Wednesday, June 06, 2012 3:33 PM
There’s been a lot of talk
today about what Scott Walker’s victory means for progressives. There are a lot
of potential takeaways. The Citizens
United decision allowed Walker
outspend his opponent, mostly from out-of-state donors and independent
expenditures. Unlike the RNC, national Democrats (and the president) were conspicuously absent during the race, indicating that Obama may be unwilling
to take a stand on workers’ rights during an election year. Turnout
yesterday was unusually
high for Wisconsin,
which says a lot about how contentious the election really was. And other
Republican governors, who have watched the race closely, may now be planning
similar policies in their own states.
All that may spell big
trouble for workers across the country. But there’s another lesson we may be
forgetting: organized labor’s campaign against Walker was its largest and most significant
in decades, and Tuesday’s results are only a small part of that. Historically, elections have been a pretty minor part of most social movements—especially
labor. And activists in Wisconsin
know this history very well. When the state legislature cut
off citizen testimony on Walker’s
budget proposal early last year, their response was not a petition or an
official complaint, but an occupation. As Allison Kilkenny points
out in TheNation,
Alienation from the traditional leftist institutions was the cause of the
original occupation of Wisconsin's
state capitol, followed by a slew of occupations all across the country, and
the world. Burnt by the Republicans and abandoned by the Democrats, protesters
turned to nontraditional forms of protest, including camping in public spaces
and refusing to leave.
Until the recall campaign
officially began several months later, those nontraditional forms of protest
made up most of the progressive response to Walker. Citizens sent sarcastic
valentines to the governor’s office, closed
public schools, and revealed Walker’s
baser intentions in other creative
But by far the most significant action was the occupation of Wisconsin’s state
capitol, which connected the struggle both to Arab Spring demonstrations, and
later to the Occupy movement it helped inspire. There's also its
connection with labor history—it was hardly the first time citizens occupied
the capitol in Madison.
In 1936, more than a hundred WPA workers and their families camped
out at the state house to protest low wages and inconsistent pay. That
year, sit-down strikes (“occupations” in 2012-speak) erupted in dozens of
factories, plants, and workshops across the country. The next year, there were nearly
Then as now, a stalled recovery threatened a double-dip recession, and many
Americans wanted to see more action from a divided government in Washington. (This was
less than a year after the Supreme Court declared the National Recovery Administration unconstitutional.) Wisconsin even had a
leftwing governor from a radical third party, but like many people throughout
the country, the WPA workers still chose to work outside the system. Last year
we saw a similar (and somewhat smaller) wave of organizing and action in dozens
of cities, including Madison,
and it’s hard to know exactly where all of that will end up.
The recall in Wisconsin gives us some
idea of that, but not a complete picture. The Tea Party is still clearly an
important political force, and many ordinary people remain suspicious of the
intentions and tactics of organized labor. But the situation is far from black
and white. Last night’s numbers make it easy to claim a resounding defeat for
organized labor, but the last 16 months seem to show the opposite. It would be
a shame, for instance, if the recall vote overshadowed recent labor victories,
like when Ohioans voted overwhelmingly to restore
collective bargaining last November. And let’s not forget that Dems
took the Wisconsin senate yesterday in another recall, which may create
some hurdles for Walker’s
more conservative planks.
But even more than that, with
or without a successful recall, the fight in Wisconsin was a significant step forward for
organized labor. Unions have been steadily losing strength for decades, and its
mobilization in Wisconsin
was pretty unprecedented. Writes
For those who see democracy as a spectator sport with clearly defined
seasons that finish on Election Day, the Wisconsin
results are just depressing. But for those who recognize the distance Wisconsin… and other
states… have come since the Republicans won just about everything in 2010, the
recall story is instructive.
Walker’s February 2011 assault on union rights provoked some of the largest
mass demonstrations in modern labor history, protests that anticipated the
“Occupy” phenomenon with a three-week takeover of the state Capitol and
universal slogan “Blame Wall Street Not the Workers,” protests that both drew
inspiration from and served to inspire the global kicking up against austerity.
