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Sunday, October 1, 2023

Robert Creamer: Wisconsin Governor’s Attack on Labor May Backfire on Radical Right


Saul Alinsky used to say, “you can always count on your enemies.” That may turn out to be true in the case of the Wisconsin governor’s attack on the right of state workers to choose a union.

Scott Walker’s plan was a blitzkrieg attack that would catch the opposition with its defenses down, like Germany’s attack on Russia at the beginning of World War II. His goal was to emasculate the ability of public service employees to negotiate with the state over their salaries and working conditions, and begin the destruction of the unions that represent public sector workers all over America.

Wisconsin was to be the first state to fall. Then other states with radical right governors — like Ohio and Indiana — would follow suit.

Well, the first casualty of war is the plan. Turns out that — at least for now — Walker’s expectation of a lightning-fast victory has been thwarted by a determined Democratic Senate caucus that left the state and denied the Senate a quorum. But just as importantly, the right’s entire nationwide plan has been put in jeopardy by the fact that when the alarm sounded, everyday citizens throughout Wisconsin and around the nation, answered the call.

All week, tens of thousands of people from every walk of life have swarmed the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison. Retirees have set up camp, and kids and teachers have left high schools to join in the protests.

Walker’s move has succeeded in launching a movement to defend the rights of Americans to choose a union. Not exactly what the radical right had in mind.

Of course a large turnout at an event does not necessarily translate into a movement. Movements have three defining characteristics that make them explosive:

1). When an organized protest — or political campaign — morphs into a movement, the organizers no longer find it necessary to mobilize individuals or groups one at a time. Like nuclear fission, movements involve chain reactions. One person mobilizes his or her neighbor — who then mobilizes his or her neighbor — and so on. What happened in Egypt was a genuine movement. Mobilization swept the country like wildfire through a spontaneous process of chain reaction.

2). That kind of spontaneous chain reaction is only possible because the issues involved in the conflict around which the movement is organized takes on a moral character. The conflict is no longer solely about specific, concrete matters — like wages or health care coverage. The battle becomes a conflict over values — over right and wrong. Instead of being entirely transactional, they become transformational.

3). It’s hard to “launch” a movement intentionally, the way you launch an issue or electoral campaign. A “precipitating event” is always required to touch them off. The conditions for a movement can be ripe for years — yet no movement occurs. Then suddenly an event causes an eruption. It’s as if there is gasoline spread all across the ground and there is no fire — until one day someone tosses out a match.

In Tunisia that precipitating event was the self-immolation of a fruit peddler. In Egypt it was the uprising in Tunisia. In Wisconsin it has been Governor Walker’s sudden attempt to destroy collective bargaining in a week’s time. Walker’s move challenged a basic American value — the right to collective bargaining. It seemed outrageous to everyday people because it sought to overturn half a century of labor relations in Wisconsin in a week, without public debate, and without the opportunity for the public to express their views.

For many years, Wall Street and its allies on the right have tried to portray labor as just another “special interest.” The movement that has followed Walker’s outrageous action has redefined the right to collective bargaining for what is — as a moral question, a question of human rights. It has transformed the frame through which ordinary people view the labor movement. Instead of “big labor” focused only on wages and working conditions, it has once again become a “movement” for social and economic justice — a movement that inspires our belief that we can take the future into our own hands — that a truly democratic society is in fact a possibility.

The labor movement in Wisconsin — and the Democratic Senators who have stood their ground — have become heroic figures.

For three decades Wall Street — and the top 2% of Americans — have sopped up every dime of economic growth that has resulted from the increased productivity of American workers. Often those in that top 2% don’t even work for a living — or if they do, they don’t produce a good or service. Instead they speculate for a living — they gamble with other people’s money — they spend their time scheming about how they can get richer, not how they can produce a better product.

As a result the American middle class is in real danger — and most Americans know it. That has turned the electorate into a combustible mixture. Walker’s action may very well have provided the match to help set off a movement among ordinary citizens who see the right to collective bargaining as the way out. That, of course, would be absolutely correct. The only way that everyday people will share systematically in the fruits of their ever-more productive work is through collective bargaining that demands their fair share.

I suspect that’s not exactly what Walker and his gang of right-wing ideologues had in mind either. But if the movement to support the right to choose a union continues to explode the way it has this week, that is exactly what they will get.

Robert Creamer is a long-time political organizer and strategist, and author of the book: Stand Up Straight: How Progressives Can Win, available on

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