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How the Wisconsin Uprising Took the Wrong Turn

The uprising was too broad and diverse to fit electoral politics comfortably. You can't play a symphony with a single instrument.
 
 
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The revelers watched in stunned disbelief, cocktails in hand, dressed for a night to remember. On the big-screen TV a headline screamed in crimson red: "Projected Winner: Scott Walker." It was 8:49 p.m. In parts of Milwaukee, people learned that news networks had declared Wisconsin’s governor the winner while still in line to cast their votes. At the election night party for Walker's opponent, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, supporters talked and cried and ordered more drinks. Barrett soon took the stage to concede, then waded into the crowd where a distraught woman  slapped him in the face.

Walker is the first governor in American history to win a recall election. His lieutenant governor, Rebecca Kleefisch, dispatched her recall challenger no less decisively. So, too, did three Republican state senators in their recall elections. Democrats avoided a GOP sweep with a win in the sixth and final senate recall vote of the season, in Wisconsin's southeastern 21st district, but that was small consolation. Put simply, Democrats and labor unions got rolled.

The results of Tuesday's elections are being heralded as the death of public-employee unions, if not the death of organized labor itself. Tuesday's results are also seen as the final chapter in the story of the populist uprising that burst into life last year in the state capital of Madison. The Cheddar Revolution, so the argument goes, was buried in a mountain of ballots.

But that burial ceremony may prove premature. Most of the conclusions of the last few days, left and right, are likely wrong.

The energy of the Wisconsin uprising was never electoral. The movement’s mistake: letting itself be channeled solely into traditional politics, into the usual box of uninspired candidates and the usual line-up of debates, primaries, and general elections. The uprising was too broad and diverse to fit electoral politics comfortably. You can't play a symphony with a single instrument. Nor can you funnel the energy and outrage of a popular movement into a single race, behind a single well-worn candidate, at a time when  all the money in the world from corporate “individuals” and right-wing billionaires is  pouring into races like the Walker recall.

Colin Millard, an organizer at the International Brotherhood of Bridge, Structural, Ornamental, and Reinforcing Iron Workers, admitted as much on the eve of the recall. We were standing inside his storefront office in the small town of Horicon, Wisconsin. It was night outside. "The moment you start a recall," he told me, "you're playing their game by their rules."

From Madison to Zuccotti Park and Beyond

A recap is in order.

The uprising began with Colin Millard. The date was February 11, 2011, when Walker  "dropped the bomb," as he later put it, with his "budget repair" bill, which sought to gut collective bargaining rights for most public-employee unions,  Later that day, a state Democratic Party staffer who knew Millard called him and pleaded with him to organize a protest. Millard agreed, even though other unions, including the AFL-CIO, urged him to back out. Don't make a fuss, they advised. Let's call some lawmakers and urge them to oppose Walker's bill. "Fuck off," was Millard's response.

On the Sunday after Walker unveiled his bill, Millard rounded up  more than 200 people and marched down Lake Street, past the John Deere factory and Dannyboy's Bar, to the home of Republican Jeff Fitzgerald, the speaker of the state Assembly and a Walker ally. Fitzgerald lived a mile or two from Millard in Horicon. "I've got a message for Scott Walker," Millard told the crowd outside Fitzgerald's house. "This is my union card and you can pry it from my cold, dead hand."

 
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