And that kicking up is far from over. As
Peter Dreier points out in Common Dreams,
Walker spent 88 percent of the money
in yesterday’s recall to get 53 percent of the vote. In 2010, when Walker faced the same
opponent for the same office, his campaign spending was a small
fraction of what it was this year. In Wisconsin, as in many other parts of the
world, austerity may require much more convincing than it did two years ago. In
spite of the recall results, Wisconsin
may represent less an end than a beginning.
Institute on Money in State Politics.
Image by WisPolitics.com,
licensed under Creative
Monday, March 07, 2011 3:46 PM
It was reassuring, in the midst of Wisconsin’s labor strife, to see a New York Times/CBS News poll showing that many Americans sympathized with the workers. A majority of the people surveyed opposed weakening collective bargaining rights or cutting the pay or benefits of state workers to reduce state budget deficits.
It was very telling, however, to see where that sympathy dropped off. The richest Americans, it turns out, are the ones who are most eager to slash away:
Although cutting the pay or benefits of public workers was opposed by people in all income groups, it had the most support from people earning over $100,000 a year. In that income group, 45 percent said they favored cutting pay or benefits, while 49 percent opposed it. In every other income group, a majority opposed cutting pay or benefits: Among those making between $15,000 and $30,000, for instance, 35 percent said they favored cutting pay or benefits, while 60 percent opposed it.
That’s right, a solid majority of people making only $15,000 to $30,000 a year—that’s near or below the poverty line for many households—still mustered compassion for the public workers’ cause, while the biggest earners were much more eager to roll over the workers because times are tight.
The poll hearkens back to other surveys that have shown lower-income people give a greater proportion of their income to charity, and to a study done last summer by the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California in Berkeley, showing that poor people are in general more altruistic than rich people.
Could it be that the rich, unsatisfied with simply always getting richer, are now getting meaner?
Source: New York Times, Greater Good
, licensed under
Monday, February 21, 2011 1:01 PM
As demonstrators continue to protest Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s proposed cuts to the state budget, questions arise as to just what exactly the fight is about. Is Walker trying to bust unions or simply balance the budget? Do public workers make more than their private counterparts? Who is and who is not paying their fair share? Sometimes it’s hard to get a grasp with all the conflicting voices, so we turn to some of the trusted sources in our library and elsewhere to point us in the right direction. Here’s what some of those sources are saying about Wisconsin.
Andy Kroll at Mother Jones is on the ground in Madison and is providing updates via his Twitter feed. Kroll also has a primer of sorts on the Mother Jones website, addressing the basic questions of who exactly Scott Walker is, what is being proposed, and how the protests in Wisconsin might spread to other states, such as Ohio, where similar bills are being proposed.
Meanwhile, Robert Pollin and Jeffrey Thompson at The Nation call the Republican governor’s actions a betrayal of public workers, writing, “Let’s remember that the recession was caused by Wall Street hyper-speculation, not the pay scales of elementary school teachers or public hospital nurses.”
Sarah van Gelder writing for Yes! asks if the Wisconsin protests are the first stop on an American uprising, looking to a group out of England called UK Uncut. That group protests tax breaks for corporations, claiming that if those tax breaks were taken off the table cutbacks for other government services would be unnecessary. An American version called US Uncut has formed and is planning events to highlight corporate tax breaks in this country. (The issue of class warfare brought up in van Gelder’s article is one the Utne Reader focuses on in our March-April issue. See the cover stories here and here.) Van Gelder writes:
The tide may now be turning. Inspired by people-power movements around the world, people in the United States are beginning [to] push back. The poor and middle class, those who didn’t cause the collapse but have felt the most pain from the poor economy, are now being asked to sacrifice again.
