• October 22, 2014

The Wisconsin Idea

The Wisconsin Idea 1

Andy Manis, AP Images

Sympathizers protest on behalf of the state's public workers.

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Andy Manis, AP Images

Sympathizers protest on behalf of the state's public workers.

They have filled Madison's Capitol Square and spilled down State Street, a sea of Wisconsin Badger red.

They have jammed the Capitol rotunda, remaining around the clock, dozing on hard marble floors in sleeping bags, testifying before the Assembly, and transforming the beautiful Capitol building into a house of the people.

They have let it be known that they consider the right to a union essential to democracy and that they reject Republican Gov. Scott Walker's plan to end collective bargaining for local, county, and state public employees on all issues apart from wages—including pensions, health insurance, and working conditions.

They are still at it, numbering in the tens of thousands, with 70,000 participating in the largest two demonstrations to date. Sons, daughters, husbands, wives, friends, neighbors, students: Wisconsin's public has turned out en masse on behalf of the state's public workers.

What significance do these Wisconsin developments hold?

First, as the largest American labor action in the new century, the activity in Wisconsin is setting an example for a rebirth of labor sentiment after decades of setbacks. A spontaneous outpouring of community opinion, the Wisconsin upsurge recalls the epoch when unions were not stigmatized as special interests but widely understood to express the interests of ordinary people.

Second, this is the first time in the Great Recession that a nationwide protest movement has materialized that does not reflect the agenda of Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh. Not only has the Wisconsin movement emerged spontaneously, from below, in contrast to Fox News's relentless touting of the Tea Parties, but it also represents a rebellion directly opposed to the agenda that tipped the national conversation far to the right in the early years of the Obama administration. This is another kind of populism.

What accounts for so stunning a development? A unique confluence: the crystalline clarity with which the issue of labor rights has been posed in Wisconsin, the stirring international context of democratic revolution, and a strong sense that the proposed change would eviscerate Wisconsin tradition.

In a shrewd move, the two leading Wisconsin public employees' unions, in deference to a climate of fiscal discipline, pledged to accept every pay and benefit cut the governor proposed. That left one disputed point and one only: the right to bargain collectively.

To strip most public workers of bargaining rights, as Walker desires, would constitute the most significant rollback of labor protection in the United States in decades. One might think such a prospect would create a sour mood. But the Wisconsin throngs have exhibited only buoyant Midwestern conviction in the pleasant surprise of finding one's instincts confirmed by a sudden torrent of humanity. They have politely picked up their own trash. They have laughed and chatted with the police.

It is no accident that the democratic uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt were the immediate backdrop to the immense show of support for workers' rights in Madison. This international example recalls 1848, the year Wisconsin's first state constitution was adopted, when Europe's republican-democratic "springtime of peoples" inspired the first women's-rights convention at Seneca Falls, N.Y. The Mideast's balm to Midwestern spirits has been a source of sustenance and humor. "Mubarak for Governor," read one euphoric sign.

The crowds in red, as in the old Bangles song, are walking like an Egyptian. But they are also engaging in something we haven't seen on this scale in a very long time: a dignified outpouring of a whole American community on behalf of labor. The events of late February are a striking example of what the English labor historian E.P. Thompson called "customs in common," the web of shared traditions whose violation can propel people into the streets.

Custom in this case is the Wisconsin Idea, a notion that sometimes refers to the relationship between university and state but has a richer and more resonant history tracing to the state's pioneering Progressive tradition. Its personification was the Republican Robert M. La Follette, who served as congressman, governor, and senator between the 1880s and 1920s. Through direct primaries, voter recall, civil-service standards, corporate taxation, regulation, and expert policy counsel from university scholars (rather than, say, corporate lobbyists)—a set of reforms together known as the Wisconsin Idea—La Follette sought to deal with what he called "the problems of vast financial power in private hands" on behalf of "the common man­—the worker, the farmer."

