The events in Wisconsin during February and March 2011 will long be considered remarkable in many ways. That includes the documenting of the protests. Perhaps at no previous time have so many journalists—paid and unpaid— gathered so much information about a protest movement and dispersed it in so many formats so quickly. Ubiquitous, touching, and often hilarious reporting of the popular response to Governor Scott Walker’s “budget repair” bill— which proposed deep cuts in vital social programs and the evisceration of the collective bargaining rights of state employees—proved to be a key element in the fast-paced events.
Within a week of the governor’s announcement, tens of thousands of protesters had swept the Wisconsin state capitol in Madison, and the Democratic state senate minority succeeded in stalling the legislation in the only way it could: denying the Republicans the quorum needed to pass the bill. The “Fab 14” Democratic senators fled the state and holed up in a hotel, and the movement that formed in their wake quickly captured attention across the nation and beyond. Protesters revived the iconic slogan from the Vietnam-era antiwar protests, chanting, “The whole world is watching.”
Still, despite endless analysis and perhaps millions of tweets and retweets, many questions remained; among them was the curious symbolism of Wisconsin itself. Why were all those Madison demonstrators seen in the papers and on YouTube wearing red athletic-insignia caps, red jackets, and “cheesehead” accessories, some with “W” or images of the turtleneck-wearing, strutting Bucky Badger emblazoned on them? Why did rallies, which began with the singing of the “Star-Spangled Banner,” move on swiftly to the official state song, “On, Wisconsin!” (and occasionally the more lilting, “If You Want to Be a Badger, Just Come Along with Me”)? Why did so many solidarity rallies across the United States, Europe, and the Middle East embrace the slogan, “We Are All Wisconsin”?
The spreading sentiment drew its inspiration from the source. No idea figured quite so prominently throughout the course of events during the crucial weeks as that of Wisconsin identity. Documentarians captured boilermakers, sheet-metal workers, carpenters, and teamsters, among others, shuffling cheerfully around the capitol square with their own jacket insignias and signs, accompanied by dancing cows (well, people in cow costumes spelling out “solidarity” across their chests), and occasionally even tractors, but always teachers, parents and their children (also public school students), health-care workers, firefighters, and “Cops 4 Labor,” not to mention the wide assortment of the old and young concerned about the welfare of their state.
Out-of-staters, mainly union members from as near as Minnesota and Illinois and as far as New York and California, joined in the celebration of solidarity and, like uniformed firefighters and supportive police, were cheered, “Thank you, thank you, thank you!” Midwestern politeness to visitors and to people in uniform? Perhaps, but also an expression of badgerness.
On Saturday, March 19, when an estimated 150,000 protesters formed the largest rally in the state’s history, wild cheers were heard for an unlikely hero: a family farmer, born and raised in Wisconsin, who gave an impassioned speech on the improvised stage in front of the capitol. “What is a union, anyway,” he asked, “but working people coming together, acting together to improve their lives?” Standing next to his family, he explained how the schools, the largest employer in small towns, kept the struggling downtowns together. They now faced their gravest threat with the dismissal of teachers and the evisceration of their educational budgets. He insisted that the governor’s plan would erode the public health system and also threaten small farmers who could not afford to buy into private insurance plans. In his mind, he said, this struggle was an attempt to hold on to what Wisconsinites had long fought for.
These themes had a familiar ring to us as historians: they hailed back to the farmer-labor solidarity of the 1910s, a movement that had defeated the corporate interests. Wisconsinites could do it again. Or so third-generation family farmer Tony Schultz insisted, to the roaring approval of the crowd, and soon also to the many thousands who followed the events on YouTube.
Schultz’s booming voice echoed the sentiment of his fellow protesters: the new Republican governor’s budget repair bill was, as much as anything else, a monstrous affront to “Wisconsinism.” The Republican state victory in November 2010 resulted from a combination of public apathy and a sharp disappointment in Democratic leadership, in both the state and the nation. The enthusiasm that swept Barack Obama to victory in 2008 had all but disappeared in Wisconsin.
Few anticipated, however, that the heretofore nondescript Milwaukee county executive Scott Walker would act so precipitately (or ruthlessly) as to sweep away a half century of collective bargaining rights for public employees. Under then-governor Gaylord Nelson, in 1959, Wisconsin had been the first state to enact legislation allowing union representation for public workers. Five decades later, under Walker’s leadership, the Republican majority determined to turn back history by stripping state employees of bargaining rights and subjecting what remained of their unions to such limits that they would effectively cease to exist.
