Badger Pride

Among the wonderfully silliest manifestations of solidarity in the Wisconsin Capitol Rotunda today was a brief troupe of four blow-up raindeer, 8 feet high, with a sign, WHITE TAILS FOR WORKERS. The issues of the deer populations never leave Wisconsin politics for a day. One of my favorite signs amounted to only four letters: BEER CHEESE BRATS UNIONS. We have them, we love them, we don’t intend to lose them.

For the historical-minded, the cheer that rang out the loudest in the beautiful capitol occupied by Robert F. LaFollette as governor almost a century ago was also among the most meaningful. To “WHOSE HOUSE?” We ten thousand answered back in unison, “OUR HOUSE!” We had taken it back from the usurpers, if only for a few hours.

The flashing of 1960s-era peace signs, two fingers apart and aloft, seemed to signal something else in Wisconsin history, a continuity that was more subtle than easily expressed aloud. These were the biggest Madison crowds since 1970, invasion of Cambodia, and the Kent State/Jackson State murders. Many graying figures on the scene this week had never left town—or like me, come back for retirement after a career elsewhere—and relived those youthful days in some measure. More then relived, which would be impossible in any case; re-animated, revised, the meanings placed into context. It didn’t hurt to have “Vietnam Vet for Workers’ Rights” signs scattered around, either. We were all together now.

The V also recalled the solidarity of the Second World War, the only US war since the Civil War (where Wisconsin volunteers figured among the heaviest casualties) and definitely not including those other unpopular ones, including the Iraq invasion that sent voters into the booth for Obama.

“What Would Bob Do Now?” more of those LaFollette legacies revived, meant more as the days wore on. LaFollette, denouncing the warmakers and profiteers but also the out-of-state bankers Wall Streeters, brought down upon himself a Midwest-style hail of criticism (changing metaphors: they gave him a crown of thorns). More than half the University of Wisconsin faculty signed a petition demanding his removal from the Senate, for the crime of voting against US entry into the First World War. He lost the Republican middle class support that he placed him, as “clean hands” reformer, into the governorship, but he gained in place of these voters the support of workers and farmers, retaining it through the presidential campaign of 1924 (he finished first in Wisconsin) and his death from exhaustion not long after.

Where is Obama? That was a sign seen rarely. He had already issued remarks as flat and humorless as they were useless: concessions were necessary, but unions really should not be abolished. Republicans, Please! This brought to mind a Republican legislator’s generous offer: state unions would be abolished for two years, but might be brought back later.

What will we do without Bob? Readers will hardly be surprised that state unionists are running thousands of miles ahead of the national unions. AFT President Randi Weingarten seems to have made a hasty departure after telling activists of the UW Teaching Assistants Association to make all concessions necessary, and giving a statement to the press. Left to their own devices, AFTers are chartering buses from a dozen cities for Monday’s events.

And we need them. One of the provisions in the governor’s bill would permit the firing of any worker for unexplained absence IN THE EVENT OF A STATE OF EMERGENCY. He’s expecting it.

PAUL BUHLE is a historian. His books include CLR James: The Artist as Revolutionary, Radical Hollywood and Che Guevara: a Graphic Biography.


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Paul Buhle is a retired historian, and co-founder, with Scott Molloy, of an oral history project on blue collar Rhode Islanders.

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