The Revival of Labor

After weeks of pitched battle that has clogged the state Capitol with protests and gummed up legislative works, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker hinted in an interview yesterday with the Wisconsin State Journal that he might be willing to make a deal with the public-sector unions.

The gesture was a weak one: He suggested that issues like unions' right to collect dues and hold elections are on the table, but he is still unwilling to negotiate on public employees' right to bargain collectively on non-pay issues like benefits. Such a compromise would be unacceptable to most union activists, but it was the first sign that Walker is feeling pressure and willing to make a deal to resolve the massive protests, now more than two weeks old.

Whether Walker deals or not, it's clear that the protesters are prepared for the long haul. Walker made his biggest tactical blunder by attempting to kick people out of the Capitol last Sunday, just as the protests were starting to die down. Instead of clearing out, protesters rushed in rejuvenated.

The Wisconsin protests have represented something of a rebirth in the labor movement more generally -- that is to say, in trying to bust unions, Walker may have made the labor movement as strong as it has been in some time. The Wisconsin protests are some of the biggest labor protests in more than 30 years; they have covered the national news; and support for the public employees' right to bargain shot up to 62 percent according to a recent Gallup/USA Today poll.

Thousands of protesters continue to turn out day after day despite cold weather and fatigue. "People just feel electrified by everybody coming together here in Madison. You got tired, and just the energy of the crowd here keeps you going," says Danny Selzberg a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin. "We feel like we have created a new movement here where people finally have a voice."

This is not a feeling among the wide-eyed college youth who have joined in the demonstrations but among hardened union leaders beaten down by decades of union busting. "I think that we have entered a new era of labor militancy," says SEIU President Mary Kay Henry. "I think Wisconsin proves that the rank and file is willing to take bold steps."

In the past few days, as the hearing over whether the Capitol could be closed continued, off-duty firefighters, police, and even former Wisconsin Congressman David Obey all made big media spectacles by being refused entrance to the Capitol. Several state representatives made their staff conduct regular business outside to meet with constituents in 20-degree weather.

Yesterday, a judge ruled that the state had improperly closed the Capitol and ordered it opened, but did rule that there could be date and time limits on the protests. (The decision was delayed because the first judge, the Honorable Juan Colas, assigned the case had to recuse himself because his own daughter was sleeping in the Wisconsin State Capitol.)Winning the court battle is an important, easy victory that could fire up protesters even more, especially because Walker has created even more potential protesters -- he will issue layoff notices to 1,500 state employees to lure back Democratic lawmakers who fled the state to avoid voting on the bill.

Galvanized by the show of public support, the Wisconsin Democratic Party filed papers to begin recall efforts against eight Republican state Senators. They have 60 days to collect the requisite number of signatures, which ranges from 13,000 to 25,000 signatures per district; 25 percent of voters who cast ballots in the last election must sign the petitions. If organizers meet the deadline, recall elections would occur as early as mid-summer.

Organizers also have their sights set on Walker himself: Michael Brown, a Web developer based in Joseph McCarthy's hometown of Appleton, launched a website, www.unitedwisconsin.org, which already has 79,000 signatories supporting an effort to recall Walker. The success of these efforts, and the results of other upcoming elections -- for the Supreme Court and for special elections for three Wisconsin state Assembly seats coming up April 5 -- will serve as a test of whether progressives and Democrats can turn an electrified base into election gains.

Before then, Walker faces the possibility of a more general strike -- one that includes members of private-sector unions. "The governor and the Republicans clearly intend to follow through on their assault," says Dave Poklinkoski, a forklift driver at a local utility company and president of IBEW Local 2304. Poklinkoski played a key role in getting the 45,000-member Southern Central Federation of Labor, the chapter of the AFL-CIO for the Madison and southern central Wisconsin area, to vote last week to prepare for a general strike. The motion passed the 97-member body nearly unanimously.

A general strike would surely bring Walker to his knees. It would also be the first attempt to hold one since 1934 in San Francisco. Many private-sector unions might avoid signing on to avoid being sued by their employers -- striking in support of other unions is illegal under the Taft-Hartley Act -- but the fact that it has entered the discussion shows how serious the fight has become.

Among many young people, the most popular profile image on Facebook has been a map of Wisconsin overlaid with a solidarity fist; some have gone so far as to tattoo the symbol on their bodies, a symbol of their lifelong commitment to the labor movement. At night, you can spot veteran union organizers in the state Capitol sharing stories about workplace struggles with students who a week before had never considered being involved in a labor struggle.

But the surge of pro-union support and activity pales in comparison to that of previous decades: Around the height of the labor movement in 1952, 33 percent of the workforce was unionized and there were 470 major strikes involving 1,000 workers or more. In 2010, only 12 percent of the workforce unionized, and there were only 11 major strikes involving 1,000 workers or more.

While polls showing that young people -- the bellwether for the future of the labor movement -- are more supportive of organized labor than they were just a few months ago, the real question will be whether organized labor can use the current momentum to create sustainable alliances among young people who have grown up largely without the presence of a vibrant labor movement. Win or lose, the battle in Wisconsin has started the ignition.

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