Journalist John Nichols covers the battle over workers’ rights in Wisconsin from an insider’s prospective. And I’m not talking DC insider. I’m talking about a Wisconsin insider. Long before he became the Washington correspondent for The Nation magazine and a regular commentator on MSNBC, John was born and raised in Kenosha, WI; a 5th-generation Wisconsinite and a member of two unions, the National Writers Union/UAW and the Newspaper Guild. So when he was reporting on the fight for union rights in Madison, he wasn’t just covering it. He was living it. He has arguably provided the most extensive, insightful and engaging chronicle of what happened in Wisconsin – and it’s quite different from the story we all saw on the news.
And then he wrote a book about it. “Uprising: How Wisconsin Renewed the Politics of Protest, from Madison to Wall Street” details the Wisconsin battle, recounting the many unique, complex and often-overlooked champions of the movement – like the Street Dogs, a progressive rock band who held a concert in the basement of the convention center and got thousands of college students and young people chanting “Up the Union!” And the dairy farmer who coordinated the dramatic “tractorcade” caravan to Madison. And the hip young woman with a sassy haircut, who wore her late grandfather’s union work badge on her jacket and went to protest in his honor.
But “Uprising” isn’t just the story of Wisconsin. It’s the story of an ever-growing and changing movement, primarily dominated by young people, which blossomed during the Arab Spring and carried over to Wisconsin and Ohio and other states, and then to Occupy Wall Street – and now to California in our battle defeat Prop 32.
That’s why John came to California this week– to talk about his book and the lessons we as union activists can take away from Wisconsin in our ongoing and unified fight to take power back from the powerful and privileged few, and return it to the people where it belongs – just as our nation’s founders intended, a point he also details in his book (suffice it to say I couldn’t put it down).
I caught up with John after an informal talk he gave to a group of union activists, leaders and staff at the IFPTE local 21 office in San Francisco. Of course, our conversation quickly turned to Prop 32. I wasted no time asking him what lessons we could take away from the movement as it has evolved from Wisconsin to Wall Street, and he told me we need to stop looking at Prop 32 as a singular campaign, and we have to recognize this is part of a coordinated, long-term attack on us, our movement and our way of life. And the answer doesn’t just lie at the ballot box. It lies within all of us and our collective power.
The essential thing is to build a movement. It’s vital to remember the other side isn’t just going away. They’re not going to be satisfied to be beaten in November; they’re coming back to try again. As we know, Prop 32 is 3rd effort in California to try and pass a law like this. So it would be absurd to think that beating them this time would stop them. What becomes vital is to build an informed and engaged movement, a movement that is strong enough so that they finally realize, ‘this just isn’t gonna work.’ And that’s what actually changes the politics.
So how does that happen? John says it’s about motivating people to get off the couch and into the streets. In Wisconsin, the crowds grew from 50, to 1,000, to 5,000 and 10,000 the 50,000 and 100,000 and even more in just a matter of days. As the images of the massive crowds in Madison flooded TV screens and Facebook feeds, more and more Wisconsinites left their homes to occupy their capitol in the freezing cold and snow.
It’s easier to say than to do, getting people physically out of their houses. It’s not going to happen with an email petition. Not to suggest I don’t believe in them, they’re great. But when you really get committed is when you leave home come out and join in. I hope the effort to stop Prop 32 includes a lot of mass rallies. Bring tens of thousands of people out in cities and towns. Have a rally day. Have them all over the state. Some communities will be bigger, and some will be smaller, but they are all a very big deal.
On the last major day of demonstrations in Wisconsin on March 12th, 180,000 people came to surround the Capitol — but proportionally, that was not largest crowd in relation to the size of the community. In Washburn, and small town of just 2,000, more than 3,000 people came out [to rally]. While Madison was exciting, the Washburn rally was more important, because that’s where you really have movement building. When you’re doing things where people live, that’s where it takes hold… It’s important not just to do a structured campaign, but also to give people a chance to celebrate and have joy of gathering with one another.
John believes that the secret to defeating Prop 32 lies in our own communities, but as someone who has been closely following the spread of overt and covert attacks on workers, he also sees how Prop 32 impacts the entire country.
California leads country in innovation; the first state that does so many things… If California passes Prop 32, it would sweep across the nation as a model that would be used in traditionally progressive states — not in places like Mississippi or South Carolina where they already have weak unions. But I can see the 32 model going to states like Massachusetts, Maine, New York, Maryland. Imagine what national politics looks like if that happens. This structural shift is very significant. In my mind, it’s the most important structural fight going on in the country. If it wins here and expands, we’ll end up in a situation where unions will no long be able to defend the commons, the public sphere. We become a very different country. Rapidly.
Pick up a copy of John’s new book, “Uprising: How Wisconsin Renewed the Politics of Protest, from Madison to Wall Street” at your local community bookstore or online at Powell’s.