During the wintry months of February and March, it was easy to imagine the soaring, marble rotunda of the state Capitol in Madison, Wisconsin, as the epicenter of a new American political earthquake. Encircled by marchers, often many thousands on weekdays and 60,000 to 100,000 (and probably more) for Saturday rallies, the Capitol came to symbolize an improbable mass public cause -- the defense of public workers' rights to join a union and bargain collectively with employers.
But can this movement be sustained? Can Wisconsin unions both defend worker rights effectively and take the offensive to expand unions and empower workers in politics and at work? And can progressive groups use the movement's energy to win both elections and progressive policy changes?
The great Wisconsin earthquake started on Feb. 11, when the new Republican governor, Scott Walker, unveiled his "budget repair" bill. It shifts much pension and health -- insurance expense to state and local workers (even as Walker proposes cutting taxes for corporations and the rich by $200 million over two years).
More significantly, the bill virtually eliminates collective bargaining for most public employees and prohibits some from even forming unions. It restricts negotiations to wage increases up to the rate of inflation. And it further cripples public unions with new burdens, such as requiring annual certification by a majority of all workers, not only those voting.
Two years after the 2008 Democratic sweep of Wisconsin, voters were not happy with the pace of recovery, and the right was fired up over President Barack Obama's "socialism." There was a huge increase in self-identified "conservative" voters, and Republicans gained among suburban, Catholic, independent, and non-college-educated white voters. Walker and other conservative Republicans took full control of the state government.
Walker had campaigned by promising jobs, not the destruction of unions. But his budget scheme, announced shortly after he assumed power, was "like a jolt of electricity that woke up a depressed giant," says University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, political scientist Mordecai Lee.
The University of Wisconsin, Madison, Teaching Assistants' Association quickly set the tone for the protests when 1,500 of its members, not the 100 whom organizers expected, showed up at the Capitol. Unions began alerting their members, but many -- including two-thirds of Madison's K-12 teachers who took time off from work to lobby -- largely mobilized themselves and initiated actions such as an around-the-clock building "occupation." Rather than braking the spontaneity, says Bruce Colburn, president of the Service Employees International Union Healthcare Wisconsin, union leaders "stepped on the gas." The Madison -- area labor council even seriously considered a general strike. Private-sector unions joined early and stayed.
When Walker rejected an offer by the leading public -- sector unions to make deep financial concessions in exchange for keeping collective bargaining, voters increasingly saw not a budgetary issue but an attack by a bullying governor on the long-established rights of their favorite teachers. Both state and national polls showed the public supporting public -- worker collective-bargaining rights by nearly 2 to 1. Diverse groups of people came from all over the state -- typically organizing themselves, devising imaginative signs ("Walker is a weasel, not a Badger"), and marching peacefully.
State Senate Democratic Leader Mark Miller led all 14 of his Democratic colleagues to Illinois, blocking the Republican rush to pass the bill. Republicans later approved the anti-union provisions, but in late May a judge upheld a legal challenge, which had delayed the law's implementation, charging that they violated state open -- meeting laws, thus setting the stage for appeals and possibly a new vote by the legislature.
Organizers see "We Are Wisconsin" as less aligned with the Democratic Party, and more like a 'Tea Party of the Left.'
By late April, the Capitol was quieter, as protestors had turned to testifying against budget cuts, working on several newly significant off-year elections, and collecting petitions to recall Republican senators. Yet every day in the rotunda, retired state worker Diane Wiegel still displays signs that she has collected since mid-February. And at noon, dozens of people sing labor songs. "We're letting them know we're not going to go away," Wiegel says.
As the movement matures, participants hope to preserve two key characteristics in both union and political work. First, this has been a democratic, grassroots movement that encourages decentralized initiative and power, loosely incorporating the energy of new groups and old ones. After working in the civil-rights, anti-Vietnam War, and labor movements, former state AFL-CIO President David Newby says the Wisconsin movement has been the "most extraordinary explosion of participatory democracy I've ever seen."
Second, it has relied on direct, nonviolent, collective action as a complement to electoral politics, legal action, lobbying, and more conventional political work. From the start, "Collective action as a solution to things became part of the people's culture," SEIU's Colburn says. "So there was one day when we didn't even call a rally, and 60,000 people showed up."
