Wisconsin, at least from my vantage point, is very much ground zero for the fight against the 1%, against austerity, against attacks on working people, and against a social model that values only unbridled accumulation of wealth. Wisconsin has also been about building and rebuilding community, the value of labor and working families, bonds of affinity and solidarity. Make no bones about it, this moment in history will be remembered for an unprecedented uprising, first in Wisconsin and then on Wall Street. And all of us who call ourselves progressives will be remembered by what we do with this moment.
Before I go to sleep on the eve of the Wisconsin Recall election, I wanted to share a couple of thoughts about the aftermath of the Recall, win or lose.
Hope and Change? We Won’t Be Fooled Again
I don’t want to rehash Barack Obama’s victory in the 2008 election, other than to point to two issues that I think are important that we all keep front and center. First, Obama campaigned as a progressive; however, when he got in office he disappointed most progressives by his rather conservative approach to governance and his infuriating tendency to cave to Republican demands. Second, once Obama was elected, all that organizing energy seemed to disappear. It was almost like people said, “OK, we won the election, now things will change.” And yet, just a few months into Obama’s presidency, progressives were lamenting that Obama “sold out” progressives and Obama started publicly “disciplining” progressives.
What’s the point? The point is that we need to learn from this experience. First, we need to be clear that no politician – especially in this day and age – will do the right thing unless their feet are constantly held to the fire. “Faith” that the Democratic Party will do the work for us is misplaced. Today’s Democratic Party will only help progressive causes if we push them to do so. If the Recall of Walker is successful, it will be huge. But, it will be only the beginning. What we do the next day will be the measure of the character of our emerging movement. Wisconsin should teach us that it is the everyday, on-the-ground organizing that builds a movement. When the Occupation of the Wisconsin State Capitol building ended, union activists, students, community organizers, and every-day people got to work. They went door-to-door to gather signatures to officially recall Gov. Walker. Door-to-door work is not sexy, but it is the connective tissue of political movements. It is what holds communities of resistance together in between high-profile moments such as elections. When all the adrenaline has faded, we need to continue to build for the next battle. We need to be building now for battles five and ten years down the road. We need to attend to our activist infrastructure, invest in our own institutions, and continue to build our networks. The right-wing understood this and the crisis we face today – the widening gap between the richest 1% and the rest of us – is testament to how effective the right-wing has been in organizing for the long haul.
Labor’s Long Memory and Emerging Movements
I have been around long enough to notice a persistent tension within progressive movements. I’m going to be a little reductive, but bear with me. I want to focus on tensions between the labor movement and emerging political movements, be it the global justice movement in the late 1990′s or the Occupy Movement. Back in September and October of 2011, I had numerous conversations with activists connected to Occupy about their frustration with the fact that Labor was “slow” to come out in support of Occupy Wall Street, or Occupy Philly, or one of the many Occupations around the country. “Where the hell are they? We’re fighting for the same issues! Don’t they understand?,” was the kind of thing I would hear. My response would generally turn the tables. I would say, “Look, a lot of union activists are looking around saying ‘Where they hell were all you guys when we needed help? When we were lobbying legislatures to block new “free trade” agreements, or fighting for the Employee Free Choice Act, or walking the picket lines after our brothers and sisters were locked-out by their employers?’.” The fact is that Labor has been fighting on the ground every single day, regardless of how sexy the fight was.
The fact that Occupy and Labor joined forces so quickly, that the initial tension that I just referred to was pretty short-lived, is amazing. I dare say that the distinction between Occupy activists and Labor is barely a useful one any longer since the emerging political movements are now so intertwined. The question is, once again, what happens the next day. Whether the Wisconsin Recall vote is successful or not, what happens next. Again, the adrenaline will decrease and the day-to-day organizing will begin again. Progressives in Wisconsin are fortunate in that this is a presidential election year. Win or lose today’s vote, the next battle is within sight and no one will have time to settle in and relax. Exhausting? For sure. But there is a tremendous opportunity to refine and revise tactics on the ground, to strengthen organizational affiliations, and to deepen bounds of solidarity.
