With Recall Push, Wisconsin Union Fight Enters Phase Two

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MADISON -- Any thinking person who has held aloft a rally sign for an afternoon will inevitably ask at day's end, no matter how noble the cause, "Okay, so now what?"

In Madison, where protests over Republican Gov. Scott Walker's proposed bill seeking to do away with public employee collective bargaining rights have lasted more than two weeks, the response to the unavoidable "what do we now?" question finally has been answered: recall the Republican state senators who back the bill.

Consider this recall strategy phase two of the Badger rebellion. In Wisconsin, all elected officials are eligible for recall after holding office for one year. That makes the just-elected Walker untouchable until 2012, so the recall drive will target the eight Republican state senators who have stood firm against the unions.

This phase two has emerged following a nearly three-week period in which there has been little formal coordination between the Democratic Party, labor unions, and the various pop-up progressive groups which have all sought to pressure the governor.

The internal disorganization was evident Thursday in the disparate messages and competing tactics on display on the Capitol, where the rotunda now houses a scene right out of Lord of the Flies -- equally childish and disquieting. A militant few rhythmically banged on buckets like tribal war drums while, outside a thousand people congregated around a group of firefighters, stoically standing in their rubber boots, holding up pro-labor signs. At sunset, the steps of the Capitol played host to a New Orleans-style jazz funeral mourning the death of workers' rights, organized by the California based National Nurses United. They, in turn, sabotaged their own rally by inviting a set of cringe-inducing speakers to address the crowd, such as a Green Party representative shouted: "There is no middle class! Only the rich and 'The People'!"

I spent the day tagging along with several different (though all equally sleep deprived) field organizers, and the internal consensus is that the new unified recall strategy comes as a relief after the day-to-day scramble to articulate a plan beyond picketing and a continuing sit-in.

Now labor will mobilize the rank and file to start knocking on doors with recall petitions. MoveOn.org has already started recruiting activists to organize around the ouster of what they call "tier one" Republicans -- Randy Hopper, Dan Kapanke, and Alberta Darling. The first signature creates an automatic deadline: twenty five percent of registered voters have to sign the petition within in sixty days to trigger a district wide recall.

Of course, this second phase for Madison progressives is not, perhaps, entirely serious. With the political momentum still on their side and with Walker faltering in public polls, the Democrats' move to recall the state senators is as much a clever way to keep the debate off the unions and keep it on Walker and the GOP as an actual move to oust the senators from the statehouse.

The standoff over the bill has carried unions and the local Democrats to a place where they wouldn't normally go. Coming on the heels of the devastating November election results and widespread disillusionment among liberals with Obama's compromises on health care and taxes, the ongoing boycott of the Wisconsin statehouse by 14 Democratic state senators has been quite a tonic. The senators have stayed away much longer than anyone predicted and their steadfastness has worked to energize the Democratic union base nationwide. And everybody, including the unions, has been surprised by the militant response on their behalf, which appears to reflect a deep vein of pent-up frustration among progressives.

Walker, attentive to his own phase two, has said he would begin implementing, as of Friday morning, part of the 1,500 person layoffs that his bill promised.

Drop-down navigation-bar image credit: AP Photo/M.P. King

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Natasha Vargas-Cooper is the author of Mad Men Unbuttoned: A Romp Through 1960s America. She lives in Woodland Hills, California.

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