How the Wisconsin Uprising Changed America and Why Its Renegade Politics Are Here to Stay
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Local politicians are responsive to you but they can also be you. That’s a big deal. One year on from the protests in Madison, is the primary election for local offices. This is county supervisor, school board, stuff like that. A number of people who were on the line in the protest are now running for office. This movement has generated dozens of candidates, many of whom will get elected. People who were on the floor of the capitol during its occupation, people who slept in the capitol, are now going to be city council members, school board members, county board members, state legislators.
I believe in electoral politics. But I don’t believe in electoral politics starting at the top and coming down. I believe in electoral politics that takes street level militants and activists and makes them elected officials and then begins to bubble them up.
SJ: The one thing that I remember talking about very early on, was that Wisconsin public schools teach labor history.
JN: Yes. And it is absolutely true that some of that is under assault. I think that’s, frankly, one of the reasons, why so much of the right is so passionate about getting rid of universal curriculums and going to charter schools or going to privatization. They don’t mind having a little labor friendly school, as long as most people aren’t taught that.
When you go back and look at videos of the protests, the most brilliant videographer of the protests, a guy named Matt Wisniewski....
SJ: Whose footage was used in the Chrysler Super Bowl commercial.
JN: But they took out the labor signs.
If you go back and look at Matt’s videos--even strong supporters of the Wisconsin struggle forget how young it was. You look at these videos and you see thousands of people and they are all high school and college students. And you’re thinking, well hold it, isn’t labor supposed to be older? No. It was very young. In fact, I would argue, it looked a little younger even than Occupy.
In Madison there were a hell of a lot of high school students and young college students, and they brought rock ‘n roll, they brought passion, they brought courage, but they also brought a purity of vision with regard to labor that the labor movement has not had for a long time.
Labor’s biggest problem for a long time has been that it has been uncomfortable standing up and saying that we are the alternative to corporate power and that we’re good, they’re bad. A lot of unions don’t even want to go to quite that bluntness. But the young people did. And when they did it, then you started to see these older union leaders, go “Wow, okay. I guess we’re popular.” And they started to pick the message up.
SJ: You talk about the labor movement as something people connect to on a personal level, but also as this force that is the only institutional counterweight to corporate power. Yet we’ve seen unions taking on this “partner” mentality when it comes to corporations, we've seen unions backing SOPA, backing Keystone XL and the T-Mobile and AT&T merger. Maybe if they had a better conception of themselves as that alternative to corporate power rather than relying on it....
JN: It has been a challenge for the labor movement, it’s been a pretty raw one. It’s not just those compromises, it’s foreign policy issues in the past. These things are in the history and they’re not pleasant ones.