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On Wisconsin! And to the Next Battle Over Workers' Rights

02/18/2011 11:09 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Cross-posted from New Deal 2.0.

It was chilly and wet outside. Not as cold as it might have been here in the Upper Midwest, but cold enough to make you uncomfortable standing outdoors in a drizzle for an hour. Still, several hundred students, staff and faculty turned out yesterday at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay Student Union parking lot to protest Governor Scott Walker's Budget Repair Plan.

Admittedly, nothing happened here in Titletown as dramatic as that which transpired in Madison this week. There, tens of thousands have marched and filled the halls of the state capitol and from which Democratic lawmakers have absented themselves rather than allow the Republican-controlled legislature to actually vote on the governor's anti-labor -- indeed, anti-democracy -- bill. This is a bill that would not only dramatically transfer the costs of pension and health care programs to the backs of already strapped public employees, but also strip workers of their collective bargaining rights.

Nevertheless, what transpired did matter. We stood together. And we spoke our minds. We have no idea what will come of it. But we had to do it. And we will likely have to do more.

Students carried signs of SOLIDARITY with those who teach them, advise them, serve them, and clean up after them, and they made known their hostility towards the governor and his right-wing comrades' ambitions. Staff members spoke of their love of the state, the pleasure they derive from their work, and the shock and anger they feel that Republicans and corporate-sponsored groups are portraying them in the media as "spoiled public employees," especially when they have already suffered real pay losses and furloughs for the past few years. And professors talked of what, and of how long, it took for American workers to secure their rights to organize unions -- and of the sad irony that it was only last summer when the then Democratic-controlled state legislature finally granted UW faculty those very same rights. Now, even before we have had a chance to vote for representation, we look likely to lose them.

It was a characteristically Wisconsin event. Everyone who addressed the crowd was "nice" -- even in their most mocking remarks. Their words drew applause, their references to Governor Walker garnered both boos and laughter, and their expressed affection for their fellow citizens and the University warmed us all.

All of which both elated and saddened me.

This is a great state. I grew up in New Jersey, just 20 miles from Times Square. But I have lived in Wisconsin for more than half of my life. And here in Green Bay we have the Packers, a great, democratically-owned football team. In fact, as historian R. David Myers has written, progressivism -- "the direct primary, railroad and public utility regulation, income taxes, worker compensation" -- essentially began here under the committed and energetic leadership of Governor Robert M. La Follette. Moreover, progressivism emerged from the Wisconsin Republican party, not from the Democratic party.

But that was then, and this is now...

As we know, reactionary GOP governors are determined to bust public employee unions. And apparently the newly elected Scott Walker volunteered to lead the assault. We knew it would be rough after the Democratic losses this past November. But we didn't realize that when Walker turned down the offer of federal funds to create high-speed rail lines in this state, it was because he wanted to personally drive Wisconsin back to the Gilded Age.

So, On Wisconsin! But stop the Governor. And whether we win or lose, I urge my fellow unionists and citizens in other states to get ready for struggles in New Jersey, Ohio and elsewhere.