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Pro-Worker Movement Gains Power in Wisconsin, But What's Next?

There is a lot of talk about where to take this energy, and a lot of options—all with credible arguments and all with support from serious players.

The following article first appeared in the Nation. For more great content from the Nation, sign up for theiremail newsletters here.

Now that a series of crude power plays—violations of open meetings laws, restricted debates, denial of access to dissenting legislators, snap votes—have given Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker a momentary victory in his fight to strip public employee unions of their collective bargaining rights, the governor and his allies are claiming that they are implementing the will of people of Wisconsin.

Referencing last November’s election results, which gave him the governorship and control of the legislature, Walker has repeatedly said through the month-long fight in Wisconsin that “the “people have spoken” and “the voters have spoken.”

And, if we elected monarchs (or “kings for four years,” as Thomas Jefferson feared), then Walker’s pronouncements from on high might have to be accepted—at least by those inclined toward a docile citizenship.

But, of course, the United States went with a representative democracy model where elected officials are supposed to at least note and ideally respond to the will of the people.

The clear will of the people of, as confirmed by contacts with the offices of Republican legislators that ran in some cases 10-1 against the governor’s proposal, in polls that show less than one-third of Wisconsinites support the governor’s approach (and that a clear majority would replace him as governor if they could) and in mass demonstrations that have already drawn hundreds of thousands into the streets and that could draw hundreds of thousands more this weekend.

There is a lot of talk about where to take this energy, and a lot of options—all with credible arguments and all with support from serious players.

In Madison and Milwaukee, you’ll see posters calling for a general strike. The calls frequently reference some of the boldest and most romantically recalled moments in labor history, harkening back to the great 1934 struggles in San Francisco and Toledo, both of which garnered such broad support that they forced the hands of private employers and yielded significant games for what would become the International Longshore and Warehouse Union on the West Coast and the United Auto Workers in the Great Lakes states. Those actions, like the Flint Sit-Down Strike of 1936 and 1937, are the stuff of labor lore. But the Wisconsin struggle, a statewide fight that involves public-sector workers, is a different game in many senses. What’s significant is that some Wisconsin unions are serious about exploring options for mass action that borrow from more recent experiences—especially the “ Days of Action” strikes organized by Ontario public-employee unions when they came under attack from the government of Conservative Premier Mike Harris in the mid-1990s.

“There are a lot of people in Wisconsin who are looking at what was done in Canada, how it was organized and maintained, how they made sure that emergency services were maintained, that vulnerable people were protected, while at the same time getting their point across,” explained Madison Firefighters Local 311 union president Joe Conway Jr., a key activist in the Wisconsin struggle.

Not all unions are on the same page with regard to strikes, general or otherwise. And there is concerns that Walker, who fancies himself as a new Ronald Reagan, might delight in firing striking state employees. But the Madison-based South Central Labor Federation has passed two motions relating to the effort:

“Motion 1: The SCFL endorses a general strike, possibly for the day Walker signs his budget repair bill.

“Motion 2: The SCFL goes on record as opposing all provisions contained in Walker’s budget repair bill, including but not limited to, curtailed bargaining rights and reduced wages, benefits, pensions, funding for public education, changes to medical assistance programs, and politicization of state government agencies.”

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