I drive out of Madison, Wisconsin, through a winter-scrubbed landscape of brown trees and frozen waterways. Dusk approaches as I skirt Loon Lake, not far south of the state line, and head toward Gurnee, Illinois, home of Six Flags Great America. The entrance to my hotel, the Gurnee Grand, is just 984 feet from the park’s main gate. Tourists also like the hotel’s Jacuzzi-equipped theme rooms (Pharaoh’s Den, Lions’ Lair, Romans’ Romp). I am here on the trail of a missing state senator.
Over the past twenty-four hours, I’ve exchanged numerous text messages with Wisconsin’s Chris Larson. He is one of fourteen Democratic state senators who refused to show up and vote on Governor Scott Walker’s budget proposal to take collective-bargaining rights away from unionized public employees. They left Wisconsin’s capital to deny Republicans the legislative quorum needed to pass the bill. In return, Walker ordered Wisconsin state troopers to arrest the senators. During the course of our cellphone negotiations, Larson tells me that he’s moved several times to avoid media helicopters hovering over his ever-changing hideaways. His last text instructing me to come to Gurnee, out of the reach of Wisconsin’s state troopers, is my best clue yet.
I feel the early-March chill outside the Gurnee Grand as I gather my things from my rented Chevy Aveo. Before I reach the lobby, a new text beeps on my phone: “Still in caucus. Standby. No Guarantees.”
I answer that I’m willing to wait all night, as long as it takes.
Inside my hotel room (no Jacuzzi or romping Romans), I plop down in a puke-green recliner, grab the remote, and turn the TV to MSNBC. Right there, in plain sight on The Ed Show, is the man I have been searching for. Just more than two months into his first term, Larson is the most junior of the Wisconsin Fourteen, and with his boyish good looks, the most photogenic. Now he, Walker, and all of Wisconsin’s governing establishment have been thrown into the middle of a national political drama. Before I return to Los Angeles, I will attend heated town hall meetings, see a recall movement gain momentum, and watch a hundred thousand people, led by a line of farm tractors, descend on the capital and call for class war. These are the images ricocheting through the heartland during the early spring of the tea party–fueled putsch.
Right now, Gov. Walker is on TV. He’s ridiculing a letter from Wisconsin Senate Minority Leader Mark Miller calling to end the legislative stalemate with a peace summit of sorts near the Wisconsin-Illinois border, perhaps here in Gurnee; the governor also claims he has information that some of the missing senators are willing to break ranks and vote with the Republicans. Walker’s attempt to embarrass and divide the Wisconsin Fourteen seems to have had the opposite effect. Three weeks after the start of their exile, Larson and the other thirteen senators have already stayed away much longer than anyone predicted. Their steadfastness is like a rejuvenating tonic for the pent-up frustration of a Democratic base exhausted by a feckless national leadership that seems to be ceding ground on every major issue from tax cuts to gun control and Gitmo.
But as I sit in my motel room and impatiently wait for the green light from Larson, an underlying dilemma plagues me: is this revolt in the heartland, finally, the beginning of a new era for unions and labor? Or is it merely the death rattle of a movement on the brink of its afterlife?
Modest civil disobedience may have earned the Wisconsin Fourteen instant lionization in many quarters, but my six years of union experience, first as an organizer and then as regional coordinator for the million-member Service Employees International Union (SEIU), tells me to be wary.
After all, it is Republican overreach rather than Democratic leadership that has led to this showdown. A critical tactic in the conservative drive to build a permanent majority in Wisconsin and other Rust Belt states is to bust the unions under the guise of “emergency” austerity measures. Walker’s plan cuts right to the marrow of a labor movement that he, and just about everybody else, thinks is tottering on its heels. If it dies, one of the last major funding sources for Democrats dies, too. But Walker might have messed with the wrong state. Wisconsin has too much blue-collar cultural memory to go down without a fight. And now, public school teachers, state clerks, nurses, cops, and firemen are holding the line against an attack that was born in Madison but is quickly spreading to a dozen or more other states.
