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America's Winter of Discontent: A Review of the New Anthology 'We Are Wisconsin'

The question "We Are Wisconsin" raises is, what will come next, now that the hornet’s nest has been disturbed?

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Just months after millions of taxpayer dollars bailed out the banking industry, corporate executives wrote themselves enormous bonus checks, and the bailout benefits didn’t trickle down to the ordinary people who foot the bill for Wall Street’s reckless mistakes. Americans understand that money to support education, health care, mass transit, and public safety does exist, but that it is locked away in the pockets of the millionaires and big businesses that are able to find loopholes to avoid paying taxes. (According to the National Nurses United, revenues from corporate taxes have declined $2.5 billion in the last year, and in Wisconsin, two-thirds of corporations pay no taxes at all.) So, when Governor Walker introduced Special Session Senate Bill 11 on February 11, 2011, the people’s threshold had been reached.

It wasn’t just that the bill sought to eliminate collective bargaining rights for most of Wisconsin’s public sector unions, which would take away workers’ ability to negotiate sick leave, workplace conditions, grievance procedures, and benefits. Or that employers would gain the ability to fire workers without cause. Or that employees would have to pay a higher rate into their pensions and health care costs. It wasn’t only that police and firefighters were excluded from the bill in an (unsuccessful) attempt to divide and conquer or that the line Walker fed the public about the bill being necessary to balance the state budget had a precedent set two years prior of balancing a deficit that was double the current debt without such union-busting measures. Much of the anger came from Walker refusing to speak to anyone who didn’t represent his blatant corporate agenda and his dogmatic expression that there was no room for negotiation. This elected official effectively told the people that their voices mattered so little to him that he refused to even listen. Thwarting this central tenant of democracy was his fatal mistake, and the repercussion was enough to spark a collective sense of outrage that lit the rest of the kindling aflame.

It certainly didn’t hurt that the very same day Governor Walker introduced his bill, President Hosni Mubarak was deposed in Egypt, further motivating Wisconsinites to stand up to their own brand of political tyrant. Echoes of that global connectivity are present throughout We Are Wisconsin, from references to austerity cuts in Greece to riots in London to the martyrdom of Neda Agha-Soltan in Iran, but no connection was felt as deeply as the one to the Egyptian youth who reclaimed Tahrir Square and ousted a corrupt dictator. Signs reading “March like an Egyptian” and “Walker is the Mubarak of the Midwest” littered the Madison protests, and Wisconsin was overjoyed when Muhammad Saladin Nusair returned the favor by carrying a sign in Cairo that read: “Egypt Supports Wisconsin Workers: One World, One Pain.” Although some of the book’s contributors argue that the connection between the two movements has been blown out of proportion in an act of self-aggrandizement on the part of Wisconsinites, the effect of Egypt on Madison is undeniable. The scale and stakes of the two protests were distinct, but the admiration each felt for the other was profound.

We Are Wisconsin provides an accessible entry point into national conversations about the state of the U.S. economy, the need for organized labor, and the dangers of weakening unions. The protests in Madison breathed new life into the progressive Left, and this book is a testament to the resounding desire to rebuild a movement for worker’s rights. It demonstrates the falsehood in the notion of American apathy and gives guidance on how to harness the optimistic energies of newly politicized youth who are using new and old tactics to leave their own unique mark on history. We Are Wisconsin isn’t the sort of book you read cover-to-cover in one sitting. Pick it up when you have five minutes to spare. Take it with you to pass the time on the subway. Use it to consider the things you weren’t taught in school, like if 50 years of established labor law can be dismantled overnight then perhaps it’s time to ask if there’s something wrong with the system.

Erica Sagrans and I visited Madison, Wisconsin on separate occasions a few months after the protests had ended. We both felt the ghosts of the uprising in the ubiquity of solidarity posters that still hang in shop windows and the handful of people who still protest on capitol grounds. The question  We Are Wisconsin raises is, what will come next, now that the hornet’s nest has been disturbed? Will this moment pass like it did with Seattle or will America seize the opportunity to move the country in a new direction?

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