Harnessing the Energy.

Author:Conniff, Ruth
Position:Public employees and demonstrations in Wisconsin


As inspiring as the past few months have been in Wisconsin, we are now in a lull. First there were the amazing, largely spontaneous protests--tens of thousands of citizens gathering at the capitol building for a public outpouring the likes of which we'd never seen.

Every week there were new, massive rallies and clever homemade signs. It was a popular uprising, a coming-together of citizens from every corner of the state and every walk of life--teachers, students, firefighters, snowplow drivers, university professors, lawyers, nurses, doctors, and prison guards.

This great cross-section of the public turned out to oppose the essential rightwing narrative: that we are in a "budget crisis" and public employees must pay their "fair share" by giving up benefits and collective bargaining rights; that the solution to the economic downturn is to give tax breaks to corporations, destroy environmental protections, and gut the infrastructure and public investment that make for a decent, livable society; that public schools have failed, teachers are lazy and overpaid, and we should shift to a privatized system of lean, mean education in which students' fate is decided by lottery, by vouchers, by privately managed experiments.

"Goodbye Public Schools. Goodbye Middle Class," says one sign in a store window downtown.

It was moving to see that, even after years and years of rightwing propaganda, those huge crowds of people shared an understanding of the value of collective bargaining, the role unions play in maintaining a strong middle class, and the value of the public sphere.

It helped that Governor Scott Walker behaved like a cartoon bad guy. In word and deed he seemed determined to serve the interests of his rich, corporate contributors at the expense of everyone else.

Even when the heads of the state's public employee unions offered to accept all of his cuts to pay and benefits (to the disgust of some of the rank and file), he stuck to his position that workers should simply not be allowed a place at the table.

Never has one man given such a shot in the arm to progressive values.

Walker spurred a populist revolt.

All that great energy, that reawakening of our shared sense of democracy, buoyed us up.

After the initial outpouring, there were the almost daily jolts of energy as the battles went to the courts. Would the Walker administration get away with locking the public out of our own statehouse? Would he succeed in subverting...

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