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The Capital Times (Wisconsin)

Sowing the Seeds: Can Wisconsin Uprising Grow Nationwide Movement?

It may have been a small crowd compared to those that thronged the state Capitol in the winter, but the “It’s Not Over” rally in May drew the kind of numbers that would have been stunning in any other year: 10,000 protesters gathered under a threatening sky to raise a collective fist against the political agenda of Gov. Scott Walker.

When Mahlon Mitchell, the first African-American president of the Professional Fire Fighters of Wisconsin, took the microphone on the steps of the Capitol, he evoked the civil rights movement to call on the crowd to steel its resolve.

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That movement transformed U.S. society, but perhaps, Mitchell said, its leaders grew complacent. “They stopped taking it to the streets. They stopped doing what we’re doing right now. I think maybe they lost their sense of moral outrage. We have to reclaim our sense of moral outrage, we have to reclaim our righteous indignation, because this is our time and we are in the fight of our lifetime,” Mitchell exhorted the crowd. “This is our time!” he declared to the loudest cheers of the day.

The analogy with the civil rights movement illustrates the breadth of what’s at stake in Wisconsin, Mitchell said in a later interview. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., the civil rights movement’s best-known leader, spoke in support of striking sanitation workers in Memphis the day before he was assassinated there in 1968, but his message was about the fundamental value of every human being.

“This is not just about union rights, it’s about workers’ rights, it’s about the middle class,” says Mitchell, a lieutenant with the Madison Fire Department who has been speaking around the country on the Wisconsin uprising. “This has galvanized the people who were sitting on the sidelines and not involved in politics. They realize now ‘the attack is on me.’ ”

Protests at the Capitol are heating up again, with acts of civil disobedience used to disrupt legislative hearings and bypass security systems. A “Walkerville” tent city on nearby streets stakes out a round-the-clock demonstration against the political proceedings inside. Recall elections of Republican state senators who backed the governor’s agenda are slated. And the bill gutting collective bargaining rights of state workers that started it all works its way through the courts.

But a bigger question is whether the protests in Wisconsin can become a broader fight against policies that squeeze workers’ rights, destabilize the social safety net, and concentrate even more wealth in a sliver of society. Nothing is guaranteed. Yet the uprising has inspired a change in consciousness reaching beyond the state, experts say. And they also say that with strong alliances between labor and other advocacy groups — and the emergence of a progressive vision for the future — the anti-Walker uprising has the potential to kindle a grass-roots movement for economic justice in Wisconsin and beyond.

Such a cultural shift will require determined action by people who desire change fiercely enough to sacrifice for it, as Mitchell told the crowd at the Capitol. “We cannot stop this fight,” he said. “We have to have sustainability; we have to make our voices heard. Our resolve has to be stronger, our pain has to run deeper, our passion has to last longer.”

•    •    •    •

Organized labor’s predicament today is analogous to that of African-Americans a half-century ago, says Dan Clawson, a sociology professor at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst who has written on labor and social movements. With declining membership in a battered economy where political forces are arrayed against them, labor’s apparent weakness in 2011 mirrors the plight of black Americans back when the laws were against them and the majority culture did not see its future aligned with theirs.

It’s hard to predict what seemingly small event will spark revolution in such unlikely circumstances; the rise of a social movement is almost always unexpected, says Clawson.

A handful of black college students sat down in protest at a whites-only lunch counter in Greensboro, N.C., in 1960. Their sit-in was joined by others, whose numbers grew day by day in what one political analyst has described as “a fever.” In a way earlier sit-ins had not, Greensboro inspired other protests that challenged the underpinnings of segregation until there was no turning back; the civil rights movement was burning. It seared American consciousness with a new idea of fundamental rights. No matter the stumbles or back-steps since, things have never been the same.

On Feb. 13, 2011 in Madison, a couple hundred protesters marched at the Wisconsin Capitol and the governor’s mansion, mobilized by the news of an attack on collective bargaining for public workers. Enraged by revelations of planned spending cuts, policy changes cloaked in the budget, and the influence of corporate money, more protesters joined marches at the Capitol. By mid-March their number — teachers, firefighters, police, students, nurses, farmers, women, senior citizens and others — swelled to 100,000, stirring protests in other Wisconsin cities and other states and capturing international attention.

Is it possible that after Madison things will never be the same?

The popular idea of economic justice already has changed because of what happened in Wisconsin, says Clawson, who reports that in his circle half a continent away he’s hearing people say “tax the rich” with a frequency he did not before. It’s not that people had not been aware of inequities in income distribution and tax policy; they just didn’t believe it was possible to do anything about it. “What happened in Wisconsin leads people to say ‘We can do something about it.’ It is part of popular consciousness in a way it wasn’t before,” Clawson says.

