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Wisconsin Awakens a Sleeping Giant

As Wisconsin’s attack on workers spreads to other states, so does the historic uprising that began in Madison.
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Madison protests, photo by Eyton Z

Photo by Eyton Z

On Saturday, March 12, some 100,000 people thronged the Wisconsin capitol building to protest the state's attack on collective bargaining.

In one sense, the struggle over union rights in Wisconsin is over. It took some breathtaking, possibly even illegal, shenanigans (click here for details), but the union-busting “Budget Repair Bill” has been passed, signed, and celebrated. In other ways, though, the weeks of historic protests in and around Wisconsin’s capitol were just the first act of what may prove to be a far longer—and larger—struggle.

Around the country, state governments are targeting union rights, workplace protection, social services, and the ability of middle-class and working poor to have a voice. But, in large part thanks to the momentum of the Wisconsin protests, they’re finding it difficult to do so quietly. In state after state, the Americans whose rights and services are being cut are rising up against the decades-long shift of wealth and power to corporations and the very wealthy.

Wisconsin Moves on to “Phase Two”

From Indiana to Ohio and Tennessee to Texas, workers are demanding to know why corporations and the wealthy get bailouts and tax breaks while teachers and steel workers bear the burdens of budget crises they didn’t cause.

The passage of Wisconsin's anti-union bill on March 10 came after weeks of protests, an extended occupation of the state capitol building, and the self-imposed exile of 14 Democratic senators, whose absence prevented a vote on the bill as it was originally drafted.

Following Thursday's passage of the Wisconsin bill, hundreds of students in Madison’s middle and high schools walked out to join those demonstrating at the capitol. Then, in the largest protest since the bill was proposed, an estimated 100,000 people filled the streets and squares around the state capitol on Saturday. The Family Farm Defenders and the Wisconsin Farmers Union joined the protests, bringing more than 50 tractors with them.

“This is the beginning of phase two,” Fred Risser, one of the 14 Democratic senators, told the crowd.

He was referring to a rapidly growing campaign to recall eight GOP senators who supported the bill; the Wisconsin Democratic Party reported yesterday that over 45 percent of the necessary signatures have already been collected. Because Wisconsin law only allows recalls of officials who have been in office at least a full year, Governor Scott Walker and other supporters of the bill are not yet eligible to be recalled—though opponents of the anti-union law are already laying the groundwork for a recall next year.

Other States Target Workers’ Rights

Though the weeks of demonstrations have focused national attention on Wisconsin, workers’ rights are on the line in dozens of states across the country, and workers are fighting back. Newly elected Republicans in state legislatures and in the U.S. Congress are pressing—and in some cases, passing—deeply unpopular measures that target workers’ rights to unionize and such basic protections as minimum wage laws.

The Ohio Senate has passed a bill that takes Wisconsin union-busting one step further, Reuters reports. The bill prohibits collective bargaining for nearly 62,000 workers and blocks 300,000 others (including firefighters, police, and public school teachers) from striking or negotiating about health care benefits. In Indiana, House Democrats, taking a cue from Wisconsin legislators, have left the state to prevent a vote on a bill that limits collective bargaining rights. Idaho has approved a measure to limit public school teachers’ right to bargain collectively. Michigan is on track to approve a law that would allow the state to break union contracts. And union dues or collective bargaining are also on the line in Iowa, New Hampshire, Kansas, Tennessee, Colorado, Nebraska, Nevada, Oklahoma, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Washington, Alaska, and Arizona.

Nor are unions the only form of worker protection under attack. The Missouri House of Representatives has approved a bill that caps the state’s minimum wage, even if the Consumer Price Index rises, essentially revoking a law that was passed just five years ago and supported by 76 percent of voters. Seven other states are considering similar bills, according to the Progressive States Network.

Other proposed measures would cut deeply into education funding, public safety, health care, and infrastructure maintenance. These bills are presented as necessary in order to balance state budgets, but recent state and federal tax giveaways to the wealthy make that a questionable claim.

Undermining the Political Power of the Working Class

Instead, this may be an example of what Naomi Klein describes in her book, The Shock Doctrine: Wealthy elites often use times of crisis and chaos to impose unpopular policies that restructure economies and political systems to their further advantage.

Unions are a bulwark of political power on behalf of middle- and working-class Americans, a long-standing counterweight to the political influence of the wealthy.

And many of these policies are deeply unpopular with the American public. Recent polls show that more than 60 percent of Americans believe that public employees should have the right to bargain collectively; that states should not be able to renege on pension commitments to retirees; that the minimum wage should be raised; and that tax breaks for wealthy Americans are a bad move. According to a recent Bloomberg poll, one of the reasons that "Americans reject Republican efforts to curb bargaining rights" is that they widely believe that union power is "is dwarfed by corporations."

Of course, the proliferation of anti-union bills isn’t just an economic blow. Unions are a bulwark of political power on behalf of middle- and working-class Americans, a long-standing counterweight to the political influence of the wealthy. Not only do they give employees bargaining power within the workplace, they allow workers to join their voices to have some say in the political debate. 

When union members’ economic power is weakened, so is their political voice—a fact not lost on those leading the charge against them. As Wisconsin Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, a leading proponent of the state’s anti-union bill, noted in an interview with Fox News, “If we win this battle, and the money is not there under the auspices of the unions, certainly what you’re going to find is President Obama is going to have a much difficult, much more difficult time getting elected and winning the state of Wisconsin.”

A Sleeping Giant Wakes Up

“If there is one good thing about this bill, it's that it has brought middle class workers together, made our unions stronger and our relationships closer,” Mahlon Mitchell, the president of the Professional Firefighters of Wisconsin, said in an interview with YES! Magazine.

Indeed, all over the country, the attack on union rights has awakened a dormant class-consciousness. “I think that what’s happening in Wisconsin is sort of Ground Zero for workers,” said Jane Cutter, a 47-year-old teacher who attended a Wisconsin solidarity rally in Seattle. “It’s going to drive down wages and living standards for all different kinds of workers.”

Wisconsin protests, photo by Peter GormanAn American Uprising
In-depth coverage of grassroots responses to the consolidation of wealth and power.

In the weeks since Wisconsin teachers and firefighters began occupying their state capitol, thousands of others have been inspired to make their opposition more vocal. Protests many times the size of the Tea Party demonstrations are spreading across the nation. Some are being organized by unions and their supporters; others, by MoveOn.org and Van Jones to “Defend the American Dream.” Still others are part of US Uncut, which is organizing flash mobs to confront corporations that haven’t been paying taxes. From Indiana to Ohio and Tennessee to Texas, workers are demanding to know why corporations and the wealthy get bailouts and tax breaks while teachers and steel workers bear the burdens of budget crises they didn’t cause.

One of the farmers who rode through downtown Madison on his tractor summed it up on his handmade protest sign: “Walker woke a sleeping giant.”


Sarah van Gelder and Brooke Jarvis wrote this article for YES! Magazine, a national, nonprofit media organization that fuses powerful ideas with practical actions for a just and sustainable world. Sarah is the co-founder and executive editor of YES! Magazine; Brooke is the web editor.

Additional reporting in Seattle by Oliver Lazenby and Robby Mellinger.

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