The history of the American labor movement is crowded with losing battles and crushing disappointments. The men and women who have fought for workers’ rights, often against tremendously long odds, have all too often suffered defeat and humiliation, only finding consolation in the idea that their efforts perhaps succeed in awakening a bit of public sympathy for their plight, inching their larger cause forward in unseen ways.
Yesterday unions and Democrats fell just short of victory in Wisconsin, winning two of six races to recall GOP state senators, in a battle that had unexpectedly emerged as ground zero in a national class war, partly over the fate of organized labor. There’s no way to sugar-coat it: Unions and Dems failed in their objective as they defined it, which was to take back the state senate, put the brakes on Scott Walker’s agenda, and let the nation know that elected officials daring to roll back public employee bargaining rights would face dire electoral consequences.
But nonetheless, what they failed to accomplish does not diminish what they did successfully accomplish. The fact that all these recall elections happened at all was itself a genuine achievement. The sudden explosion of demonstrations in opposition to Walker’s proposals, followed by activists pulling off the collection of many thousands of recall signatures in record time, represented an undiluted organizing triumph. At a time of nonstop media doting over the Tea Party, it was a reminder that spontaneous grassroots eruptions of sympathy and support for a targeted constituency are still possible and can still be channeled effectively into a genuine populist movement on the left. At a time when organized labor is struggling badly and GOP governors earn national media adulation by talking “tough” about cracking down on greedy public employees, what happened in Wisconsin, as John Nichols put it, amounted to “one of the largest pro-labor demonstrations in American history,” one that carried echoes of the “era of Populist and Progressive reform in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.”
What’s more, no matter how many times conservatives falsely assert that labor and Dems subverted the popular will by fighting Walker’s proposals, in reality precisely the opposite happened.
By staging a fight that drew national attention, labor and Wisconisn Dems revealed an unexpected level of national sympathy for public employees, and, yes, for unions and their basic right to exist. This alone was an important achievement, flummoxing pundits who had confidently predicted that public employeees would make easy public scapegoats for the national conservative movement in dire economic times.
Even if Dems fell short of their objective in Wisconsin, what happened was, in fact, a referendum on Walkerism — one that conservatives lost in the mind of the broader public. Nate Silver Tweeted last night: “Dems would be silly not proceed with Walker recall based on tonight. The results project to a toss-up if you extrapolate out statewide.” I don’t think Dems will go through with it, but Silver’s larger point is intact: Walkerism triggered a strong public backlash that can’t be dismissed and will remain a factor. As Markos Moulitsas noted, the Wisconsin battle enabled Dems to hone a class-based message about GOP overreach that is showing some success in winning back white working class voters, with potential ramifications for 2012. The national outpouring of financial support for the Dem recall candidates showed that there’s a national liberal/Dem constituency that can be activated by Dems who don’t flinch from taking the fight to opponents with unabashedly bare-knuckled populism.
Will the national support for public employees in polls slow the drive of conservatives and GOP governors to roll back bargaining rights nationally? Probably not. Conservatives will point to yesterday’s events, with some justification, as proof that governors might not suffer direct electoral consequences in response to radical union-busting policies. But what Wisconsin showed us is that the broader public simply isn’t on their side. Let’s hope national Dems take heart.
The events in Wisconsin were a blow to organized labor. But the simple fact is that labor and Dems came within a hair of realizing an objective that was dismissed at the outset of this fight as a delusional lefty pipe dream. Wisconsin won’t chasten the left; Wisconsin will embolden it. And those who poured untold amounts of time and energy into the Wisconsin effort shouldn’t regret their efforts for a second.
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