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What Wisconsin Means (cont’d)

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Almost immediately upon arriving in Madison, I went straight to the Capitol. The first sight that struck me was of people mopping up the floor with gentle strokes, bent down on hands and knees. This was their house. The people had reclaimed it, and they were taking care of it as they would their own house – they aimed to protect and preserve what had become a symbol to the nation of the power of workers’ voices.

No sooner had I arrived than I ran into my friend Brett Banditelli, a labor journalist who runs a small radio show in Central Pennsylvania. “Look who finally decided to show up to the class war, Mr. Elk,” was how he greeted me.

Brett was a representative of the small network of labor reporters and citizen journalists who provided the bulk of the coverage of the Wisconsin protests. Labor had largely been ignored by all but a few reporters from mainly smaller publications and those who worked for labor-funded programs like Banditelli’s. Previously our audiences had been quite small, but we now found ourselves trying to explain what was happening in Wisconsin to the larger world, to whoever was following us through Twitter.

But first, we had to make sense of the situation for ourselves. It wasn’t easy, to be honest: Just a few weeks earlier, absolutely nobody in the labor movement – outside of the old optimists like Harry Kelber – thought this was even possible. For the moment, Banditelli and I were bewildered by the campsite of protesters sleeping out on the floor of the Capitol, with old-time potbelly union activists in sleeping bags camped next to college hippies cuddling in a corner. The Capitol had turned into some strange version of Paris Commune meets old-school Midwestern union hall, complete with bratwursts and drum circles.

I went a second night without sleep due to the excitement. I made my way to the headquarters of the occupation, a command center set up by the University of Wisconsin-Madison Teaching Assistants’ Association. It was a crazy, chaotic, caffeine-soaked scene, now in its ninth day, fueled by cold pizza and high fives. Students were running around like headless chickens, setting up phone banks to get more graduate students to come out for protests, arranging for more food deliveries to the Capitol, and coordinating volunteer protest marshals who had been self-policing the protesters.

As I looked around the room I noticed several laptops with “Obama/Biden” stickers. These were kids who had worked for Obama in 2008 and despite the disappointment that many had felt about the President’s administration, they had not given in to despair. They had learned valuable lessons about how to organize, only this time they were organizing for themselves, not for Obama. Holy crap, I thought, hope and change are still alive, but in the occupation of a state Capitol.

While most reporters focused on covering the legislative and political action playing out, I tried to cover something different. Something much deeper was happening among the activists. There was a growing sense of confidence that was emerging that turned ordinary students and workers into gung-ho union organizers.

Most of the media narratives coming out of Wisconsin were how this had changed the politics of union-busting and shifted public opinion in the unions’ favor. I would argue that it went even deeper than that: Wisconsin changed the way people do politics, period.

Madison revived the concept of street protests, strikes, and solidarity actions that had seemed to be all but extinct, replaced by the passive point and click activism of the Internet age and cautious top-down, D.C.-centric labor leadership. As labor fought for its life in Madison, I worked feverishly to document the revival of the in-your-face direct action, civil disobedience, and organizing that had built the labor movement in the 1930s.

I worked around the clock interviewing people, and filed three to four stories a day from the front lines. I forgot about everything: I forgot about sleeping; I even forget to eat most of the time. I don’t know exactly how, but suddenly all those months of lethargy after coming down with pneumonia just disappeared and I was full of energy again. The adrenaline of the protests kept me working 20 hours a day covering the new dynamic emerging on Wisconsin’s streets.

Then one morning, my body crashed. I woke up and was nearly unable to move my legs. My immune system, weakened from pneumonia and lack of sleep and food, had caught up with me. My doctor ordered me to go back home to D.C. to rest. I returned home physically exhausted, but mentally energized and full of hope for the future – going over the possibilities of rebuilding the labor movement that Wisconsin had unleashed.

A week later, in violation of the state open-meetings laws, the Wisconsin Legislature was able to illegally, as pro-union activists argue, push through the bill stripping public employees of their right to collectively bargain. Protesters stormed the Capitol, busting down barricades and reoccupying the building in disgust, but there was nothing they could do.

It was a body blow. It seemed like for the time being we had lost in Wisconsin. Corporate America, like always, had figured out a way to strong arm the labor movement. It seemed like things were getting back to usual, with the boss always winning out over workers.

But then I started noticing a new optimism about the labor movement that hadn’t been there before. Everywhere I went, workers seemed inspired by Wisconsin. General Electric workers in Erie, Pennsylvania adopted the Wisconsin Badger as their mascot as they threatened strikes against GE, which was pushing for workers to make concessions. Now, at every union rally I go to across the nation, I see people wearing shirts of the state of Wisconsin shaped like a solidarity fist. Wisconsin has become a rallying cry that gave activists a sense that they could win. As United Steelworkers Local USW 7-699 President Darrell Lillie told me when I visited him during a bitter year-long lockout at a Honeywell uranium facility in Southern Illinois: “You have to understand Wisconsin to understand that we can win here and win as a labor movement.”

Wisconsin lit a spark in me; it lit a spark in all of us. A spark that union organizer August Spies, one of the Haymarket martyrs, talked about shortly before he was put to death in 1887 for a crime he did not commit: “If you think that by hanging us you can stamp out the labor movement, then hang us. Here you will tread upon a spark, but here, and there, and behind you, and in front of you, the flames will blaze up. It is a subterranean fire. You cannot put it out. The ground is on fire upon which you stand.”

Wisconsin was a new spark of that subterranean fire of justice that burns deep in all of us. A spark that the 96-year-old labor journalist Harry Kelber had witnessed with his own eyes when labor first came alive in the 1930s. As Kelber predicted, once people found their voices, as they did in Wisconsin, it started to spread like “a wildfire.”

Let’s burn down the whole goddamn forest.

Excerpted from We Are Wisconsin: The Wisconsin Uprising in the Words of the Activists, Writers, and Everyday Wisconsinites Who Made It Happen, © 2011.

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.

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