•    •    •    •

As evidence of the lopsided distribution of wealth mounts — the left-leaning Economic Policy Institute reports that the richest 10 percent of families claimed all income growth between 1979 and 2008 — Americans are split over what to do about it. A national Gallup poll released June 2 found that 47 percent of respondents think the rich should be taxed heavily to redistribute wealth, while 49 percent oppose such a policy. Results on that question have shifted back and forth over the 50 percent mark for more than a decade. That’s in stark contrast, however, to the results of a Fortune Magazine survey as the country struggled to pull itself out of the Great Depression in 1939, when only 35 percent of respondents wanted to “tax the rich.”

A growing sense of determination to change the balance of power in Wisconsin can be weighed in the profusion of organizations — many new, some existing — that lined up to counter the Walker agenda: Wisconsin Wave, We Are Wisconsin, United Wisconsin, Defend Wisconsin, Defending Wisconsin, Recall the Republican 8 and more. They joined labor unions in mounting a sometimes dizzying spin of actions that were noisy, messy and exuberant.

None of the organizations is dominant now, but the absence of tight organizational structure is not necessarily a barrier to success, says Pamela Oliver, a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor of sociology who researches protest dynamics.

Big, powerful social movements in American history — like the one for civil rights — have not been especially well-organized, Oliver says. Often they have involved more than one organization, with sometimes competing factions holding different ideas. As the movements build popular support, they inspire actions by small groups and individuals that help spread their goals culturally as shifting social relations and political alliances allow.

Such decentralized social movements have the potential to produce great turmoil and social change, Oliver says. “They keep opponents more off-balance, and can’t easily be co-opted.”  

But even a decentralized movement needs leaders to build a sustained movement, some observers say. Leaders not only oversee logistics, says Oliver, their charisma and influence can inspire people to persevere.

A leader who can translate the message for the masses beyond the picket line — and the Madison city limits — would be key to any popular movement arising from the protests, says one academic who is skeptical of their potential for a lasting impact. “The people who organize these things tend to have a difficult time articulating their message in a way that resonates with the average person,” says Mike Dalecki, a sociology professor at UW-Platteville. “Until such leaders emerge, it’s not going anywhere.”

•    •    •    •

Beyond leaders, the success of an emerging movement for economic justice will depend on the ability of organized labor, with its money, infrastructure and political alliances, to collaborate with other groups whose goals are in harmony with its own. Putting to work the picket sign slogan “an injury to one is an injury to all” means assuring advocates of other constituencies that labor, which so impressively flexed its muscle in Madison, is committed to working for other agendas.

That means overcoming a checkered history between labor and the left. Organized labor in America as we know it today was born of progressive laws aimed at quelling the social upheaval of the Great Depression. Labor and the political left remained aligned until staking out opposite sides in the cultural wars attending the Vietnam War, feminism and the environment. The fissure gaped for decades, as the political center moved to the right and labor was branded by critics as insular and the left as elitist.

The gap has been bridged, says Ben Manski: “A generation ago, there would have been a question for the left how to get labor on board. Today, we are labor,” says Manski, executive director of the Liberty Tree Foundation, a Wisconsin-based progressive nonprofit corporation working for election reform and greater participation in government.

“I think the labor movement in Wisconsin and many parts of the country has shifted in a significant way in the past few decades, and returned to its roots of focusing on organizing and mobilizing workers,” says Manski, who was a Green Party candidate for a Madison-based state Assembly seat in 2010. In the wake of trade agreements and austerity cuts that diminished the quality of life for working people, labor’s goals now fall under the progressive umbrella, he says. In fact, Manski, whose foundation launched Wisconsin Wave with the Center for Media and Democracy, is seeking funding from labor to support its activities.

If there’s any progressive cause that labor must embrace to build a new movement, it is the powerful, polarizing issue of immigrant worker rights. Not only is that a movement that has mustered millions of protesters into streets across the country since 2006 to demand the reform of U.S. laws, it also is one that embodies the issue of economic justice, says Benjamin Marquez, a political science professor at UW-Madison who researches Mexican-American social movements.

“Unions need to tap into the social justice messages these organizations project,” says Marquez. Fighting exploitative practices like discrimination, nonpayment of wages and lack of health care insurance fit neatly with labor’s mission, even though it is only in the last decade that organized labor moved from a more hostile position and embraced immigrant workers as potential union members.

