The New American Revolution: Are Wisconsin’s 100,000 Protestors A Sign of Further Resistance to Come?


As citizens of Western countries are inspired by the revolutions in the Middle East — and in particular, I think, by witnessing the unquechable determination of so many people to throw off the shackles of tyranny, no matter the cost — the first battleground to open up in the United States is Madison, Wisconsin, where governor Scott Walker, described in the Guardian by US author and screenwriter Clancy Segal (the child of union organizers) as “a dim bulb but ultra-reactionary and with obvious political ambitions,” is heading “a sustained, coordinated campaign by recently elected and highly pugnacious Republican governors to cripple what’s left of the American labor movement” by stripping public sector unions of most of their collective bargaining rights, as well as imposing steep reductions on workers’ pension and health care benefits.

Walker, like right-wingers around the world (including, of course, the UK), is using the fallout from the financial crisis of 2008 as an excuse for implementing cuts that will impact those who were not to blame for the criminal excesses of the financial sector — and his hypocrisy is clear from the $140 million in new corporate tax breaks that he has handed out, equivalent to the budget shortfall that he expects workers to make up for with the loss of their benefits and, in some cases, their jobs. The bigger picture , however, was noted by Paul Krugman in an op-ed in the New York Times last week:

What’s happening in Wisconsin isn’t about the state budget, despite Mr. Walker’s pretense that he’s just trying to be fiscally responsible. It is, instead, about power. What Mr. Walker and his backers are trying to do is to make Wisconsin — and eventually, America — less of a functioning democracy and more of a third-world-style oligarchy. And that’s why anyone who believes that we need some counterweight to the political power of big money should be on the demonstrators’ side.

Similar campaigns are also underway in a dozen other state capitals –- including Ohio, Indiana and Florida — but it is in Wisconsin that those fighting back have made their first mark, occupying the state capitol building two weeks ago, and, this weekend, attracting over 100,000 protestors against the governor’s plans, wth rallies taking place in almost every other state in support of the Wisconsin occupation.

In a great article for CBS News, entitled, “Cairo in Wisconsin,” Andy Kroll of Mother Jones captured the heady atmosphere of rebellion and solidarity in the capitol building over the last two weeks:

The call reportedly arrived from Cairo. Pizza for the protesters, the voice said. It was Saturday, February 20th, and by then Ian’s Pizza on State Street in Madison, Wisconsin, was overwhelmed.

One employee had been assigned the sole task of answering the phone and taking down orders. And in they came, from all 50 states and the District of Columbia, from Morocco, Haiti, Turkey, Belgium, Uganda, China, New Zealand, and even a research station in Antarctica. More than 50 countries around the globe. Ian’s couldn’t make pizza fast enough, and the generosity of distant strangers with credit cards was paying for it all.

Those pizzas, of course, were heading for the Wisconsin state capitol, an elegant domed structure at the heart of this Midwestern college town. For nearly two weeks, tens of thousands of raucous, sleepless, grizzled, energized protesters have called the stately capitol building their home. As the police moved in to clear it out on Sunday afternoon, it was still the pulsing heart of the largest labor protest in my lifetime, the focal point of rallies and concerts against a politically-charged piece of legislation proposed by Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, a hard-right Republican. […]

I arrived in Madison several days into the protests. I’ve watched the crowds swell, nearly all of those arriving — and some just not leaving — united against Governor Walker’s “budget repair bill.” I’ve interviewed protesters young and old, union members and grassroots organizers, students and teachers, children and retirees. I’ve huddled with labor leaders in their Madison “war rooms,” and sat through the governor’s press conferences. I’ve slept on the cold, stone floor of the Wisconsin state capitol (twice). Believe me, the spirit of Cairo is here. The air is charged with it.

It was strongest inside the Capitol. A previously seldom-visited building had been miraculously transformed into a genuine living, breathing community.  There was a medic station, child day care, a food court, sleeping quarters, hundreds of signs and banners, live music, and a sense of camaraderie and purpose you’d struggle to find in most American cities, possibly anywhere else in this country. Like Cairo’s Tahrir Square in the weeks of the Egyptian uprising, most of what happens inside the Capitol’s walls is protest.

