In Madison, Wisconsin, fifteen months ago the pitiable American inhibition on public political expression dropped away on a mass scale. The result was, among other things, the collective performance of an insurgent spectacle, beginning with the demonstrations under the capitol rotunda. For once in my political lifetime we had more performers than cameramen and the stage was accordingly enlarged. The resultant images were and are fundamentally appealing. With everybody participating, the picture represented not merely a small group but rather a whole public, a whole society, a body in which many viewers would recognize themselves, and, most significantly, want to join.
The images of the Wisconsin Uprising were made enduring through thousands-fold repetition, most of them slightly different versions of the same picture, a proliferation of infinite protest details bound by a whole, generated over the many days of action. There is no doubt—the pictorial, video, and sound documentation of the movement is vast. But finally, the social movement actually lived up to the flood of documentation produced of it.
Writing is a peculiar form of documentation. Unlike photo and raw video, writing by the nature of its production takes on a variable temporal distance from the events being recorded. From on-the-spot tweets to daily or weekly blog postings, to articles or columns that undergo an editing process for webzines or newsmedia sites, to texts written for traditionally published and distributed books, writing provides space for reflection and descriptive processing. For that reason, in terms of understanding the hows and whys of what happened in Wisconsin, writing is the most important kind of documentation we have. And we have a lot of it.
There can be no hope of reviewing even a sliver of the ‘first order’ online reporting that took place as the Uprising unfolded. There is simply too much. For example, as of this posting I have well over 600 webpages bookmarked in my browser’s Wisconsin Uprising folder, each url representing a notable detail or moment in the struggle. As a whole my bookmarked sites preserve the feeling of daily and weekly turns of events, and how people were thinking in the moment. These are but an unknown fraction of all that was typed and posted.
I have taken on the more doable task of reading through a selection of the ‘second order’ movement literature. These are the print media published works, ranging from proper books published under well-known left wing imprints to DIY zines produced by small groups or individuals. Though these works vary in their physicality, professionalism of editing, and ideological orientation, they all belong to the Uprising in the sense that they are addressed to a movement-identified readership. This literature grew to a considerable body of work less than a year after the uprising broke out, and the titles I review here are not the complete roster.
The question of time frame must be considered from the outset. The writings compiled in and through these publications represent the period January 2011, when Scott Walker was sworn in as governor, through December of that year, by which time the effort was underway to gather signatures to force a recall election. From where we stand now, at the end of June of 2012, after the June 5 election debacle in which Scott Walker engineered a decisive victory, that period can be considered the first and brightest phase of the Uprising—and, most importantly, a phase of the movement that is definitively over.
The writings of that period are optimistic in comparison to the post-June 5 spirit of the movement. Even the most critical pieces are informed by the memory and experience of the initial insurgency itself—the heady first week through which a movement of many tens of thousands unexpectedly materialized out of little but a suddenly recognized common precarity. After June 5, the point of reference is quite different and certainly more difficult. Perhaps more than even before June 5, then, we need to study our movement, our collective decisions, mistakes, hopes, and potentialities, as found in the literature of the Uprising, and do it with the sobriety of the defeated.
These are the four books I have read:
We Are Wisconsin: The Wisconsin Uprising in the Words of the Activists, Writers, and Everyday Wisconsinites Who Made It Happen, Erica Sagrans, editor. Minneapolis: Tasora Books, 300 pages.
It Started in Wisconsin: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Labor Protest, Mari Jo and Paul Buhle, editors. Brooklyn: Verso, 181 pages.
Wisconsin Uprising: Labor Fights Back, Michael D. Yates, editor. New York: Monthly Review Press, 304 pages.
Uprising: How Wisconsin renewed the Politics of Protest, from Madison to Wall Street, John Nichols. New York: Nation Books, 192 pages.
Out of the four books We Are Wisconsin has the distinction of having appeared earliest. Being a contributor, this is the one I know best. It was a project initiated by editor Erica Sagrans, a young refugee of Nancy Pelosi’s DC office who was inspired by the Wisconsin Uprising from a distance. The collection of texts she put together make for a remarkable pre-recall, pre-Occupy Wall Street document. Especially valuable are the reprinted tweets, complete with time and date stamps, grouped on pages interspersed between the essays. They convey the excitement, anxiety, determination, camraderie, and astonishment of the Uprising’s first days and the occupation of the capitol. Look no further than the tweets for evidence of the ‘now-time’ theorized by Benjamin, the messianic arrival of historical possibility.
