I was going to post this earlier but I decided to wait until reports of Saturday's pro-union rallies were in. I had heard some breathless pre-event predictions of a million turning out across the country, which I dismissed as over-enthusiastic hyperbole, and properly so.
Even so, the numbers and even more the range, both geographic and demographic, of the rallies were impressive. According to a mailing from MoveOn.org, there were actions in every state capitol as well as other places; 66 in all. The biggest, of course, was in Madison, where local police estimated the crowd at upwards of 100,000. But the turnout in a number of other places, based on various news and/or eyewitness accounts, was in four figures, including not just obvious ones like New York and Los Angeles, but Boston, Hartford, Harrisburg, St. Paul, Santa Fe, Lansing, Denver, Olympia, Trenton, and more. One - Columbus, scene of its own labor fight - could well have been in five figures. Again according to the MoveOn mailing, a total of 50,000 people outside of Wisconsin took to the streets to say they support the rights of workers - a figure I find, based on my own search of media accounts, to be if anything a little conservative. And remember: All these actions were put together in just four days.
All this is, of course, in addition to the thousands who turned out earlier in the week both to express support for Wisconsin workers and to demand that the same treatment not be given to workers in their own state.
It's been exhilarating to see that there is still life in the old lefty-labor coalition. It's been energizing to see the steadfast determination on the part of the Wisconsinites and others. (I had a distressed moment last weekend when I thought the Wisconsin teachers' union had blinked, as its president told its members to go back to the classroom. Happily, I was wrong.) It's been greatly encouraging to see actual union solidarity - particularly from Wisconsin police and firefighters whose unions, as is not commonly known, were exempted from the stripping away of rights Governor Walkalloveryou wants to inflict on others. (Those unions were also the ones who endorsed Walkalloveryou in the campaign. Ain't coincidence wonderful?)
And it has been particularly pleasurable for this aging radical who has repeatedly said - here and here, for example - that we leftists, we progressives (in the real sense of the word), we who like to think of ourselves as part of a movement, need to be more aggressive, more assertive, in our behavior and stop thinking of political action as limited to legislative chambers and getting Dimcrats elected, it has been a delight for this "vaguely reminiscent of the '60s" old guy to see that there are still some things that will get Americans out on the streets other than death panels and the looming threat of a secret Muslim socialist foreigner imposing sharia law on the nation.
So yes, it was great to see, even more so because in Austin the rally was done in conjunction with one supporting Planned Parenthood and in other places the rallies were supported by the new group US Uncut, which uses social network organizing to put together protests against tax-dodging corporations and produced actions at 50 different places on Saturday, most of them at branches of Bank of America. That sort of unity, that sort of "It's all connected so we all need to be connected" thinking is what can drive a wider, more inclusive, and therefore stronger movement.
(Lighthearted sidebar: I smiled at hearing one rally chant "The people! United! Will never be" only to be taken aback when instead of the last word being the '60s cry "defeated," it was "divided." I swear, these kids today....)
However - and you damn well knew that was coming sometime - in another way I found the day, well, not disheartening but depressing. Amidst all the energy, all the hoopla, all the excitement, there is a shadow filtering through, a shadow big enough to dim the light cast by the crowds: The goal of the entire enterprise, the entire effort, the entire purpose of every action from the very beginning of the entire confrontation, was to stand in the same place. To not be forced to back down. To not, in another sense, be forced to back up.
Even if every demand of every one of those protests about labor laws in Wisconsin or Ohio or Indiana or wherever else workers' rights were under attack, even if every goal was achieved, even if there was total success, still we would have gained nothing. Rather, we would have not lost what we already have.
We've been fighting, that is, not to go forward but to resist going backwards. These are all rear-guard actions, all hoping merely to stand our ground, not to advance. We are perpetually playing defense. But the fact is, you can't hold ground forever; you can't always play defense and still score. In war, a purely defensive strategy can be good, even effective, because it takes significantly more military resources to attack than to defend. But in political and social conflicts such as this, that often is untrue and so in the long run, a purely defensive strategy always fails - always.
So it is depressing to think that even with the massive effort, the intense emotion, the fearsome determination, that have been on display these past couple of weeks that holding our own appears to be - in fact is - the best we are hoping for. It bespeaks a future of continued gradual, even if somewhat slowed, decline, a future that if we are to avoid we will somehow have to find even more energy than we have shown so far.