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How the Wisconsin Uprising Changed America and Why Its Renegade Politics Are Here to Stay

John Nichols talks about his new book, "Uprising: How Wisconsin Renewed the Politics of Protest, from Madison to Occupy Wall Street," and what happens next.

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However, there are two things now that I think are very, very positive. One, the labor movement has a younger leadership. It’s a leadership that recognizes those missteps.

And two, I think that there is something that comes from being under assault, a realization that the bad guys really want to get rid of you. They might partner with you on a particular issue, but at the end of the day, they’d like to see you gone. They would like to pass a ban on collective bargaining. They would like to pass a right-to-work law. This is happening across the country.

If we begin with that concept, it’s much easier to get unions to begin to see beyond themselves. And even if they feel that they have a responsibility to defend their workers in a unionized setting and thus take a stand that you or I might not like, that they acknowledge it as that. I’ve seen smart union leaders make some of those distinctions.

Here’s the thing that Wisconsin brought to this. The governor tried to divide labor. And the division was a classic one. It was the public sector unions that are non-safety -- that’s snowplow drivers, nurses, teachers, they’re going to lose their collective bargaining rights. They’re going to also take huge hits economically. Police and fire are not. This separation was done intentionally.

The amazing thing was, and maybe Governor Walker didn’t calculate this, that Madison Teachers Incorporated is in the same building as Firefighters Local 311. John Matthews, the 40-something-year head of Madison Teachers Inc., which is such a pivotal union in this struggle, and Joe Conway, Jr. the head of the firefighters, they would talk to each other each day. Within a matter of hours, Joe Conway said, “I’m not going to let them divide the house of labor, because if they get you this year they’ll come for us next year.”

There was a moment in Madison at one of the first big rallies, tens of thousands of people were out, and in the distance you heard bagpipes. I want to tell you, it was as good as any movie you have ever seen. The crowd began to part, and through the middle of it came uniformed firefighters with their bagpipes. They marched to the stage and one of their leaders, Mahlon Mitchell, stepped to the stage and he said, “Firefighters are taught that when there’s an emergency you don’t run away from it, you run to it. This is the emergency. They’re trying to burn down the house of labor, and we won’t let them do it.”

It’s that moment, that moment preached every lesson that needs to be learned about solidarity. It also preaches every lesson that needs to be learned about purity of commitment on the part of labor. People who had their protections saying, “We stand with those who do not.” It was so powerful.

This is a lesson not for the kids, not for the young people that have already come in: this is a lesson for labor leaders.

SJ: You have a wonderful section talking about a general strike: could it have worked?

JN: There was a general strike. It just wasn’t declared as such. As a young labor reporter I got to know Harry Bridges, I knew the folks who did the general strike of 1934 in San Francisco, which is widely referenced as the great American general strike. I know the physical layout of that strike, the neighborhoods that were in play. They weren’t bigger than what was going on in Madison. In classic general strikes you want to have a lot of workers out from different sectors, you want small businesses to be supporting them. You want the police to be kind of wavering, taking the side of the workers against the bosses.