The fact that Wisconsin has helped jump-start the activist energy of the labor movement is a godsend. Labor knows how to organize better than any institution out there. Labor carries the historical memory of political and social struggle within its very fabric. From grandparents, to parents, to children, Labor has been there. And Labor is perhaps one of our last repositories of the practical knowledge for political organizing. There is a reason that the right-wing wants do destroy the labor movement. Once Labor is gone, our practical knowledge of political struggle becomes more endangered. Our very language of struggle risks fading from our vernacular. The Wisconsin Uprising is our opportunity to relearn tactics of political struggle in a vibrant community of struggle.
Labor also needs to take a lesson from Madison student activists and the Occupy Movement. Playing nice does not serve us. I don’t want to diminish the work of Labor officials who cut deals with legislators or who do the work of maintaining official institutions. Like going door-to-door, this work is the un-sexy day-to-day work that helps sustain the labor movement. But, as Andrea Egizi argued in “Occupy the Labor Movement,” Unions are institutions and institutions can get too comfortable. We, Labor, need to recall that our power comes from our activists, our militant organizers, our members who engage in direct action. Labor’s power is in an activist membership that is not afraid to stand up and fight back. Obama wrote about the “audacity of hope.” Labor must act audaciously. That is, Labor must invest in those willing to push the limits, to challenge unjust authority, and to do what Mario Savio implored us to do: to put our bodies on the gears, on the wheels, on the levers, on all the apparatus of the machine to make it stop and make it clear to those in power that “unless we’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all.” The energy of Occupy reminds us that much of the power of the 1% lies in our consent. Our consent serves to justify their power. Occupy has issued the call to withdraw our consent. It is this basic fact of democracy that Labor needs to nurture within our own ranks and among communities of resistance across the nation.
All Victories Are Temporary: Tomorrow We Fight Again
As all eyes are on Wisconsin today, we must remember that even if progressives win this fight and the Governor who issued the first shot in this 21st Century class-war is brought down, the victory will be glorious, but temporary. Tomorrow we must be prepared to lend our support, work, time, and money to the next struggle. And while the 2012 presidential election is fast approaching, there are struggles right down the road that are refusing to be run over by the wheels of the machine. Over the next few days, for example, Raging Chicken Press will be bringing you images and reporting from a little town in Lycoming County, PA that has begun a 24 hour occupation of the major highways in and out of the town in opposition to the Natural Gas Industry’s attempts to evict residents of the Riverdale Mobile Home Park so they can drill and frack the land. This is an uprising against corporate power in rural Pennsylvania. Raging Chicken Press contributor Wendy Lee is on the ground at the occupation and will be reporting from the scene.
In many ways, the defense of Riverdale calls upon us to look to Wisconsin as more than a symbol. The Wisconsin Uprising challenges us to defend the attacks against working families right in our own backyards. Wisconsin has shown us that the unthinkable is possible. It has shown us that alliances between farmers and inner-city workers is not only possible, but necessary for the survival of our democracy. Occupy has shown us that we need to go beyond official political channels to defend the commons. We have the makings of a progressive political movement that has the potential to change the political landscape. We must look use every opportunity to learn each aspect of this emerging progressive movement. We will have differences, sure. That’s what makes strong political movements sustainable and dynamic. We will have our moments in the media spotlight and our moments compiling mailing lists. Bring it all on.
We must also remember, however, that if the Wisconsin Recall is not successful, we should not despair. Yes, we will need time to lick our wounds – especially those Wisconsin activists who have been working day-in-day-out for the Recall of Gov. Walker for the past year and a half. If we measure our victories solely by the outcomes of elections, we’ve missed the point and we do an injustice to what has been accomplished. An election is one moment in time. Our victory will be measured by our willingness to build upon the tremendous work accomplished since February 2011. And this is where we can learn from the work of Labor activists. In 1990, during a company lock out of Steelworkers, Elaine Purkey wrote the song, “One Day More,” which captured the resolve of the workers. She sang, “Fight one day more, one day more / If the company holds out 20 years, we’ll hold out one day more.” That’s where we’re at. And, twenty years after Purkey’s song, Mike O’Brien and Kill the Autocrat, brought us an anthem for Wisconsin and beyond. Good luck today, Wisconsin! Tomorrow, we’re back in the fight, win or lose!
I leave you with Kill the Autocrat, “One Day Longer”:
Kevin Mahoney is the Founder and Editor Zero of Raging Chicken Press. He is the co-author with Rachel Riedner of Democracies to Come: Rhetorical Action, Neoliberalism, and Communities of Resistance.