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The Wisconsin Uprising Lives On

(Photo: Dave Hoefler / Flickr)

A pedestrian mall in downtown Madison called State Street connects the Wisconsin State Capitol building to the University of Wisconsin (UW) campus. Charity Schmidt, a member of the UW-based Teachers Assistants’ Association (TAA), said many protest marches have paraded down State Street. One such march was the TAA’s Valentine’s Day demonstration; that helped spark the massive anti-austerity protests that paralyzed the Capitol and captured the international attention in the spring of 2011.

“The capitol is the gravitational pull for the movement, we’re lucky we have this symbol of state power right in front of us,” said Schmidt, who is now the co-president of TAA, but spoke to Truthout as an individual activist, not on behalf of the union for graduate students.

It all started in Madison. In the beginning, the world watched as Gov. Scott Walker faced down mobs of peaceful protesters who had occupied the Wisconsin Legislature and much of the Capitol in order to block the passage of the governor’s proposal to strip collective bargaining rights from most public workers, ask them to pay more for pensions and health plans and end the automatic collection of union dues.

In the end, Walker faced down Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, the same centrist Democrat who lost to Walker in the 2010 gubernatorial race and once used Walker’s anti-union law to balance his own city’s budget.

With the media enthralled with Wisconsin’s political drama and swing-state status, the 2012 recall captured the nation’s attention. Pollsters flooded the state’s phone lines and pundits debated President Obama’s decision not to come out swinging for Barrett. Much attention was paid to the huge amounts of out-of-state money that flooded the race and helped Walker raise a record-setting $31 million in campaign cash. The Madison occupation of early 2011, known to some as the Wisconsin “uprising,” seemed to be a distant memory.

“I think that unless that one looks at the entire process, then it just seems like one more election campaign in which Republicans outspent Democrats, and what can you expect,” said Paul Buhle, co-editor of “It Happened In Wisconsin,” a book of firsthand accounts of the uprising.

What happened to that grassroots energy that inspired students, faculty, public and private union workers, sometimes in numbers exceeding 100,000, to hold mass demonstrations and occupy the Capitol building in the biggest pro-labor disruption in recent history? Were their efforts simply swallowed up by the big-money behemoth of mainstream electoral politics?

Not exactly, say the activists that helped start it all. It’s more complicated than that. And even though Walker will remain in the governor’s mansion, the grassroots movement that originally swelled to combat his right-wing policies has not simply withered away into obscurity.

“I do agree that a lot of the energy of the movement and especially the occupation has been co-opted, but not fully,” said Schmidt. “We have maintained … we have networked a lot, a lot of things are happening on the ground.”

Remember the Wisconsin Uprising

According to Schmidt, it’s important to remember how it all started. She should know – the Madison activist and Ph.D. student took part in the protests from day one.

The TAA was a founding force in the original Madison occupation. Schmidt said TAA activists assumed shortly after Walker took office that funding cuts to the university where its members work and study would be coming down the legislative pipeline. The members organized a protest on Valentine’s Day 2011, but soon learned that Act 10, Walker’s controversial legislation known for its public union-busting provisions, was making its way through the Legislature. TAA members acted quickly, spending their weekend phone banking and canvassing. By Valentine’s Day, Schmidt said, 1,000 people were ready to march on the Capitol.

A public hearing on the legislation was scheduled the next day and the TAA organized a massive turnout. At such hearings, each member of the public is given up to two minutes to speak, and thanks to the tireless TAA and allied groups, a continuous stream of testimonies prevented the bill from going up to a vote. It was the birth of an occupation that would take over the Capitol and stall Walker’s union-busting bill for more than three weeks.

Thousands of people gathered outside the hearing and the building itself for days. The halls of the Capitol and the streets of Madison filled with protesters from all walks of life. With calls to Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring also making headlines, Madison seemed like a potential – and peaceful – focal point for some kind of global uprising. The whole world was watching.

Soon after the Capitol occupation began, 14 Democratic senators fled the state to block quorum and prevent the bill from going up for a vote. Schmidt said the lawmakers were emboldened by the students and workers taking direct action all around them.

Buhle, however, credited the senators for helping the occupation continue, saying that their departure “created the space” for activists to get creative with their protests and occupation at the Capitol.

