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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?

When more than 100,000 students, nurses, teachers, firefighters, social workers, farmers, police, and sanitation workers occupied the Wisconsin state capital last winter, I listened to reports on public radio with equal parts interest and confusion. I grew up in a small town in Georgia where labor unions are practically nonexistent. The majority of my working-class community viewed unions as breeding grounds for “lazy” employees who wanted to get more for doing less. Becoming a union member was an action that could lose you the respect of your friends.

Like many Americans, I struggled with a knowledge gap about the important contributions of unions while still recognizing the need for strong institutions that push back against corporate power and greed. My education on the history of the labor movement began when I moved to Atlanta for college. I learned about the impact unions had made in the United States and I started to draw connections between worker’s rights and issues like racial equality and gender justice. As the news of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s now notorious budget-repair bill to slash benefits and remove collective bargaining rights for public workers moved beyond the borders of the Midwestern state, I saw an opportunity for self-education. I watched with rapt attention as the Wisconsinites who made up the largest labor battle in my lifetime braved freezing temperatures and falling snow to take a stand for working people.

As I saw the Madison protest unfold from New York City, Erica Sagrans did the same from London, England. During her temporary stay abroad, she found dwindling passions for the Democratic Party reignited by the citizens and senators who joined forces on behalf of worker’s rights. In 2008, President Barack Obama’s hope-and-change rhetoric had brought an enthusiastic Sagrans into national Democratic politics, but her optimistic mood soured when the actions of our commander in chief reflected a toothless centrism. Her frustration with electoral process continued to grow as the Republicans regained control of Congress during the 2010 midterm elections and effectively blocked any chance of progressive legislation while the economy continued to decline.

In February, however, Wisconsin turned Sagrans’ pessimism around. With a desire to inspire others who had been similarly disillusioned, Sagrans compiled the articles, blog posts, speeches, and tweets that came out of those three weeks in Madison into a nearly 300-page archive of collective action titled  We Are Wisconsin: The Wisconsin Uprising in the Words of the Activists, Writers, and Everyday Wisconsinites Who Made It Happen (Tasora Books).

Told from the point of view of the people who were there, We Are Wisconsin captures an epic American story that includes large- and small-scale acts of citizen resistance and solidarity, national political intrigue, worldwide altruism in the form of continuous pizza delivery, a courageous decision to flee the state by 14 Democratic senators, a humiliating and damning prank phone call to Governor Walker, and a 16-day occupation of the state capitol building. The book brings together the disparate yet self-referential voices of first-time activists, experienced organizers, independent journalists, progressive academics, and many others whose voices weren’t well represented in mainstream media. It is an attempt to present an explicitly leftist version of the events in Wisconsin, the way things unfolded and concluded on the ground, and what impact the protest may have for the future of our country. While you can probably locate most of the content of the book on the Internet, Sagrans has mined the web for you and arranged the gems semi-chronologically in order to help the reader make sense of this episode of American history.

Labor writer Mike Elk, who covered the Madison happenings thanks to sponsorship from filmmaker Michael Moore, has several pieces in this anthology. The son of a union organizer, Elk calls Wisconsin “ground zero of the class war.” He and many other contributors to We Are Wisconsin examine the confluence of factors that led to a massive outpouring of support for the protest against Governor Walker’s budget-repair bill. Three years after the U.S. economy collapsed, millions of poor and middle-class Americans are still suffering from unemployment, home foreclosure, enormous amounts of debt, and increasing college tuition that puts higher education out of reach. They are a part of a generation whose opportunities are falling behind those of their parents at the same time as the country’s wealth floats to the top of the economic food chain.

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