Why a Growing Movement of Young People Could Ignite a Workers' Revolution
Photo Credit: The New Press
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Copyright © 2012 by Michelle Chen. ‘What Labor Looks Like: From Wisconsin to Cairo, Youth Hold a Mirror to History of Workers' Struggles’ originally appeared in Labor Rising: The Past and Future of Working People in Americaedited by Daniel Katz and Richard A. Greenwald, published by The New Press. Reprinted here with permission.
Every revolution needs two essential ingredients: young people, who are willing to dream, and poor people, who have nothing to lose. Yet the social forces that make movements strong also incline them toward self-destruction. Hence, over the past few decades, uneasy intergenerational alliances have melted away as impatient young radicals bridle against the old guard of incumbent left movements. At the same time, when it comes to organizing, without patronizing, poor folks, activists continually struggle just to find the right language to talk about systemic poverty in a sanitized political arena that has largely been wrung dry of real class consciousness.
Today, of course, activists tend to speak eagerly about reaching out to “the youth,” or of overcoming cultural rifts between middle class professional organizers and the workers they seek to transform into the next vanguard. But the activism stemming from the recent economic crisis proves not only that the left could use some serious tactical upgrading and fresh blood, but also that movements cannot overturn entrenched social fault lines by sheer force of will. Like any embattled community that needs to rebuild, shepherding activism into the next generation requires that established organizers learn how to retire gracefully, that those moving onto the front lines learn how to temper urgency with patience—and that all sides recognize that there are things they don’t know.
In Wisconsin in February 2011, no one knew what would happen as they gathered at the state capitol. A few picket signs, a megaphone or two, maybe a well-orchestrated sit-in until getting politely marched off by cops. But soon, the optics defied just about everyone’s expectations. Middle-aged school teachers might have done a double take when they saw teenagers detour from their weekly mall trips to join the picket lines; sanitation workers who traveled to the statehouse with their union colleagues probably didn’t anticipate marching alongside young Hmong community activists. The biggest surprise about turnout was the very absence of a defining image: there was no single movement or ideological agenda, no figurehead at the helm of the crowd. The only message emanating from the masses during those days was simply “No.” No to a draconian piece of legislation that threatened a basic labor right that many workers had either forgotten or taken for granted, until it had been threatened with extinction.
So the slogan “This is what democracy looks like” had a ring of both pride and puzzlement: what could we divine about the “look” of democracy from this pastiche of contrasting faces, political orientations, and socioeconomic backgrounds? After a parliamentary trick allowed the antiunion measure to slip through the legislature, the movement faced a moment of compunction: was it really about killing the bill? Or protecting unions? Or was it about the fight for the soul of the labor movement, and the question of whether Wisconsin had inaugurated a nostalgic revival or narrative of rebirth.
Technically, the protests sought to preserve the collective bargaining rights of certain public sector unions. But many of the protesters may never have benefited from the collective-bargaining process, in large part because they were too poor, too new to the country, or above all too young to have been of a generation when unions were strong in America. They nonetheless intuitively grasped that collective bargaining represented the sovereignty of working people, principles that organized labor has historically embodied and championed.