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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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One person who worries about the role of DC-based organizations hampering the spreading of mass direction action is Stephen Lerner. One of the labor movement's brightest stars, Lerner led SEIU's famous Justice for Janitors and Wall Street/Bank Campaign.

"Labor, civil rights, and other groups that are involved in building a progressive majority and infrastructure are important to the movement but can't lead or control such a campaign. They are essential to funding, to creating capacity, credibility and scale," says Lerner.

"But the reality is that there is just enough political access, financial assets and institutional interests to hinder and ultimately strangle a campaign, whose strategy must be built around tactics designed to create the level of disruption and uncertainty needed to force fundamental changes in how the economy is organized," says Lerner. "That's why the campaign needs to be independent, and not controlled by institutions with too much to lose."

The progressive movement is at a turning point. Will we embrace the same passive messaging and point-and-click activism tactics that led to progressive defeat in the last two years? Or will progressives adopt the tactics of civil disobedience and direct action used during the 1930s and 1960s that lead to massive progressive gains?

Under the Taft-Hartley Act, a general strike in support of other workers is illegal; the key word of their resolution was the calls for the federation not individual unions to "begin educating affiliates and members on the organization and function of a general strike."

Many private sector unions would not formally endorse the idea of a general strike out of fear of being of sued by their employer, but workers without formal endorsement of their unions could engage in wildcat strikes by simply deciding to walk out individually.

"If the unions do not make a formal call for a general strike, it probably avoids a Taft-Hartley issue," says Don Taylor, an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin School of Workers.

In order to create conditions in which workers might walk out of work on a type of general strike, there has to be a great deal of discussion in the progressive and labor movement by organizations encouraging them to do that. If most of these online-based DC advocacy organizations wanted to show true solidarity with the protesters in Wisconsin, they would send out emails to their millions of members educating them about the possibility of a general strike in order to save collective bargaining in Wisconsin. Unlike unions, these organizations could legally do this under Taft-Hartley since they are not trade unions.

If the large progressive advocacy organizations were willing to educate workers and activists about how to organize a general strike, it could spur on a dramatic people-powered political act not seen since the 1930s. Does Wisconsin represent the birth of a new, powerful progressive movement or is it simply the last violent, desperate gasps of air of a dying movement?

Mike Elk is a labor journalist and third-generation union organizer based in Washington, D.C. He writes frequently for In These Times, AlterNet, and the American Prospect. You can follow him on Twitter at @MikeElk.

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