On Wisconsin: Class War and Coalitions

Calling the mash-up in Madison, where the Tea Party meets organized labor, “class war,” was Mike Huckabee’s idea.  Huckabee deplored President Obama’s choice to weigh in, rather modestly, on the conflict in Wisconsin.  (Class war, apparently, is a large problem when the working class is on the attack.)

More important, the political fight didn’t start with the protests in Madison last week, nor will it end.  Governor Scott Walker was no political neophyte, and has spent much of his political career promoting austerity and attacking labor–regardless of the political or economic climate.  Critics have been quick to point out that he cut a series of business taxes as soon as he took office, and that the limits on collective bargaining would have no effect on the state’s fiscal situation.  He was reluctant to waste the crisis of the state budget when he could stretch that crisis to go after labor.

So, what’s going on?  The attack on collective bargaining was the straw that broke the camel’s back (odd metaphor for unrest in the mid-West when protest is everywhere in the Middle East) for organized labor in Wisconsin.  Organized labor deployed its serious organizing capacity to mobilize opposition to Governor Walker, while supporters repeatedly announced that they were willing to make all of the financial concessions Walker described.  (For Governor Walker, making such a deal would be wasting the crisis.)

When labor went into the streets and activated union networks, others with grievances joined in, including students opposed to higher tuition, and some people who appreciated the services they received from teachers, police officers, firefighters, nurses, and clerks at the Division of Motor Vehicles.

To extend the political moment, fourteen Democrats in the state senate took off–apparently for Illinois.  They lacked the votes to defeat the Republican majority, but they could deny it a quorum.  Although this isn’t a common strategy, the Wisconsin Democrats were hardly the first.

[My favorite quorum filibuster story is about a group of Texas Democrats in the state senate who, in 1979, went into hiding in a garage in Austin, to prevent the legislature from moving the date for the presidential primary.  Calling themselves the Killer Bees, they drank, played cards, and watched soap operas for five days.]

For the Wisconsin senators in hiding, this was clearly an effort to give their allies time to get their case out and build support.   It prevents their opposition from moving forward.  It could lead to compromise and negotiation in the Senate, but the effects outside the State House are likely to be much greater.

Once the media were filled with reports of colorful protests of working people, their opponents fought back.  Americans for Prosperity, a key group in the Tea Party’s infrastructure (discussed here), founded and funded by the Koch brothers, took out web ads and started a site to support Governor Walker.  (Mother Jones reports that the Koch brothers were behind the attack on collective bargaining in the first place.)  AFP is using the crisis to build organization and mailing lists.

AFP also chartered buses to take Tea Partiers to Madison and stage a counter-protest, although their numbers were much smaller than those of Walker’s opponents.  Once both sides are represented in the streets, marching through Madison’s cold winter, the main story shifts in most outlets to one about a protest stalemate.  At this point, however, it’s pretty clear that Governor Walker is winning in the state house, and his opponents are winning the street.  (A professor at the University of Wisconsin has been participating in the protests and posting observations at scatterplot.)

Even as organized labor has continued to decline in America, there are still more unionized workers than, say, people who would be affected by a modest estate tax or a higher tax rate for people who earned over $250,000.

But neither plutocrats nor organized labor are terribly popular in America.  What happens next is all about which side is able to mobilize other constituencies.  Are parents concerned about the education of their children more likely to be sympathetic to their teachers or more outraged at the prospect of taxation?  The answer is going to shape politics in America for a long time.

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About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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