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Wisconsin Uprising reviewed on Counterfire

Wisconsin Uprising

Wisconsin Uprising: Labor Fights Back

THURSDAY, 14 JUNE 2012 12:46


The magnificent energy of the 2011 Wisconsin labour protests is vividly captured in a collection of essays that also assesses the significance and lessons of the movement, argues Richard Allday.

Wisconsin Uprising: Labor Fights Back, ed. Michael D. Yates (Monthly Review Press 2012), 304pp.

In the late winter/early spring of 2011, the Reaganite Republican governor of Wisconsin proposed and then forced through a blatant union-busting, wage-cutting attack on the public sector workers and services of Wisconsin state.

Much to the amazement of all concerned, for or against, it sparked off a massive wave of opposition. This led to unlawful strike action, 100,000-strong demonstrations in the state capital (Madison), the occupation of the State Capitol building, the fleeing from the state of 14 state senators, and the public endorsement of the opposition from one of America’s iconic sports teams (the Green Bay Packers). Finally it led to the reinvigoration of confidence in oppositional movements in the United States that we are now witnessing in the emergence of movements such as Occupy Wall Street.

The scale, energy, and militancy of the opposition, despite its inability to force back the attacks, inspired countless thousands of activists, in the US and beyond, to maintain their belief that resistance is not only desirable, but is actually possible. This is even though it came from an unexpected source and in an unexpected way. This collection of 17 essays by 19 writers is a serious attempt by seasoned activists in the North American labour movement to come to grips with the phenomenon that swept Wisconsin in the late winter and spring of 2011. The writers clearly share a passionate commitment to building support for oppositional movements in the States, identify organised labour as an essential component of this project, and see active participation as a necessary part of their commitment. Beyond this, they bring a variety of experiences and political analyses to bear in their contributions.

In his forward, Robert McChesney writes, ‘the account of the[se] events in Madison … are the best I have seen in writing, with context, detail, and analysis I have seen nowhere else’ (p.11). I have little reason to disagree. The book is exhilarating and frustrating, though not in equal measure. Exhilarating because the enthusiasm exhibited in almost every case is catching. These are political and labour activists who, in most cases, have been swimming against the tide, ‘in the heart of the beast’ for the majority of their political lives. The explosion of anger and resistance in Madison clearly excited them as much as any Arab activist would have been excited by the events in Tahrir Square (to which many of the contributors make explicit reference, as did the protestors in Wisconsin).

This, indeed, is one of the causes of frustration. These comrades are faced with many of the specific problems that activists in Britain face. Like us, they face a vicious stepping-up of attacks on workers’ rights, with public services and public sector workers taking the initial onslaught as our rulers use the financial crisis as a useful cover for their attack on the social wage, in a conscious attempt to increase the rate of exploitation of labour….

Read the entire review on Counterfire

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