It’s 11 p.m. when Larson at last agrees to meet me in the lobby of the Hampton Inn, next door to the Gurnee Grand. He’s just come out of a marathon closed-door meeting with his fellow exiled senators. Tall, gap-toothed, and handsome, but with a squished, broad nose, Larson appears in a fitted black overcoat, a sedate suit with a Wisconsin flag lapel pin, and an athletic backpack. He looks shockingly young, younger than his thirty years, and seems to be relieved that I am even a few years younger myself.
We jump in my Chevy and head for the town’s late-night diner: Denny’s. By the time we settle into a booth, Larson has dropped the routine political affectations—the measured language, the approved talking points, the inauthentic humor. We’re cracking up comparing Republicans to evildoers on South Park and shit-talking mutual acquaintances in Milwaukee.
And then, just as Larson is about to take a bite of his veggie burger, I ask the freshman senator if he is scared.
“What would I be scared about?” he replies.
How about stumbling unprepared into the national spotlight and making a compromise that appeases Republicans but pisses off the other half of Wisconsin? Perhaps losing reelection based on what the Wisconsin Democratic leadership decides to do? Maybe not being up to the task of helping to lead an uproarious force for social change?
Larson takes a breath, purses his lips, and says firmly, “No. I’m not scared. I just want to do stuff. Doing stuff, like solving problems and crises, is more important to me than staying in office.”
When I ask if the fourteen Democrats have handlers or Democratic strategists helping them in this fight, he laughs and says no. In fact, they hadn’t even jelled as a group when they decided to flee the state.
My stomach churns. Larson strikes me as an earnest guy, but I still don’t trust he’s up to this task. For one thing, he has no real roots in labor. His parents are conservative business owners. The reason he was motivated to run for office, his real passion, is the environment. But the moral math of saving seals and restoring wetlands is easy compared to the much more complicated, often sordid, and certainly more treacherous world of human beings, not to mention labor-management conflicts.
“I came out of the Orwellian snake pit of politics and personality,” Larson tells me. “Everything felt so outrageously high-stakes and everyone was cutthroat because we thought we were doing the most important things in the world.”
Larson is, of course, talking about his undergraduate days with the College Democrats at the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee, where he and his classmates spent most of their time agonizing over the group’s mission statement.
Given the fight he’s in, Larson’s melodramatic memories of something as squishy as a college Democratic club worry me. When he gives me a line about how the best way to make the biggest impact is from within the establishment, I wonder: have the Dems brought daisies to a knife fight? In this current battle between labor and capital, in which Gov. Walker has broken all the rules, and funding for antilabor pols comes from the likes of the oil-and-toilet-paper-billionaire Koch brothers, a radical, militant stance seems necessary just to avoid getting pulverized. It’s bare-knuckles time—no time for milquetoasts.
But after Republicans successfully demolished the Dems’ core leadership in last year’s midterms, those who remain are mostly lower-profile Democrats. Many of the Wisconsin Fourteen are either newbies or backbenchers now pushed to the epicenter of an unprecedented moment in state and national politics.
Larson, though, seems to enjoy being under national and international scrutiny, with Al Jazeera and Italian TV crews jostling with the locals on Madison’s Capitol steps.
“I like working with all the lights on,” he says, smiling.
By 2 a.m., Larson, perhaps out of exhaustion, or maybe because of our mutual appreciation for foul-mouthed cable-animation shows, begins to tell me things that start to change my mind about him.
He enrolled in college as a film major to be closer to a girl he was in love with. Once she rejected him, he packed up and drove out to California, where he lived out of his car in Santa Monica for close to six months. He had notions of wanting to be a novelist. but was unable to write anything of worth. The next few years were sketchy, but Larson alludes to doing odd service jobs to fund his way back to Wisconsin.
When he was nineteen and broke, Larson was arrested for shoplifting food. He worked out a deal with the judge: he’d reenroll in college in exchange for dropping the charges. Once he was back on track, the girl he originally made a play for showed renewed interest. (“You’ll find that most men end up where they are because they were chasing a girl,” Larson tells me, a bit bashfully.) He decided to get involved with campus activities and ended up with the College Dems, who were organizing around a local environmental issue.
