Wisconsin Uprising: Labor Fights Back
Wisconsin Uprising: Labor Fights Back
ed. Michael D. Yates
Monthly Review Press, 2011
Published within a year of the historic protests in Madison against Governor Scott Walker’s union-busting legislation, the essays collected in Wisconsin Uprising offer diverse, insightful perspectives on the events that took place in the winter and spring of 2011, as well as analyses of the protests’ implications for the labor movement. As a number of the contributors suggest, the Wisconsin protests were significant partly because of their grassroots, largely lateral organization, and the privileging of direct action over conciliatory union politics. While these strategies were echoed or taken up (this volume argues for the latter) by the Occupy Wall Street movement, the Wisconsin protests received much less media coverage and little recognition for organizing on such a large scale for a sustained period of time. Although Governor Scott Walker was able to push the bill through despite the protests, the popularity of the current campaign to recall Walker shows that the demonstrations were successful in raising awareness of public employees’ rights and in swaying voters’ opinions to the side of labor. Wisconsin Uprising helps readers understand the courageous actions of Wisconsin’s public employees and their allies by situating these actions within the immediate local and transnational political context and within the long history of US labor, while also urging us to regard the protests as a call to broad-based solidarity and political action.
Though most of the essays incorporate both documentation and analysis, the volume is divided into three parts, the first of which focuses primarily on the unfolding of the protests, the second on the uprising’s “lessons” and the third relates the Madison protests to other actions and developments within the US labor movement. In addition to the much-needed careful description of the protests, the essays in the first part also foreground and analyze aspects of the events that are unlikely to appear in journalistic accounts. In “Capitalist Crisis and the Wisconsin Uprising” Andrew Sernatinger suggests that Scott Walker’s austerity measures were a belated response to the 2008 financial crisis, and thus the protests themselves were directly related to the crisis. The three-year delay was an effect of the stimulus packaged, which only helped manage the crisis temporarily. Sernatinger, Lee Sustar and others also point to the weak roles labor- and Democratic party leaders played in the protests. Some of the largest demonstrations and most of the direct actions (such as the teachers’ “sickout”) were led by rank-and-file members, not union officials. A number of major union leaders also offered to make concessions, in the form of pay cuts, without consulting their members.
The bureaucratization of the unions and their failure to represent their members’ interests—and the interests of the working class as a whole—is one of the central topics of the second and third parts of the collection. In a concise enumeration of the “lessons” of the Wisconsin uprising, Jane Slaughter and Mark Brenner emphasize the importance of the strike as a “powerful weapon” of the working class, suggesting that workers should strike even without unions’ sanction. Along with other contributors they argue that unions must return to a “bottom-up” organization and educate members and the general public about the realities of the economic system. As Rand Wilson and Steve Early point out, alternative models of unionism become a necessity in “open shop” or “right to work” states, where unions cannot automatically deduct dues from employees’ paychecks.
The third part of the volume opens up the debate further, discussing the history and future of the US labour movement and analyzing notable recent actions outside Wisconsin. In an important essay on “The Roads Not Taken,” Elly Leary draws attentions to the costs of the political compromises the unions have made over the years. Though the essay is reprinted, with a brief preface, from a 2005 publication, it makes a valuable addition to the volume. Labour’s tacit assent to Cold War militarism and failure to combat racism weakened it both culturally and politically. Though in recent years unions began to take a stance against military spending and in support of immigrants’ rights, the unions need to do more to emphasize these political commitments. The labour movement must also increase its community engagement and place greater emphasis on education in order to regain popular support. As Fernando Gapasin suggests in his discussion of worker education programs in Bend, Oregon, a visible and consistent presence of labour activists can lead to a major shift in the public sentiment toward labour and increase workers’ commitment to unionism.
Given the central role of teachers—a predominantly women’s occupation—in the Wisconsin protests, the collection does seem to lack a sustained discussion of the US labour movements’ gender politics. The failure to unionize women workers in the first part of the 20th century was certainly one of the “roads not taken” by the labour movement, and one which weakened labour as the percentage of women in the workforce grew. Negative media representations of educators’ unions often imply that teachers are overcompensated for “women’s work” despite teachers’ low salaries, and such representations were ubiquitous during the debate about Walker’s bill. The prominence of the University of Wisconsin’s teaching assistants’ union, the TAA, also merits further analysis. Though the TAA is one of the oldest unions of its kinds, universities and the NLRB hindered graduate instructors’ unionization in recent years. More disturbingly, US labour law still denies domestic workers union rights. In order to create a more inclusive, grassroots labour movement, scholars and activists must pay close attention to issues that continue to divide working people, and make further efforts to pass federal legislation that allows workers in all occupations to organize.
Despite these omissions, however, Wisconsin Uprising is important both as a scholarly work and a document of courageous grassroots activism. The contributors foreground the many national and transnational networks in which the protests were embedded, thus pointing to the power and potential of broad-based solidarity.
Polina Kroik is a scholar and a writer, with interests in the intersections among labour, culture and gender. She recently guest-edited a special issue of Working USA: The Journal of Labor and Society on the topic of Contemporary Labour and Cultural Exchange. She holds a PhD in Comparative Literature and teaches at Lane Community College in Eugene, Oregon.