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In 2011 Wisconsin governor Scott Walker curtailed collective bargaining rights of state public sector unions, ostensibly to address a state budget shortfall. Some of us involved in organizing against the legislation took to introducing ourselves to labor and left organizers from other states by saying, “I’m from Wisconsin—I’m from your future.” Wisconsin’s law lacerated the rights of nurses, teachers, water workers, though not cops or firefighters; we believed Wisconsin was meant to be an example. Sure enough, soon after Wisconsin’s Act 10 passed, other states followed suit. And when, in 2018, the Supreme Court ruled in Janus v. AFSCME that public sector employees could decline to pay union dues, what began as a Wisconsin problem finally became a national problem.
How do we build progressive movements within and beyond electoral campaigns? What happens when movement demands get subverted in favor of ‘electable’ sleepy liberals?
But the smoke rising from Wisconsin’s battleground did not just augur labor law’s weakening. It signaled a distressed democracy in other key areas. For example, elections. Some will recall that, following the passage of Act 10, most left organizing in Wisconsin turned to the singular goal of recalling Governor Walker. When the recall campaign failed—in the end only bolstering Walker’s support—it knocked the wind from our sails. Teachers fled the profession in droves, never to return, union membership plummeted, and centrist successes came to feel to many like the best that could be hoped for. Wisconsin’s myopic recall attempts now play on the national stage. The 2020 presidential election has morphed into a Democratic Party recall of Donald Trump, with a tepid centrist touted as the “most electable” and visions of progressive reform written off as childish and unrealistic.
Wisconsin has a dramatic way of dismantling democracy. This week, amidst a global pandemic, the state’s voters will go to the polls to weigh in on the presidential primary, a state supreme court justice race, a school funding referendum, and a prisoners’ rights bill, among other issues. Democratic governor Tony Evers lingered in his decision to postpone elections, but when he eventually ordered a last-minute delay, concerned citizens, voters’ rights advocates, and public health officials alike celebrated the decision. Their elation lasted about six hours, until the Supreme Court overruled the governor’s executive order. The elections will proceed, but dangerously. Insufficient poll workers will mean far fewer polling places. Milwaukee, a city with large number of black and brown residents that usually has 180 polling places, will open just 5 in-person polling places. Voters will have to choose between risking their health or foregoing their vote. Elections under duress erode an already-ashen democracy.
Amidst this chaos, questions Wisconsin asked but failed to answer in 2011 loom large: How do we build progressive movements within and beyond electoral campaigns? What happens when movement demands get subverted in favor of the “electability” of sleepy liberals? How do we build courageous, militant solidarity that expands beyond election cycles? How do we reimagine what is possible and—most importantly—realize the power to enact those possibilities?
Leftists in Wisconsin understood that the state’s labor evisceration a decade ago portended darkness for workers’ rights everywhere. But we didn’t realize that within the rubble of Wisconsin’s shattered democracy would be lessons useful for another future: how to keep a flame alight amidst a world-historical crisis. Maybe some of its lesson light a path forward today.
• • •
In times of terror, people will ask monsters to protect them.
Hours after Governor Walker proposed the Act 10 legislation, thousands of Wisconsinites poured into the Capitol building to protest. I was one of them. Born and raised in Wisconsin, my first winter of graduate school began by marching alongside my fellow graduate unionists and my elementary school teachers, my thesis advisor and my parents’ coworkers. Act 10 dismantled the foundation of liberal democratic society that many of us took for granted: the state works to buffer ordinary people from being smashed by the tides of “the market”; that we have some meager say over our working lives; that public education is a public treasure. Although, day to day, most people knew the scales were tipped against them, this bill brazenly moved the fulcrum.