Though none is longer than nine pages, the articles are formally diverse. A good number are first person, bridging the gap between the tweets and the analytical pieces. Nationally-known left wing luminaries like Medea Benjamin, Noam Chomsky, and Van Jones supply familiar voices at best and a platitudinous superficiality at worst. Making the first of their appearances that run through two of the other books are words from Michael Moore and John Nichols. On balance, the lesser known and local writers offer the stronger contributions. For example, UW graduate student Alex Hanna’s critical take on the Madison-Cairo (dis-)connection is an informed and tempered analysis of two insurgencies that in some respects jumped a border, but also remained particular to their locations. More so than either Benjamin or Chomsky, both of whom also wrote about the Middle East/Midwest vector, Hanna parses out the parallels worth holding onto. He is in a position to do that given his membership in the TAA and the fact that his area of study is Egyptian social movements.
The best articles are those that expand the scope of the Uprising while retaining the urgency of the first phase. For example, in “What Next: Mobilizing or Organizing?” Milwaukee activist Monica Adams argues for revisiting the known frames of oppression—racism, sexism, and other forms of exclusionary supremacy—to interrogate the “we” of the Uprising slogan “we are Wisconsin.” As well, she takes the mobilization/organization dichotomy of her title from Kwame Ture’s differentiation between mass action against something (mobilization) and mass action for something (organization). One both scores she adds substance to a struggle represented mainly as a battle about collective bargaining rights. The text is an excerpt from a report she delivered to the Left Forum on March 20, only about five weeks after the Uprising began.
It Started in Wisconsin has the feel of a local production though it is the book with probably the widest reach because of its publisher, Verso. The cover image is a photo of the capitol dome and the endless blue sky above it, a pure Madison image. It is the only one of the four books to use a cover photo at all. The visual richness continues inside in the form of photographs at chapter breaks, several comic spreads, and a couple samples of graphic art. Though not a large selection, the visual voices range from a wonderful shot of Uprising nuptials taken on a snowy day in front of the capitol by wedding photographer Becca Dilley to the minimalist iconography of Lester Doré. Other distinguishing features of the book are the lists of recommended further readings at the end of selected chapters.
Editors Mari Jo and Paul Buhle have ties going back to Madison’s radical heydey during the Vietnam era. As the founding editors of the 1970s-80s New Left periodical Radical America, they helped to disseminate essential political ideas of from their generation’s struggle. The Buhle’s experience in an earlier era is evident in the comics spread titled “Solidarity 1970.” It tells the story of the TAA’s contract battle of that year, their first. The then-newborn union won most all of their demands through a spring semester strike that was respected by Teamsters Local 695, whose drivers refused to make deliveries across picket lines. The chain of solidarity running parallel to the narrative of escalation in 1970 rang true to the opening salvos of February, 2011, when the growth of the Uprising similarly corresponded to the escalation of resistance actions.
I remember the book for some spot-on texts, including Mari Jo’s “The Wisconsin Idea.” She could have gone for the boring straight treatment, but instead she plays off the familiar term to describe the complex and crucial sense of identity, belonging, and ownership that produced the movement and that in turn were produced by it. As she writes, “No idea figured quite so prominently throughout the course of events as that of the identity of Wisconsin….” The insurgent re-definition of Wisconsin and Wisconsinite (finally!) is an aspect of the Uprising that has not been remarked on in many places. Only after the expanded discussion about the Uprising’s claim on the state’s identity does Mari Jo return to The Wisconsin Idea as an historically specific policy orientation with links to the Progressive Party.
Another valuable contribution is Patrick Barrett’s interview with Madison organizer and Green Party activist Ben Manski. Manski and one of the organizations he helped to found, Wisconsin Wave, were protest stalwarts. They came into the Uprising with an anti-corporate, alter-global politics, and use as their banner motto the European anti-austerity slogan “we won’t pay for their crisis!” The Wisconsin Wave was significant because it offered the movement an organizing force and a political discourse that went beyond the special interest represented by the unions. As such, the Wave (as Manski calls it) helped to dilute the predominance of AFSCME in the movement. This was a great service even though the Wave itself was and is arguably unfocused in its organizing priorities.