Ezra Klein may put it most simply, though. In a column for the Washington Post titled simply “Unions Aren’t to Blame for Wisconsin’s Budget,” Klein, in reference to the “economic crisis unions didn’t cause, and a budget reversal that Walker himself helped create,” writes,
That’s how you keep a crisis from going to waste: You take a complicated problem that requires the apparent need for bold action and use it to achieve a longtime ideological objective. In this case, permanently weakening public-employee unions, a group much-loathed by Republicans in general and by the Republican legislators who have to battle them in elections in particular. And note that not all public-employee unions are covered by Walker’s proposal: the more conservative public-safety unions—notably police and firefighters, many of whom endorsed Walker—are exempt.
The fact that those public-safety unions are exempt from the proposals doesn’t mean that they’re sitting idly by, as Mahlon Mitchell, president of the Wisconsin Professional Firefighters Association, told Democracy Now! viewers and listeners this morning. Mitchell called the exemption a “favor” his union didn’t ask for and told Amy Goodman, “An assault on one is an assault on all. As firefighters and police officers, we do not sit idly by. We make things happen.”
Sources: Democracy Now!, Mother Jones, The Nation, Washington Post, Yes!
, licensed under
Tuesday, August 17, 2010 9:40 AM
In a fantastic photo essay in Wisconsin People & Places, Photographer Carl Corey documents Wisconsin’s taverns and bars, many of which, Corey tells us, have recently closed. Corey’s goal with the project is “to document for tomorrow the Wisconsin tavern as it is today.” He sees the increasing amount of closures of these places as a side effect of our becoming “more physically isolated through the accelerated use of mobile phones, PDAs, e-mail and online social media networks.”
For Corey, the local tavern is more than just a watering hole; it’s a communal space where people gather to talk about the news of the day, but more importantly it’s a place where people connect with other people in their community. “These mostly family-owned bars,” Corey writes, “are also unique micro-communities, providing a sense of belonging to their patrons. Many of these bars are the only public gathering place in the rural communities they serve.” Corey’s full collection of tavern photos are available on his website.
Source: Wisconsin People & Places (Complete photo essay only available in print edition)
Images by Carl Corey
Tuesday, August 04, 2009 10:43 AM
A Wisconsin farmer has figured out a way to turn cow manure into water that “tastes just like the kind you get at the grocery store.” John Vrieze and his son have developed an innovative four-part filtration system that effectively converts the manure from his 1,200 cows to potable drinking water and highly enriched fertilizer. Vrieze’s son tells Wisconsin People & Ideas that although the technology is not new (it’s typically used in food processing and water treatment plants), “its use in a dairy farm is unprecedented.” The downside? The equipment requires an awful lot of fuel. With rising fuel costs the economy in shambles, Vrieze has been forced to revert to “conventional manure management” for the moment.
Source: Wisconsin People & Ideas
Image by Svadilfari, licensed under Creative Commons.
Friday, March 27, 2009 11:44 AM
The wolf is back in a big way in Wisconsin, with more than 500 of the animals roaming the state’s northern regions where they were wiped out a half-century ago. And like many other states with growing wolf numbers, this resurgence is kicking up a heated discussion that has scientific, political, and social undertones. An article in Grow, the magazine of the University of Wisconsin’s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, explores the balancing act faced by wolf biologists as they navigate this thicket of issues.
At Utne Reader, we’ve read plenty about the wolf boom further west in High Country News and other sources. And Minnesota, where we’re based, is no stranger to the discussion since Wisconsin’s wolves came from packs in Minnesota, where there are several thousand wolves. Still, the Grow article, by Erik Ness, is a fascinating read full of thought-provoking quotes from wolf researchers. Among them:
-- “Not only do [wolves] not require wilderness, they will live absolutely everywhere. As long as you don’t kill them, or hit them with a car, and there are enough deer, they’re fine. And of course, sometimes things substitute for deer.”
-- “The people who accept these large predators are often the people who don’t live near them.”
-- “Like a like of natural resource issues, the agenda is set by the people who scream the loudest.”
-- “The fact that wolves made it back on their own into Wisconsin, into a place inhabited by and used by people, gives me more hope for the places I work in the rest of the world where there isn’t a big pristine place to put wildlife in.”
Sources: Grow, High Country News, International Wolf Center
Image by Tambako the Jaguar, licensed under
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