March 13, 2011- I headed to Madison from Minneapolis with a couple of friends for Saturday's massive rally against Scott Walker and the Republican legislature's move to do away with collective bargaining for public sector workers.
When we arrived at 11am, there were already tens of thousands of demonstrators surrounding all sides of the Capitol, watching the "Tractorcade" of farmers showing their support for workers' rights. The numbers only kept growing throughout the four hours I spent at the rally, as a constant procession of marchers, ten-people wide, circled the Capitol all day. Estimates put the crowd at over 100,000, the biggest demonstration in Madison yet.
Who were these 100,000-plus people? I saw thousands of teachers and plenty of their students; hundreds of autoworkers; members of just about every union imaginable: Teamsters (chanting "2-4-6-8, Walker sucks!"), laborers, boilermakers, social workers, service employees, dozens of fire fighters in uniform, sheriffs, and immigrant rights' activists. The crowd ran the full gamut in age, from babies dressed in union t-shirts to an elderly woman standing next to her wheelchair holding my favorite sign: "84-year old union thug."
There were thousands of these homemade signs, more than I've seen at any protest since the anti-war demonstrations in February and March of 2003. The right would have the rest of the country believe that this is a tightly controlled mobilization, manipulated by the union "bosses" to defend their own power and privileges. But these signs prove otherwise. They are always an indication of a real grassroots movement, one which has touched the hearts of everyone in attendance. They reflect the participants' anger as well as the creativity and bitter sense of humor of Americans (another one of my favorites read: "Dear Scott, Thanks for all your help. Love, Satan").
One of the best speeches of the day came from populist agitator Jim Hightower, who told the crowd, "They get to thinking they're the top dogs and we're the fire hydrants. But I think they're gonna find out there's a lot more power in a fire hydrant than in a few pissing dogs." He expressed the national significance of the Wisconsin struggle: "Because you stood up, people in Ohio, in Michigan, in New Jersey, in Indiana, all across the country, are standing up. Wisconsin is the spark that's igniting a new democracy movement all across America!"
This message was echoed in a moving speech by actress Susan Sarandon, who said, "Wisconsin is the front line in the war to restore democracy … Wisconsin is the wakeup call for all of America in the 21st century, building upon the legacy of unions which brought dignity to working people – factory workers, teachers, firefighters, hospital workers, nurses, visible, invisible, who literally make this country. The Constitution gave no right to work less than 12 hours a day, no right to a living wage, no right to safe working conditions. Workers had to organize, go on strike, defy the law, defy the courts, to create a movement which won the 8-hour day and caused such a commotion that Congress was forced to pass a minimum wage law, Social Security, unemployment insurance, and the right to assemble and collectively bargain."
This is what's at stake in Wisconsin. The Kochs want to roll back history to a pre-New Deal era of unchecked corporate power. As one sign in Madison put it, "It's daylight savings tonight. Don't forget to turn your clock back 50 years." The right has spent the last 30 or 40 years laying the foundations for these attacks. They've developed a powerful conservative juggernaut made up of think tanks, media outlets, PR strategists, and fake grassroots organizations like the Tea Party.
Can this juggernaut be stopped? If Wisconsin has shown Americans anything, it's the depth of the opposition to right-wing politics. Wisconsin is another reminder that there is nothing innately conservative about the American working class, though it also shows that we are being badly out-organized by the well-funded right-wing attack machine. But the foundations have been laid for a potential resurgence of the left.