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Mike Elk

Mike Elk is a labor journalist and staff writer for In These Times

March 9th, 2011 8:16 PM

The Wisconsin Uprising Is a Bottom-Up Movement -- Should We Hope DC Leaders Don't Get in the Way?

Since the financial crisis and President Obama's election in the fall of 2008, there have been two major actions taken by working people that commanded the attention of America's financial elite -- the 2008 occupation of Republic Windows and Doors factory in Chicago and the current Wisconsin State Capitol occupation. Both events won enormous public support.

However, these types of events not only threatened economic elites that run our economy, but posed a challenge to established progressive leaders in Washington; how to incorporate them. The mass, spontaneous civil disobedience and direct action allowed workers to take matters into their own hands and upset the normal function of the insider relationships the progressive elite tend to rely upon.

As the president came into office in December 2008, United Electrical Workers at Republic Windows and Doors in Chicago shook the world when they occupied their factory after its closure was announced. For eight days and nights, the factory occupation held the attention of state, national and international media as unions around the world issued statements of solidarity. Even President-elect Obama -- then in downtown Chicago, just miles away from the factory -- announced his support for the workers. The workers were ultimately successful in winning their legally owed severance from Bank of America. As a result of the attention drawn to the struggle, the workers were able to find an owner to reopen and run the factory.

Despite the success in Chicago, there was no follow-up in terms of factory occupations by unions, plants employing thousands continued to close under Obama with little resistance. The progressive movement has so far not responded to the economic crisis in the way that the activists during the Great Depression did. They did not engage in the mass campaign of factory occupations and strikes that led to the New Deal nor did they engage in the campaigns of nonviolent civil disobedience that won civil rights for African Americans in the 1960s. And little effort was made to incorporate the success of Republic Windows and Doors.

"There were these big expensive conferences where people talked about how to build a progressive movement, but never was I or anybody from our union invited to talk about how we could replicate the tension with the banks that led to victory at Republic Windows and Doors," said veteran UE political action director Chris Townsend. "Instead, the progressive movement just went back to relying on the same overpaid media consultants, playbook and insider relationships that had resulted in their betrayal during the Clinton administration and the Carter administration before that."

And talk of nonviolent direct action was virtually non-existent until events forced state public workers to rise up in Wisconsin. It seemed as if Gov. Scott Walker was on his way to crushing public sector unions in Wisconsin -- and then something unexpected happened. Protesters occupied the Wisconsin State Capitol; inspiring 14 Democratic senators to flee and effectively shut down the Wisconsin State Legislature. The current Wisconsin State Capitol occupation has shaken elite throughout the country, created a political stalemate in Wisconsin, and forced governors in states like Indiana, Michigan, Florida and Iowa to back down from assaulting workers' rights.

Through dozens of interviews I conducted on the ground in Wisconsin with people involved in the protests at all level, it became abundantly clear to me the protests in the early stages were not driven by top-down organizations or even the leadership of the Wisconsin-based labor organizations, but by the activists and workers themselves. While the leadership of these organizations played somewhat of a role in promoting the protests, the size and intensity of the protests was not something their leaders had the capacity to organize.

"When Governor Walker announced his budget repair bill the Friday before, we met and thought it would be difficult for us to get 5,000 people for a rally the following Tuesday," says Dave Poklinkoski, president of IBEW Local 2304 and a prominent member of the 45,000-member Madison-based Wisconsin South Central Federation of labor. "When nearly 20,000 people showed up I was amazed. People saw what was happening and just simply showed up in solidarity."

One of the major sparks for these actions occurred at little high school in a conservative suburb of Madison known as Stoughton. On Monday, February 14, about 100 students at Stoughton High School decided to walk out of classes in a sign of solidarity with their teacher. While this high school walkout occurred, thousands of college students were spontaneously walking out of classes at the University of Wisconsin-Madison to attend rallies at the capitol and in front of Gov. Scott Walker's house. These two actions inspired high school students the following day to walk out of high schools throughout Madison in the thousands and attend a rally with 20,000 people, mainly students, at the Wisconsin State Capitol.

Madison teachers, inspired by their high school students who had left class that day, decided Tuesday evening to go on a strike themselves on Wednesday. As news of the call of the Madison teachers' strike spread, members of the Teaching Assistants Association were inspired to occupy the capitol overnight, which helped escalate the intensity of the protests dramatically. On Wednesday, 30,000 people showed up at the capitol, far exceeding the wildest expectations of local labor leaders.

At this point on Wednesday when a critical mass of support had been grown by individual activists without much top-down organizing, the Wisconsin Education Association began to call on teachers' unions throughout the state to call in sick on Thursday and Friday. Dozens of protests began to appear in cities and towns throughout Wisconsin that had never in their history seen protest crowds of that size. Even the conservative bastion of Appleton, Wisconsin, hometown of Joseph McCarthy saw an unheard-of protest with over 2,000 people.

