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Wisconsin’s Key Task: Spreading Spirit of Madison Beyond Capital

by Roger Bybee

Last Saturday in Madison, Wis., more than 100,000 pro-union protesters challenged Gov. Scott Walker's ambition to crush public-sector unions here and across the nation. It was surely the largest pro-labor demonstration in the state's history, topping the 55,000-70,000 who gathered the previous Saturday, February 19, under sunny skies and, by Wisconsin's frigid standards, balmy temperatures.

But the February 26 rally nearly filled the four long blocks around the Capitol.The event drew hordes from around Wisconsin, despite the slippery highways and chilly temperatures. Farmers, private-sector unionists, retirees, families with kids in strollers, students, and others joined the throng. Especially notable was the presence of members from three unions specifically exempted from the draconian bill: firefighters, police, and state troopers.  

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Saturday's crowd was sprinkled with signs referring to Walker's "Koch habit" (referring to right-wing billionaire and Walker donor David Koch), along with hundreds of other venom-tipped messages: "Scott Walker: enema of nurses,"  "Screw us and we multiply," and "UW Radiologists see right through you Scott," and an X-ray of Walker showing a dollar sign where the heart should be.

The huge crowd reflected what appears to be a growing consensus among the public: Walker is attempting to deprive Wisconsin's public workers of a fundamental right, to permanently cripple the union movement in America and weaken a key institutional pillar of the Democratic Party and left-liberal politics in the United States. "It is viewed nationally and correctly as a decisive turning point for the future of labor nationally and for the Democratic Party more broadly," explained Harley Shaiken, a labor expert at the University of California-Berkeley.

MORE POLLING SUPPORT

New polls by the New York Times/CBS News show that nationally, Americans favor public-sector union rights by a 60% to 33% margin and Public Policy Polling demonstrate that Walker would lose a re-run of the Nov. 2 election against Democrat Tom Barrett by a 53% to 45% margin.

But despite these continuing unfavorable signs, like a 39% approval rating, Scott Walker remains a man on a mission. He seems unswervingly aimed at mowing down public-sector unionism in Wisconsin at whatever the cost.

At this point, the question is: How can current support for labor be translated from non-stop mass demonstrations at the Capitol into tangible electoral pressure on at least three Republican senators to cause them to drop their support for Walker's proposed bill? (The bill has already passed the Wisconsin Assembly.)

"I think the real story is how the movement started in Madison has begun to be felt around the state," said David Newby, the recently-retired president of the Wisconsin State AFL-CIO. On a single day, pro-union protests were held in 19 Wisconsin communities. "There was about 3,500 in Stevens Point, 500 to 700 in Racine, and there was even a rally in Rhinelander," a tiny, conservative resort town in northern Wisconsin.

There are movements growing to recall Republicans like Alberta Darling from the Milwaukee suburbs, who has long posed as a "moderate" but has been leading the charge against public-employee rights as co-chair of the powerful Joint Finance Committee. 

SPREADING THE SPIRIT OF MADISON TO LOCAL DISTRICTS

Continuing to bring home the spirit of Madison to local communities and taking the message of union rights as a moral issue will be key to the future, Newby suggested.

One Republican senator has clearly begun to shown signs of feeling the heat, and others may follow suit. Not only is the anti-union Walker plan unpopular with the general public, but it has drawn criticism from nearly 400 city, county, and municipal officials from across the state—in whose benefit Walker has claimed to act. The local officials are likely to be even more incensed after Walker announces his specific budgetary recommendations, which will call for radically cutting back state aid to school districts and cities.

Surveying the landscape of outcry against Walker's plan to break public unions, MSNBC's Rachel Maddow pronounced, "Wisconsin, you are winning!"

Yes, the signs are now very promising. But victory over Walker, Koch, and their unionbusting allies will require that much of the energy now concentrated at the Capitol gets fully harnessed into decentralized efforts in specific Republican senate districts.

If that can be achieved, activists will not only have successfully fought off an effort to utterly marginalize unionism. They will have laid the grassroots foundation for vigorous new labor and progressive movements in Wisconsin—and hopefully beyond.

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