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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.

Since the financial crisis and President Obama's election in the fall of 2008, there have been two major actions taken by working people that commanded the attention of America's financial elite -- the 2008 occupation of Republic Windows and Doors factory in Chicago and the current Wisconsin State Capitol occupation. Both events won enormous public support.

However, these types of events not only threatened economic elites that run our economy, but posed a challenge to established progressive leaders in Washington; how to incorporate them. The mass, spontaneous civil disobedience and direct action allowed workers to take matters into their own hands and upset the normal function of the insider relationships the progressive elite tend to rely upon.

As the president came into office in December 2008, United Electrical Workers at Republic Windows and Doors in Chicago shook the world when they occupied their factory after its closure was announced. For eight days and nights, the factory occupation held the attention of state, national and international media as unions around the world issued statements of solidarity. Even President-elect Obama -- then in downtown Chicago, just miles away from the factory -- announced his support for the workers. The workers were ultimately successful in winning their legally owed severance from Bank of America. As a result of the attention drawn to the struggle, the workers were able to find an owner to reopen and run the factory.

Despite the success in Chicago, there was no follow-up in terms of factory occupations by unions, plants employing thousands continued to close under Obama with little resistance. The progressive movement has so far not responded to the economic crisis in the way that the activists during the Great Depression did. They did not engage in the mass campaign of factory occupations and strikes that led to the New Deal nor did they engage in the campaigns of nonviolent civil disobedience that won civil rights for African Americans in the 1960s. And little effort was made to incorporate the success of Republic Windows and Doors.

"There were these big expensive conferences where people talked about how to build a progressive movement, but never was I or anybody from our union invited to talk about how we could replicate the tension with the banks that led to victory at Republic Windows and Doors," said veteran UE political action director Chris Townsend. "Instead, the progressive movement just went back to relying on the same overpaid media consultants, playbook and insider relationships that had resulted in their betrayal during the Clinton administration and the Carter administration before that."

And talk of nonviolent direct action was virtually non-existent until events forced state public workers to rise up in Wisconsin. It seemed as if Gov. Scott Walker was on his way to crushing public sector unions in Wisconsin -- and then something unexpected happened. Protesters occupied the Wisconsin State Capitol; inspiring 14 Democratic senators to flee and effectively shut down the Wisconsin State Legislature. The current Wisconsin State Capitol occupation has shaken elite throughout the country, created a political stalemate in Wisconsin, and forced governors in states like Indiana, Michigan, Florida and Iowa to back down from assaulting workers' rights.

Through dozens of interviews I conducted on the ground in Wisconsin with people involved in the protests at all level, it became abundantly clear to me the protests in the early stages were not driven by top-down organizations or even the leadership of the Wisconsin-based labor organizations, but by the activists and workers themselves. While the leadership of these organizations played somewhat of a role in promoting the protests, the size and intensity of the protests was not something their leaders had the capacity to organize.

"When Governor Walker announced his budget repair bill the Friday before, we met and thought it would be difficult for us to get 5,000 people for a rally the following Tuesday," says Dave Poklinkoski, president of IBEW Local 2304 and a prominent member of the 45,000-member Madison-based Wisconsin South Central Federation of labor. "When nearly 20,000 people showed up I was amazed. People saw what was happening and just simply showed up in solidarity."

One of the major sparks for these actions occurred at little high school in a conservative suburb of Madison known as Stoughton. On Monday, February 14, about 100 students at Stoughton High School decided to walk out of classes in a sign of solidarity with their teacher. While this high school walkout occurred, thousands of college students were spontaneously walking out of classes at the University of Wisconsin-Madison to attend rallies at the capitol and in front of Gov. Scott Walker's house. These two actions inspired high school students the following day to walk out of high schools throughout Madison in the thousands and attend a rally with 20,000 people, mainly students, at the Wisconsin State Capitol.

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