By Matthew Rothschild, April 23, 2011

It’s been weeks since we’ve had a huge mass protest in Madison. The failure by the leadership of the labor movement to keep calling people out in historic numbers has given the impression that things are dying down here. This helps Scott Walker and his minions, and it discourages pro-labor people at the base. There is a latent demand for taking to the streets that is not being met, and the power that such a mobilization represents is being allowed to dissipate.

In this vacuum, some organizers have valiantly tried to rally people to the capitol. Groups like Wisconsin Wave have called several protests, but without the institutional support of the state AFL-CIO and its largest members, the crowds have been relatively—and depressingly—small.

My reporting indicates that many senior labor leaders in Wisconsin were reluctant to call the mass protests in the first place and pooh-poohed the importance of continuing with them.

To their credit, they did pour resources into these protests, and they got their members out in numbers that no one could have anticipated. Solidarity was real and palpable, as the entire house of labor was present—not only the public sector unions but all across the private trades, too.

And to its credit, the labor leadership saw the value of linking up with progressive organizations like Planned Parenthood and the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans Against the War.

These were plusses that should not be discounted.

But then, just as the crowds were swelling, all of a sudden the labor leadership seemed to lose interest in mass action.

It may be that the labor leadership in Wisconsin, which didn’t know quite what to do with all those people in the streets, has now missed its main chance.

“You’ve got to make hay when sun shines, and we soon will be paying the price for not making hay. We blinked,” says Bill Franks, a senior steward for AFT-Wisconsin. “It was a lost opportunity. We had to shut this motherfucker down.” (AFT-Wisconsin was formerly the American Federation of Teachers of Wisconsin, but it has broadened its membership to include other professionals).

Franks believes that when organized labor had 100,000 people marching in the streets, it should have called for some direct action and possibly a general strike. “You can’t put 100,000 people in jail,” he says. “When you have those numbers, the math is all of a sudden on your side.”

Franks says the labor leadership didn’t grasp the power that the outpouring represented. “At the moment when we had some general strike potential,” he says, “the bureaucrats of labor backed off and effectively got in lockstep with the Democratic Party.”

Recall efforts are fine and good, but massing 100,000 people in the streets really scares those in power and emboldens the citizenry.

Why didn’t the state AFL-CIO call for a mass protest the moment that Waukesha County clerk Kathy Nickolaus all of a sudden found 14,000 missing votes in the state supreme court race to throw it to David Prosser, whom she used to work for? Pro-labor and pro-Kloppenburg people were outraged and ready to express that outrage, but the leadership provided them with no outlet.

Why didn’t the state AFL-CIO call for a mass protest when Sarah Palin came to town?

And what plans does the state AFL-CIO have in store if the Republicans try to pull a fast one and intimidate those doing the recall efforts, or out-lawyer the Democratic challengers?

Or, God forbid, when Walker’s anti-union bill finally is allowed to be implemented either by the state supreme court or after a legislative do-over?

I’m afraid the labor leadership in Wisconsin is underestimating the power there is in numbers.