Have the WI Protests Changed Americans' Political Perspectives?
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Indeed. So, in one sense, the intensifying assault on unions across much of the nation may represent an ending for a labor movement long on the wane and at least 30 years under siege by various Republican administrations, national and state. It is visibly now in danger of becoming a force of little significance in much of the country.
This is exactly what conservatives and the GOP want. As a director for the Koch brothers-backed advocacy group Americans for Prosperity recently admitted, "We fight these battles on taxes and regulation, but really what we would like to see is to take the unions out at the knees so they don’t have the resources to fight these battles." If the bills mentioned here make it into law, the power wielded by public-sector unions -- to fight for better wages and benefits, to demand a safer workplace, to elect progressive candidates -- will wither. And with history as a guide, if union clout fades away, so, too, does the spirit of democracy in this country.
"If you look at the last 150 years of history across all nations with a working class of some sort, the maintenance of democracy and the maintenance of a union movement are joined at the hip," Nelson Lichtenstein, a professor and labor historian at the University of California Santa Barbara, said recently. "If democracy has a future, then so, too, must trade unionism."
The Radicalization of Tom Bird
If the events in Wisconsin and elsewhere do signal an end, they may also mark a beginning. I saw it in the outpouring of protesters in Madison, the young and old who defied convention and expectation by showing up day after day, weekend after weekend, signs in hand, in snow or sun, to voice their disgust with Scott Walker and his agenda. For me, the inspiration in that crowd came in the form of a tall, string-bean-thin 21-year-old with a sheepish smile named Tom Bird.
Bird's radicalization, if you will, began innocently enough. As he told me one evening, when the news leaked out about the explosive contents of Walker's bill, his reaction was typical: angry but resigned to the fact that, in a GOP-controlled legislature, it would pass. "What was I going to do about it?" was, he said, the way he then felt.
Bird was no labor activist. Far from it. A master's student in nuclear engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he felt at home in the world of plasma physics. He'd opposed the Iraq war, but collective bargaining, walkouts, picket lines… well, not so much. He joined his first student-organized march from the university campus to the Capitol downtown in the days after Walker announced his bill more out of curiosity than indignation. He was, he told me, just tagging along with a friend.
Yet something kept pulling him back to the growing protests. He'd drop in on the demonstrators on his way to and from campus, wading through the throngs of people, admiring the signs taped to the walls of the Capitol rotunda, taking in the exhortations of the speakers at its center. The first night he spent in the Capitol, Bird testified in the all-night hearings taking place by reading a statement once given by Clarence Darrow, the famous civil liberties lawyer, in defense of a man named Thomas I. Kidd charged with treason for inciting workers to unionize in Bird's hometown of Oshkosh. And in doing so, Bird felt something new: an urge to be part of a movement.
Day after day he gravitated closer to the drum circle and the speaker's pulpit, the beating heart of those Capitol protests. And then, one day, someone handed him the megaphone. It was his turn to speak. He hadn't necessarily planned this, so feeling the energy of the moment he simply stepped up and said what he thought. Before long, he was an activist whose impassioned cries rang out in the rotunda as loud as anyone's. Any time I ventured into the Capitol I looked for Bird, with his Wisconsin baseball cap, lining up new speakers and keeping the drums beating. Someone even dubbed him "Speaker of the Rotunda."