It has been a very long time since a Republican senator from Wisconsin has said, as did La Follette, "The only salvation for the Republican Party lies in purging itself wholly from the influence of financial interests." But Madison is a capital city filled with public employees who take pride in the knowledge that Wisconsin was, in 1959, the first state to recognize public workers' collective-bargaining rights. The Wisconsin Idea—a classroom staple of the very schoolteachers whose labor rights are now threatened—has been given new life by the multitudes chanting, "This is what democracy looks like."

Those who have been peopling ("occupying" is not quite the right word) the Wisconsin Capitol represent a remarkable diversity of professions and callings: corrections officers, graduate teaching assistants, letter carriers, carpenters, steelworkers, and students. This array cuts against the teaching of Selig Perlman, an eminent labor scholar who taught at the University of Wisconsin in the 1920s, who held that American workers were only capable of "job consciousness," not class consciousness. Perlman would be surprised to see the firefighters marching in uniform, bagpipes playing—even though Walker exempted them, along with most police officers, from the bill's worst provisions.

In an equally arresting development, many school-board and county officials, although they might have been expected to welcome the prospect of weakened unions, have warned that the governor's proposed dismantling of labor rights might mean a return to the disruption of basic services from strikes, as happened often in the era before collective bargaining.

The recent weeks of action haven't seen strikes, exactly, but they have been propelled by a mass exodus from work. When Madison teachers called a "sick out," a judge declined to issue an injunction against them on the basis that they were not violating their contractual obligation not to strike because they made no demands upon the school district and were instead protesting before the state government. Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, promised when visiting Madison that on whatever day the measure is signed into law, "We will be in the streets."

Whether the bill can be stopped remains to be seen. It has already passed the GOP-controlled Assembly. Meanwhile, all of Wisconsin's 14 Democratic state senators have fled across state lines to Illinois, preventing a quorum and halting legislative action to bide time so as to persuade three out of the 19 Republican state senators to vote against the measure.

Wisconsin's GOP, however, is no longer La Follette's. The Progressive temper, once stiffened by competition with Milwaukee's Socialists, was interrupted by the ascendance of Sen. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin and, much later, the New Right. Moderate Republicans still exist in Wisconsin, but independent-minded legislators will be threatened with hard-right primary opposition if they strike a compromise.

Quite apart from the legislation's fate, it remains to be seen whether the GOP will have overreached in its aggressive push against labor rights.

Wisconsin is a red state only in the Badger sense. The state went Democratic in the last three presidential elections. Its governor, Senate, and Assembly were Democratic-controlled until 2010, when all three branches of state government shifted to Republican in the context of hard times and heavy spending. In the same election, the maverick liberal Sen. Russ Feingold was unseated by ultraconservative Ron Johnson. But the 2010 results in Wisconsin, as elsewhere, were not an endorsement of Republican ideology so much as a referendum on the economy. Governor Walker, who promised hundreds of thousands of new jobs, made no mention of any attack on collective-bargaining rights, often valued by conservative white working-class voters.

Conservative commentators like Amity Shlaes suggest that long-term advantages accrue to politicians who confront public workers, as proved by Calvin Coolidge, who took on Boston's striking police as Massachusetts governor in 1919, and Ronald Reagan, who destroyed the federal air-traffic controllers' union in 1981.

But this is a story line very different from Coolidge's or Reagan's. Polls indicate that Wisconsin's governor is increasingly unpopular in the wake of the legislative standoff and demonstrations. It was Walker's provocative bill, not a strike, that initiated the crisis. Will the right's claim to populism continue to persuade Midwestern working-class voters after the present spate of proposals to dismantle public workers' collective-bargaining rights?

Already there are signs that in some states, such as Ohio, the GOP has felt it necessary to backpedal from the most severe elements of its offensive against public workers. Meanwhile, Wisconsin protesters have retained their Midwestern whimsy, resolve, and optimism. "Walker is a Weasel, not a Badger," read one sign. Another: "I skipped school today so I can learn about tomorrow."

Wisconsin's public workers and their allies are advancing a reconfigured Wisconsin Idea: that the already precarious middle class should not be destroyed and that labor rights are essential to democracy.

Will the nation reciprocate, as it once did in the Progressive Era?

Christopher Phelps is an associate professor of American studies at the University of Nottingham.

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