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The Madison Effect

Were the Wisconsin protests the beginnings of a new movement or the last gasps organized labor?

| Thu Mar. 31, 2011 4:40 PM EDT

The Radicalization of Tom Bird

If the events in Wisconsin and elsewhere do signal an end, they may also mark a beginning. I saw it in the outpouring of protesters in Madison, the young and old who defied convention and expectation by showing up day after day, weekend after weekend, signs in hand, in snow or sun, to voice their disgust with Scott Walker and his agenda. For me, the inspiration in that crowd came in the form of a tall, string-bean-thin 22-year-old with a sheepish smile named Tom Bird.

Bird's radicalization, if you will, began innocently enough. As he told me one evening, when the news leaked out about the explosive contents of Walker's bill, his reaction was typical: angry but resigned to the fact that, in a GOP-controlled legislature, it would pass. "What was I going to do about it?" was, he said, the way he then felt.

Bird was no labor activist. Far from it. A master's student in nuclear engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he felt at home in the world of plasma physics. He'd opposed the Iraq war, but collective bargaining, walkouts, picket lines… well, not so much. He joined his first student-organized march from the university campus to the Capitol downtown in the days after Walker announced his bill more out of curiosity than indignation. He was, he told me, just tagging along with a friend.

Yet something kept pulling him back to the growing protests. He'd drop in on the demonstrators on his way to and from campus, wading through the throngs of people, admiring the signs taped to the walls of the Capitol rotunda, taking in the exhortations of the speakers at its center. The first night he spent in the Capitol, Bird testified in the all-night hearings taking place by reading a statement once given by Clarence Darrow, the famous civil liberties lawyer, in defense of a man named Thomas I. Kidd charged with treason for inciting workers to unionize in Bird's hometown of Oshkosh. And in doing so, Bird felt something new: an urge to be part of a movement.

Day after day he gravitated closer to the drum circle and the speaker's pulpit, the beating heart of those Capitol protests. And then, one day, someone handed him the megaphone. It was his turn to speak. He hadn't necessarily planned this, so feeling the energy of the moment he simply stepped up and said what he thought. Before long, he was an activist whose impassioned cries rang out in the rotunda as loud as anyone's. Any time I ventured into the Capitol I looked for Bird, with his Wisconsin baseball cap, lining up new speakers and keeping the drums beating. Someone even dubbed him "Speaker of the Rotunda."

Bird and his newfound activist friends even organized the disparate groups inside the Capitol—the medic team, university teaching assistants, protest marshals, and more—into the Capitol City Leadership Committee. The CCLC, while short-lived, was created to ensure that the protests remained safe, peaceful, and forceful. It had its own leadership structure and governing bylaws. Once the police squeezed the protesters out of the Capitol for good, instead of dissolving and disappearing, the group evolved into the Autonomous Solidarity Organization, an outfit now determined to continue the fight for workers' rights and social justice.

I've thought a lot of about Bird since then. If a 22-year-old plasma physics geek can be transformed into an activist in mere weeks, then maybe the crushing effects of Walker's and Kasich's bills and all the others can be channeled into new energy, into a new movement. It may not look like organized labor as we've known it, but it could begin to fill a void left in states where governors and legislatures are gutting the unions.

In Wisconsin, the upcoming weeks will put this new energy to a test. Right now, campaigns are underway to recall eight Republican state senators for their support of Walker's "repair" bill; in the case of GOP Senator Randy Hopper, opponents have already collected enough signatures, including that of Hopper's estranged wife, to demand a recall vote. And on April 5th, Wisconsinites will go to the polls to choose between a liberal candidate and a corporate-backed Republican for a seat on the state Supreme Court. That race is the first since the protests, and so could be the first true test of whether the crowds that stormed the Capitol can translate their anger into pressure at the polls.

No one can say for certain what Wisconsin, or Ohio, or Iowa will look like if organized labor is whacked at the knees. Will public-sector unions find a way to reinvent themselves, or will they slide into irrelevance like so many unions in the private sector?

As grim as the bills may be, I can't help but feel hopeful, thinking about the massive protests I witnessed in Madison. I particularly remember one frigid night, when a group of protesters and reporters adjourned to a local bar for beers. At some point, Tom Bird bounded in, so full of energy, moving restlessly between our table and another with friends.

At one point, he rolled up his sleeve to reveal a scrawny bicep. Some of his fellow activists, he told me, wanted to get tattoos of one of the most enduring images from the protests, a solidarity fist in the shape of Wisconsin. "Except on mine," he told us, "I want the Polish version: Solidarnosc."

That, of course, was the labor movement that, after a decade-long struggle, helped bring down the Soviet Union. Who knows what could happen here if Bird and his compatriots, awakened by the spark that was Madison, were to keep at it for 10 years or more? Who knows if Wisconsin wasn't the beginning of the end, but the beginning of something new?

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