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The Wisconsin Uprising Is a Bottom-Up Movement -- Should We Hope DC Leaders Don't Get in the Way?

Labor struggles can't be won with TV ads, mouse-clicks or press releases.

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Madison teachers, inspired by their high school students who had left class that day, decided Tuesday evening to go on a strike themselves on Wednesday. As news of the call of the Madison teachers' strike spread, members of the Teaching Assistants Association were inspired to occupy the capitol overnight, which helped escalate the intensity of the protests dramatically. On Wednesday, 30,000 people showed up at the capitol, far exceeding the wildest expectations of local labor leaders.

At this point on Wednesday when a critical mass of support had been grown by individual activists without much top-down organizing, the Wisconsin Education Association began to call on teachers' unions throughout the state to call in sick on Thursday and Friday. Dozens of protests began to appear in cities and towns throughout Wisconsin that had never in their history seen protest crowds of that size. Even the conservative bastion of Appleton, Wisconsin, hometown of Joseph McCarthy saw an unheard-of protest with over 2,000 people.

By Thursday, February 17, the day the vote was expected on the budget repair bill in the Wisconsin State Senate, crowds had grown to nearly 50,000 at the state capitol. State senators watched the crowds from their windows as they caucused that day and decided to flee the state. Many would later claim the senators were inspired to flee after seeing the massive outpouring of support on the lawn of the capitol. These protests were organic; they weren't orchestrated by the direction of some established leader, but they certainly inspired leaders.

Since the protests, many progressive leaders in Washington who were nearly invisible during the first two years of the Obama administration, have been attempting to take the spotlight, positioning themselves as representing the masses gallantly occupying the Wisconsin State Capitol. An article appeared in the Washington Post shortly after the protests, claiming, "the president's political machine worked in close coordination Thursday with state and national union officials to get thousands of protesters to gather in Madison." In the dozens of interviews I conducted in Wisconsin, I did not encounter a single person who said they showed up at the protests because of an email from Obama's Organizing for America or the Democratic National Committee.

The internet-driven advocacy group, Progressive Change Campaign Committee got attention this week from sources including The Atlantic,TalkingPointsMemo and AlterNet when they announced they were paying for thousands of dollars of robocalls in an effort to jumpstart the recall efforts of eight Republican Wisconsin State Senators. These articles did not mention that most people find automated robocalls annoying and intrusive. Nor did they note that actual activists in Wisconsin had already been blanketing voters with calls in these districts for two weeks gauging support for recall efforts.

Many DC-based groups have spoken on behalf of the Wisconsin events as though they had some real role in the events, using tactics that have little proven effectiveness: press releases, passive Internet-based point-and-click activism, and expensive TV ads and robocalls. But how serious are these groups? Would they push to go as far as needed to actually win the fight in Wisconsin? On the ground, you can hear workers and local activists calling for a general strike.

"The governor and the Republicans clearly intend to follow through on their assault," says Dave Poklinkoski, a forklift driver at a local utility company and president of IBEW Local 2304. "As history in America has shown, and most recently in Egypt has shown, it is when the working-class begins to strike and shut things down that the capitalists start thinking seriously about backing off."

Poklinkoski played a key role in getting the 45,000-member Southern Central Federation of Labor, the local chapter of the AFL-CIO for the Madison and Southern Central Wisconsin area, to vote last week to make preparations for a general strike. The motion passed the 97-member body nearly unanimously, with only one dissenting vote.

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