At one of the Dems’ functions he met Robert Kennedy Jr., who took a liking to Larson and encouraged him to run for office, something local at first. He persuaded the girl he’d been chasing to marry him and decided to run for Milwaukee County supervisor in 2008, a race he won.
As it turns out, Gov. Walker was the Milwaukee County executive when Larson was county supervisor. And so, despite his junior position in the state Senate, Larson has more experience working directly with Walker than his Democratic colleagues.
“He always had the board to rein in his extreme ideological propositions,” Larson says. Walker would drastically slash programs that had any liberal bent, even if they were successful, and then the rest of the board would scurry to repair what damage it could. “I’ve seen his tricks. I’m like the ex-girlfriend at the wedding,” he jokes.
My begrudging admiration for Larson ratchets up another notch when he tells me he decided to run in the state Senate Democratic primary last year against an incumbent, Jeff Plale, because Plale was a “sellout” for holding up legislation aimed at fighting climate change in favor of business interests. Larson built a grass-roots campaign from scratch in a left-leaning district of Milwaukee that has become younger and hipper in the past few years. A tireless, young staff of volunteers ran operations out of his basement.
Wisconsin Democratic Party chairman Mike Tate called Larson and told him to quit or else the party would effectively end his career in politics. Larson won the primary and then defeated Republican candidate Jess Rip in the general election for the Seventh District.
This story beats the hell out of the one about his College Dem angst. A Democrat who beat both the Democratic establishment and the Republican challenger might be the real thing, precisely the sort of pol who can work with a labor movement that must battle its own listless legacy.
Madison is in a lull between political storms when I arrive a few days before I meet Larson, but the drumbeats haven’t stopped. State troopers put a big dent in the throngs that initially occupied the Capitol when they cleared the building so it could be cleaned, and subfreezing nighttime temperatures cut in half the forty or so who dragged their sleeping bags and tents to the bottom of the Capitol steps and established an overnight encampment called Walkerville. But all around the rotunda, posters and banners still denounce Walker and call for taxing the rich. About a half-dozen protestors have Saran Wrap tied around freshly tattooed arms after spending part of the night in the warmth of a nearby tattoo parlor getting the word solidarity permanently inked into their skin. And once allowed back inside the state building, many take up their principal duties: sitting in a drum circle, pounding on empty buckets, and chanting for “a general strike.” An interesting notion for some kids who probably have no jobs, let alone a union.
Outside the Capitol, maybe ten yards from Walkerville, firefighters from Local 311 hold a midafternoon rally with more than a thousand followers. Their message is simple and direct: recall the Republican legislators supporting Walker’s bill and return a Democratic majority to the narrowly GOP-controlled Senate.
With the fight over the budget bill stalemated by the Wisconsin Fourteen’s flight to Illinois, the recall is being brandished to galvanize the mounting negative sentiment toward the governor and his allies. It emerges two weeks after demonstrations that have energized public opinion but achieved little else. There’s been almost no formal coordination among the Democratic Party, labor unions, and the various progressive groups that have popped up. Organizers openly fret that protest fatigue could be setting in. This new recall tactic could bolster the movement.
At sunset I head to the Capitol steps for a jazz funeral to commemorate “the death of the middle class.” It would be impolite not to show up. And yet the spectacle is a reminder of some of my worst moments in the labor movement because this party is being thrown by the California-based National Nurses United (NNU), rival union to the SEIU. The two unions spent a bloody decade fighting for turf, and I was an SEIU frontline foot soldier. The turf war encapsulated everything that was sick and twisted about the American labor movement, as the two organizations fought pitched battles hospital by hospital, state by state.
