Wisconsin: Making Sense of the Uprising

C. Estelle Clark reviews It Started in Wisconsin.

Ellen La Luzerne reviews Wisconsin Uprising: Labor Fights Back

Harry Richardson reviews We Are Wisconsin

by C. Estelle Clark

Nothing like a mass uprising to inspire folks into rethinking their political plans. Demonstrators came out of the woodwork in Madison last February, taking initiative and showing up day after day.

Madison ’60s radicals Mari Jo and Paul Buhle, now retired academics, edited the essay collection It Started in Wisconsin. In each chapter, leading Wisconsin activists and a few guests background and analyze everything from the historic “Wisconsin Idea” to the selling of state resources and the war on public education, unions, farms, and the global economy.

It Started in Wisconsin: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Labor Protest.

Edited by Mari Jo Buhle and Paul Buhle. London, New York: Verso, 2011. 181 pages.

The book offers a variety of assumptions: that the state’s Progressive Party legacy and an election-oriented strategy is probably the path to follow in the future; that teachers and many other workers have fought valiantly in the past and did so again in 2011. The assumption that big business and international capitalism were manifesting themselves in Scott Walker’s bill came through. So did Walker's past (although it could have included more dirt to share with our friends and co-workers).

Journalist John Nichols points to the state's Progressive tradition and Fightin' Bob LaFollette as likely bedrock for the uprising. A chapter by Paul Buhle and Frank Emspak fills in important parts of Wisconsin's labor history. Mary Bottari, in “The Sale of Wisconsin,” introduces the American Legislative Exchange Council, which created cut-and-paste legislation for Wisconsin and the entire nation, with the aim of rolling American society back to the 19th century. Bottari points clearly to capitalists as a class, with their own type of “unions” and solidarity. A chapter on the world economy tells us what we were up against, and does it well.

I believe spirit sustained our uprising, and the book gave state workers and people-to-people solidarity short shrift. Probably 10,000 civil servants work near the Capitol. When daily noon rallies there averaged 8,000, dedicated, enthusiastic state workers were there by the thousands. Unmentioned are heroes such as the 30 knitting ladies who parked themselves all night in the Rotunda when rumor had it the students would be evicted. Firefighters (briefly mentioned) made everyone's day for months, as did the constant flow of pizza from online orders from all over the world.

Over a half century, we have forgotten how to fight back. We have let union leaders turn our unions into a bargaining squad and grievance handlers. They have spent our potential strike fund money supporting Democrats in a legal system that doesn't serve us. They have dismantled our greatest weapons, the strike and direct action. Many good unionists stood strong in Wisconsin Winter, but others held us back.

The South Central Federation of Labor, mentioned in the book, voted to investigate and educate toward a general strike. Something happened to founder that effort, and the existing business unions certainly played a role. We needed a chapter about that.

I believe we went about as far as we could go with the leadership and organization we had. Now the workers who came to the Capitol need to reclaim their unions and reshape them into grassroots power bases. I weigh the value of this book by how much it advances that purpose. If the writing is too dense for ordinary people to understand, that's a minus. If it reveals the nature of classes in Wisconsin and beyond, that's a plus. If it tells how people here and everywhere have stood up, and what did or didn't advance their success, that’s a plus, too.

Estelle Clark works for the state of Wisconsin, a block from the Capitol. She marched, sang, and rallied almost every day of the 2011 uprising. A member of AFSCME Local 2748 and Madison IWW, she is also a director of the Wisconsin Labor History Society.

Wisconsin Uprising: Labor Fights Back.

Edited by Michael D. Yates. Monthly Review Press, New York, $18.95, 304 pages.

by Ellen La Luzerne

As a lifelong Wisconsin resident and union thug, almost every aspect of my life has been changed by the series of events that began with the election of Scott Walker. Everyone around me has felt the impact of his regime, personally and at work.

We've seen a long list of losses: wages, benefits, clean government, environmental protections, collective bargaining rights, and more. But we also gained a collective voice, evidenced by the mass rallies and a million signatures on petitions aimed at recalling Walker.

A collection of essays by union activists, journalists, and academics, Wisconsin Uprising: Labor Fights Back chronicles and makes sense of what happened. The first section details the events that led up to the uprising and lays out what was happening in the legislature, in the streets, and around the state as events unfolded. We read how Walker was elected and how unexpected were both his attack on collective bargaining and the massive response. Frank Emspak of the Workers’ Independent News Service says that not only is the many-sided rebellion like the parable of the blind man and the elephant, “the uprising was so unexpected that the blind man would have been trampled by the elephant had he arrived in Madison on February 14, 2011.”

The book’s middle section gives insightful criticisms and suggestions on what has gone wrong with unions and the lessons we might learn. Of particular note is labor educator Stephanie Luce’s list of lessons for organizers. She notes that the left has often been timid, afraid of alienating “the middle”: We temper our demands to sound reasonable and end up losing everything. We need to be bold and inclusive, she says, refusing to “highlight only the most ‘respectable’ parts of our movement.”