That bond has been strong in recent months, says Christine Neumann-Ortiz, executive director of the nonprofit Voces de la Frontera, the state’s largest advocacy group for immigrant worker rights. “We are working together at a closer level than we have before,” she says, mentioning the appearance of AFL-CIO national President Richard Trumka at a huge May Day march that stepped off from Voces’ headquarters in Milwaukee.

But despite the formal support of immigrant worker rights, Neumann-Ortiz says some individual unions have a ways to go in embracing the philosophy. “Unions need to be very clear that the future depends on building strong alliances among all workers.”

Besides its support of immigrant workers, who are the target of an Arizona-style law introduced last month in the Wisconsin Legislature, organized labor also has conspicuously stood for women’s and reproductive health care coverage, which face defunding under the Republican-majority Legislature.

Amanda Harrington, spokesperson for Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin, points to Wisconsin AFL-CIO President Phil Neuenfeldt’s speech from the Capitol steps in March. “Let’s take care of each other,” said Neuenfeldt to a group awash with pink  “I stand with Planned Parenthood” signs. “We’re here today to say ‘It’s not OK to take away our rights.’ ” Labor organizations are long-standing supporters of equity for contraception in health care plans, Harrington said.  


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Neuenfeldt insists there is nothing new in labor’s collaborative strategy in response to Walker. “We’ve always had coalitions and connected with other organizations around issues of economic justice or fairness,” he said in an interview, adding that there is no political ideology involved. “I hate to characterize it as ‘left’ or ‘right.’ This is about democracy in the workplace; about shared sacrifice but also shared prosperity. It is about the future people want for their children and grandchildren.”

The message of social and economic justice voiced by labor also resonates with faith- and values-based groups. They tend to mobilize more slowly than the events of the last few months have demanded, but Brian Christens, an assistant professor at UW-Madison who researches grass-roots organizing, says it would be a mistake for a budding economic justice movement to leave them behind. “They’re not as dexterous as some other groups that flare up and die out,” Christens says. “But in their best form, they are a voice that politicians can’t ignore, because they are not going away.”

Christens hopes the Wisconsin uprising will spark a resurgence of political engagement by local religious organizations but isn’t sure that it will happen.

It may be happening in Milwaukee, however, where WISDOM, a statewide organization of faith communities, is banding with labor unions and community and advocacy organizations with renewed vigor to work for economic justice, says organizer Rev. Joe Ellwanger. 

The participation of faith-based groups can lend moral authority to a movement to resist leaders whose polices disadvantage society’s most vulnerable, he says. “It really is the justice and morality of the issues that’s going to win the day ultimately.”

•    •    •    •

Despite the evidence that a number of like-minded groups have begun to bond together, the process hasn’t been easy, says Amy Mondloch, executive director of Grassroots Leadership College, a Madison-based nonprofit organization with development programs for community leaders. She recalls watching the focus of protesters’ wrath change during the occupation of the Capitol from “an attack on public workers to an attack on anybody receiving services from the state — poor people, people of color, anybody with a disability — to an attack on the environment and beyond that, an attack on what democracy means in Wisconsin.”

So what does that mean for collaborative efforts in a sustained movement? “It’s difficult to figure out what is our shared goal here. How do we talk about environment at the same time we talk about public workers at the same time we talk about health care? How do we get to each other’s events and see ourselves as connected?” Mondloch asks. “If people begin to frame it as a class issue — the working class and the owning class — they’ll see they share something with everyone else in the room.”

But even with a shared frame of reference, efforts to marshal disparate forces for effective action has had its ups and downs, says Erika Wolf, an organizer with the United Council of UW Students.

“It’s definitely had its hiccups, because everybody has an agenda,” says Wolf, whose organization helped bring thousands of students from around the state to the Capitol protests. “At the end of the day everyone wants to see that this is a broad fight and that a lot of people are impacted.”

One group that has been notable by their relative absence from the Capitol is low-income people of color, despite the dire possibilities of proposed changes in funding and administration of medical and food assistance programs under Walker.

That’s a real problem, says the University of Massachusetts’ Clawson. A movement that cannot convince its poorer members that vital public services require the preservation of public workers’ resources will not succeed, he says.  

And there’s a lot of work yet to be done to refine the message of the protests so that it resonates with people of color, say community organizers in Madison.

“To build a collective movement, you have to develop a collective identity, and there’s no collective identity here,” says Monica Adams, who works with Take Back the Land, a direct action group working on homelessness issues. “To achieve that, we’d have to have some hard conversations about race.”

Low-income people were not visible at the protests in the numbers that might have been expected because their issues were not the main narrative of the protests or media coverage, Adams says.

What’s more, she says, mass protests, where participants might take part in acts of civil disobedience, are dangerous for people — disproportionately black and Latino — who have served jail time and therefore risk revocation of probation for minor infractions of the law.

