Saturday, March 19, 2011


I’ve been participating in social justice protests for several decades, but I’ve never experienced anything like the spirit of the Wisconsin workers’ upsurge.

The Wisconsin Spirit isn’t just the protest movement. The Wisconsin Spirit is an attitude, a set of values, a feeling of community.

First, ninety-eight percent of the placards and signs have been handmade. This is extraordinary. Usually in social justice and union protests a small percentage of signs are handmade, but most placards are professionally printed by the organizing groups.

At the Saturday, March 12 protest of 150,000 people, there were some mass produced signs made by unions. State employees who are members of AFSCME, for example, carried wonderful signs reading “This is about freedom.”

But tens of thousands of Wisconsinites took the time – some clearly took hours – to personalize a message to Governor Walker and the world by making their own signs. Some signs were emotional, some were humorous, some were angry, some told a personal story. All of them were creative and poignant.

The personalized signs made it clear to the world that this wasn’t a sustained series of protests by organizations. No, this was a peoples’ movement. This was a mass movement of ordinary people.

Second, I’ve never been at a social justice protest where people chant “thank you” to speakers and supporters. This has been a regular chant in the Wisconsin protests. After someone would speak in the rotunda to the 1,000+ who occupied the capitol building for two weeks, the chant would rise up. When a group of unionists marched together through the rotunda, the chant would go up. Whenever union fire fighters or union police officers marched together, the chant started. At all the mass rallies on the capitol steps, tens of thousands chanted “thank you!” to each speaker.

It’s a shame that every teacher in America – the vilified, denigrated teachers who have suffered such insults from conservative politicians and media pundits – couldn’t have experienced being in the capitol building when over a thousand people chanted at the top of their lungs, “Thank you teachers!”

The “thank you” chant helped create and deepen the sense of community, of camaraderie, of solidarity that permeated the entire workers’ upsurge. Particularly during the capitol occupation, when you participated in the chants and drumming and listened to people testify; when you walked around and looked at the hundreds, then thousands, of signs on the walls; when you started up conversations with strangers; when you walked around and saw the level of organization in what became a peoples’ cathedral; when you just gazed at hundreds of protesters and saw the intense determination in their eyes and the smiles on their faces – it built a sense of community. It was magical.

For so very many of us, when we left the occupied capitol building, it was like a magnet, drawing us back. The number of people participating, and the sustained daily protests, were inspiring. But the occupation of the capitol, and the contagious spirit of the Wisconsin people, was more than that – it was extraordinary. It was electrifying.

It was a transcendent communal experience.

And it was that mindset that Governor Walker was trying to kill when he illegally locked the people out of the capitol building on February 28th.

Finally, part of the driving force of the anger in Wisconsin was a sense of betrayal of basic values. It seems to me from talking to many Wisconsinites that they have a deep sense of pride that Wisconsin is a state where people care about one another; where people take care of one another. There’s an immense pride in their health care system, BadgerCare. There’s an immense pride that the Green Bay Packers, alone among National Football League teams, are owned, since 1923, by the people. The Packers’ website reports that 4.7 million shares are owned by 112,000 people. The team is run as a nonprofit corporation. No single stock owner can own more than 200,000 shares, which ensures that no individual has undue influence over the voting process.

And I was told by many proud Wisconsites that volunteers work concessions at Packers’ games, with sixty percent of the proceeds going to local charities. This, too, many people told me, expressed the Wisconsin spirit.

In the 24/7 hearings held by Democrats during the two-week capitol occupation, many hundreds of ordinary people testified against the bill, telling their personal stories. Repeatedly people would say that they moved to Wisconsin or else decided to stay in Wisconsin because of the people – that the core Wisconsin value is that people care for one another. And that Governor Walker and his union-busting bill with its deep cuts in social services were viciously violating that spirit, that core value.

So it’s not just that we need to help expand the protests inspired by the Wisconsin upsurge.

We also need to spread these core values, this transcendent community, this Wisconsin spirit.


I've been to Madison four times over the past month. And I've been reading websites and newspapers online for over a month now, devouring news about the Wisconsin workers' upsurge.

I think this teacher's message gets at the core values of the movement, and I wanted to share it. She is saying what so many teachers are saying -- that she loves teaching. That she became a teacher because she loves teaching. She became a teacher because she wants to imbue her students with a lifelong passion for learning and to make a difference in children’s lives.

This is what she lives for: "These moments when children transform because of something they learned in school. An experience they had because of a loving teacher and a dedicated staff."

And she writes that, after the union-busting bill was passed that stripped teachers and other public sector workers of their rights, "when you see teachers weeping today, you should know they are not crying only for themselves. They are crying because public education in this state is being dismantled. It started with the unions. And it will end with hurting our children."

I think we need to find a way to get more of the teachers' personal stories out there to the public. A teacher telling her story - like this Wisconsin teacher - is very, very powerful.

This is becoming, must become, the new face of the American labor movement.

READ her story at:


The daily demonstrations in Wisconsin have, it seems, come to an end. The mobilizations began on Monday, February 14, following the February 8th announcement by Governor Scott Walker of his anti-labor bill, and continued for four weeks to a mass mobilization of 100,000 people (the Wisconsin State Journal’s estimate) to 150,000 people (many participants’ estimate) on Saturday, March 12.

Now the focus in Wisconsin has turned toward getting petitions signed in eight districts to recall Republican senators who voted for the anti-union measure. Once a petition drive begins, the organizers have 60 days to get sufficient signatures; then up to 30 days for the Secretary of State to declare them valid; then an election is set. Wisconsin requires petitioners to gather enough signatures to equal 25% of the votes cast in the most recent race for governor in the district of the targeted legislator. Wisconsin law also dictates that a year must pass after the election of the targeted official before he or she can be recalled. So Republicans that were elected in November 2010, including Governor Walker, can not be recalled for one year.

To get a sense of the immensity of the March 12 protest, view this 360 degree photography.

Click on the play arrow, such as next to "View in HD." The first photo comes up of the protests inside the capitol building during the occupation, February 15-28. The image moves in a circle. At the bottom you'll see icons for 10 photos. The three on the right are from Saturday, March 12 march and rally. The last one on the right really shows the mammoth size of the crowd.

I talked to teachers who had come in three busses to make the 7 hour drive from Michigan to join the protest. I talked with people who had come from all across the state to participate, many driving long hours. Three retired teachers drove the 2 1/2 hours together from Green Bay. Everyone I talked to felt a combination of anger and exhilaration. Anger that the Republicans had pushed through the union-busting bill. But exhilaration at the movement they had created. Kind of in awe and at the same time deeply proud that the whole country was watching what they'd done.

I talked to a Madison teacher who told me she'd taken her union for granted before this year. She supported it, she valued it, but she didn't feel really part of it -- she didn't feel it was necessary she be more than a supporter. All that has changed. She has changed. And her story can be repeated hundreds of thousands of times over.

This is a great time to be a labor educator or labor activist. The Wisconsin workers’ upsurge has received more mass media coverage, and more favorable coverage, than any workers’ protest that I can recall.

Faculty in our Chicago Labor Education Program (and labor educators across the nation) have been repeatedly called for our insights. I was on Chicago’s WBEZ (National Public Radio) on March 2, and here’s the link to that 10 minute interview: