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Organizing for America Injects Effort (and Obama) into Wisconsin Union Fight

BY Nancy Scola | Friday, February 18 2011

Well this is interesting. Organizing for America, which you likely know was what the Obama '08 campaign apparatus became post election day, is engaging in the fight raging in Wisconsin over a plan by new Republican Governor Scott Walker to strip some public sector labor unions of the right to collective bargaining, under the guise of shoring up that state fiscally. Politico's Ben Smith first picked up on that engagement.

Organizing for America's Wisconsin page-- that is, wi.barackobama.com -- promotes its campaign against Governor Walker's plan to rollback union rights.
Photo of the Wisconsin state capitol building by Brent Gohde

According to participants and observers, OFA has been rallying people to join the protests in Wisconsin, where we're seeing thousands of people gather in the state capitol. Phone banks are being organized, and supporters are being called on to call state legislators and encourage them to oppose the bill. Other groups and individuals are, of course, pitching in on the collective effort. But the New York Times' Michael Shear reports a DNC official stated that Organizing for America is "quietly, but significantly, involved in building grassroots energy and organizing protests."

Blog posts on the Wisconsin labor fight are, for example, front and center on the Organizing for America website, which still, for the record, lives at BarackObama.com. "Organizing for America is mobilizing on the ground in Wisconsin," reads a post by Mary Hough, "to defend the rights of public employees from an attempt by the governor to take away their right to organize." Another, this one from Elizabeth Chan, reads, "Organizing for America–Wisconsin, who has been among the most vocal advocates for state employees’ rights is tweeting live from the rallies and pulling together the voices, videos, and photos of this movement."

Organizing for America's Wisconsin branch has been tweeting out coverage of events in the field from its OFA_WI account. Jeremy Bird, Organizing for America's deputy director in Washington, has been tweeting in support of the Wisconsin effort. (At least, that is, when he's not organizing a campaign to finally compel OFA Executive Director Mitch Stewart onto Twitter. "It's 2011, Mitch. The time has come. Get. On. Twitter," tweeted Bird.)

To get meta for a moment, Organizing for America's engagement in the Wisconsin fight highlights some of the fundamental questions about just what sort of organizing OFA is shaping up to be.

While Obama has himself spoken out about Walker's plan to rollback labor rights, calling it "an assault on unions" in an interview with Milwaukee television, you can still read what OFA is up to in Wisconsin as a challenge to this idea that OFA can and should only exist as a people's army to be called on in support of the president's legislative plan in Washington. Where has that idea come from? For one thing, "our number one mission is to support the president's agenda," said Stewart in 2009.

Add to that the fact that the way that Organizing for America has been designed and managed has made it an extension of Obama -- which drags him more fully into this debate than some other approaches would have dictated. After the 2008 election, you'll recall, the decision was made in Obama circles to simply move Obama for America to the Democratic National Committee, rather than try to channel the momentum and lessons learned from the campaign into some sort of free-standing, grassroots-driven progressive organization. Organizing for America stands today as Obama's proxy.

That means that Obama is left with little wiggle room when Speaker John Boehner slams Obama for having "unleashed the Democratic National Committee to spread disinformation and confusion in Wisconsin." (At least on the "unleashing" part; it's not quite clear what Boehner's talking about when he talks about "disinformation and confusion.")

More Boehner: "I urge the president to order the DNC to suspend these tactics. This is not the way you begin an ‘adult conversation’ in America about solutions to the fiscal challenges that are destroying jobs in our country." In the popular imagination, Obama controls OFA.

But that doesn't meant that Washington is necessarily dictating what's happening with OFA on the ground throughout the country, though. We're now seeing Organizing for America dips its toes into organizing against anti-union bills in places like Ohio and Indiana, reports the Huffington Post's Amanda Terkel. Bird tells Terkel that the idea to rally in opposition to legislation in Ohio came from volunteers out in the field. "People started to contact us, and they'd call our office and our volunteers, and say, 'This is a big deal. This is going to affect my family,'" said Bird in Terkel's piece. "That started to really simmer earlier this week in Ohio, and it's starting to pick up the pace."

One open question: just how much these state OFA groups are taking direction from DC, and how much they're operating on their own terms.

(Of course, there's a temptation to look at heavily tweeted/blogged, Facebooked protest movements hop from Wisconsin to Ohio and see in that similarities with how we've seen protests spreading almost virally in the Middle East and north Africa over the last several weeks. But that's fodder for another time.)

Fascinating stuff. One thing to keep an eye out for in the coming days: whether Obama comes out with some sort of video or statement in support of what OFAers are doing in Wisconsin and elsewhere.

More: We've been writing about OFA for a while now. Check out our past coverage, including our Micah Sifry's "The Obama Disconnect."

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