Madison, Wisconsin March 12-13
Despite below-freezing temperatures and a biting wind, protesters circling the Wisconsin Capitol building on Saturday were extremely even-tempered in the face of the Republican hijacking of elective institutions to ram through a bill outlawing collective bargaining for state employees. As the New York Times commented, “the amount of positive energy was striking, coming a day after the long battle over the bill was lost.” Although the media describe the demonstrators as defeated, there was no sense of despair among the estimated 85-100,000 at the rally. What was impressive was their optimism and clear determination to continue and extend the fight against the measure.
This is to a great extent due to the 14 Democratic state senators who left the state to prevent a quorum for a vote on the original so-called budget repair bill. This action legitimized the mass resistance and prevented Wisconsin governor Walker from pushing the bill through quickly, which enabled major public discussion of its provisions – a laundry list of Republican ideological measures aimed at the middle class and working poor. The two-year, $60 billion budget cuts over 20,000 state jobs. It cuts $900 million from schools and aid to local governments by more than $1.25 billion while barring them from collecting additional funding. It cuts $500 million in Medicaid health coverage while giving a 100% exclusion from capital gains taxes for big business.
The protestors gave the “Wisconsin 14” a hero’s welcome on Saturday with chants of “thank you” as they appeared at the rally and pledged to campaign for a recall of Republican senators who voted for the redrafted bill in a sneak session last week. (A NYT slideshow gives a good idea of their reception.)
The constitutionality of the legislative process is being questioned, and the first test of public opinion will be the election challenge to right-wing State Supreme Court Justice David Prosser on April 5. If liberal Joanne Kloppenburg is elected, it will end the partisan court’s 4-3 Republican majority.
One sign of the mass nature of the opposition was the presence of farmers who drove around the Capitol in the morning on their tractors. One of them, Tod Pulvermacher, drove seven hours with a manure spreader to take part in the parade. “It really stinks, but it smells better then what’s coming out of there,” he told the Wisconsin State Journal. He hopes “we can change what was rammed down Wisconsin’s collective throat.”
Although the New York Times and other commentators ascribe the turnout to the political left, it was the very nature of this “ramming down” that motivated individuals from all over the state to travel to Madison on Saturday. Madison buses were packed with Wisconsinites who were well-informed and determined to voice their oppposition. Support for the protests has come from many layers of society, including Madison small businesses; Walker’s constituency is big business, manufacturing and energy corporations, real estate interests and banks.
Some have criticized the Wisconsin 14 for leaving their posts and not representing their electors. But this ignores the bait-and-switch tactics of the Republicans. At no time in the election did Walker run on the issue of disenfranchising unions. He claimed to stand for fiscal conservatism at a time of financial distress, and voters influenced by the rhetoric of the fake Tea Party movement swung his way. It was a rude shock to them when as soon as he was elected he declared a fiscal crisis and unveiled a fully worked-out plan to destroy unions and the electoral basis of the Democrats in this state.
The Democratic senators have received unprecedented support for their stand. Spontaneous rallies at the state capital have been taking place for over 27 days. The creativity of the protests extended over to the St. Patrick’s Day parade on Sunday. Many participants referred to Walker in terms of driving out the snakes from the state capitol. Since a permit for a rally that day was denied due to the parade, the firemen’s union organized a float at the last minute where a band sang songs attacking Walker and calling for recall, to the delight of the crowd.
What next? Clearly, the issue is not just about Wisconsin. Republican governors have taken near-identical measures in Michigan, Ohio, Florida, Indiana, and New Jersey with more to come. Clearly, the Republicans have taken advantage of the fragmentation of political power among the states to organize on a national level. They have sprung their plot to get Republicans elected with Tea Party votes and then to legislate an enormous transfer of wealth from the poor to the super-rich.
To fight back, the Democratic Party must be changed. The Wisconsin 14 have shown what can be done when Democratic representatives stay true to their historic roots in the unions. Now that southern Democrats have defected to the Republicans, there is no excuse any longer for abstaining from workers’ interests. Corporate Dems have to be cleared out of the party in all 50 states and progressives elected who will undertake to fight for the middle class and working poor.