Wisconsin Uprising is the most ideological of the books, though not pointlessly so (I will get to the pamphlets in a minute). The book frames the Uprising as a working class labor struggle, pretty much in those terms. Going beyond the Wisconsin-specific touchstone of La Follette’s Progressive reforms, the contributors to this volume variously analyze the Uprising in relation to earlier episodes of labor organizing from throughout labor history. Elly Leary goes back to the Knights of Labor, the Japanese Mexican Labor Association of the early twentieth century, and the IWW-led strike against the American Woolen Company in 1912. Michael Hurley and Sam Gindin consider the lessons from the Canadian hospital workers strikes of Ontario in the mid-1990s. Rand Wilson and Steve Early co-author a chapter on the experience of recent union organizing in such open shop states as Tennessee, Texas, and North Carolina—a discussion even more relevant after June 5.
These and other authors make a compelling case for a wealth of tactical creativity available in the broad history of militant labor struggle. What they do not address are the reasons for the Uprising’s failure in strategic orientation, that is, why exactly the constituencies that initiated the chain of militant escalation allowed for the strategic re-routing of their movement. The failure is recognized as such given that it was the teachers’ sick-out that raised the spectre of larger strike actions, and even gained the term general strike traction at the height of the Uprising across a grassroots segment of the movement. For example, both Dan La Botz and Frank Emspak describe the strike possibility in their chapters, but neither offers a good explanation for why the movement went in the direction of electoral politics, just that it did.
Lee Sustar comes closest in his article titled “Who Were the Leaders of the Wisconsin Uprising?” In it he tells who actively argued for a general strike (J. Eric Cobb, executive director of the Building Trades Council), who was friendly to the idea (Joe Conway, president of the Madison chapter of the firefighters’ union), and who was against it (the top leadership of AFSCME, WEAC, and the state AFL-CIO). If there is a take-home point in Sustar’s piece, it is that the big unions prioritized the preservation of their dues-collection apparatus over the defense of their membership’s standard of living. As we now know definitively, this is a losing strategy.
John Nichols’ resume reads like a long prologue to the role he played all through the Uprising, that of a Madison-based progressive journalist and commentator with national visibility. He has written books about media democracy, socialism in America, and a critical profile of Dick Cheney, and finds regular work as a Washington correspondent for The Nation magazine. As one of the most consistently present pundits delivering the Uprising to a TV audience (being a frequent guest on MSNBC’s The Ed Show and other cable news programs), as well as occasionally himself taking the microphone in front of protestors, it was almost a foregone conclusion that his Uprising would be the first book-length treatment of the subject by a single author.
Nichols opens with a foreword that spells out his claim to authenticity as a fifth-generation Wisconsinite, and points out that at one time in their respective careers, he and Scott Walker were actually on good terms. As a political reporter allowed the space to roam, Nichols brings in not only discussions of labor battles from the past but the more timeless questions of democracy itself. For example, in Chapter 2 “First Amendment Remedies,” he unpacks the problems of despotism and the faltering constitutional guards against tyranny exposed in the course of the Uprising. He interweaves into these expositions of political history brief profiles or testimonies of the ordinary Wisconsinites he discovered at the demonstrations. As the expert journalist, he always attaches a human being to the most abstract parts of the narrative and then name drops the heavy hitter (Michael Moore, Rev. Jesse Jackson, etc) to keep up the narrative of national attention.
My main objection to Nichols’ book is really that of Nichols’ politics. He is basically a social democrat, which colors his perception of certain events. For example, when he writes “It was hard not to feel hopeful on March 12, the day that 180,000 Wisconsinites welcomed home fourteen Democratic state senators who had fled the state to deny Governor Walker and his Republican legislative allies the quorum required to pass their anti-labor legislation,” I question whether he attended the same event that I did. Hopeful? I and almost everyone I know remember it feeling like a wake. It was three days after Walker and the Republicans rammed their bill through in a surprise procedural move, and the labor leadership did nothing at all, even though thousands who gathered at the capitol on the night of March 9 chanted “general strike!” at the top of their lungs. By Saturday’s demonstration, the predominant vibe was, the protest phase is over and the movement suffered a significant defeat. Nichols’ experience of that day might have been too heavily informed by the cheers he heard from his position near the stage.
To wrap up my comments on the four books, I honestly recommend reading them all for the fullest understanding of the Uprising. As with any genuine popular movement, all the perspectives and even the major storylines cannot be told in a single volume. Outside of the broad outlines and a handful of recurrent voices, there is surprisingly little overlap between the four.
In the next post I will cover a selection of pamphlets and zines.
Oh, and if you need another take on Wisconsin Uprising and It Started in Wisconsin see Allen Ruff's review here.