The protests and political drama would continue in Madison, but with the help of a quorum loophole in the senate, Republicans bypassed the missing Democrats and passed much of Walker’s anti-union package in early March. The massive protests in Madison would continue for weeks, but began to fizzle out as summer arrived.

From Uprising to Recall

According TAA member Michael Billeaux, the radical energy of the uprising was soon replaced with mainstream electoral politics as the state Democratic Party marched toward the 2011 and 2012 recalls. Billeaux said the Democrats decided to de-emphasize union rights, which originally inspired the massive protests, as early as the 2011 senatorial recall contests last summer.

“In fact, with the exception of the 14 Democratic senators’ decision to leave the state and block quorum – which, of course, would never have happened in the first place without the occupation of the capitol – the Democrats have done everything to slow down the momentum of the uprising and funnel it all into the recalls,” Billeaux said. “So the uprising failed a while ago, last year. The recalls are the product of the defeat of the uprising, not a strategy for its victory.”

Activists have debated if the recalls represented an outright co-optation of the 2011 protests by public unions and a Democratic Party that was perhaps threatened by a populist movement. Buhle is quick to point out that the army of volunteers that took form across the state to petition and campaign for the recalls were not the same activists that filled the streets of Madison. Schmidt said that she noticed a “palpable” change in focus from direct action to electoral activism, but said that many of the activists who took part in the original occupation worked tirelessly to oust Walker in the recall.

The issue was a contentious one for TAA members, who recently (and narrowly) voted not to endorse Barrett in the 2012 recall. TAA Co-President Matt Reiter told Truthout that the TAA members who voted against the endorsement believed that, as a union, TAA “could not in good conscience endorse a candidate who essentially agreed that more austerity cuts on workers’ backs was the only solution to the budget shortfall.” Still, Reiter said, many members volunteered their time and money to help the recall effort.

In the recall for governor, the big unions and labor groups put their support – and millions of dollars – behind former Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk. Despite the support from the same labor movement that campaigned to put a recall on the ballot, Falk lost the primary to Barrett, and the rest is history.

Buhle said Barrett’s campaign was organized from the top down and became disconnected from grassroots movement that originally gathered nearly a million signatures to make the recall a reality. In the end, Buhle said, Barrett’s campaign lacked a certain energy and failed to generate enough excitement among voters to beat out Walker. There is a silver lining, however, in Barrett’s defeat.

“Anytime you mobilize many thousands of people who weren’t previously politically active and get them in a united campaign for the first time, that’s huge,” Buhle said.

Grassroots Activism Lives On

Schmidt said the momentum of the Wisconsin uprising did not just fade and die or get swept up into the bland machine of electoral politics. Grassroots activism and direct action have been alive and well in Madison and elsewhere. For example, activists and indigenous groups recently interrupted the Legislature and prevented the passage of a controversial mining bill.

“We’re at the crossroads where we have this vibrant grassroots movement happening, but it’s clashing with electoral politics because we are still electing people who don’t serve our interests,” Schmidt said. “That’s why it’s important to have leadership training.”

Schmidt said many of the colorful, creative elements that made special marks on the uprising and occupation have continued long after the spring of 2011. Anyone can still sing along with the Solidarity Sing Along at the Capitol rotunda. Capitol gadfly Arthur Kohl-Riggs gathered nearly 20,000 votes running as a Lincoln Republican – with a tall top hat and all – against Walker earlier this year, raising the question of what it truly means to be a member of the GOP. The Overpass Light Brigade, which creates glowing messages of political importance on bridges, continued to make public space into a bright spectacle during the recall.

Schmidt is already looking toward the future. The entire UW system is facing a 5.5 percent tuition hike for the sixth year in a row, and it’s time to get students motivated to defend affordable education. She said the Wisconsin uprising that rocked Madison last year were not just about one election or recall; it was about a broader struggle for access to good health care, education and a dignified, democratic workplace.

“As the results were coming out last night,” Schmidt said on Wednesday, “there were already hundreds of people gathering on the statehouse steps, regardless of the outcome, just to be together. And to me, that’s a powerful sign that people feel a part of something that is bigger than themselves.”

For the grassroots movements like the one that changed Wisconsin politics forever, there may not always be such a thing as absolute victory. There is only moving forward.

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