Wisconsin: Blueprint for a new progressive movement in America

The question shall arise in your day: which shall rule, wealth or man,” said Edward Ryan, the Chief Justice of Wisconsin’s Supreme Court, in an address to the law school in Madison in 1873. “Which shall lead, money or intellect; who shall fill public stations — educated and patriotic free men or the feudal serfs of corporate capital?

The above quote is taken from an excellent post by David Dayen at Firedoglake in which he outlines a new coming together of the Democratic Party and the progressive grassroots. The new progressive strategies emerging in Wisconsin, Indiana and other states are inspiring authentic hope, and may give DC corporate Democrats pause as we approach 2012.

The following is a summary of Dayen’s post. For more detail check out  his complete article: “Postcard from a New American Progressive Movement: The Wisconsin Strategy.” His two main points are the following:

1. Tens of thousands of grassroots protestors have quickly and effectively organized themselves around the issues of jobs and worker’s rights. In a short span of time, progressives and labor union members demonstrating in Madison created the Capitol City Leadership Committee, an umbrella organization made up of different working groups, each with its own responsibilities. The Committee meets daily and any business is put to a democratic vote. If there is a tie, there are three rounds of debate and then the motion is tabled. One of newly emerged protest leaders, Thomas Bird, had this to say:

I believe that the progressive movement and the labor unions are the only political force left in this country capable of standing up for the brave, hard working Americans who have seen their voice drowned out by the influence of corporate campaign donations . . . The Democratic representatives of the state of Wisconsin have converted me from being a cynic into being an activist. It is the greatest honor of my life that I have been a part of this fight, and I will do everything that I possibly can do continue it.

2. The grassroots protesters and the Democratic members of the Wisconsin legislature are united. Both the Democratic Senators, who heroically left the state to deny the Republicans a quorum, and the Democrats in the State Assembly have become progressive activists. Assembly Democrats wear orange t-shirts that say “Fighting for Working Families.” They have held public hearings through the night to force the Capitol to stay open. They spent 63 hours on the Assembly floor stretching out debate on Walker’s “Budget Repair” bill, forcing the local media to report on what it contained. In short, Wisconsin Democratic legislators have left the compromised national Democratic Party behind and linked up with their progressive grassroots. They are focused on the near term goal of stopping Walker’s bill but they are also meeting to plot strategy for the medium and long-term fights progressives are clearly wanting to wage. The progressive grassroots in Wisconsin is now supported by a completely responsive state Democratic Party, and the feeling is mutual. According to Dayen, protesters and activists are willing to “crawl across glass”  for their Democratic legislators.

Together with protestors, the Democratic members of the legislature are developing a multi-pronged plan to win back the state for working people. It is precisely this kind of will to fight for labor and the middle and working class that has been missing among corporate Democrats in DC. Here are the main points of their plan:

• Take legal action against the bill: Milwaukee’s city attorney has declared the budget repair bill unconstitutional. Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett (who lost to Walker in the gubernatorial race) has requested Walker to seek a legal opinion from the state Attorney General on the legality of his bill. AFSCME has filed an unfair labor practice claim against Walker for refusing to negotiate while under a collective bargaining agreement. Democrats are looking at all footage of the Assembly vote, to see if Republicans may have voted illegally, by electronic device, for missing colleagues. Finally, lawyers plan to sue the state the moment Governor Walker signs any budget repair bill that includes the stripping of collective bargaining rights.

• Explore legal action against Walker: The phone call from “David Koch” features a number of statements from the Governor that could violate ethics, labor and election laws, including campaign finance. Walker admitted he is trying to break public employee unions like Reagan broke PATCO, and that he will use layoffs to that end.

• Hold a General strike. After March 13, state public employee unions will be operating without a contract. At that point, workers throughout Madison, though barred by Taft-Hartley requirements from joining strikes, may do so anyway. If the bill passes, chances are there will be at least some portion of Wisconsin that will go on a general strike for some amount of time.

• Win the majority in the state Supreme Court. On April 5, there’s a race for a state Supreme Court seat between an incumbent Republican, David Prosser, and Democrat, JoAnn Kloppenberg. Supreme Court races in Wisconsin are elections. According to Dayen, this race will be a national level battle, a proxy Presidential race with at least $10 million spent on it between both sides. If Kloppenberg wins, it  would shift the balance of power to Democrats and provide a major setback for Walker and the Republicans.

• Win current open legislative seats. The same day as that April 5 special election, there are primaries for three state Assembly races, vacated by three Republicans who joined Walker’s cabinet. While at least two of the three are seen as strong Republican seats, progressives in Wisconsin plan to contest all three.

• Mount recalls for Republican legislators and Governor Walker. There will be recall elections for many of the eight Republican state Senators who can be recalled immediately. The organizing for this has already begun. According to Dayen, progressives may first take on Republican Sen. Alberta Darling, the co-chair of the Joint Finance Committee, which reported out the budget repair bill. She represents a North Shore suburban Milwaukee district, which is heavily Jewish and fairly Democratic. It’s the kind of seat many Democrats lost, but should have won in 2010. There’s already a candidate lined up for the recall, former Assemblyman Sheldon Wasserman. The possible recall of Gov. Walker cannot begin until January 2012. Progressives, working with Democratic politicians and party operatives, are united and have a very deliberate strategy to build momentum at every step of the way.

What’s happening in Wisconsin is spreading to other states:

This is a new synchronicity between the party apparatus and the grassroots, and it’s starting to spread. Perhaps more remarkable than the Wisconsin battle is the one happening in Indiana. State House Democrats walked out there in protest of a bill that would have crushed private employee unions. The Republicans pulled back on that. But Democrats remained out of the district, and vowed to stay put until an education bill that would set up a voucher system was scotched. Indiana Democrats are not exactly known as fighting progressives; in some cases they may be to the right of Wisconsin Republicans. But they have responded to their grassroots and are standing by them.

Ultimately, that’s how this new American progressive movement will move forward. The activists and the politicians, the protesters and the reformers, the signature-gatherers and the people fighting in the streets, the unions and the college students, all must unite on a series of goals dedicated to the rights of the worker to have a good job and a house and a reasonable way of life for themselves. People power, basic fundamental rights and justice. These are the tenets of the movement.