The behavior of my old union could hardly be considered saintly, but among my SEIU colleagues it was widely believed that the NNU grew its ranks by organizing, almost exclusively, elite registered nurses by exploiting their fears of mixing with other lower-ranked and often immigrant health care workers. When the SEIU tried to organize large for-profit health care corporations, attempting “wall to wall” organizing that would bond all hospital employees into one big union, the NNU would show up days before a union vote and ask the registered nurses, “Do you really want to be in a janitor’s union?” Left unsaid was that the janitors were not white.
But the NNU wasn’t the only problem. My disenchantment with the labor movement peaked just after I watched President Obama’s swearing-in at a Milwaukee union hall, known locally as a “labor temple,” with fellow SEIU staff.
The new president and the Democratic Congress had promised something called the Employee Free Choice Act, or EFCA, that would make organizing a union infinitely easier than any time since the New Deal. It could have changed the course of a battered American middle class. A nice idea, but Congress punked out and labor, even in the notoriously union-friendly state of Wisconsin, had no urgency, no stomach for the fight.
Back in D.C., I was stunned by the level of dysfunction in the national “war room” the SEIU had set up to fight for the Free Choice Act. What should have been a street-level mobilization of the rank-and-file was being handled like one more top-down Washington political project—outsourced to consultants from Hillaryland, out of touch with the ground-level realities of union locals I had visited in a half-dozen states, miserably failing after pissing away millions of dollars. I had enough. Two weeks later I quit the labor movement.
I carry that baggage onto the steps of the Capitol at sunset, where a New Orleans–style jazz band plays a funeral dirge. Predictably, the nurses union overplays its hand and turns an opportunity to dramatize a serious issue into a fringe clown show. Instead of addressing the nuts-and-bolts strategy needed to defeat Walker, the event veers off into political la-la land with a gaggle of Green Party activists trashing Obama and nameless corporations, chanting over and over, “There is no middle class! Only the rich and the people!”
What had been buried under this pile of rhetoric was any tangible, visible strategy that might actually resonate with Wisconsin middle-class families threatened by an immediate rollback of salaries and their bargaining rights.
If there’s any heat, any real traction, to this outrage, it will have to radiate beyond the bounds of liberal Madison. So I go looking.
It’s a dark, cold Sunday afternoon when I make it to the small town of Reedsburg, a hamlet of 7,800 hardy souls seventy miles north of Madison. As foreboding as the sky looks, it’s an even darker moment for Republican state Senator Dale Schultz.
A balding, avuncular pol from a local middle-class family, he’s spent more than half of his fifty-eight years in the state Legislature and built a solid reputation as a totally reasonable across-the-aisle consensus builder.
But that ain’t working this afternoon in the local Pineview Elementary School gym, where 300 people, many clad in Badger red, have turned out for a town hall meeting on the Walker budget bill.
I am as delighted as Schultz is perplexed by the scene in front of us. I had expected, rather cynically, to find the usual stage-managed media event that I had witnessed (and helped organize) countless times—twenty workers bused into a rally, holding up placards and armed with talking-point handouts peppered with slogans. Instead, we see an authentic expression of anger, mobilization, and a tangible yearning for action beyond rhetoric and polemics. It’s the first glimmer I see of some sort of a movement that is surging upward and outward. These aren’t protest people. Here, in the bleachers, are Pineview’s teachers, some students, moms and dads, shop owners, retirees. All corn-fed and Wonder Bread white. It’s a PTA/AARP/Boy Scouts meeting on steroids. And you can bet there are way more Republican voters in this gym than Green Party voters. But that’s not stopping them from giving hell to one of their own.
Schultz is trying to forge some sort of a bridge, but there are no takers even though some or a lot of those present reelected him just a few months ago with 65 percent of the vote. “No! … No! … No!” reverberates off the gym walls as Schultz patiently and calmly lays out what he thinks is a reasonable compromise.
He says he wants to amend the bill so that public-employee collective-bargaining rights are only temporarily suspended and then restored in two years, allowing the state a bit of breathing room to solve its immediate economic crisis. He’s hoping this will end the standoff in Madison, allow the Wisconsin Fourteen to return home, and ease the way for a bipartisan legislative kumbaya.
“I believe it could head off a passionate explosion,” Schultz tells the grumpy crowd.
“That won’t do!” someone shouts out. Others follow suit. Nobody is in favor of the compromise solution.
Several audience members who take the microphone during the three-hour program remind the senator that public employees are already making a compromise by offering to freeze their wages and pay a larger share of their benefits. Schultz replies that other public-employee unions, such as the police and firefighters, have restrictions such as a prohibition on strikes, and, consequently, he reasons, teachers, nurses, and social workers should not think of themselves as exempt from state restrictions on their bargaining rights. Schultz then, unwittingly, uncorks a zinger that might instantly kill off a less well-liked pol in a less polite state. “All the animals in the barnyard need to be equal,” he says.
In a gesture of Wisconsin Nice, no one throws anything, not even an epithet, at Schultz for his unintentional Animal Farm metaphor.
Retribution, though, is likely to come through the polls. I don’t know about Schultz’s future, but this flop of a town hall meeting in Reedsburg portends poorly for Wisconsin Republicans in general. This town has its share of public school teachers and maybe some other state workers who commute to Madison. But this gentle, rural, relatively affluent, and almost entirely white burg is no hotbed of radicalism.
The whole scene is a code-red indicator that the upheaval in Madison is no mere university-based aberration. The blowback against Walker and the GOP is reverberating loudly out here where the hottest topic is usually the local Little League team.
After Schultz patiently takes questions for about an hour, I speak with Judith Boe, a music teacher at Pineview who recently retired after thirty-five years. Now in her sixties, short and shrunken, wearing a red Reedsburg sweatshirt, Boe credits Schultz for pushing back against his party, but she’s in no mood for half measures.
“I don’t think he can be effective unless he joins the fourteen Democrats” in openly opposing the Walker-backed bill, she says. Boe, like many at the town hall, says she believes that the Wisconsin Fourteen will not compromise on the collective-bargaining issue for fear of being voted out of office by their own whipped-up base.
Near the end of the program, a heavy-set Asian man, about sixty, dressed in a floral, rose-colored shirt, approaches the microphone. He is the head of the only nonwhite family in the gym. Without rancor, he calculates that Walker’s bill would cost eight local teachers their jobs. And their lost salaries, he says, would suck that much more capital out of the local economy. Before this meeting, he tells Schultz, he considered himself strictly an independent voter.
“After hearing you speak,” the man says, “I’ve decided to become a Democrat.”
A few days after our meeting in Gurnee, I reach Senator Larson by phone, and he is brimming with optimism. Word among the Wisconsin Fourteen is that momentum on their side is snowballing and that the protracted struggle is eroding the position of the Senate Republicans. The Walker gambit is backfiring and those recall petitions that I had originally laughed off now loom ominously in front of their targets.
What’s thought to be confirmed intelligence convinces many that enough moderate Republicans are ready to make a deal that will allow the fourteen to come home and vote on a bipartisan bill that will protect the bargaining rights of the unions in return for salary concessions (which labor has already publicly agreed to). Larson tells me he’s confident that a “watershed” moment is at hand. The general feeling is that labor is about to score a rare and significant victory in pushing back Walker and, by extension, the entire national Republican agenda. After all, this battle is flaring in the Rust Belt swing states.
What nobody bargains for is that the desperation setting in among Republicans will not lead to a capitulation, but rather to a shocking political blitzkrieg. On Wednesday, March 9, with only three hours’ notice and the fourteen Democratic senators still in exile, the Senate Republicans announce that a vote will be held on the budget-repair bill, with or without a quorum.
In a meeting room, packed with witnesses, local media, staffers, and anxious Democratic legislators who’ve remained in Madison, the nineteen Republican senators take their seats at a conference table. Thousands of protesters gather outside and chants of “SHAME! SHAME! SHAME!” penetrate the chamber room.
As the roll call begins, the typically mild-mannered Democratic Assemblyman Peter Barca, who has been furiously taking notes during the session, interrupts and begins to read a memo from the attorney general that states meetings of this sort must have at least twenty-four hours’ public notice.
The Republicans ignore Barca, refusing to even glance at him. The “yes” votes are called out one by one, with Barca on his feet pointing to the memo pleading with Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald to stop the vote: “Mr. Chairman, this is a violation of law! This is not just a rule, this is law.”
The rest of the action takes less than ten seconds. Fitzgerald slaps the gavel on the table and the Senate Republicans vote eighteen-to-one to strip unionized public employees of their rights to collective bargaining. Boom, just like that it’s all over.
The only dissenting vote is Republican Senator Dale Schultz from Reedsburg. The absent fourteen Democrats are recorded simply as “not present.” The Republicans quickly scurry out of the Senate chamber and witnesses to the vote start to loudly chant in dismay, with one spectator crying out, “What have you done?”
There is video of the vote on YouTube (posted by Larson’s staff), and I’ve watched it repeatedly because it sends a shiver through my body. It shows the Republicans sitting toadlike, murmuring their yeas over Barca’s protests, with the thunderous chanting rolling through the rotunda and into the meeting room.
The Republican leadership claims that by separating out the collective bargaining ban from other economic rollbacks included in Gov. Walker’s budget austerity plan, the larger quorum denied by the Democratic boycott was no longer necessary, because that only applied to legislation dealing with the budget itself (a rather curious contention and contortion given that the union-bashing measure was supposedly central to Walker’s “budget-repair” bill).
Walker immediately takes a victory lap following the Senate vote, issuing a statement saying, “I applaud the Legislature’s action today to stand up to the status quo and take a step in the right direction to balance the budget and reform government.”
In a counterstatement, Senate Minority Leader Mark Miller says, “In thirty minutes, eighteen state senators undid fifty years of civil rights in Wisconsin. Tomorrow we will join the people of Wisconsin in taking back their government.”
It doesn’t take until tomorrow. The reaction is immediate. Thousands of protesters push past police and storm into the Capitol minutes after the vote. Calls go out among union members and activists to organize the biggest demonstration yet on the coming Saturday. Student activists stage a walkout the next day. Walker has brilliantly maneuvered to win a key battle, but the war is only escalating. I am astounded by the scene that unfolds in Madison the day after he signs his radical legislation into law.
As promised, the biggest demonstration since this battle erupted brings 100,000 or more protesters into the streets of the capital. I am awestruck by the almost socialist realist tableau of organized labor and its supporters that materializes that ice-cold Saturday. It isn’t Petrograd. Not quite. But it’s something we haven’t seen in America since the days of Ludlow or Homestead or the great Seattle General Strike of 1919.
A cavalcade of tractors from the Wisconsin Farmers Union, flanked by a brigade of snow mobiles, leads the hour-long protest procession to the Capitol. Detachment after detachment of unions and their families defiantly march toward the seat of state power. Lining the perimeters are a battery of “recall stations” manned by volunteers gathering a bonanza of signatures. Near the front of the march, a phalanx of firefighters from Local 311 puts a platoon of bagpipes at their vanguard. Tall, white men wearing blue sweatshirts emblazoned with the words “Cops for Labor” march alongside.
Police officers and firemen leading a militant labor march? Who is going to argue that these guys are the pampered and spoiled public employees that Walker has so adamantly demonized? And while Republicans may have taken their conservatism for granted, someone forgot they have generational roots in the old-line industrial unions that have been decimated by decades of antiunionism. Messing with unions is like messing with their families. Their anger and horror at the sensation of feeling the bottom fall out is almost primal.
The drum-circle crew can barely be heard as union banners and placards are lofted high into the air as the crowd roars over and over again, “This is what democracy looks like!”
“We achieved our goals of engaging the public and drawing attention to the Republicans’ war on working people,” Larson tells me after he returns home to Wisconsin. “We did everything short of changing the actual Republicans in the Legislature. Now that’s up to the people.”
