Wisconsin: Is this the movement we’ve been waiting for?

Although you frequently hear comparisons between the Great Depression of the 1930s and our own Great Recession–and between FDR and Obama–there is at least one important distinction.

During the early years of the Great Depression, working people in the U.S. organized an array of direct action responses and mounted a number of militant strikes.  Anti-eviction actions in the cities, penny auctions to save family farms, Unemployed Councils, the Farm Holiday movement, EPIC, general strikes in Toledo, Minneapolis, and San Francisco…the list goes on.  Most of it before the most important reforms of the New Deal.  These kinds of protests created political pressure, and political opportunity, that resulted in the more progressive “Second New Deal” that brought us the Wagner Act, the WPA, Fair Labor Standards, and Fair Employment Practices.

Three years into the deepest economic collapse since the 1930s, the U.S. has seen almost no popular response.  Sure, we’ve seen orchestrated “populist” outrage with the Tea Partiers.  But no popular social movement. Until now.

The news at first trickled in across Facebook and email–a friend at the Teaching Assistants Association posted that they received a fax announcing the revocation of their contract effective in 30 days.  By the end of this week it was national and international news–40,000 strong protest at the state capital, senators fleeing to Illinois, similar protests brewing in Ohio.

Most progressive critiques of Barack Obama have rung hollow in my ears because there really isn’t a progressive social movement in this country creating the kinds of political pressures and opportunities for broader change.  Practically speaking, there isn’t all that much “civil society” here either.  Some progressive bloggers out there seem to think they represent a “movement” that elected Obama.  I don’t see it that way.  No doubt Obama tapped into progressive sentiment to power his campaign.  But what we saw in 2008 was a highly effective political campaign, not (yet) a movement.  When he demobilized the campaign its potential to morph into something bigger dissipated.

What we’re seeing in Wisconsin might be the start of that social movement we’ve been waiting for.  I think we’ll know this is happening when the spirit of these protests turn  from Republican inspired state-level union-busting to the Neo-Hooverite budgets being proposed by Republicans and Democrats in Washington and by Democratic governors like Jerry Brown.  When the demand to protect public-sector collective bargaining becomes a demand to restore public services generally, we’ll be on the way.

Wisconsin is a big first step, and an inspiration.  We’ve grown used to defeat.  It looks like the crowds of protesters are getting a taste for collective action and, dare I say it, power.  Forward!

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2 Responses to Wisconsin: Is this the movement we’ve been waiting for?

  1. Tim Lacy says:


    I hope you’re right. I’m heartened by the attention. My colleagues in western IL are discussing Madison with great interest. No matter how hard I try, however, I still live in a bubble. When I see strikes and protests by service sector workers (not just informed public servants), and movements to create unions where they haven’t existed, I’ll believe that a movement has arrived. I am hopeful, but waiting for more signs.

    I also agree with your sentiment about Obama and his having little progressive momentum on his side. It’d be a shame if he couldn’t obtain it until the end of his presidency—in the face of stiff opposition from the House and narrow support from the Senate. Again, I’m hopeful. I think the potential horrors presented by this conservative controlled House of Representatives might galvanize those not already heavily involved in progressive causes.

    – TL

  2. Tobias Higbie says:

    Tim: we’ll have to wait to see whether unionization rebounds, but the situation in Madison is changing the game. If nothing else, a generation of activist-organizers is getting its training right there in the capitol building!

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