Author sees reason for hope in Wisconsin recall campaign

John Nichols’ book “Uprising” provides an insider account of the union protests that swept across Wisconsin last year.

Progressive writer John Nichols energized and entertained during a May 2 lecture at the Carpenters Union Hall in St. Paul, providing a first-hand, insider’s account of union protests that swept across Wisconsin last year, sparking a renewed interest in grassroots democracy and progressive activism nationwide.

Nichols, a Wisconsin-based writer for The Nation magazine and author of the new book “Uprising,” appeared in St. Paul as part of The Friends of the St. Paul Public Library’s annual labor-history series, “Untold Stories.”

(That series continues tonight at 7 p.m. with “Czechs & Paychecks: Working-class History of West 7th,” a panel discussion at the CSPS Hall, 383 Michigan Street; and tomorrow with a post-show discussion following the Guthrie Theater’s presentation of “Are You Now or Have You Ever Been,” a play about Langston Hughes’ appearance at the McCarthy hearings. Click here for more information.)

Nichols brought a roomful of about 30 people back to the winter of 2011, when Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and Republican majorities in the State Legislature outraged union members across the state with plans to strip teachers, nurses and other public employees of most of their collective-bargaining rights.

The governor’s plan was mean to address a budget “crisis” the Republicans created by handing out $140 million in tax breaks to corporations after sweeping into power during the 2010 elections. The so-called “budget-repair bill” eliminated public employees’ ability to deduct dues out of their paychecks, forced them to hold elections every year to “reconstitute” their unions and stripped them of their ability to negotiate for health insurance and pension benefits.

According to Nichols, Democratic lawmakers and many union leaders responded by throwing up their hands and warning union members to brace themselves for bad news.

But one local union of graduate-level teaching assistants from the University of Wisconsin decided to fight back. The union’s decision to protest inside the State Capitol, crowding the hallway outside Walker’s office, was a “light-bulb moment” for angry public employees across the state, Nichols said.

“Suddenly, everybody watching the TV news saw people protesting,” Nichols said. “And if you have an ongoing protest, it’s something people can join.”

And join they did. Emboldened by the demonstrators, Democratic state senators fled the state, preventing a vote on the union bill and forcing Walker and Republican lawmakers to face the public backlash and outrage it had created. Students and workers occupied the Capitol for 18 consecutive days, “assembling and petitioning for the redress of grievances, as they had been taught to do in school,” Nichols said.

“People weren’t waiting for politicians to solve their problems. They were demanding their basic rights, demanding their basic freedoms. That’s what Wisconsinites did.”

Although Walker’s attacks on public workers and their unions eventually passed into law, protests outside the Capitol drew hundreds of thousands of people, sowing the seeds of grassroots democracy that have now grown into a political effort to recall Walker, his lieutenant governor and four of his closest allies in the Legislature.

More than 1 million Wisconsinites signed onto the Walker recall, the highest percentage of a state’s population ever to petition for removal of a leader. The state is holding a primary election today to determine Walker’s opponent in the June 5 recall election.

Nichols said he remains hopeful the recall will succeed, pointing to Walker’s sliding poll numbers. “We will be told again and again that we’ve been defeated, that we have to accept what we are told, that we can’t win this fight,” he said. Then Nichols offered the advice of Wisconsin’s former U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold: “This fight isn’t over until we win it.”

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