Walker’s “repair bill” and the budget bill for the next two years would further undermine legislation that had fed Wisconsin’s political identity for much of the past century. It would devastate social services, including the jobs of teachers and health workers, and undermine a wide assortment of environmental protections. Municipalities, for example, would no longer be required to test their water supplies for impurities; the state would eliminate funding for local recycling programs; the governor could sell off state-owned power plants in no-bid deals; and caps would be raised for the number of students allowed into for-profit “virtual” schools, while the authorization of charter schools would pass from locally elected officials to a board appointed by the governor.
Indeed, Walker’s “repair bill” was more of a dismantling bill that would turn half of civil-service jobs, spanning fifteen state agencies, into the governor’s political appointments. The measures would, in all, mark a stunning return to the Gilded Age, remembered best for robber-baron industrialists, unchecked political patronage, and unembarrassed corruption.
The Return of “Fighting Bob”
In response, protesters improvised on the state’s motto, “Forward,” adopted in 1851 to signify Wisconsin’s pledge to lead in national affairs, and shouted repeatedly, “Forward, not backward.”
Tony Schultz, the family farmer from the little village of Athens, near Wausau, appropriately interpreted the dangers posed to the state’s legacy by making himself into a twenty-first-century version of “Fighting Bob,” the most admired opposition political figure in Wisconsin history. Robert M. La Follette Jr., who emerged as a national symbol of Progressivism, had opened the new twentieth century as governor, in 1901, with his articulation of the “Wisconsin Idea.” La Follette gathered wide public support to limit the political influence of corporations and to identify, in the patronage system, the major enemy to economic, social, and educational progress—and to fight the enemy to a standstill, if not vanquish it entirely. He prompted the faculty at the University of Wisconsin to join him in helping legislators improve efficiency and honesty in government. All the elements in La Follette’s program, in short, complemented its core idea: the purpose of government, first and foremost, was to serve the people.
Self-avowed “La Follette Progressives” welcomed the news that reformers were making similar demands in other states but stubbornly insisted that Wisconsin was uniquely suited to serve as a “laboratory for democracy.” German and Scandinavian immigrants had volunteered and died in large numbers in the Civil War crusade against slavery. Likewise, Socialist impulses had come early and remained in place for generations, especially in Milwaukee, where Socialists held the mayor’s office for a half century. Isolationist sentiment also had wide support among those Wisconsinites who suspected that it was Wall Street financiers who craved war profits and lobbied heavily for them in Congress. Progressive legislation at the state level provided national precedents: Wisconsin, for example, created the first effective workers’ compensation program in 1911. Most of all, Progressives and Socialists wanted to make life better on the home front. A host of reforms successfully regulated working conditions in factories, including the hours worked by women and children; promoted the establishment of farming cooperatives; instituted a state income tax; and encouraged public health programs and major conservation initiatives.
“Fighting Bob” La Follette, backed by farmers and workers, went on to serve in the US Senate from 1906 to 1925. He died, reputedly of exhaustion, just months after completing his 1924 presidential campaign. Many of his ideas and some of his slogans reappeared in the New Deal under the auspices of Franklin D. Roosevelt and the “Brain Trust.” In Wisconsin, the La Follette legacy lived on in its own name. “Which shall rule?” La Follette had asked, channeling nineteenth-century state supreme court judge Edward G. Ryan. “Wealth or man? Which shall lead, money or intellect? Who shall fill public stations, educated and patriotic free men, or the feudal serfs of corporate wealth?”
The questions that first Ryan then La Follette posed decades ago suddenly reappeared prominently in the demonstrations of February and March 2011, as did two clean-government measures that his followers had bequeathed to later generations of voters, referendum and (especially) recall. Likewise, no wonder that latter-day La Folletteites singled out two of the governor’s key financial backers: Charles G. and David Koch (pronounced “coke”), the billionaire brothers from Kansas who had contributed so generously to Walker’s election campaign.
Apparently aiming to make Wisconsin a model case for a nationwide attack upon the “social state,” one Koch organization, Americans for Prosperity, set up a branch office barely a block from the capitol, facilitating easy access to the governor’s office. One of the most popular messages on protest signs read, “Gov. Walker Is a Koch-Head.”
The governor was hardly more than an agent, La Follette probably would have said, for the monied outsiders who had no real interest in the welfare of Wisconsin citizens. Protesters also organized substantial “withdrawal” events directed at another major Walker backer, M&I Bank. It was hardly surprising, then, that as the occupation of the capitol eased, popular committees formed to begin recall elections of all eligible Republican legislators. By Wisconsin law, the governor himself is subject to recall only in early 2012, after serving one full year in office. Eligible Republican legislators, however, including some of Walker’s chief supporters, would be vulnerable sooner, and pledges were gathered to initiate a recall referendum for Walker himself for January 2012. The mark of La Follette upon the recall tactic was indelible. Hardly any Wisconsinites needed help in translating the Twitter-speak shorthand that appeared on protest signs: “WWFBD?”
