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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.
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.
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