Democrats, at the time of this writing, have managed to at least temporarily block Walker’s bill in the courts. Four Republican state senators seem headed for recall and five more are in the crosshairs. In a by-election three weeks after the signing, a Democrat won back Walker’s old seat as Milwaukee County executive by a two-to-one margin. It’s not impossible that Democrats will win back a legislative majority and expunge the anti-union bill. And an incumbent Republican-backed Supreme Court Justice, who had been ahead by thirty points two months previous, narrowly defeated an obscure union-backed challenger only after 14,000 “misplaced” votes were mysteriously produced by a Republican county official days after the voting.
The example of the Wisconsin unions reverberates through neighboring states as tens of thousands of workers rally in Columbus, Lansing, and Indianapolis to fight similar antiunion measures. In Ohio, an even more draconian version of Walker’s bill seems headed for reversal in a popular referendum this fall. As one union official tells me, “Without collective-bargaining rights, we’re not a union, we’re a club with bumper stickers.”
This is how I see Wisconsin: neither a beginning nor an end but, primarily, an example. An example of what is possible when the narrow bounds of everyday politics and the humdrum of business unionism is disrupted by a visceral and radical fight for what is right.
We are in the midst of a national, strategic assault on organized labor being carried out by a cadre of zealous Republican governors. More than 740 pieces of antiunion legislation total have been introduced into almost every statehouse in the country this year, all of them taking aim at public-employee unions—the final rampart, perhaps the Alamo, of American labor.
I have also seen the only effective way to resist this onslaught. I saw it in the streets of Madison and in that gymnasium in Reedsburg, in the stoic determination of the cops and the firemen fighting for something bigger than themselves, and I sensed it in the defiance of young Senator Larson, who was pushed into a fight he could not imagine only weeks before.
On the godlessly cold March morning that I leave Madison, a taxi driver named Dennis picks me up. I know the taboo about reporters using taxi drivers as oracles but, sorry, there’s something notable about Dennis and his fellow Wisconsin cabbies. Unlike their immigrant counterparts in most American cities, they’re mostly middle-aged or older white men. Climb into the back of one of their smoke-scented Crown Vics, as I do for the umpteenth time as I am heading to the airport, and you immediately understand what the fight is all about.
A pink-faced, broad-shouldered Vietnam vet with a bulbous nose, Dennis encapsulates the history of a Middle America that used to be. Thirty years ago, you could enlist into the American Dream, like he did, with a 9-to-5 job at Hormel, or maybe at an IBP slaughterhouse. Rapacious deindustrialization and the accelerated export of jobs thanks to bipartisan free-trade policies, however, knocked the unionized working class down the ladder into low-paying service jobs.
This was Dennis’s story and also the one of just about every other hack I chatted up in Wisconsin.
When Dennis worked on the floor of a now-defunct, unionized assembly plant, he was able to buy his family a house and put away some savings with a dignified salary. By the late seventies, “done taking orders,” he ventured into his own air-conditioning business. He did okay for a few years, but Wisconsin industry was hollowed out, as was the rest of the heartland’s, and his business faltered. Soon, he didn’t have the coin to pay for college for his two daughters.
With no meaningful retirement income, here he is in his early sixties, driving a cab to make ends meet. Dennis, for sure, is on the down slope, but still hanging on to the last tattered threads, or at least the memories, of what was once a rock-solid, blue-collar culture.
I can’t help but compare him with the cabbies I knew when I lived in Washington, D.C. They were almost exclusively from war-torn Sierra Leone and lived in fear of ever returning to their homeland. But I could imagine they could at least dream of a future.
Back in Madison, Dennis and his native-born co-workers, bundled in parkas and driving those beastlike gas guzzlers, only remember a future that is getting ever more grim and dim. Several decades of lethargy and aimlessness have come home to roost in a rather devastating way for American workers. Wisconsin showed labor the hard work it has to do to tread water.
I leave Wisconsin with what the great Victor Serge called “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.” As inspiring as the Wisconsin action was, I also know it will not be easy to replicate or sustain, let alone nationalize. And even if the unions do succeed there, they will have restored the situation only to the status quo. Not one new worker will be in a union. Not yet, anyway.
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