What, indeed, would Fighting Bob do? La Follette would surely have cheered the campaign led by public-employees’ unions, some of them actually founded in Wisconsin. He would have welcomed without reservation the participation of students and faculty alike from the state’s chief educational institution, the land-grant University of Wisconsin–Madison.
Over the generations, UW faculty members had worked with state legislators to draft path-breaking bills on issues ranging from workers’ compensation and unemployment insurance to collective bargaining rights. In early 2011, the newest generation of UW teachers responded in a variety of ways to Walker’s challenge. One Madison faculty group lost no time in putting up a Facebook page, UW–Madison Faculty Organizing for Change, to share information about events responding to the governor’s proposed legislation, especially those aspects dealing with collective bargaining, health insurance, and pensions. Outside of Madison, faculty members issued their own challenge to Walker by voting to unionize. While the UW–Madison faculty had demurred, the faculties at several other campuses in the UW system had joined the Association of University of Wisconsin Professionals, a lobbying group affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). After Walker introduced the budget repair bill, they voted overwhelmingly to form bargaining units. By the end of March, faculty and academic staff members at the University of Wisconsin’s Stout, La Crosse, and River Falls campuses had joined the Eau Claire campus in establishing AFT-Wisconsin unions. In the face of provisions in the budget repair bill that would effectively dismantle state unions, collective bargaining looked better and better to people as a means of protecting the university system.
Others found their own voices. Faculty members at the University of Wisconsin–Whitewater, still not unionized, nonetheless composed a collective letter to Governor Walker underscoring the harm his budget reductions would do to them as a faculty and, especially, to students at all levels. Heading into an unseasonably cold weekend in late March, a small group of UW–Whitewater professors actually walked forty-three miles from their campus to the capitol to hand deliver their missive. Meanwhile, state employees, and large numbers of UW faculty across the system, pledged solidarity with other state workers, the elementary and high school teachers, corrections officers, and nurses who all swelled the ranks of protesters. What did these nonacademics have in common along with their job status? The majority were graduates of one branch or another of the University of Wisconsin. Faculty members spoke at the capitol rallies and smaller simultaneous protests from Green Bay to River Falls and La Crosse to Milwaukee, while others wrote op-eds for national and local press, and still others appeared on radio and television talk shows.
The importance of the University of Wisconsin system in service to the state was further reflected in the educational backgrounds of the state legislators themselves. All but six of the nineteen Republicans and fourteen Democrats in the state senate had UW degrees, the overwhelming majority from the branch campuses outside Madison. In the state assembly, the principal adversaries, the Republican majority leader and the Democratic minority leader, likewise both held UW degrees. By contrast, the governor himself lacked a college diploma, having dropped out of Marquette University. Some protesters picked up quickly and a bit meanly on this theme. Teachers’ signs at the rallies read: “Anyone can be governor, while it takes a college education to do my job.”
The TAA Leads the Way
Through the course of events, the Wisconsin Idea that perhaps shone the brightest was the activism of the UW–Madison Teaching Assistants Association (TAA). It was the first successful union of graduate student teaching assistants anywhere (see Daniel Czitrom’s article in the January–February 2010 issue of Academe). The TAA had emerged in the late 1960s, amid antiwar protests and student strikes over the university’s complicity in Vietnam but also over curricular and parietal issues. After the state legislature proposed a bill eliminating out-of-state tuition remission for graduate assistants, the then-small TAA voted to strike if necessary. The legislature withdrew its bill, but the wheels of collective bargaining had been set into motion. Graduate students successfully voted for bargaining rights in 1969. The UW administration stalled, and the TAA then called a strike. Just four weeks later, in early 1970, the students had achieved most of their demands, including guaranteed support for three to four years, grievance procedures, workload limitations (such as number of students and class size), and health insurance. It was a revolution of sorts for campus life, and not only in Madison or across Wisconsin.
During the decades that followed, the TAA provided a steady presence on campus and, increasingly, far beyond. In 1974, the TAA affiliated with the AFT and added its badly needed energy first to the local labor council and then to the flagging state labor movement. David Newby, first elected as a graduate student to the leadership of the TAA, had risen by 1982 to the presidency of the Madison Central Labor Council and by 1993 to the presidency of the Wisconsin AFL-CIO, a position he held until his retirement in 2010. Repeatedly threatened by university take-backs, the TAA had built solid support among the ever-shifting base of graduate students, and by 2011, it had more than 1,700 members, who, in turn, represented 3,000 state employees. Current TAA members immediately grasped the significance of the budget repair bill’s provisions to abrogate state employees’ union contracts, including the curtailment of “check-off” dues in paychecks and the requirement to recertify recognition each year.