Luce argues against movements’ basing their actions on polling numbers or focus groups, as it was rumored that national union operatives sent to Wisconsin were doing. “If you base all your decisions on current attitudes,” she writes, “you don't allow for the possibility of people changing their mind. Taking a bold stand can often build more support than pragmatic leaders might have you believe.”

The book’s final section covers a wide array of examples of struggles, from the longshore workers of Longview, Washington, to the Packers of Green Bay, Wisconsin, to workers fighting wage cuts in upstate New York. Authors connect the dots between the cost of war, the effects of racism, the decline of support for public services, and our inability to launch a viable alternative to the two-party system.

With a good collection of essays, the reader may not always agree with each assessment. As a union staff representative, I don’t believe the unions’ efforts behind the scenes were given as much credit as they were due. Union staff spent hours and hours garnering the large numbers of ralliers, providing coordination at the rallies, and contacting members one on one to encourage attendance.

The events of the Wisconsin uprising continue to unfold on an emotional rollercoaster. This book provides a basic framework to continue the discussion.

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Ellen La Luzerne is a staff representative for the Wisconsin Education Association Council.

We Are Wisconsin.

Edited by Erica Sagrans. Tasora Books, published by Itasca Books. 295 pages. Check out your local bookstore or download a PDF at Wearewisconsin.com.

by Harry Richardson

As soon as Governor Scott Walker was inaugurated, he immediately set about stripping away the bargaining rights of most public workers, exempting firefighters and police.

We Are Wisconsin is a good primer of what happened but not why.

Many of the book’s short essays were written on the spot, during or just after the two-week occupation at the Capitol. Replete with personal stories and tweets, it does a good job of describing the feel of the “Wisconsin Rebellion” that took place last winter and spring.

One of the most moving sections belongs to Tony Schultz, a third-generation farmer from the activist group Family Farm Defenders, who reaffirms the solidarity between farmers and workers, an “old and sacred alliance of producers.”

Another comes from Sigrid Paterson, who grew up near Walker in their small hometown. The governor and his allies had tried to suggest “outside agitators” drove the resistance.

What the book lacks is much analysis of why the uprising happened and what might be next.

An exception is Noam Chomsky, who emphasizes the key role played by labor in the Egyptian uprising as well as the Madison variant. He offers a brief overview of recent labor history and concludes, “In different ways, the fate of democracy is at stake in Madison, Wisconsin, no less than in it is in Tahrir Square.”

Why didn’t the energy of the Capitol occupation spur greater confrontation?

Elizabeth Wrigley-Field, a member of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Teaching Assistants Association, says the grassroots faction in the occupation wanted the Capitol action to continue and help build “new networks focused on escalating direct mass pressure on the state government and its corporate backers.”

But the Democratic Party leadership and labor leaders wanted to maintain control over the situation and channel people into recall efforts. They were eventually successful and effectively demobilized protesters, guiding them toward activities Democrats and labor leaders were more comfortable with and fit more easily into their ideology.

What Might Have Been

We Are Wisconsin considers what might have been. The essay “Wisconsin's Lost Strike Moment” theorizes that the escalating series of events, including rallies around the state, protests at banks and fundraisers, and the Capitol occupation should have led to a one-day strike. Such a move was necessary to confront Walker's threat to fire public workers, the essay argues, but “union leadership responded with words not actions thereby severing the chain of escalations and accepting defeat.”

There is little to indicate how such a walkout could have occurred other than spontaneously, however. Walker seemed ready just to fire anyone who went out, creating his own PATCO moment. He would have gotten rid of the most militant workers and put down the rest in one fell swoop.

But it is worth recalling that the teachers, spurred on by their Madison branch, actually called meetings and democratically decided to pursue a “sick-out.”

Other union leaders didn't support a walkout, and public sector work culture is anti-walkout. The teachers, on the other hand, had been tempered by years of attacks.

In my union, AFSCME Local 171, the blue collar and technical workers on the University of Wisconsin campus, activists opposed the AFSCME state council chief’s decision to accept wage and benefit concessions that would hurt the rank and file, while he defended collective bargaining (and the dues checkoff that maintains his position).

But we were outvoted at our member meeting. Most saw the concessions as a necessary tactic in an effort to try to maintain anything.

Lacking the support of the state leadership and without a big enough activist base, job actions were not practical, no matter how much we may wish otherwise.

Kim Moody’s essay reminds us that unions don’t grow incrementally but rather in the crucible of struggle. Somewhat hopefully, he suggests that Wisconsin’s uprising could lead to a “volunteer army” for labor to bring the question of labor rights to the “level of national rights it ought to be.”

Thousands of members have been involved in gathering signatures to recall Walker, though too few seem ready to rebuild their unions. Whether this is the volunteer corps Moody—and most of us—hope for remains to be seen.

Harry Richardson is a member of AFSCME Local 171 in Madison.