate and then the motion is tabled. The Wisconsin Republicans could probably learn a thing or two from us.” This is a protest, Wisconsin-style.
As Gov. Scott Walker cracks down on the activists inside the Capitol Rotunda on the day he releases his 2011-2013 budget, he will be unable to quash the spirit of people like Thomas M. Bird, whose life will never be the same. “I believe that the progressive movement and the labor unions are the only political force left in this country capable of standing up for the brave, hard working Americans who have seen their voice drowned out by the influence of corporate campaign donations… The Democratic representatives of the state of Wisconsin have converted me from being a cynic into being an activist. It is the greatest honor of my life that I have been a part of this fight, and I will do everything that I possibly can do continue it.”
What may not be clear from outside of Wisconsin is the level to which the grassroots protesters and the Democratic members of the Wisconsin legislature have become one throughout this struggle. Not just the “Fab 14” group of Senators who still reside in Illinois, denying the Republicans a quorum and stalling the budget repair bill that would strip most collective bargaining rights from public employees. But the Democrats in the State Assembly have become activists themselves. They are readily identifiable in the orange “Assembly Democrats: Fighting for Working Families” shirts they’ve been wearing for two weeks. They help negotiate access to the building and use their resources to get in people and supplies. They hold public hearings through the night to force the Capitol to stay open. They spent 63 hours on the Assembly floor stretching out debate on the bill, forcing the local media to report on what it contained. One Assembly Democrat had reconstructive surgery for skin cancer last Tuesday, and was back on the floor Wednesday for debate. She was in the Capitol Sunday night, with a bandage on her face, as the protesters readied themselves to be arrested. “This is civil disobedience at its finest,” she told me.
“Our Democrats, often disappointing, have delinked from the compromises of the Democratic party, and linked in to the opinions of the progressive grassroots,” said John Nichols, writer for the Madison Capital Times and The Nation and unofficial mayor of Madison. He was speaking to “The People’s Legislature,” at a Crowne Plaza conference room on the east side of the city. A group called Fighting Bob, named after the legendary progressive leader Bob LaFollette and organized by the popular reformer and former US Senate candidate Ed Garvey, was meeting to discuss their next move to respond to the assault on public workers taken up by Walker. Nichols said proudly, “We have in a sense retaken the Democratic Party in this state,” and the People’s Legislature wanted to make good on that. Over the course of a day-long meeting, they plotted out a multi-pronged strategy that also has echoes of the kind of medium-term and long-term fights that the grassroots in the Capitol Rotunda will wage.
Everyone is focused on the near-term goal of stopping the budget repair bill, and that may happen. The Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, which endorsed Scott Walker on its editorial pages, now routinely criticizes him and today came out against the bill. Walker’s ramping up of out-of-state-funded TV ads shows his nervousness over whether his allies, the Senate Republicans, will waver and eventually lack the numbers to pass the bill. Charles Koch himself, and not a Buffalo-based blogger, actually placed an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal to announce support, which only extends the focus on that crank call, one which may led to a host of legal trouble for Walker. So the possibility exists that this gets stopped. But even if it doesn’t, Wisconsin’s grassroots, growing by the day, and buttressed by a completely responsive Democratic Party which protesters and activists will now crawl across glass for, have a plan. It goes like this:
• Legal Claims Against the Bill: Milwaukee’s city attorney came out today and declared that the budget repair bill is unconstitutional:
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s state budget repair bill would be unconstitutional because it would violate the constitutional “home rule” that protects cities and villages from interference in local pensions by the state, according to a legal opinion issued today by Milwaukee City Attorney Grant Langley.
In a letter to Milwaukee Alderman Joseph Dudzik, Langley stated, “… in our judgment, the courts would find the statue unconstitutional on three grounds: first, that it unconstitutionally interferes with and intrudes upon the city’s home-rule authority over its pension plan; second, that given certain vested rights or benefits that have accrued to employees currently in the plan, the statute would constitute an unconstitutional impairment of contract rights under the state and federal constitutions; and third, given these same vested rights or benefits, the proposed statute would violate the due process clauses of the state and federal constitutions because it would abrogate the terms and conditions of the Global Pension Settlement …”
Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett (who lost to Walker in the gubernatorial race) has already asked Walker to seek a legal opinion from the state Attorney General on the topic. These aren’t the only legal questions about the bill. AFSCME has filed an unfair labor practice claim against Walker for refusing to negotiate while under a collective bargaining agreement. There is still a lingering sense that the Assembly vote was illegal. Democrats are still looking at all footage of the vote, to see if their suspicions are correct that Republicans leaned over and voted by electronic device in place of their missing colleagues. “The most important thing over the next two weeks,” Nichols told the People’s Legislature, “Is to maintain the rule of law and the rules of the Senate. We can’t let them roll over process.” The point is that lawyers plan to sue the state the moment Governor Walker signs any budget repair bill that includes the stripping of collective bargaining rights. “I believe there are enough good judges left in this state to get injunctions and slow this down.”