In the Guardian, meanwhile, Clancy Segal explained more about what is at stake:

This assault is essentially an ambush of the working middle class. It is openly financed by Big Money, like the hard-right multibillionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, who also fund — courtesy of the US supreme court’s Citizens United decision — the Tea Party groups that supply anti-labour’s ideological storm troopers.

Sensing a possible kill, union-busters are — unlike our side — in no mood to compromise. So, it comes as no surprise when Jeffrey Cox, Indiana’s deputy attorney general, calls Wisconsin public sector workers “thugs” against whom he advocates deadly force. “Use live ammunition,” he tweeted. Reluctantly, his boss fired him. Poor lawyer Cox was merely saying aloud what a whole slew of Republican state governors and elected officials are thinking, but dare not say … yet.

They want to push us back not just to the 1930s, before New Deal labour laws mandated collective bargaining and anti-child labour laws, but to the red-in-tooth-and-claw pitched battles of the 1890s, in which unions were defeated by force of arms – as in Homestead, Pullman and Coeur d’Alene when local and federal governments felt little compunction about shooting down strikers.

To prevent the passage of Walker’s measures, the most extraordinary situation has developed, whereby the entire Democratic delegation has fled the state to avoid a quorum vote and is refusing to return until Walker agrees to negotiate. This, at least, demonstrates some spine on the part of the lawmakers involved, because the stakes involved are so high. As Clancy Segal also explained:

The crux [of the problem], as expressed by America’s most successful investor Warren Buffet: “There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making the war, and we’re winning.” But pushing the case that it was labour unions that made the middle class could get through — because it’s true. When unions were at their height, with 35% of the private sector workforce in the 1950s (now down to 7%), bargained collectively for better wages and conditions, it impacted everybody and made their lives better, union, non-union and anti-union alike.

In Madison, the police announced that they would clear the capitol building by 4pm on Sunday, but as hundreds of protestors refused refused to leave and to allow their protest to fade away, perhaps recognizing, from the lessons of Tahrir Square in Cairo, that it is only by staying put and refusing to go home that their momentum can be sustained, the most extraordinary development took place. As The Understory reported, “Hundreds of cops have just marched into the Wisconsin state capitol building to protest the anti-Union bill, to massive applause. They now join up to 600 people who are inside.” Police spokespeople told the protestors, “We have been ordered by the legislature to kick you all out at 4:00 today. But we know what’s right from wrong. We will not be kicking anyone out. In fact, we will be sleeping here with you!”

Even police chief Charles Tubbs was unwilling to act against the protestors, telling the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, “The people who are in the building will be allowed to stay. There will be no arrests unless people violate the law.” The paper reported that he “announced the decision to let the protesters stay after he saw how they moved aside while work crews went about cleaning the Capitol, including mopping and polishing floors,” and that he explained, “People are very cooperative. I appreciate that.”

From across the ocean, the protestors — and the police — have my support.

Note: Please see below for a video of Iraq veteran Aaron Hughes talking to the crowd in the occupied State capitol building in Madison, Wisconsin. Aaron explained that, in Iraq, he learned that the US military was unable to implement democracy; that, he said, came from people like those occupying the capitol building, and from the recent example provided by the people of Egypt. He also read part of Iraq Veterans Against the War‘s statement urging members of the Wisconsin National Guard to resist orders if they are mobilized to repress any forthcoming strikes.

Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed (and I can also be found on Facebook and Twitter). Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in July 2010, details about the new documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, on tour in the UK throughout 2011, and available on DVD here), my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.

34 Responses

  1. Andy Worthington says...

    On Facebook, George Kenneth Berger wrote:

    Sharing this. I have an official AFL-CIO doc approving of these actions. It is in a status of mine of late last night or this morning. I can send it to you if you don’t have it.

  2. Andy Worthington says...

  3. Andy Worthington says...

    Tony Gosling wrote:

    Go Madison!

  4. Andy Worthington says...

    Philip Donovan wrote:

    The BBC and ITN have been curiously quiet over such a momentous event. Don’t you think Andy?