“People of color are beginning to mobilize a stronger presence, but it’s not at the level where 100,000 can occupy the Capitol. Can you picture that?” Adams asks. “They’d have the Army in there. It’s not a safe thing for us to do.”

Even the leader of one the area’s most influential minority-focused agencies, the Urban League of Greater Madison, says the economic equity issues of the Walker agenda are best left in the hands of mainstream groups with the wherewithal to lobby.

“Let the majority community with the authority, the resources and the influence address those issues,” Kaleem Caire said in an interview, adding that he is concerned about the legal limits of political activity for his tax-exempt nonprofit organization, whose mission is economic development in minority communities.

Cuts in state funding to support services are a problem, the Urban League president and CEO admits. “I appreciate everything everyone is doing to raise concerns around these issues, but we need to be focused,” says Caire, whose high-profile campaign to found a non-union charter school aimed at African-American boys in Madison had him testifying in favor of a controversial GOP bill that would hand local school districts’ power over charter schools to a statewide board.

It took a while for low-income people even to become aware of the potential impact of the Walker budget on their lives, says Kabzuag Vaj of Freedom Inc., a Madison nonprofit organization serving immigrant and refugee groups that hosted information sessions in several low-income Madison neighborhoods.

Instead of political action, Freedom is focusing on helping communities come up with ways of coping with cuts in services, like growing medicinal herbs at a neighborhood center for use by Hmong elders, and increasing access to community gardens to grow produce to supplement family food budgets. “We are people who have been disenfranchised for a long time; we look for alternatives,” Vaj says. “But this Walker fight has created alliances with progressive white organizations that we didn’t have before.”

•    •    •    •

UW’s Oliver says her research tells her that an important step in the development of a movement is transforming protesters mobilized to respond to a crisis into proactive groups working to advance their own agenda. There are signs that that is happening.

Take, for example, the “Wisconsin Values Budget” unveiled last month by a coalition of advocacy groups who say that by increasing taxes and revenues and moderating cuts, it better reflects the values of the state’s citizenry.

“It’s an important step,” Robert Kraig, executive director of Milwaukee-based Citizen Action of Wisconsin, says of the spending plan his organization helped draft. “It’s much easier to attack someone else’s position, and another matter to come up with a constructive alternative. What has to come out of this budget and the first wave of recall elections is a focus on a positive progressive message on what kind of society we’d like to build,” he says. “We can critique what’s wrong with the right-wing vision of Scott Walker and (U.S. Rep.) Paul Ryan, but that critique has to become a vision of a more progressive future. They have a vision of where they’d like society to go; we need a competing, more compelling vision on the progressive side of the ledger that invests in human values and human potential.”

Some business entrepreneurs in Madison are preparing to advance their vision of what business should look like in the future. Brad Werntz, founder of Boulders Climbing Gym, is part of a group of small-business owners who are legally organizing as a progressive political action group. “We want to be the voice of small business in Wisconsin for the next 50 or 100 years,” he says.

The business model for major companies based on extracting value — whether yields from a field or profits from labor — is part of a dying economy, Werntz says. The future belongs to businesses that create value in their goods and services and put the value back in the community with local spending. “Leaders of vision realize this.”

National Nurses United has a vision for America that resonates with the emerging movement in Wisconsin. The upstart progressive union is soliciting support online and on the ground in states across the country for its Main Street Contract, a workers’ bill of rights on quality of life that embraces a holistic concept of health extending to housing, wages, education and more.

It was the restlessness in Wisconsin, the refusal to rely on political and legal solutions alone, that drew the attention of the group, says President Jean Ross.

“Madison was the first time people were doing what we feel is the only way to be effective: Taking it to the streets,” says Ross, a Minnesota registered nurse who joined in protests at the Capitol this winter and has been back since to speak at rallies.  If it happens in enough cities across the country, political leaders won’t be able to ignore the demand for economic justice, she insists.

And what happened in Wisconsin, Ross says, signals that the time is right. She tells about a mock New Orleans-style funeral march, with dirges transmuting to songs of celebration, that was staged at the height of the protests to mark a rebirth of the people’s engagement. As protesters marched down State Street toward the Capitol, Ross recalls growing ever more stunned by the number of people who joined in. “Coming up to the Capitol steps, I saw there were not just thousands of people behind us, but many more waiting for us. It rivaled what has gone on in Washington, D.C., in the past.

“It told me that we are on the right track. People are hungry for this.”

Pat Schneider

For more than a decade, Madison Capital Times reporter Pat Schneider has reported on the communities — neighborhood, ethnicity, lifestyle and avocation — that make Madison what it is.

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