By Thursday, February 17, the day the vote was expected on the budget repair bill in the Wisconsin State Senate, crowds had grown to nearly 50,000 at the state capitol. State senators watched the crowds from their windows as they caucused that day and decided to flee the state. Many would later claim the senators were inspired to flee after seeing the massive outpouring of support on the lawn of the capitol. These protests were organic; they weren't orchestrated by the direction of some established leader, but they certainly inspired leaders.

Since the protests, many progressive leaders in Washington who were nearly invisible during the first two years of the Obama administration, have been attempting to take the spotlight, positioning themselves as representing the masses gallantly occupying the Wisconsin State Capitol. An article appeared in the Washington Post shortly after the protests, claiming, "the president's political machine worked in close coordination Thursday with state and national union officials to get thousands of protesters to gather in Madison." In the dozens of interviews I conducted in Wisconsin, I did not encounter a single person who said they showed up at the protests because of an email from Obama's Organizing for America or the Democratic National Committee.

The internet-driven advocacy group, Progressive Change Campaign Committee got attention this week from sources including The Atlantic, TalkingPointsMemo and AlterNet when they announced they were paying for thousands of dollars of robocalls in an effort to jumpstart the recall efforts of eight Republican Wisconsin State Senators. These articles did not mention that most people find automated robocalls annoying and intrusive. Nor did they note that actual activists in Wisconsin had already been blanketing voters with calls in these districts for two weeks gauging support for recall efforts.

Many DC-based groups have spoken on behalf of the Wisconsin events as though they had some real role in the events, using tactics that have little proven effectiveness: press releases, passive Internet-based point-and-click activism, and expensive TV ads and robocalls. But how serious are these groups? Would they push to go as far as needed to actually win the fight in Wisconsin? On the ground, you can hear workers and local activists calling for a general strike.

"The governor and the Republicans clearly intend to follow through on their assault," says Dave Poklinkoski, a forklift driver at a local utility company and president of IBEW Local 2304. "As history in America has shown, and most recently in Egypt has shown, it is when the working-class begins to strike and shut things down that the capitalists start thinking seriously about backing off."

Poklinkoski played a key role in getting the 45,000-member Southern Central Federation of Labor, the local chapter of the AFL-CIO for the Madison and Southern Central Wisconsin area, to vote last week to make preparations for a general strike. The motion passed the 97-member body nearly unanimously, with only one dissenting vote.

One person who worries about the role of DC-based organizations hampering the spreading of mass direction action is Stephen Lerner. One of the labor movement's brightest stars, Lerner led SEIU's famous Justice for Janitors and Wall Street/Bank Campaign.

"Labor, civil rights, and other groups that are involved in building a progressive majority and infrastructure are important to the movement but can't lead or control such a campaign. They are essential to funding, to creating capacity, credibility and scale," says Lerner.

"But the reality is that there is just enough political access, financial assets and institutional interests to hinder and ultimately strangle a campaign, whose strategy must be built around tactics designed to create the level of disruption and uncertainty needed to force fundamental changes in how the economy is organized," says Lerner. "That's why the campaign needs to be independent, and not controlled by institutions with too much to lose."

The progressive movement is at a turning point. Will we embrace the same passive messaging and point-and-click activism tactics that led to progressive defeat in the last two years? Or will progressives adopt the tactics of civil disobedience and direct action used during the 1930s and 1960s that lead to massive progressive gains?

Under the Taft-Hartley Act, a general strike in support of other workers is illegal; the key word of their resolution was the calls for the federation not individual unions to "begin educating affiliates and members on the organization and function of a general strike."

Many private sector unions would not formally endorse the idea of a general strike out of fear of being of sued by their employer, but workers without formal endorsement of their unions could engage in wildcat strikes by simply deciding to walk out individually.

"If the unions do not make a formal call for a general strike, it probably avoids a Taft-Hartley issue," says Don Taylor, an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin School of Workers.

In order to create conditions in which workers might walk out of work on a type of general strike, there has to be a great deal of discussion in the progressive and labor movement by organizations encouraging them to do that. If most of these online-based DC advocacy organizations wanted to show true solidarity with the protesters in Wisconsin, they would send out emails to their millions of members educating them about the possibility of a general strike in order to save collective bargaining in Wisconsin. Unlike unions, these organizations could legally do this under Taft-Hartley since they are not trade unions.

If the large progressive advocacy organizations were willing to educate workers and activists about how to organize a general strike, it could spur on a dramatic people-powered political act not seen since the 1930s. Does Wisconsin represent the birth of a new, powerful progressive movement or is it simply the last violent, desperate gasps of air of a dying movement?

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