Wisconsin Progressive Giant Ed Garvey’s Vital Message

Wisconsin Progressive Giant Ed Garvey’s Vital Message

When Wisconsin progressive Ed Garvey succumbed to a long illness February 22 at age 76, Senator Bernie Sanders hailed him as “one of the smartest, funniest, and most decent people I have ever known.”

It was a fitting tribute to the humanity of Garvey, whose passion for economic democracy and social justice had made him deeply beloved in his home state.

That Sanders delivered it was also fitting. In both electoral and issue campaigns, Garvey had pioneered a sharp-edged message about mounting inequality and shrinking democratic space that had cultivated the ground for Sanders’s Wisconsin primary win. Garvey spoke directly to Wisconsin’s unusually harsh inequities, and job losses caused by globalization. Sanders sounded similar populist themes in his  57–43 percent primary victory over Hillary Clinton, in which he carried 71 of 72 counties. Clinton went on to lose the state on Election Day, by just 23,000 votes.

Garvey blended generosity of spirit with a remarkable strategic audacity and fearlessness, overcoming seemingly insuperable odds in countless battles. Above all, Garvey was a masterful communicator—an old-fashioned, spellbinding orator and a sophisticated modern-media strategist who saw the importance of teaching working people how to speak about their pain and aspirations to the broadest possible audiences.  

Having worked alongside Garvey for more than three decades, I regard the annual “Fighting Bob” festival as the capstone of Garvey’s lifelong efforts to build working people’s capacity to develop and deliver a powerful diagnosis of society’s ills, and to offer a compelling alternative vision. The festival, which originated in 2001 with Garvey a central founder, is named after the firebrand progressive Robert La Follette Sr., Wisconsin’s governor a century ago. “Fighting Bob” became a central point of mobilization, where Garvey spread his communications philosophy to thousands of grassroots activists drawn from across the Badger State. Over the years, the festival has attracted many of the nation’s most thoughtful progressives, including Sanders, Jim Hightower, Jesse Jackson, Wisconsin Democratic Senator Tammy Baldwin, among numerous others.

Many “Fighting Bob” attendees became active because of Garvey, who indefatigably crisscrossed the state to share his energy, strategic acumen, and legal skills with workers battling against plant closings and wage cuts, and with environmentalists resisting “factory farms” and other threats to clean water.  

Garvey’s signature method first found full expression back in 1982, when he directed the NFL players union’s campaign for a fixed share of the football league’s massive, fast-growing revenues. Under Garvey, the union developed and drove home a compelling message that motivated the players and resonated with fans. As Garvey would later recall, “We built support among the public by emphasizing, ‘We are the game’—emphasizing that while the owners were dispensable, the players are not.”

The message kept the players consistently fired up. “Once the players really understood that they truly are the game, they were well on the way to victory,” Garvey explained at the time. This consistent message enabled the NFL stars to quickly out-maneuver the league and its hardliner anti-union majority. By the strike’s end, not a single player had crossed the picket lines, the public solidly supported the union, and the owners were forced to agree to provide the players with 55 percent of revenues.

Not that Garvey’s strategy was always appreciated within the ranks of labor or by Democrats. Garvey once recounted how then–AFL-CIO President Lane Kirkland, a dour and cautious figure, told him “to avoid too much publicity. He demanded, ‘What if you lose?’”

Garvey retorted, “Well, what if we win?” With the NFL players’ strike, as with numerous local fights involving unions and environmentalists, the Garvey method paid off by combining a powerful message with grassroots activism and public outreach.

Some Wisconsin Democrats never got comfortable with Garvey. To them, openly proclaiming a progressive, anti-corporate message risked alienating the Democrats’ donor class, and galvanizing and intensifying right-wing opposition to frightening levels. In his 1986 race for the U.S. Senate seat held by arch-conservative Robert Kasten, Garvey’s surging poll numbers alarmed Kasten consigliere Roger Ailes (later of Fox News infamy) into devising a major TV ad buy that falsely accused Garvey of stealing $750,000 from the NFL union he had represented. After his narrow re-election, Kasten was shamefacedly forced to admit that there had been no basis for the charge, but the outcome was of course unchanged.

Garvey’s fierce allegiance to rank-and-file union members also caused some rifts with labor leaders across the state.

But today, under Republican Governor Scott Walker and President Trump, Wisconsin Democrats face unprecedented existential threats to labor rights, the public commons, the environment, and civil liberties. They need Ed Garvey’s full-throated progressive message of economic inequality, and his genius for communication, more than ever. This may be Garvey’s most important legacy—and what makes his loss untimely in more sense than one.