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Have the WI Protests Changed Americans' Political Perspectives?

The spread of what might be called "the Madison effect" may be changing the political contours of America.

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Bird and his newfound activist friends even organized the disparate groups inside the Capitol -- the medic team, university teaching assistants, protest marshals, and more -- into the Capitol City Leadership Committee. The CCLC, while short-lived, was created to ensure that the protests remained safe, peaceful, and forceful.  It had its own leadership structure and governing bylaws. Once the police squeezed the protesters out of the Capitol for good, instead of dissolving and disappearing, the group evolved into the Autonomous Solidarity Organization, an outfit now determined to continue the fight for workers' rights and social justice.

I've thought a lot of about Bird since then. If a 21-year-old plasma physics geek can be transformed into an activist in mere weeks, then maybe the crushing effects of Walker’s and Kasich's bills and all the others can be channeled into new energy, into a new movement. It may not look like organized labor as we’ve known it, but it could begin to fill a void left in states where governors and legislatures are gutting the unions.

In Wisconsin, the upcoming weeks will put this new energy to a test. Right now, campaigns are underway to recall eight Republican state senators for their support of Walker's "repair" bill; in the case of GOP Senator Randy Hopper, opponents have already collected enough signatures, including that of Hopper's estranged wife, to demand a recall vote. And on April 6th, Wisconsinites will go to the polls to choose between a liberal candidate and a corporate-backed Republican for a seat on the state Supreme Court. That race is the first since the protests, and so could be the first true test of whether the crowds that stormed the Capitol can translate their anger into pressure at the polls.

No one can say for certain what Wisconsin, or Ohio, or Iowa will look like if organized labor is whacked at the knees. Will public-sector unions find a way to reinvent themselves, or will they slide into irrelevance like so many unions in the private sector?

As grim as the bills may be, I can't help but feel hopeful, thinking about the massive protests I witnessed in Madison. I particularly remember one frigid night, when a group of protesters and reporters adjourned to a local bar for beers. At some point, Tom Bird bounded in, so full of energy, moving restlessly between our table and another with friends.

At one point, he rolled up his sleeve to reveal a scrawny bicep. Some of his fellow activists, he told me, wanted to get tattoos of one of the most enduring images from the protests, a solidarity fist in the shape of Wisconsin. "Except on mine," he told us, "I want the Polish version: Solidarnosc."

That, of course, was the labor movement that, after a decade-long struggle, helped bring down the Soviet Union. Who knows what could happen here if Bird and his compatriots, awakened by the spark that was Madison, were to keep at it for 10 years or more? Who knows if Wisconsin wasn’t the beginning of the end, but the beginning of something new?

Andy Kroll, an associate editor at TomDispatch, is a reporter for Mother Jones magazine. He lives in Washington, D.C.  To listen to him discuss the geometry of delusion in the Ponzi Era on the latest TomCast audio interview, click here, or download it as a podcast by clicking here.

 
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