February 24, 2011- This past Tuesday evening, nearly 1,000 unionists and their supporters gathered here in Green Bay, Wisconsin to register their appreciation for Senator Dave Hansen, one of the 14 Democrats who have absented themselves from the state to deter passage of Governor Scott Walker's Budget Repair Bill. The bill threatens to not only severely cut workers' incomes but also effectively eliminate their collective bargaining rights.
We also came together to consider what we were going to do next about that threat. Everyone — from teachers and social workers to firefighters and snowplow drivers — said they were ready to fight on against a governor who has insisted he will not negotiate. Most, though it pained them, said they were willing to sacrifice income to address the state's budget woes. And yet nobody was willing to give up their rights. Not only in "radical" Madison, but even here in supposedly conservative Green Bay, it seemed that Americans were ready to start making democratic history again — not on the gridiron this time but in the struggle to win, and hold onto, the rights of democratic citizens and workers.
Listening to the speakers, I felt their enthusiasms and anxieties. But I also had questions and concerns. It angered me that union leaders were giving way on the dollar question when we all know that tax cuts and giveaways for corporations and the rich will continue. I wondered why nobody on the platform referred to the fact that the "class war from above" against labor and working people had been going on for more than thirty years now. It disappointed me that we were not discussing how we might address the hostility — and plight — of those private sector workers who believe public sector employees have it easy. And it bothered me that we were not talking about a movement to "take back America" from the likes of the billionaire Koch brothers and the Tea Party. But I stayed quiet — recalling all too well how the efforts of some of us to organize Scholars, Artists, and Writers for Social Justice in support of the late 1990s revival of the labor movement had self-destructed in intellectual and political wrangling.
At the same time, I not only appreciated that my fellow citizens and unionists felt no less determined to defend themselves, their families, and their rights than I did. I also was pretty sure they had more experience in doing so than this tenured professor. And those thoughts led me to recall Franklin Roosevelt's visit to this city in the summer of 1934 to celebrate the tricentennial of the first settlement of the area by French "voyageurs."
The Great Depression continued to devastate American lives, but FDR's New Deal was giving Americans hope. It mobilized their energies and renewed labor's energies, which promised a mobilization of workers in favor of not only recovery and reconstruction but also real reform. Standing before a huge crowd at Bay Beach Park, the President spoke of what joined Americans together and of the struggles they had waged and were continuing to wage:
…Men everywhere throughout Europe — your ancestors and mine — had suffered from the imperfect and often unjust Governments of their home land, and they were driven by deep desire to find not alone security, but also enlarged opportunity for themselves and their children. It is true that the new population flowing into our new lands was a mixed population, differing often in language, in external customs and in habits of thought. But in one thing they were alike. They shared a deep purpose to rid themselves forever of the jealousies, the prejudices, the intrigues and the violence, whether internal or external, that disturbed their lives on the other side of the ocean.
Yes, they sought a life that was less fettered by the exploitations of selfish men, set up under Governments that were not free. They sought a wider opportunity for the average man.