by Craig Dunigan, Coffee Party Board of Directors
This January we turned in a petition with nearly one million signatures, asking to exercise our constitutional right to recall an elected official. On Tuesday, Wisconsin will go to the polls and choose whether or not to replace its governor. Many will see this election as the culmination of what has become known as the Wisconsin Movement. However, I think this is bigger than Wisconsin, and bigger than just this election. Much bigger.
To research just how this is bigger, I began reading the recent history of non-violent protests and revolutions, but when I reached as far back as the formation of the Solidarity union in Poland in 1980, I realized something. It's true that we could probably trace this movement back there, but linking back to that famous labor union made me stop and think a bit. So many in the media controlled by the 1% have tried to characterize the Wisconsin Movement as purely a union battle. They couldn't be more wrong, and I want to show you why.
"He walked up to the people he had to work with and poked them in the eye with a sharp stick." That's what a friend who identifies himself as a conservative Republican said about Governor Scott Walker last spring, as the massive protests were in full swing. I think that aptly summarizes the shared feeling of the people of Wisconsin. Many of us were outraged. Unfortunately, some of us really enjoyed that idea. There are many who believe that working with people you disagree with smacks of compromise, and for them, compromise means defeat. We've seen them in the halls of Congress, bringing our government to the brink of financial catastrophe rather than accept any deal with "the enemy." Gov. Walker began his term by giving away special tax breaks for the super-wealthy and for out-of-state corporations. He then pointed to the hole in our budget and blamed it on "overpaid" public employees, pitting us against each other over problems he helped to create. His tactic of creating and exploiting conflict — sharp sticks in the eye — might be politically expedient, and it might even please certain people. But that's not how we do things here.
Let me give you some examples. Before all of this happened, the state of Wisconsin only closed the Capitol during the work week. I've stopped into the building late at night on a weekend while walking the town, just to peek at the dome in the rotunda. On bitterly cold Wisconsin winter nights, you could see homeless people huddled in their blankets on the stone benches in the halls. The police would kindly look the other way until dawn. On Sundays, a local group ran a free meal program in the rotunda. It was something of a tradition to take the family to see the holiday tree on a December night. It was this feeling for our Capitol, just as much as the outrage over government actions, that led many of us to occupy the Capitol for two weeks in February and March. In response, Gov. Walker had the building closed every night for the first time in remembrance, and that practice continues today. While the occupation was going on, he had fire exits sealed, putting at risk the lives of everyone inside. The Dept. of Administration only re-opened them when the Fire Marshall forced them to. Access to the Capitol became so restricted that at one point, firefighters responding to an emergency call were denied entry. That's not how we do things here.
During his election campaign, Gov. Walker never mentioned his plans to eliminate collective bargaining for government employee unions. Many of the Republicans I know, who originally voted for Walker, have since told me that they wouldn't have voted that way if they had known what he was going to do. It's an extremely common feeling here. Let's not forget that labor reform got its start in the Progressive Movement, right here in Wisconsin. Respect for workers is built into the consciousness of this state. Walker ignored that history, and refused the cooperation of state workers' unions in order to trample their rights. That's not how we do things here. I have marched side-by-side with non-union workers in protest of that action. Those workers felt the same as the unionized ones, because that is how we do things here.
Where even previous Republican Governors have worked with public school districts to keep necessary budget cuts from harming education, Governor Walker has slashed public school budgets, forcing districts to increase class sizes and lay off hundreds of teachers. Those actions are what Gov. Walker likes to call the "tools" local governments need to cope with the budget cuts. Those aren't the kind of tools we use here.
Here, we have something called "The Wisconsin Idea," born in the Progressive movement in the early 1900's. It says that governments should be responsive to the people. It says that institutions of higher learning should make their knowledge available to all. It says that people are more important than corporations, and that workers deserve fair treatment. It led to things like workers' compensation, direct election of U.S. Senators, corruption prosecutions, progressive income tax rates, anti-trust legislation, and actions against what was then called "predatory wealth." It also led to the introduction of recall elections into the state constitution.
When you walk around the Capitol, you'll come across a street that is a physical embodiment of the Wisconsin Idea. State Street is a pedestrian-only street that directly links the University of Wisconsin and the Wisconsin State Historical Society at one end, and the State Capitol at the other. It leads straight up to one of the major entrances of the Capitol, symbolizing the free entry of the people into both the halls of academia and the halls of government. That is how we do things here.
And that, in the final analysis, is what the Wisconsin Movement is really about. It's our refusal to let go of how we do things. We are recalling Gov. Walker because he rejected the fundamental values of our state. He refused to negotiate, he refused to compromise, and he refused to honor the Wisconsin Idea. The origins of the Wisconsin Movement as a non-violent "revolution" of sorts probably could be traced back to Solidarity in Poland in 1980. Like there, labor unions lead the way here. But it's about so much more than just labor unions. And it's happening in many more places than just Wisconsin. The Wisconsin Idea is for everyone. This shouldn't be how they do things where you are, either.