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What's Behind the Recall in Wisconsin: Workers Fighting Back As Walker Dodges Questions About Corruption

The roots of the Tuesday's special election recall election unexpectedly began last winter.

The folks that were angry about this started a recall....Not hundreds, not thousands, but tens of thousands of ordinary people did an extraordinary thing. They stood up and took their government back.” -- Gov. Scott Walker,  discussing the 2002 recalls that led to his election as Milwaukee County Executive .

In a 60-day period during a cold Wisconsin winter, state residents collected nearly one million signatures for Governor Scott Walker’s recall, triggering the recall election scheduled for June 5. The words above, uttered by then-candidate Walker in his 2010 gubernatorial campaign, are strikingly relevant today. 

The June 5 election between Walker and Democratic challenger Tom Barrett will end this stage of a year-and-a-half-long battle over Walker’s divisive "reforms." But the events that led up to the recall election have laid the groundwork for a movement that will last well beyond June 5.

Not According to Walker's Plan

When Walker first announced his plans to roll back collective bargaining rights on February 11, 2011, he anticipated the fight would be over in less than a week. Claiming the state was broke (just weeks after cutting the corporate tax rate), Walker announced Act 10 on a Friday and planned a vote the following Wednesday, leaving almost no time for public debate or deliberation. He even scheduled a bill signing at the end of the week.

Things did not go according to plan. The events of the following week were pivotal in changing the course of Wisconsin history and sparking a democracy movement across the country.

On Monday, February 14, the University of Wisconsin’s graduate assistants' union and their students marched from campus to the state capitol with Valentines expressing love for their university and support for their teachers’ right to bargain.  Their message was clear : “All public sector workers are under attack. Faculty and staff are under attack. The UW as a whole is under attack. With these extreme acts, Scott Walker is seeking to undermine the labor peace of 50 years….You need to get active now!” Their commitment and organizing is widely viewed as essential to sparking the fire that continues to burn.

Public hearings on the bill started the following day and thousands lined up to testify. Republicans quickly abandoned the hearings but Democrats remained to listen to citizens testify through the night and into the next day (and eventually into the following day, and the next, for weeks). The state constitution requires that the doors of the capitol must stay open whenever the legislature is in session, so the capitol sleep-in began as those waiting to testify set up camp on the marble floors of the capitol. This act of occupying the capitol became a signature part of the Wisconsin protests, and helped inspire the tactics later used by the Occupy movement.

On Wednesday, public school teachers from around the state called in sick and came to the capitol to protest, shutting down schools in districts statewide. High school students marched on the statehouse to decry the attack on their teachers' collective bargaining rights. On the other side of the world, Egyptians were rising up against the Mubarek regime, and signs like “Cairo is cold in winter” and “Walker like an Egyptian” (a play off the Bangles song) were seen in the crowd.

It could have all been over on Thursday. Republicans had a 19-14 majority in the Senate and the votes to pass Act 10 without a single Democrat. As the Senate convened that morning to put the nail in the coffin of public employee unions in Wisconsin, the Democrats were...gone.