For nearly two weeks, we protested. In the dead of winter, we marched around the Capitol building, carrying signs that read, “Scotty, if you can read this, thank a teacher,” and “Remember this when you hit a pothole.” We marched, we testified, we called in sick. We occupied. As long as people were registered to give public comment, the bill could not advance to the Republican-controlled Senate, where it was sure to be approved. Person by person, we signed up to speak. We would not leave the Capitol building until we had “killed the bill,” as the chants went—or it killed us. For two weeks, Wisconsin road workers, farmers, and retirees built a small society in the marble halls of state government. Mutual aid stations, knitting circles, and reading groups swirled into being like little constellations in a newly formed galaxy. One handwritten sign, leaned against an ornate pillar inside the Capitol, read, “What time is breakfast and where is the laundry room?” A sympathetic state representative took to removing her kitten heels each morning as she arrived in order to not disturb the child nap area that had taken over the corridor outside of her office. Lyric sheets of “Solidarity Forever” fluttered through halls like intermittent snow flurries. Boxes of pizza sent to us from supporters as far-flung as Egypt and California became our breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Thanks to the courage of activists within the Capitol and the solidarity that poured in from outside it—local marchers continually ringed the Capitol square, circling the block over and over, at nearly all hours of day and night—the uprising continued. We could not, would not leave.
The collective anger and instantaneous mobilization of the protests took the nation by surprise. The Capitol rotunda ringed in red-shirted humans (the Badger State’s color scheme conveniently evocative of revolution) became a protest icon. But when Act 10 passed, the Wisconsin Uprising became a cautionary tale, a story of labor’s defeat. Walker’s success in Wisconsin emboldened conservative movements nationwide. Copycat bills came forward in Ohio, Indiana, and beyond. The 2018 Janus Supreme Court ruling effectively made Wisconsin’s Act 10 the law of the land.
Immediately following the passage of Act 10, we felt bereft of strategy. The budget cuts Act 10 enabled would cause public schools to close down, people to suffer job losses, and families to lose health insurance, as the state dialed back public funding to historic lows. Private sector unions knew they were bargaining under their last breaths, only a matter of time until right to work laws would shackle their own powers. At the same time, bargaining rights for police remained intact and funding for state corrections grew. I stared at my hands during family dinners as my father, a state worker for thirty years, made plans to take a job at the local hardware store. Federal funding for his department, the state’s childhood lead-poisoning prevention program, had been cut. I lay awake at night wondering if the union-fought tuition remission and health insurance that made graduate school possible for me would be slashed, forcing my path in other directions. Fear and fatigue hollowed us all.
And yet, fear and fatigue are, in the coarsest sense, the basis of politics. They can reveal what needs are most important to us. Politics interpret and translate these private pulsations into a public program. Fear can clarify the deep yearnings of what people want and need; fatigue can prioritize them. Fear can summon courage. It can draw people previously disunited to stand together. But fear can also narrow politics. It can drive people apart. In times of terror, people will ask monsters to protect them. That winter in Wisconsin, fear narrowed the political horizon. On the right, Walker tapped into working people’s real sense of economic vulnerability by slashing protections for those who had them. Why should hard-working taxpayers, many struggling to get by in the sputtering post-2008 economy, pay for teachers’ three months of vacation time and health insurance, goaded the Walker administration. A scarcity known intimately by many cut open a jagged politics of resentment.
My father, a state worker for thirty years, announced plans to take a job at the hardware store. Funding for his department, the childhood lead-poisoning prevention program, had been cut.
Nearly overnight, the expansive politics of resistance that roused people by thousands to protest the bill disappeared. Democratic politicians and union leaders alike shifted the focus from protecting and expanding the welfare state to recalling the governor. So doing, liberal politicians not only shortened the time horizon of politics to the next election cycle and no further, they also winnowed its demands. They offered little explanations for the real problems faced by ordinary people—insufficient wages, expensive insurance, unaffordable education—beyond name-calling the Republican administration. Fear blustered behind the liberal refrain that the stakes were high, higher than ever before. There is no time to quibble, we were told, anybody is better than the despot. The anger and the creativity and solidarity of the uprising was nowhere to be found among the Democratic party leadership.
