Academic journal article Western Folklore

Folklore and Performing Political Protest: Calls of Conscience at the 2011 Wisconsin Labor Protests

Academic journal article Western Folklore

Folklore and Performing Political Protest: Calls of Conscience at the 2011 Wisconsin Labor Protests

Article excerpt

The 2011 Wisconsin protests began to simmer on Friday, February 11, after newly elected Governor Scott Walker made public his budget plan for the state. This plan, while allegedly avoiding any tax or fee increases, cut $1.5 billion in aid to schools and local government. Additionally, the plan made cuts to the state's BadgerCare program, reducing aid to lowincome individuals and children not eligible for Medicaid. Embedded within this plan were Walker's proposals to eliminate collective bargaining rights for most public employees (with the exception of police officers and firefighters), while increasing benefit contributions. Walker argued that without these cuts the state would experience a shortfall of $3.6 billion (Luhby2011).

In the aftermath of Governor Walker's announcement, few disputed the need to somehow address the looming economic woes in Wisconsin and beyond. However, several issues related to the specifics of the budget proposal quickly became a matter of public dispute in print, broadcast, and digital media outlets, as well as on neighborhood street corners and at family dinner tables. Why was such a complicated bill being pushed through so quickly? Would there be an opportunity for deliberation and reflection about the proposed cuts, or - perhaps more importantly - about the changes in collective bargaining rights? How did the state suddenly come to be running a deficit, given the budget surplus when Governor Walker entered office? Some of Walker's opponents wondered, was it related to the more than $140 million in tax cuts and business incentives he provided in his first two months in office?

The answers to these questions differed depending on individual political leanings. For many Wisconsinites, the dramatic changes being proposed by Governor Walker and Republicans in the state legislature ran counter to what they perceived as Wisconsin's long history of progressive politics. In a state well known for its battles over labor rights, having led the nation by passing worker's compensation protection in 1911 and unemployment compensation in 1932, the unexpected turn on collective bargaining was the most troublesome aspect of the proposed budget. Indeed, many demanded to know why, in a state with such a strong pro-labor history, labor rights were being so heavily targeted.

What began as a small protest of approximately 150 people outside of the Governor's Mansion on February 13 grew quickly. University of Wisconsin-Madison teaching assistants and professors, as well as Madison area public school teachers, were some of the first to mobilize, organizing large rallies at the Capitol and smaller gatherings across the state. On February 14, over one-thousand people gathered at the Capitol to deliver protest "Valentines" to Governor Walker, urging him to reconsider the potential cuts. Soon after, labor leaders labeled the proposal "union busting" and crowded to testify on record against the bill's merits and passage at the Capitol. Less than two weeks later, on February 26, nearly eighty-thousand peaceful citizens marched around the Capitol in freezing rain and snow with protest signs, chanting: "This is what democracy looks like! This is what Wisconsin looks like!" Growing from the grassroots, this nonviolent protest operated outside of party lines and church affiliations and was fuelled not only by individual commitments but also by coordinated alliances and coalitions (Kaplan 1997). 1

The rallies soon became national and international news. Support for the exhausted protesters poured in from across the globe, with one local pizza restaurant claiming they had provided free food "on behalf of [donations from] people from all fifty states, over sixty countries and Antarctica."2 Given the size of the protest, some news pundits, political analysts, and politicians compared the Wisconsin protests almost immediately to the large-scale demonstrations that had just occurred in Cairo, Egypt (despite some very notable differences). …

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