Extremely well-organized TAA members took some of the first steps to foster the wider protest movement. They started phone banking on February 12, just in advance of the governor’s introduction of the bill. A tense meeting followed two days later. In a packed campus lecture hall, TAA leaders declared that a turning point had been reached in Wisconsin history and urged those present to put aside their other work for as long as the struggle would take. Their collective house, for the present, was the state capitol itself.
Issuing a bulletin that called upon members to “Stand Up, Fight Back!” the TAA helped to rally more than a thousand activists from the UW community in the capitol rotunda, where they delivered “valentines” to Governor Walker, professing their love of UW and demanding a halt to budget cuts. When the governor refused to meet with the protesters, they in turn refused to leave the building.
“Badgerness ” Begins in Earnest
The famous (perhaps world-famous) occupation, destined to last weeks, had begun.
Thousands of fellow Wisconsin residents joined the protest in the capitol, notably UW undergraduates, professors, and staff members but also firefighters, corrections officers, private-sector unionists, members of faith communities, and a hardy crew of Madison-style, graying-but-activist retirees. Given such numbers and such diversity, the message was clear: these protesters were not leaving, and the political cost of pushing them out by force would be great. The TAA played a decisive role in keeping the crowd peaceful and orderly—and thus safe and comfortable for the disabled, the elderly, and parents with babies in their arms. TAA members formed cleaning brigades that swept the building several times daily and even sought to ensure that only painter’s masking tape was used for putting up protest signs, thereby protecting the marble surface of the capitol walls. A “war room” set up in the capitol, meanwhile, provided the strategy center where TAAers decided upon immediate tasks, posted minute-by-minute updates on Twitter (see http://twitter.com/defendwisconsin), wrote press releases, set up actions, and acted as a hub that made the long-term occupation of the capitol viable.
As the days wore on, TAA activists made it possible in a multitude of small ways for protesters to maintain their continual, always peaceful presence. Quiet hours were set beginning at 10 p.m., air mattresses were provided for some “guests,” and a lending library was established for insomniacs. The delivery of food and water proceeded, including evening meals for members of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees who helped to keep up the vigil. During the day, when speeches, drumming, and chanting moved to the upper decibels, they even supplied a box of earplugs, especially important for young children. And to give parents with children a respite from the noise and crowds in the rotunda, the TAA maintained a quiet room in the capitol basement. The capitol police, charged by Walker in late February to remove the protesters, refused to do so, claiming that the occupation was so peaceful and orderly that forceful intervention was unnecessary and potentially injurious to both protesters and police. Wisconsin capitol police chief Charles Tubb went so far as to commend the behavior and cooperation of the protesters. By this time, dozens of members of the Wisconsin Police Union, a surprisingly friendly presence, had joined the overnight protesters in the capitol occupation.
By the time the protesters had finally left the capitol, it was clear that the “first act of the drama” (as returned Democratic senators named it at a March 12 rally) was now over. The second, third, and other acts remained to be played out and would be over the following months, with so many twists and turns of events that no certain outcome was likely to be determined anytime soon.
And yet something irrevocable had happened, certainly in Wisconsin, and perhaps with implications far beyond. The traditions of the Progressive Era, amazingly alive into the twenty-first century, had been refurbished in ways that made standard politicians’ (or historians’) references to the Founding Fathers or even the Second World War seem abstract. Nor was this a mystery. Progressives had responded to conditions and behavior, economic and political, that now seem eerily familiar, more so than anyone could have guessed only a few years ago.
Factories have faded, and the worker activists with them. But the workforce of the new century—educators and others in the social-services sector—has boldly stepped forward to fill the breach.
Mari Jo Buhle, university professor emerita at Brown University, specializes in US women’s history. She is coauthor of the textbook Out of Many: A History of the American People. Paul Buhle, formerly a senior lecturer at Brown, is author or editor of more than forty volumes on US labor, the Left, and popular culture.
Thank you for this wonderful article. It's hard to convey to outsiders what a special place Wisconsin is, with it's deep and rich history of political activism. Those of us who have been involved in the "uprising" are naturally somewhat discouraged now. But the protests have given me a great gift, a lively sense of the contingency of history that I never had. I now read history -- my main hobby as a retired graying activist -- with a new sense of suspense, and sympathy for those who were there. Many of us here in Wisconsin are studying and discussing history while planning and working toward the next stages of this movement.