All the while, society’s infrastructure continued to fragment. Walker’s first budget issued massive cuts to social programs, Medicaid and Medicare, HIV/AIDS resource centers, community and mental health clinics, lead poisoning and exposure services, and rural dental care. Schools, especially schools in poor areas, lost funding. Meanwhile, the GOP expanded state aid for private school vouchers. They enacted major tax breaks for corporations, including an exclusion loophole for capital gains tax. As the welfare state waned, the carceral state, the state’s license to police and punish, waxed. Republican representatives proposed a bill that would require law enforcement officers to ask for proof of citizenship status for all minor civil violations; a parking ticket could result in deportation. Undocumented students lost eligibility for in-state tuition at public colleges or food assistance. Walker repealed early prison release and allocated $1 million in raises for state prosecutors.
Days after Act 10 passed, many union leaders said they would agree to the budget cuts if Walker would just restore collective bargaining rights. As the attacks on the public sector and public institutions of the state continued to grow, neither union officials nor the state Democratic Party leadership offered a program to coordinate a collective defense. Things will get better if we can just vote these guys out, liberal leaders continued to bleat.
The tendency in politics to reinterpret movement demands as narrow electoral strategies is not new. Polish revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg cursed it, Italian theorist Antonio Gramsci warned against it, British-Jamaican sociologist Stuart Hall decried it. “That bureaucratic conception of politics has nothing to do with the mobilization of a variety of popular forces,” Hall rebuked. “It doesn’t have any conception of how people become empowered by doing something: first of all about their immediate troubles; then, the power expands their political capacities and ambitions, so that they begin to think again about what it might be like to rule the world.” The project of politics, in Hall’s sense, is to help people reimagine the world they want to live in, to understand the power they have to bring it closer. For a few flickering moments in 2011, we had that. We saw a brave, strange new world in which ordinary people did not accept the forces weighing upon us. We stood up, ready to build something else. It was fleeting, and it didn’t go far enough. But it gave us a glimpse.
In our union of graduate employees, the Teaching Assistants’ Association (TAA), we weren’t ready to let it go. We debated what to do. Just how much power did we have? How high were the stakes? New to graduate school and the union, I watched in awe as a gang of older, female grad students negotiated these questions against the swaggering bravado of bros who had run the union for years. The Capitol occupation, it seemed, had warmed these gentlemen’s elbows and whet their appetites. In the aftermath of Act 10, they sought to align our scrappy little union with the state’s liberal political leadership’s recall mission, perhaps imagining future career opportunities for themselves to emerge in the process. Members of the Ladies Auxiliary, as the older group of female grad unionists called themselves, did not agree with this strategy. They contested not only the lack of democratic decision-making, but the narrowing of politics to electoral opportunism. The people in this room matter, they emphasized; how we talk to each other matters, they added, when the bros rolled their eyes. And so does articulating the vision of politics and society we want. It was not enough to be anti-Walker, we needed to articulate what we stood for. They were unapologetically beautiful, neither shy to wear nice clothes to meetings nor to show up in sweatshirts and jeans. When mansplainers (men who patronizingly overexplain information to women) or mack-tivists (men who hit on women in the course of mutual activism) attempted to derail them, they flicked them aside. These women kept their own notes during meetings, took charge of the union’s finances, crafted new rules of order, and built alliances with other labor federations. At the first Ladies Auxiliary meeting I was invited to, I sipped a gin gimlet and listened spellbound to every single word, rapt in equal measure by their brilliance and their confidence. I felt a new version of myself emerging.
I went to more and more union meetings. My then-boyfriend would sigh and hang up when I’d call to tell him not to wait for dinner, I’d be home late again. After the meetings, a group of us—the Ladies Auxiliary but also a dozen or so more, people of different genders, ages, races, academic departments—would flock to the dingy beerhall at the university’s student center that smelled of old beer and stale popcorn. We styled ourselves the Radical Caucus. We contested the union leadership’s choice to collapse the union’s politics down to recall. The union’s Political Education Committee, we quipped, had become the Political Endorsement Committee—and the candidates frankly weren’t good. Most had not even pledged to defend and reinstate the most basic and uncontroversial of workers’ rights, to collectively bargain. Must we endorse a block of cheese simply because it wasn’t Walker? We sought to restore our union’s power, not to procure crutches as we hobbled off a cliff.
• • •
Why do we go along with the conditions of our undoing?