  5. Andy Worthington says...

    Judie Montoya wrote:

    I think one of my favorite events is his [Scott Walker] getting kicked out of a restaurant. What would a week in his life be like if he were refused the services of dry cleaners, wait staff, and others to service he needs?

  6. Andy Worthington says...

    Thanks, everyone. Glad to do my bit in support.
    Philip, I notice the BBC website has been following the story, but yes, at some sort of editorial level It would appear that a decision has been made that it’s too parochial for coverage on the main news — convenient for those who are happy that, for example, council workers and NHS staff are going meekly to the job scaffold even as I type this, without anyone even making a fuss.

  7. Andy Worthington says...

    Robert McLoud wrote:

    These people are cowards….when was the last time any of them went on strike? They started giving back their hard won victories in the 80s and didn’t stop until there was nothing left to give. New employees these days are lucky to even get health insurance and the unions stood by and did nothing.

  8. Andy Worthington says...

    Point taken about the unions’ historic capitulation and self-interest, Robert. But if there’s to be a fightback against the latest attempts to make the workers pay for the crimes of the financial sector, so that the rich and the super-rich can keep on getting richer, then it will have to come from everybody affected, including the unions. To follow the analogy of the Middle East, young people, students, the unemployed, professionals and trade unionists have all been involved.

  9. Andy Worthington says...

    Robert McLoud wrote:

    Yes and those people in the middle east went on strike.
    As soon as those in WI go on strike, I’ll start taking them seriously.

  10. Andy Worthington says...

    Philip Donovan wrote:

    As a former Union official (unpaid I hasten to add), I am not sure all out strike action is required right now Robert.

  11. Andy Worthington says...

    Robert McLoud wrote:

    Because the “rally” has been so effective?

  12. Andy Worthington says...

    Mary Lamantia Vinyard wrote:

    We need to thank Governor Walker and the Koch boys for waking up the sleeping giant of organized labor and those who have forgotten why we need unions.

  13. Andy Worthington says...

    Robert McLoud wrote:

    Wake me when the giant does more than hold a pep rally.

  14. Andy Worthington says...

    Mary Lamantia Vinyard wrote:

    Robert, patience is a virtue. Something Gov Walker should have had.

  15. Andy Worthington says...

    George Kenneth Berger ‎wrote:

    Robert–Those people are not cowards, *precisely* because at least initially they acted without the official support of any union, and hence no real strike and with no legal coverage at all. Suppose they were all sacked at once? They took a risk, with, I’m sure, in many cases knowledge of how Reagan instantly fired many Air Traffic Controllers.

  16. Andy Worthington says...

    Mary Lamantia Vinyard wrote:

    Coward is the bully name du jour employed by the right wing to describe anyone who doesn’t bend over for them.

  17. Andy Worthington says...

    Robert McLoud wrote:

    Holding pep rallies is hardly a sign of courage.

  18. Andy Worthington says...

    Philip Donovan wrote:

    Cynic! 🙂

  19. Andy Worthington says...

    Robert McLoud wrote:

    The crying refrain since the 80s from the American unions has been we have to make concessions or the companies will fail. So indeed the auto corporations went bankrupt and the government bailed them out….most of the management (the very people who ran these corporations into the ground) not only kept their jobs, but continue to get bonuses. I grew up near Detroit and watched as the workers were systematically reduced. At best the unions are merely ignorant for not seeing through this but in my eyes it was a combination of cowardice and capitulation.

  20. Andy Worthington says...

    Mary Lamantia Vinyard wrote:

    Put all your eggs in big business’ basket then if you think unions are so bad. Depend on them to be fair, to not fire you at will, to continue to provide bad health insurance, discriminate based on sex, religion, race, and to not give your job to their son-in-law.

  21. Andy Worthington says...

    Tashi Farmilo-Marouf wrote:

    Great. Make wars, bankrupt the country, bail out the banks with tax dollars and then make the ‘little’ people pay for it. What a world. Is everything upside down and backwards – or is it just me?

  22. Andy Worthington says...

    Philip Donovan wrote:

    I think, to be fair mate, the reason why the car industry in Detroit went under is because they built crap cars that no-one wanted to buy, especially in the face of competition from Europe and Japan. So I don’t think that’s a particularly accurate comparison.

