By **Anne McClintock**
The events unfolding in Wisconsin have reached a critical standoff. For weeks, Scott Walker had been arguing that he had no option but to strip public workers of collective bargaining rights so that he could fix the broken state budget. Faced with massively mounting rallies, nose-diving popularity in the polls, international scrutiny, and outmaneuvered by the Fab 14 Democrats’ dash across state lines, the Wisconsin Republicans did a dizzying 180 degree flip-flop.
Early on Wednesday evening, March 9th, they hard-balled a legislative dodge through the Senate. They split the collective bargaining part of their disputed “Despair Bill” from the budget part of the bill, on the grounds that the collective bargaining part had nothing to do with the budget part. This meant they could do an end-run around the need for a quorum, which the Fab 14 Democratic Senators’ maneuver had prevented.
The upshot was twofold and dramatic. The dodge meant the Republicans could ram through their protested bill without the Democrats present, which they did in less than twenty minutes: voting 10-1, to chants of “Shame! Shame!” from the Democratic Assemblymen, who watched helplessly.
But in so doing, the Republicans exposed to the watching world their true motivation: the bill was, after all, a full-frontal assault on public workers and unions. By splitting collective bargaining off from budget issues, Walker only proved that his attack on workers has nothing to do with budget issues, the exact opposite of what he had been arguing for weeks. A poster quickly spread: “ Liar. This was never about the Budget.”
Indeed, the non-budget part of the bill has some very fiscal-looking items after all: $165 million in debt restructuring; no-bid sale of state power plants; increased funding for Corrections; reallocation of group health and pharmacy benefit reserves; $79 million reduction in lapses required from the DOA secretary; audit of dependent eligibility under benefit programs; and a ban on wind farms.
Whatever the immediate outcome, overt class warfare of a kind unseen for a long time in the United States has arrived.
Nonetheless, the bill seemed set to be signed, sealed, and delivered. The New York Times, for one, prematurely declared the standoff over. But no one bargained for the uproar of defiance that instantly erupted. As news of the vote went viral that Wednesday night via tweets, Facebook, emails, and phone, people converged on the Madison Capitol in their thousands, driving, biking, running, many in wheelchairs, some on crutches. Cars raced toward Madison from outlying towns, honking their horns in unison to the rhythm: “This is what democracy looks like,” and circled the Capitol honking for hours into the night. Thousands of peacefully defiant protesters jammed the Rotunda, chanting, singing the national anthem, drumming, and tweeting the news to the world.
On Thursday morning, March 10th, apparently unnerved by the passion and numbers of the protesters, Scott Walker closed off the Capitol. State Troopers barred the doors, allowing people in only a handful at a time. Nonetheless, protesters patiently lined up for hours. Once inside, we entered a strange Alice-Through-the-Looking-Glass parody of the National Security State: passing through metal scanners with colored lights and body searched by people wearing black shirts with the word “Police” on the back. As one person asked: “When they fire all the teachers, will our children be taught by people wearing black shirts with the word ‘Teacher’ on the back?”
No one seemed to know what branch of security these people belonged to—not an insignificant issue, considering that when Walker was Milwaukee County Executive, he fired all the unionized, public security guards and replaced them with private contractors from a firm that had got into trouble in Afghanistan. That ended up costing the county more than the union guards.
Inside the entrance to the Capitol, a large board displays an improbably random, Borges-like list of prohibited items that protesters are not allowed to carry with them, amongst them: “Animals/ snakes (exception: service animals)”; dangerous contraband, such as mattresses, crock-pots, buckets and easels; balloons, coolers, and massage chairs; vuvuzelas, trash can lids, and “flags on sticks.” This list generated considerable baffled hilarity when I posted it on Facebook: One person asked “How will the Republicans cook the books without cooking appliances.” Said another: “Without my snake, crock-pot, and easel, what am I?” And another: “Be fair: vuvuzelas don’t kill people; people with vuvuzelas kill people.”
The constitutionality of all this legislative hanky-panky is now being scrutinized. Which makes the upcoming election for a supreme court justice slot on April 5th very interesting. Republicans currently have a 4-3 edge, and one of the conservative judges, David Prosser, is up for re-election. His opponent is JoAnn Kloppenburg. If Kloppenburg wins, this will shift the balance of power in the court, which would in turn go a fair way towards deciding if the bill gets overturned in court.
In the meantime, an immense rally, with local estimates ranging upwards of 120,000 people, was held on Saturday, March 12, in Madison. A Tractorcade of about 30 farmers drove into the Capitol to cheering throngs. There is now much discussion about the possibility and risks of a strike. U.S. Uncut has come to town and mass actions are planned for March 26th.
Whatever the immediate outcome, overt class warfare of a kind unseen for a long time in the United States has arrived. Whatever his short-term victory, Walker has overreached, igniting a nation-wide, populist, progressive labor movement that is long overdue, and that will have an epochal reach far beyond Wisconsin.
Copyright 2011 Anne McClintock
Anne McClintock is the Simone de Beauvoir Professor of English and Gender Studies,