As expected, Michael Moore, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, and AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka were in Madison, Wisc., to support and rally the workers in their fight against the union-busting governor and Republican-dominated state legislature.
But, so were union members Bradley Whitfield, Susan Sarandon, Tony Shaloub, and dozens of musicians and singers, including Peter Yarrow who, as part of Peter, Paul, and Mary, was at almost every major social protest for more than 40 years.
“This is not merely a protest on the steps of the Capitol here in Madison,” said Shalhoub, “this is the birth of . . . a nationwide movement destined to restore the rights of workers, to safeguard quality education for our children and to reassemble and reconstitute the fragmented and wounded middle class.” Shalhoub, who won three Emmys, was born in Green Bay; his sister is a Wisconsin teacher.
“Workers,” Sarandon told a crowd of almost 100,000, “had to organize, go on strike, defy the law, defy the courts to create a movement which won the eight-hour workday and caused such a commotion that Congress was forced to pass a minimum wage law, Social Security, unemployment insurance and the right to assemble in collective bargaining.”
Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) told thousands of cheering protestors they had to “reclaim the essence of economic justice before it is lost on the corporate scaffold.” Former senator Russ Feingold, the only senator brave enough to oppose the PATRIOT Act when it was created, said the actions of the governor and legislature were “an outrageous assault on working people.”
The people, the workers, were there when newly-elected Gov. Scott Walker first announced, Feb. 11, he was going to demand hard concessions from the public sector unions. They were there when he lied about the budget and his intentions. They were there when the truth came out that at the same time Walker and his Republican cabal were taking away worker rights and demanding more wage and pension sacrifices, they were also assuring significant tax rebates and making innumerable promises to Big Business. They were there when a Wisconsin Policy Research Institute poll revealed that in less than a month Walker’s approval rate had plunged to only 43 percent. And they were there after he signed a bill, March 13, deviously manipulated through the Senate in the middle of the night, to strip collective bargaining rights of public employees.
But, while the masses protested the shredding of their rights, not at any rally anywhere in Wisconsin were several people who should have been there. Senate minority leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), House minority leader Nancy Pelosi (R-Calif.), Vice-President Joe Biden, and Labor Secretary Hilda Solis have been conspicuously absent. So are almost all major national Democratic political leaders, obviously afraid to publicly support their largest constituency, the American working class.
One person, more than any other, needed to be there, if only to prove that campaign rhetoric and one’s promises mean something after the election.
During the 2008 presidential campaign, Sen. Barack Obama told energized and reinvigorated crowds, both small and large, “If American workers are being denied their right to organize and collectively bargain when I’m in the White House, I’ll put on a comfortable pair of shoes myself [and] I’ll walk on that picket line with you as president of the United States of America because workers deserve to know that somebody is standing in their corner.”
As president, Obama may be wearing comfortable shoes, but he hasn’t gone to Wisconsin to stand by the workers, nor has he ever walked a picket line at least in the past two years. His only public comments, and even then weak ones, were to call the actions in Wisconsin an “assault upon the workers,” and several days later to add, “I don't think it does anybody any good when public employees are denigrated or vilified, or their rights are infringed upon.” It was a statement that could have been said by any Democratic president—and most Republican ones as well.
There are dozens of reasons and excuses why President Obama is not in Wisconsin. The one that seems to be most probable is that going into a re-election campaign he doesn’t want to alienate any of his constituencies. It’s doubtful, however, that anyone on the extreme right wing will vote for him, no matter what he does or doesn’t do. It’s also probable that the core of the Democratic party—the unions and workers, the youth, the alienated and disenfranchised, and those who believe in social justice, who awakened in 2008 to give him a mandate for change—may give him only lukewarm approval or, worse, be silent in 2012. They have every reason to believe they had been betrayed.
Good presidents do what is best for the country. Great presidents, however, do not only what is best for the people, but are also willing to speak to the courage of their beliefs, of their principles, even if it may be unpopular among many of their constituencies. They don’t put their “finger in the air” to judge what’s popular. Republican Theodore Roosevelt, and Democrats Franklin Delano Roosevelt and “Give ’em Hell, Harry” Truman were among the great presidents. If Barack Obama doesn’t soon speak out on behalf of the working class, he may find his legacy mired in the struggle to become even a good president.
[Brian LeCloux of Sun Prairie, Wisc., assisted. Walter Brasch is an award-winning columnist, and the author of 16 books. You may contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org]