Web Only / Features » August 18, 2011
What Wisconsin Means
On a 96-year-old labor journalist and burning down the forest.
Madison revived the concept of street protests, strikes, and solidarity actions that had seemed to be all but extinct, replaced by passive point and click activism.
The following is an adapted excerpt from We Are Wisconsin, a new collection out on this winter’s protests for workers’ rights. Read the full piece by ordering the book here.
Growing up the awkward son of a union organizer, the one thing I learned about myself at a young age was that whenever I joined my father at picket lines and union meetings, my sense of insecurity vanished. Spending time with workers who stood up for themselves and organized against powerful corporations, even at the risk of losing their jobs, inspired me to fight back against the bullies who teased me as a child. What workers taught me was that while someone may be more powerful than you and make your life miserable, they could never truly beat you down as long as you stood up for yourself. These experiences had a profound effect on me, and that is why I’ve dedicated my career as a labor journalist to giving a voice to the workers.
At times though, it’s been tougher than I expected for both the labor movement and myself. This past winter I found myself sinking into a dark lull, as it appeared that the labor movement was going to be wiped out for good. As a freelance labor journalist, I was broke and with bleak prospects, since few publications were interested or had the funding to print stories about organized labor.
At the time, most of the media conversation about labor was focused on the themes of the documentary film Waiting for Superman – which argued that overpaid public employees and teachers were to blame for the decline of American society. It was hard to find anyone who disagreed, even among middle-class liberals and Democrats in Washington, D.C., where I live. They all seemed to agree that organized labor was a part of the problem, rather than the solution, to the current economic recession. And it went right up to the top: Democrats like President Barack Obama even seemed to endorse the attack on public-sector unions by calling for a wage freeze on federal workers in January.
As that dark winter stumbled slowly into February, newly elected Republican governors in Wisconsin, Ohio, and Florida were racing at breakneck speed to see who could take away public employees’ collective bargaining rights first. It was so over-the-top and aggressive that it almost didn’t seem real; and yet, nobody except a small handful of reporters seemed to be writing about these new attacks on organized labor. It was unclear if labor would even stand up for itself anymore – was this still the same gutsy labor movement whose stories inspired me in my childhood?
In February I went to New York, in part to see the legendary 96-year-old labor journalist Harry Kelber.
Kelber had covered the labor movement’s birth in the 1930s, when Kelber himself was still in his twenties, and he continues to write three columns a week for his website, the Labor Educator.
The year before, my activist grandparents had passed away within months of each other; both were 92 when they died. They had always helped me get through my occasional bouts of depression by sharing their wisdom about the many twists and turns in life. I missed them dearly, and as I headed to New York I hoped Harry Kelber could provide me with the same kind of insights that my grandparents used to share.
Kelber lived in a beautiful apartment in Brooklyn Heights, with a jaw-dropping view overlooking the harbor. His apartment was littered with books and sheet music that he was using for his own original compositions; the walls were adorned with gorgeous paintings and posters depicting labor’s great struggles of the past; and there were so many plants it seemed they were sprouting out of every corner. The mood inside the apartment was bright and cheerful, contrasting sharply with my own darkness. Kelber seemed upbeat, inspired by the recent revolution in Egypt, whose dictator looked like he would be stepping down any day now after weeks of popular protests.
“I can just feel it,” Kelber told me, “people will see what is happening in Egypt and all of a sudden they will realize they have a voice. Once people see they have a voice, it’s tough to put that away. It will spread like wildfire. I saw it happen in the 1930s, and it will happen here again with the great attack labor is under.” I left Brooklyn Heights that day desperately clinging to Kelber’s dream of a working-class uprising, but it was hard not to be skeptical; it was hard to think that the American working class would march together in strength ever again.
On Friday Feb. 11, three days after I visited Kelber, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker upped his war against public-employee unions by threatening to call out the National Guard to prevent state workers from striking. I received a phone call from a friend, American Federation of Teachers organizer Jan Van Tol, who told me that people were outraged by Walker’s actions and that he expected protests the following week that could possibly number in the thousands.
By Monday they had already exceeded that expectation, when 10,000 people showed up at the Wisconsin state Capitol. The following night, the Teaching Assistants’ Association made a daring but key decision to step up the protests and occupy the Capitol, and they began sleeping there overnight. One of the union’s leaders was Alex Hanna, a graduate student who had just returned from Egypt’s Tahrir Square a few days before. After seeing the events in Egypt firsthand, Hanna was confident that students and workers would have their voices heard by turning the Wisconsin Capitol into their own Tahrir Square.
And it spread: On Tuesday, hundreds of students from high schools around Madison, who, of course, had never been union members, started walking out of class. Madison’s teachers union voted to go on a sickout strike, and teachers around the state of Wisconsin began to join students in walking out of school. Crowds swelled by the tens of thousands nearly every day.
I couldn’t believe what was happening. I sat glued to my computer in D.C. for upwards of 20 hours a day, trying to get a sense of what was unfolding while frantically making phone calls to any labor organizer I could find in Wisconsin.
Even though I wasn’t in Wisconsin during that first week of protest, thanks to Twitter I felt like I was there. Stories like the woman who, during a rally, scattered the ashes of her union member father on the Capitol grounds, and the images of the Capitol covered in a sea of red T-shirts – painted a picture so rich in my mind that I often forgot I was in D.C., looking at a Twitter stream.
Thursday Feb. 17, when the Wisconsin state Senate was scheduled to vote on the “budget-repair” bill to restrict public employees’ collective bargaining rights, I was getting antsy; I wanted to be inside the Capitol rotunda, not in D.C. I watched as 75,000 people jammed the Capitol grounds, hoping somehow to present a show of force that would cause the Republicans to back down from passing the anti-labor bill.
I thought it was only a symbolic gesture when Wisconsin Democratic state senators left the chamber together, holding up solidarity fists and disappearing into the crowd outside. I realized I was witnessing a flickering of the old Democratic Party, fighting for labor – nothing like the Democratic Party hacks in Washington constantly attacking teachers’ unions. An hour later news broke that Wisconsin’s 14 Democratic state senators had not only left the Capitol chambers, but had fled the state in order to deny Republican members the quorum needed to vote on Walker’s bill. Senators that day were inspired to literally shut down the Wisconsin Senate.
I started seeing reports on Twitter that groups of 30-40 union activists had barricaded each of the doors to the Senate to prevent Republican senators from re-entering the chamber. Activists held tight that day, and Republicans left the building unable to pass the bill. Tweets of rejoice began streaming out as it became clear that the people’s stand in the Capitol had won that day’s battle.
And then, all of a sudden, a photo of the sea of Wisconsin’s Badger-red T-shirts covering the marble floor of the Capitol emerged on my Twitter feed and captured the collective nature of what we as the labor movement are able to achieve.
Over the following days, occasionally I found myself home alone singing “Solidarity Forever” as I frantically typed updates from Twitter sources on what was happening in Wisconsin, but I couldn’t shake the disappointment of being stuck in D.C. Wisconsin was where the big fight was, and I knew I had to be there.
I made phone calls to different editors at various publications, asking them to send me to Wisconsin. Finally, filmmaker Michael Moore agreed to sponsor me to go to Madison under an arrangement where I would write for a variety of publications.
Within hours, I had a ticket to Wisconsin. When I arrived a few days later, I felt like a nervous combat correspondent touching down in ground zero of the class war.
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Mike Elk wrote for In These Times and its labor blog, Working In These Times, from 2010 to 2014. He is currently a labor reporter at Politico.