America's Winter of Discontent: A Review of the New Anthology 'We Are Wisconsin'

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.

Just months after millions of taxpayer dollars bailed out the banking industry, corporate executives wrote themselves enormous bonus checks, and the bailout benefits didn’t trickle down to the ordinary people who foot the bill for Wall Street’s reckless mistakes. Americans understand that money to support education, health care, mass transit, and public safety does exist, but that it is locked away in the pockets of the millionaires and big businesses that are able to find loopholes to avoid paying taxes. (According to the National Nurses United, revenues from corporate taxes have declined $2.5 billion in the last year, and in Wisconsin, two-thirds of corporations pay no taxes at all.) So, when Governor Walker introduced Special Session Senate Bill 11 on February 11, 2011, the people’s threshold had been reached.

It wasn’t just that the bill sought to eliminate collective bargaining rights for most of Wisconsin’s public sector unions, which would take away workers’ ability to negotiate sick leave, workplace conditions, grievance procedures, and benefits. Or that employers would gain the ability to fire workers without cause. Or that employees would have to pay a higher rate into their pensions and health care costs. It wasn’t only that police and firefighters were excluded from the bill in an (unsuccessful) attempt to divide and conquer or that the line Walker fed the public about the bill being necessary to balance the state budget had a precedent set two years prior of balancing a deficit that was double the current debt without such union-busting measures. Much of the anger came from Walker refusing to speak to anyone who didn’t represent his blatant corporate agenda and his dogmatic expression that there was no room for negotiation. This elected official effectively told the people that their voices mattered so little to him that he refused to even listen. Thwarting this central tenant of democracy was his fatal mistake, and the repercussion was enough to spark a collective sense of outrage that lit the rest of the kindling aflame.

It certainly didn’t hurt that the very same day Governor Walker introduced his bill, President Hosni Mubarak was deposed in Egypt, further motivating Wisconsinites to stand up to their own brand of political tyrant. Echoes of that global connectivity are present throughout We Are Wisconsin, from references to austerity cuts in Greece to riots in London to the martyrdom of Neda Agha-Soltan in Iran, but no connection was felt as deeply as the one to the Egyptian youth who reclaimed Tahrir Square and ousted a corrupt dictator. Signs reading “March like an Egyptian” and “Walker is the Mubarak of the Midwest” littered the Madison protests, and Wisconsin was overjoyed when Muhammad Saladin Nusair returned the favor by carrying a sign in Cairo that read: “Egypt Supports Wisconsin Workers: One World, One Pain.” Although some of the book’s contributors argue that the connection between the two movements has been blown out of proportion in an act of self-aggrandizement on the part of Wisconsinites, the effect of Egypt on Madison is undeniable. The scale and stakes of the two protests were distinct, but the admiration each felt for the other was profound.

We Are Wisconsin provides an accessible entry point into national conversations about the state of the U.S. economy, the need for organized labor, and the dangers of weakening unions. The protests in Madison breathed new life into the progressive Left, and this book is a testament to the resounding desire to rebuild a movement for worker’s rights. It demonstrates the falsehood in the notion of American apathy and gives guidance on how to harness the optimistic energies of newly politicized youth who are using new and old tactics to leave their own unique mark on history. We Are Wisconsin isn’t the sort of book you read cover-to-cover in one sitting. Pick it up when you have five minutes to spare. Take it with you to pass the time on the subway. Use it to consider the things you weren’t taught in school, like if 50 years of established labor law can be dismantled overnight then perhaps it’s time to ask if there’s something wrong with the system.

Erica Sagrans and I visited Madison, Wisconsin on separate occasions a few months after the protests had ended. We both felt the ghosts of the uprising in the ubiquity of solidarity posters that still hang in shop windows and the handful of people who still protest on capitol grounds. The question We Are Wisconsin raises is, what will come next, now that the hornet’s nest has been disturbed? Will this moment pass like it did with Seattle or will America seize the opportunity to move the country in a new direction?

The answer is in all of our hands because, in the words of Daniel Schultz, “Tomorrow is the greatest threat there is to an unjust today.” We Are Wisconsin implores us all to pick up where the protestors in Madison left off.


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