The major institutional innovation is We Are Wisconsin (reinforced by other, smaller coalitions such as the "anti-corporatist" Wisconsin Wave). It is not just "another coalition," Newby says, "but rather a network of organizations pledged to mutual support with the premise that organizations can opt in or opt out." Despite heavy labor support, unions won't dominate, he says. The goal is partly to create energized citizen groups around the state to compensate for weak institutions of a top-down Democratic Party. Jim Cavanaugh, president of the Madison-area central labor council, envisions We Are Wisconsin as having "an informal relation at best" with Democrats and operating more like a "Tea Party of the left."
The new movement's relation to the Democrats is complex. Union leaders were upset last fall when a defeated Democratic senator switched his vote at the last minute, dooming approval of a contract for state workers. Individual union leaders also find many Democrats (including a president who only spoke out briefly in their defense)insufficiently progressive on issues from trade and education to health-care reform and protecting labor rights. Yet after the fight with Walker, says John Drew, international representative of the United Auto Workers, "the labor movement and [Wisconsin] Democratic elected officials have never been closer."
After the anti-union law passed, the volunteer-led drive for recall petitions heated up. The state Democratic Party provided legal structure and coordination, and other established groups, such as Democracy for America and the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, mobilized people and raised money for TV ads. But "it's grassroots people who are leading and maintaining this fight," says Jeremy Ryan, executive director of the new organization Defending Wisconsin. "I think that gives them a power they've never seen before."
Recall committees eventually filed petitions for elections- challenging six out of eight Republican senators open to recall and three out of eight Democrats open to recall. Primary races among challengers or objections to petitions -- especially to Republican filings with what Wisconsin's American Federation of Teachers President Bryan Kennedy calls "rampant evidence of fraud" -- could delay or derail some recalls. Three elections have been scheduled for July 12. But Wisconsin will still face an unusually large test of a little-used tactic that is rarely successful; nationally, only 13 state legislators have ever been recalled.
Democrats need a net gain of three Senate seats to win a majority. In the LaCrosse area, a swing region where Democratic candidates did well in recent special elections, voters seem likely to oust Sen. Dan Kapanke, previously seen as moderate and union-friendly for a Republican. Robert Kraig, executive director of Citizen Action of Wisconsin, thinks Democrats have a decent shot to win all six Republican recalls based on some combination of factors -- strong Democratic contenders, close previous elections, changing demographics, vulnerable Republicans (one senator left his wife to live with a younger lover), or strong grassroots progressive movements. The three Democrats, Kraig calculates, are more secure but not invulnerable.
A few spring elections provided mixed but encouraging signs for Walker's opponents, who hope to recall the governor himself next year. On April 5, in a nonpartisan runoff for a Supreme Court seat, a little-known moderate Democrat, JoAnne Kloppenburg, surprisingly came from far behind to narrowly lose to incumbent Justice David Prosser, a Walker ally, in a controversial, recounted tally. On the same day, Democrats won three county executive positions, including Walker's former Milwaukee office. And on May 3, Democrat Steve Doyle won an open Assembly seat previously held for 16 years by a Republican who had joined Walker's administration.
Democrats and unions will tie Republican senators to Walker and his unpopular attack on collective bargaining. Many of the governor's cuts in education, local government, and health aid may also increase opposition, since "98 percent of Wisconsinites will be negatively impacted," Kennedy says.
But despite the protests, Walker has passionate supporters. Even some conservative unionists who dislike his labor policy support other policies -- fully 37 percent of union household voters backed Walker last November. While one survey showed his 2010 Democratic opponent, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, defeating him in a new election, another found voters evenly split over recalling the governor.
The war in "Fitzwalkerstan" ("Fitz" for the Fitzgerald brothers, Republican legislative leaders) has moved some voters out of the Republican camp, but it has also intensified political polarization. That was evident one April day in the upper-middle-class Milwaukee suburb of Whitefish Bay as a volunteer collected signatures to recall Republican Sen. Alberta Darling. A lawyer, angry at how Darling's support of Walker violated Catholic social teaching about unions, asked jokingly, "Can I sign 100 times?" A few minutes later, an angry man strode by, snarling, "Don't you stupid idiots know anything?"
"The state remains fairly evenly divided," Kraig concludes. Evenly and angrily.
