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

by Mike Elk

Mike Elk

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.”

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Lessons for Wisconsin From the Flint Sit-Down Strikes of 1936-37

by Mark Naison

A meal during the 1937 Flint sin-in strike

With the state legislature in Wisconsin occupied and surrounded by thousands of state workers and their supporters, and with schools closed throughout the state because of teachers calling in sick, I cannot help but think of the greatest strike and building occupation in the history of the American labor movement–the Flint Sit Down Strikes of 1936-37. Though the Wisconsin struggle is being led by government workers, and the Flint Strikes involved workers involved in automobile production, both movements took place during the worst economic crisis of their era and were fighting for the same goal–collective bargaining rights for working people through a union of their own choosing–and were much more about dignity and respect than about income.
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