I stood outside the capitol building in Madison, Wisconsin last night. Late in the afternoon, I had been alerted via Facebook that Senate Republicans were readying a sudden legislative maneuver to ram through the evisceration of workers’ rights that had previously been attached to a “budget repair bill.”
As thousands converged on the capitol, the vast majority were barred from entering the public building. The crowd swelled, chanting “Shame!” and “Our House!” as fire trucks arrived, sirens blaring to respond to the burning of democracy.
The Republicans separated the anti-labor provisions from the budget bill, creating a “non-fiscal” bill with lower quorum requirements. They then passed that “non-fiscal” bill, 18-1, with no Democrats present.
In doing so, they have done the Wisconsin democracy movement a huge favor.
From the time that the fourteen Democratic senators left the state to prevent a vote on the budget repair bill, I have worried about the outcome. In my view, it was very likely that a “compromise” would be reached and the Democrats would return. Such a “compromise” would still include massive setbacks for working people. The recent email exchanges between the Democrats and the governor’s office reveal that a number of options were at least being proposed; for example, allowing slightly more collective bargaining than the original bill, but retaining the prohibition of dues deduction and the requirement for annual decertification votes.
I feared that one or more of the Democrats would take such a deal, feeling they were out of options. The result would have been a disastrous deal for workers – a deal in which the Democrats had gone over to the dark side. What would then have happened to the recall efforts and the movement that is clearly building toward 2012? It would have lost focus, just as labor and progressives lost energy and focus in 2010 because they were disappointed with the Democrats. Thousands of workers would have remained angry, but with no clear political options.
The favor the Republicans have done the progressive movement is that they have made the political lines of this fight crystal clear. The Democrats’ hands are clean. The distinction between those who stood with workers and those who are against workers is obvious and unblurred.
After the vote result was announced, thousands stormed the capitol, chanting “general strike!” Republican senators tried to sneak out of the building via underground tunnels, but were met by hundreds of protesters who were aware of the escape route. State police had to escort the senators through the crowd. Today, protesters were removed so that the Assembly could meet and railroad the bill through.
The escalation has begun. The scale of direct action will multiply, not just in Madison, but statewide. Calls for a general strike – previously dismissed by many – are now serious.
Ahead of us lies a string of recall efforts and eventually, the 2012 elections. The Republicans have thrown a tanker full of fuel on the fire, and have done so in a way so that the people’s movement will not hesitate to support Democrats right down the line. They have removed “lesser of two evils” from the political calculation, making the choice starkly apparent.
For that, I suppose, we can thank them.