How the Wisconsin Uprising Changed America and Why Its Renegade Politics Are Here to Stay
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Well, look what happened in Madison. Hundreds of thousands of people surrounded the capitol, bringing the whole city, basically, to a halt. They occupied the capitol for 18 days. They slept in the capitol. They forced legislative leaders to make the choice of whether to stand on the side of economic power or on the side of the protesters, and many of them left the capitol to stand in alliance with the workers. The police force, when ordered to clear the capitol, didn’t. Small businesses were rushing food to the capitol. There were kids on bikes coming with pizzas.
You had moments there that mirrored a classic model of a general strike, and it wasn’t just in Madison. It spread: in Platteville, Wisconsin 1,500 people were out, in Juneau, a tiny county, 500 people were out. Students walked out of schools, the first student walkouts came before any teachers had walked out. In Stoughton, kids walked out that first Monday. So what I’m telling you is you had a lot of the models that you would want, but it was never declared.
What I argue is that there were key points, when to my view, the call should have been made. First off, to declare it a general strike, and to say we are either there or on the verge of it; and then secondly to say join us, let’s do it, let’s take this thing statewide, let’s see what we can do. I’ve sat with friends who are labor leaders, who said it wouldn’t have, we couldn’t have done it. I’ve sat with other people who say we absolutely could have. But I do believe that there was a point there, especially when you had 180,000 people at the capitol on March 12, I believe if the message had been, let’s not go to work on Monday, let’s not go to school, let’s not open our businesses, let’s show Governor Walker just how much we disapprove of what he’s done, I have a sense it might have worked.
You can find errors along the way. And yet, I don’t take it as a depressing thing. What I take it as is a very powerful lesson that when you hit critical mass, don’t stop.
SJ: You write about the lack of labor beat coverage, the way the media got the story wrong in Wisconsin.
JN: The fact of the matter is that we do have a lot of bad media in this country, but the biggest problem is we don’t have enough people out there. We don’t have the labor beat anymore, and a paper the size of the New York Times , a paper the size of the Washington Post , an operation like CNN, you should have 10 people covering organized labor. This is a mass movement across this country.
SJ: There's a class bias in media itself. You have to be able to take unpaid internships and go to a fancy school to get into a media job.
JN: You didn’t used to. When I was coming up as a kid if you were willing to go to some out-of-the-way town in Ohio or in Indiana and take a very low-paying job, you could be in media. You could get out of college and be reporting on city council meetings and labor strikes and all sorts of other things, very early on.
Now the problem is that those papers in Indiana, if they exist, have shed three-quarters of their reporters, and as a result, they don’t have those jobs anymore. So young people are forced to take these internships, they’re forced to try and fit into a media system that won’t even pay them minimal amounts.