Wisconsin – Why We Should Pay Attention

March 10, 2011 § 1 Comment

I’ve been a little surprised how little talk there is about Wisconsin this side of the pond – as what’s happening there is seriously exciting. Hopefully this short introduction will encourage you to check it out in more detail.


In November last year, the people of Wisconsin elected a center-right Republican governor (he beat the nutty Tea Party guy in the primaries), and a majority in both the State Senate and the State Assembly.

In an unexpected move, the new governor included wide-ranging anti-union legislation in a humdrum piece of legislation, which has sparked a grassroots progressive renaissance across the country. The Assembly passed the legislation in a sudden vote at 3am, again giving the clear indication that this process is unpopular and even undemocratic. Union workers had agreed to take a pay cut, so this is not a simple ‘unions bully government’ situation. It is a classic example of the right weakening the left and has opened up some exciting resistance strategies.


Unions immediately reacted. In a city of 250,000 people, over 70,000 people demonstrated outside the capitol building in Madison, Wisconsin. Hundreds entered the building itself and occupied it overnight. Local pizza delivery parlours took orders from strangers to the protesters – including one order from Egypt. Local doctors are writing fake sick notes so that protesters can stay during work days, and the progressive movement around the country is rallying behind the movement in Wisconsin. Last week saw a wave of solidarity actions across all 50 states (even though some like Indiana have already gone through this decimation of union power).

Most excitingly perhaps though, is the fact that all 14 Democratic State Senators have fled the State to avoid being forced to vote. Republicans have a majority of 19, but need 20 votes to make a decision quorate – and by leaving the State, the legislation cannot be passed. As Scott Walker’s polls nosedive, this might well be the most effective tactic progressives have.

Within the unions, there has been impressive solidarity on show. After a day or two of getting hounded, Walker withdrew his proposals for unions representing police officers and firefighters – but those unions stayed on the streets with their marching bands, supporting the teachers, nurses and doctors who had walked out.

What This Means

The Economist argues that the dispute is energising activists on both the left and the right. Certainly big money is being raised off the back of this to target Wisconsin in the next election cycle, and even efforts are being made to recall Governor Walker.

But for progressives, this is the first real, grassroots, spontaneous reaction to the Tea Party that feels genuine and genuinely powerful. With the infrastructure of organisations of MoveOn and ActBlue behind it – let’s hope this can really become a turning point.

Behind The Scenes

In a sadly recurring theme in US politics, the Koch Brothers seem to be involved in this story as well. They have funded Governor Scott Brown, and have interests in coal plants in the State. This short video includes the recorded conversation between Governor Walker and a climate activist posing as one of the Koch Brothers, which certainly doesn’t do Walker any favours.

What Can We Learn?

  • Use the inside/outside strategy.
  • Each organisation play to their strength.
  • Physical mobilisation builds momentum.
  • Solidarity builds strength and a narrative.
  • Resistance can come from the most unexpected places. (Seriously, nobody talks about Wisconsin unless they’re talking about cheese. They make a lot of cheese.)

§ One Response to Wisconsin – Why We Should Pay Attention

  • Tim Hardy says:

    Excellent post, Casper.

    Activist Ben Brandzel wrote a beautiful, inspiring piece for the Huffington Post on the unbreakable culture of the occupied Capitol: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ben-brandzel/the-unbreakable-culture-of-occupied-capitol_b_829515.html

    Another lesson is that the ability to run our own news networks makes the silence of the mainstream media increasingly irrelevant:

    “With the exception of Fox, who took the opportunity to spread lies about protesters attacking their reporters, the mainstream media was silent about a major news story breaking on Sunday night, the refusal to leave Wisconsin state Capitol building by hundreds of activists who decided they were ready to face arrest for an act of non-violent civil disobedience.

    Students watching at the UCL Occupation took heart from the courage and undaunted spirit shown in the jerky mobile phone footage streamed over the internet of those who took to the first floor at Wisconsin and refused to leave when the deadline fell, staying to face arrest for what they believed in.

    Over a million people worldwide watched these brave women and men standing up to another corrupt politician who is using the financial downturn caused by his rich friends as an excuse to deny workers their rights.”


    The spirit of Wisconsin is inspiring and a clear reminder that this struggle is international.

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