• Legal Claims Against Walker: The phone call from “David Koch” features a number of statements from the Governor that could violate ethics, labor and election laws, according to Peg Lautenschlager, the state’s former Democratic Attorney General. There are campaign finance questions regarding Walker’s acceptance of an offer to come to California after he “crushes the bastards.” There’s the infamous answer “we thought about that” to the question of why Walker isn’t using planted thugs to disrupt the protests. There’s the admission that Walker is trying to break public employee unions like Reagan broke PATCO, and how layoffs in particular would be used in that fight. All of these things have questionable legality, and I believe the claims will be filed.
• General strike. Capital Times picks up on the fact that the South Central Wisconsin Labor Federation has endorsed the notion of a general strike. That’s basically all they can do; the federation has no authority to call a strike. But after March 13, state public employee unions will be operating without a contract. At that point, all bets are off. And workers throughout Madison, though barred by Taft-Hartley requirements from joining strikes, may do so anyway. If the bill passes, chances are there will be at least some portion of Wisconsin that will go on a general strike for some amount of time. There’s a very large piece of construction paper in the Capitol with thousands of names of people who signed their support for a strike.
• State Supreme Court. On April 5, there’s a race for a state Supreme Court seat between an incumbent Republican, David Prosser, and the Democrat, JoAnn Kloppenberg. Supreme Court races in Wisconsin are actual elections. They feature TV commercials and debates and retail politics. And the Democrats are both energized and ready. “This will be a national level battle, a proxy Presidential race,” said Nichols, who thinks that $10 million will be spent on it between both sides. Prosser has said publicly that he would coordinate his rulings in alliance with Republican ideology. He’s part of a 4-3 Republican advantage on the state Supreme Court. This would shift the balance of power there and provide a major setback for Walker and the Republicans. Organizing has begun and is intense inside the Capitol and throughout the state.
• Legislative seats. The same day as that April 5 special election, there are primaries for three state Assembly races, vacated by three Republicans who joined Walker’s cabinet. While at least two of the three are seen as strong Republican seats, progressives in Wisconsin plan to contest all three. “If this (protest) means anything, it means that the rules of where we compete have to be thrown out,” Nichols insisted. “We fight for every inch of Wisconsin!”
• Recalls. There will absolutely be recall elections for many of the “Republican 8” state Senators who can be recalled immediately. The organizing for this has already begun; a Democratic strategist in the state found the Republican 8 vulnerable to recall because of the heightened passions around the issue. This will also happen on the Democratic side; a group from Utah has already begun that process. You will see many recall elections in the coming year, putting the closely divided state Senate up for grabs in Wisconsin. Recall elections are basically do-over elections in the state, with primaries and general ballots. “The recall is the progressive gift to the citizens of this state,” Nichols said to the People’s Legislature. “It was established for this moment… we have a duty to recall those legislators who failed us, and defend those who stood with us.”
One particular recall battle stands out, and progressives may take it on first. Sen. Alberta Darling is the co-chair of the Joint Finance Committee, which reported out the budget repair bill. She represents a North Shore suburban Milwaukee district, which is heavily Jewish and fairly Democratic. It’s the kind of seat many Democrats lost in 2010. In 2011 in Wisconsin, there’s already a candidate lined up for the recall, former Assemblyman Sheldon Wasserman. “This will be a critical contest,” said Nichols. “There’s our referendum.”
And then there’s the possible recall of Gov. Walker, which could not begin until January 2012. Whether progressives take it up could depend on whether they win these fights prior to it. They have a very deliberate strategy to build momentum at every step of the way. They are fighting for workers’ rights on a host of fronts. And they have a Democratic Party behind them. This is a new synchronicity between the party apparatus and the grassroots, and it’s starting to spread. Perhaps more remarkable than the Wisconsin battle is the one happening in Indiana. State House Democrats walked out there in protest of a bill that would have crushed private employee unions. The Republicans pulled back on that. But Democrats REMAINED out of the district, and vowed to stay put until an education bill that would set up a voucher system was scotched. Indiana Democrats are not exactly known as fighting progressives; in some cases they may be to the right of Wisconsin Republicans. But they have responded to their grassroots and are standing by them.
Ultimately, that’s how this new American progressive movement will move forward. The activists and the politicians, the protesters and the reformers, the signature-gatherers and the people fighting in the streets, the unions and the college students, all must unite on a series of goals dedicated to the rights of the worker to have a good job and a house and a reasonable way of life for themselves. People power, basic fundamental rights and justice. These are the tenets of the movement. “The question shall arise in your day: which shall rule, wealth or man,” said Edward Ryan, the Chief Justice of Wisconsin’s Supreme Court, in an address to the law school in Madison in 1873. “Which shall lead, money or intellect; who shall fill public stations — educated and patriotic free men or the feudal serfs of corporate capital?”
The spirit of that has not yet been extinguished in America.