Remembering the Uprising

By Paul Buhle

The Wisconsin Uprising of 2011-12 was so unexpected, so inspired and inspiring, and the thumping defeat that followed so disheartening, that the whole series of events now threatened to become a phantom memory, almost unreal.

The idea that crowds of 10,000, 25,000 or 125,000 and a few times upward of 200,000, could be protesting Act 10 (crafted to eliminate public unions through what amounted to the “right to work,” without being represented by them), that the Capitol building could be peacefully occupied during the first weeks of the demonstration, that people came from near and as far as New York or Los Angeles to join us—this was a moment for democratic socialism as well. It is easy to remember the firefighters entering the Capitol, led by bagpipers, or the singing with three generations of Wisconsin families sometimes joined together in chorus. I like to remember something else. Rank and filers from unions, especially health workers and public educators, brought very, very funny homemade signs satirizing Governor Walker and the Repugs. People would laugh, cheer the signs, and look forward to different ones on the days ahead.

It was a spectacle of near-spontaneous ingenuity. And determination. 

How this all came about and what it meant can be traced in John Nichols’ careful narrative history, Uprising. Or in the anthology of stories, photos and comics put together by Mari Jo Buhle and myself, It Started In Wisconsin: Dispatches from the Front Line of the New Labor Protests (2011).

DSA members will want to read deeper than this brief recollection can offer. What needs to be said, briefly, is that the bipartisan approval of public unions can be traced all the way back to the 1930s and the (Wisconsin) origin of  the very non-radical AFSCME. The legislative approval of public employee unions, in 1959, was one of those developments making the 1960s-70s of Madison’s economics, politics and cultural life fairly unique, if fairly similar to some other college towns with an emerging left-of-center majority.

The newer Republican leadership, emerging in the 1990s and later with the heavy financial backing of the Koch brothers, ended the semi-consensus on land conservation, public education and, of course, unions of any kind. Leading Democrats, having accepted and even supported NAFTA, saw their political base withering away, with the closure of factories and small downtowns, but seemed helpless to halt or even slow the process. Depressed rural areas fell under the spell of Fox News, while evangelical  white-flight zones, notably some Milwaukee suburbs, were already in political high gear. 

A dozen Democrats walked out of the state Senate in January, 2011, sequestering themselves across the border in Rockford, Illinois (standard joke: worst vacation imaginable) so as not to provide the numbers needed to put Act 10 into effect. And the demonstrations began.

We knew even then that the Republican intent was to destroy private-sector unions as well, despite Walker’s promise not to do so. Many union families, ill-educated by their unions as well as the media, seemed not to want to believe this. The “Right to Work” legislation for them followed, as expected.

What is most memorable? Here, different participants will have different recollections. I remember the signs with Robert La Follette’s photo, a recollection of the great anti-war progressive and candidate for the presidency in 1924. I also remember the legions of senior citizens and retired unionists, from across Wisconsin and beyond: their unions were gone – along with the factories – but they wanted to go out with their boots on. And they did, old people in the bitter cold. They were joined on many days by crowds of teenagers, some of them from Madison schools, others coming from their neighborhoods and even other cities with their parents, grandparents and friends. Most of all, I remember the gendered nature of the workforce in the lead: women teachers and health workers. And the leadership role of my old union, the Teaching Assistants Association.

We were to learn later that the union leaders of bigger unions, in suites of the Concourse Hotel, watched furiously, intent on gaining some bargain scraps from Walker but even more intent on getting us off the streets, to prepare for some future Democratic electoral sweep, the one that never came.

Paul Buhle published the SDS magazine Radical America in Madison of the late 1960s and reported for several publications on the Uprising.

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