But the money may not be so even. "I think you are going to see ungodly sums of money spent on these elections," says Mike McCabe, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, which tracks money in state politics. More than $1 million will be spent on most races, he says, and some may break the record of $3 million. Republican Sen. Darling raised roughly $420,000 even before her recall petition was filed. By May, the Democracy Campaign already was monitoring recall spending by more than 20 independent groups -- but because disclosure laws are weak, it's not clear how much individuals like the billionaire Koch brothers who backed Walker are contributing.
Democrats and Republicans in Wisconsin used to have rough parity in funding, but last year, in the first election since the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, McCabe says, Republicans had a nearly 2-to-1 advantage. And for roughly two-thirds of interest-group money spent in the last election, the Democracy Campaign could not identify the original donors.
Unions and progressive groups will almost certainly be outspent. Without saying what unions are budgeting for the recalls, Michael Podhorzer, the acting AFL-CIO political director, calls them "one of the top priorities of the labor movement." Even if they drain resources from the 2012 elections, he says, "the action generated and the energy from mobilizing will compensate and make it a wash."
An activist familiar with progressive strategy reports, "I can say [the budget] is very large and very unprecedented. We haven't seen anything like this in state legislative races. There's an amount of national union interest that's never been seen before. Unions very much see this as a nationalized struggle."
Within the state, the battle with Walker has created new unity among labor unions and with their allies. The Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC) is organizationally independent of the AFL-CIO and, historically, of the labor movement, but President Mary Bell says, "The last few months have shown us that's an artificial distinction, and we have much in common." They also now have closer communication, she adds. The labor campaign, with its program of contacting members at work and home, will be coordinated much as usual, with distinctions in operations reflecting sources of funds and legal constraints on their use.
As a practical matter, labor and community groups will have to count on revving up the excitement of union members and grassroots groups to mobilize votes. But leaders recognize that continuing collective action will be crucial for building a movement. Big protest rallies proved so popular that they will continue, probably monthly. University of Wisconsin unionists and students will keep fighting privatization. And new campaigns have emerged: Depositors ranging from immigrant-rights advocates to the state AFL-CIO withdrew funds from M&I Bank, whose officers are major Walker contributors.
The movement must be about more than replacing Republicans with Democrats, most Wisconsin labor leaders argue. It needs "vision," says state AFL-CIO President Phil Neuenfeldt. The recall campaign is an immediate priority, says the labor federation's secretary-treasurer, Stephanie Bloomingdale, but the labor movement's political work overall needs a "sharpening of the message" to make economic and class interests clearer. We Are Wisconsin will play a new, important role. "That's a place helping to develop plans and a strategy for all of us working together," one union participant says. "We're excited. There's unprecedented cooperation of unions and community groups."
But if they are to spearhead a new era of progressive organizing, unions first need to survive -- which will require internal changes. Public unions with settled contracts have more protection and time to adjust. But Walker's bill threatens union finances by prohibiting public employers from deducting dues from paychecks and unions from collecting from nonmembers a fair share of dues for services they receive. Given restrictions on bargaining, Michael Rosen, president of the Milwaukee Area Technical College Union, fears some members will say, "Why should I pay dues to [such an] organization?"
Unions are setting up dues collections personally and by checkoff through banks and credit cards. Many may ignore the annual certification. "Who decides [if we're a union]?" Rosen says. "We decide." And some public unions may rely more on the civil-service code to protect workers.
Facing record retirements, mass layoffs, and deep budget cuts on top of anti-union restrictions, WEAC President Bell wants teachers "to engage their communities and say what they face and what we are doing in community after community. We're not the problem. We're the solution."
Union members will have to stop treating the union as an insurance company, expecting a union representative to solve problems, and instead develop the power to act collectively on the job, says Rick Badger, executive director of Council 40 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
"We'll have to look to the past to build for our future," Bloomingdale argues. "That means going back to the old school of one-on-one organizing. ... This is an opportunity to rebuild the labor movement, to help people to organize, to restore the middle class."
Since February, staff or faculty at six university campuses where organizing had been underway decided to join the American Federation of Teachers-Wisconsin. Some individual unions and the state AFL-CIO, with national help, are developing state organizing strategies, including organizing efforts in Milwaukee designed to mutually reinforce each other. Workers certainly could gain from large-scale, sustained labor-community action to support organizing and to stop employers from interfering with the right to organize. But even with that spirit of Wisconsin on their side, workers will still likely find organizing difficult.
"If we live through this, we're going to be stronger than in decades," Badger says. "The trick is living through it."