By some strange but excellent coincidence, our visit to Madison coincided with a tremendous series of demonstrations against Gov. Scott Walker’s plans to destroy public employee unions in the state, and no doubt inspire other governors to do the same. Wisconsin, it should be noted, was the first state to recognize the right of public employees to bargain collectively; Walker wants to make it a leader in reversing that history.
Liza & I dropped by today’s protest at the state Capitol—one that we’re told was far larger than yesterday’s, which is said to have attracted 10,000. It was incredibly spirited, but, since this is Wisconsin, rather polite. Here’s what the approach to the Capitol from State St. looked like.
There were lots of kids, from young ones like these to high school students. Madison schools were closed today because the teachers all called in sick.
Here’s that same side of the Capitol, a little closer-up.
There were lots of comparisons of Walker to Hosni Mubarak. It’s quite wonderful to see the spirit of Cairo hitting the American heartland. CNN’s Candy Crowley introduced a report on the demo by saying, “This isn’t the Middle East. It’s downtown Madison, Wisconsin.”
On the other side of the Capitol, a long line of demonstrators were entering the building, ready to mount what one Republican legislator called a “citizen filibuster.” Here’s what it looked like a bit inside the entrance.
A New Yorker couldn’t help but be struck by how there was no effort to keep people out of the Capitol—no metal detectors, no police lines, in fact only a handful of cops inside the building. Indeed, in New York City you can’t even get near City Hall any longer, much less just walk into the building. You’d have been cordoned off blocks away, where no one important would have to see or hear you.
Here’s what it sounded like inside the Capitol:
Walking back to our hotel, to meet up with Matt Rothschild of The Progressive magazine so he could interview us for his radio show (here’s his take on Walker and the fightback), we ran into these folks, with a curious homemade contraption (“You can do anything with duct tape,” said one).
It all felt a bit like Seattle in late 1999—though I sure hope this movement has more legs than that one turned out to have.
The Republicans have majorities in both houses of the Wisconsin legislature, and are likely to get what they want. It’s clear that he’s using a budget crisis to break the unions and to remove them as a political force in the state. As in most states, the unions are major supporters of Democrats—who keep writing checks and getting out the vote despite the fact that Dems actually do little for them once they’re in office. (In fact, Walker’s Dem opponent did his share of union-bashing during the campaign.) It may be that had Walker not gone for such a maximalist agenda, this sort of protest might not have happened. Other governors may take note and opt instead for the death by a thousand cuts instead of one giant machete chop. But of course, it’s not just Republicans. Democratic govs like Jerry Brown and Andrew Cuomo also have it out for public sector workers, since, as everyone knows, you just can’t tax the fatcats these days. And you do have to wonder how aggressive unions in California and New York will be in protesting Democratic governors.
All that aside, this was cheering, inspiring stuff. Let’s hope that these protests marked the moment when Americans shed their quiescence and decided to fight the austerity party,