  23. Andy Worthington says...

    Stevie Kroeger wrote:

    We can’t have Health care reform..bad for the insurance companies.We couldn’t reinstate the draft.. They would have been forced to “share” more info and more people would have protested. We couldn’t revoke the tax BURDEN on the wealthiest few, our economy would suffer. Hey lets get the know 1st responders..teachers…cops, They never say No to the people.

  24. Andy Worthington says...

    Terry Dobney wrote:

    go on you “yank’s”have a good riot= the cop’s love shooting inosent civilians ? i reamember the studants in chicargo in the “60s”! no dimocrusie there still — if ever!no media cover garentied!

  25. Andy Worthington says...

    Tony Gosling wrote:

    Yes, why has the British mainstream press ‘spiked’ this story eh? Answer is because it is the ‘wrong story’ which shows comparisons between the US and middle east dictatorships. Anything critical of the US is the ‘wrong story’. The British media is like a mental patient in denial and has stopped being critical of our sacred devil’s pact with increasingly fascist USA.

  26. The New American Revolution: Are Wisconsin’s 100,000 Protestors A Sign of Further Resistance to Come? « Dandelion Salad says...

    […] Andy Worthington Featured Writer Dandelion Salad 28 February, 2011 Image by SEIU International via […]

  27. Andy Worthington says...

    Mary Lamantia Vinyard wrote:

    Back on topic, the police are also in line for losing their bargaining power under this crackpot governor, so they’re not all that eager to disperse the protestors.

  28. Andy Worthington says...

    Finding Eden wrote:

    Too bad we cant have one for the Common wage workers and Slaves…..But we need to protect civil jobs so we can pay taxes to fund their retirement plans and benefits…such a Revolution?

  29. Andy Worthington says...

    Mary Lamantia Vinyard wrote:

    Finding Eden, civil jobs are filled by wage workers who pay taxes and pay into their own retirement system–they are not getting charity. Federal wage workers do not even qualify for social security–that’s considered double dipping. Politicans get both–their retirement even if they serve only two years and social security. Republican Ronald Reagan who made this rule got 4 retirements, 3 of them from the Government. Private sector employees get their company retirement and also social security. Perhaps you just were totally unaware of the facts when you spoke. I hope I helped educate you.

  30. Andy Worthington says...

    Cindy Simmons wrote:

    As long as the protesters keep at it they will win and Walker will be finished. The lifeless-eyed little sociopath thinks firing people will make them stop. Hardly! None of those jobs will be worth a damn if their union goes away anyway.
    Being a policeman, a teacher or even a nurse won’t be much different than working for Walmart. And all similar non-union jobs will also take a hit. It is the unions that set the pay, working condition and benefit standards. And in the end, if the corporations and the republicans that work for them do win, they will go after all other unions next. Wisconsin must stay strong! Fab 14 must stay gone!

  31. UK: Warnings Of Future Crisis « « Eurasia Review Eurasia Review says...

    […] creation of our own Tahrir Square, or, for that matter, through the creation of our own version of the occupation of the capitol building in Madison, Wisconsin, where, for three weeks, up to 100,000 people have been braving the winter cold in the first […]

  32. “Occupy Wall Street”: My Support For Protestors In “Financial Gomorrah Of … | Infobotz News says...

    […] East, and also in Europe, as manifested in Greece and Spain and even on the streets of the UK, and in Madison, Wisconsin, where huge protests took place earlier this […]

  33. Protestors In Washington D.C. Call For End To Afghan War - OpEd says...

    […] the revolutionary movements in the Middle East, the inspirational actions in Madison, Wisconsin in February and March, and the mass movements in Greece and Spain — which all fed into “Occupy Wall […]

  34. Protestors in Washington D.C. Call for an End to the Afghan War on its 10th Anniversary, and the Transformation of American Politics | War On You: Breaking Alternative News says...

    […] the revolutionary movements in the Middle East, the inspirational actions in Madison, Wisconsin in February and March, and the mass movements in Greece and Spain — which all fed into “Occupy Wall […]

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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