Why do we go along with the conditions of our undoing? This question led Gramsci to articulate the mechanisms of hegemony. More verb than noun, Gramsci theorized, hegemony is the continuous arranging of the pieces of the world—the ideas, images, language, culture, politics, music, sexual norms, everything—in such a way that they affirm existing power relations. Not a static condition, hegemony is continually negotiated: to maintain dominance, the ruling class must compel its subjects to consent to its rules. Power has a hook and a latch. Dominance is less a pyramid, sustained by gravity, than a lean-to, in which the dominators and dominated depend on each other to maintain the planks of power, albeit on slanted ground. How could we pull out the planks?
Our radical caucus’s first strategy was to figure out what kind of electoral program we would consent to. We proposed a resolution to withhold endorsing any gubernatorial candidate unless they met a set of baseline criteria—principally a commitment to rescind Act 10 and reinstate governmental funding of public program to pre-Walker levels. We proposed that our union not consent to a political program that didn’t affirm our basic right, as a union, to exist. Although these seemed uncontroversial, they presented a major break from labor and the state Democratic Party’s strategy.
Really what we wanted was a more expansive politics of the possible. The despair of that winter broke into something bright. As spring trickled in, I lay awake at night—but this time rather than worrying for my future, I brimmed with excitement, pondering the best wording in the document we were drafting to alert members to our cause, the press release we needed to issue. We felt our power flickering, knew something was stronger because we were here. Years later, when I read Vivian Gornick’s account of the affective dimension of political life of communist party members, I found the words for that process: “You were, if you were there, in the presence of one of the most amazing of humanizing processes: that process whereby one emerges by merging.” We were coming into being.
It was intoxicating, collectively emerging. On the one hand it felt limitless, our political imagination expanding. On the other hand, I became acutely aware of the hard, compacted limits that bound our horizons. I tapped my feet impatiently during meetings when fellow unionists would opine about the need to defeat Walker by any means necessary, no matter the principles we would have to sacrifice to get there. I had uncovered, in Hall’s words, the river of fire, that boundary between reformism and a will to socialism:
When that gulf opens, the river of fire dissects people’s lives and they glimpse the possibility not of having the existing set of social relations improved a bit, but of beginning the long, dangerous, historical process of reconstructing society according to a different model, a different logic and principle that do not come ‘spontaneously.’ It does not drop like manna from the skies. It has to be made, constructed and struggled over.
It wasn’t that we thought we had the answers; it was that we were willing to struggle to find them. Tall with conviction, we believed things could be made other than what they were, that we had power to rearrange the forces, that new openings could be made. We went to work.
The meeting to vote on the resolution to adopt political criteria as the basis for electoral endorsements drew a crowd, one of the largest and most tense union meetings I had ever attended. Peopled crammed into the aisles, stood at the back of the room, people I had never seen at prior union meetings, or back-to-school happy hours or end-of-semester celebrations. People, it seemed, were not only desperate to do something, they were desperate to deliberate it. Finally, a union meeting that collectively assessed the balance of forces, sought to understand our power to engage and influence! Though our caucus’s resolution to adopt political criteria prior to endorsing politicians did not pass, neither did the actual endorsements of gubernatorial challengers to Walker. If a bold opening had not been made, neither had space been closed down.
Democratic politicians and union leaders shifted from protecting and expanding the welfare state to recalling the governor. So doing, they not only shortened the time horizon of politics, they also winnowed its demands.
The Radical Caucus took it as a win. Energized, we amped up our strategy. We ran more members for executive board positions and officers. We wanted to change the terms of the debate of our union. When two Radical Caucus members took over the copresidency and many more of us joined the executive board, we made critical decisions. We decided not to recertify our union. Act 10 imposed recertification requirements that meant annually each union must receive authorization votes from 51 percent of all members of the bargaining unit; not voting counted as a vote against the union. If the onerous task of recertifying was completed successfully, the union was only able to bargain over wages capped at inflation. Not benefits. Not working conditions. Not solidarity demands. Our union decided it was not worth our effort to gain such narrow opportunity. We thus became a union sans state recognition. Our task, we quickly realized, was to form a union recognizable first and foremost to ourselves. Under new leadership, we put organizing at the center of our work. Every small grievance, every new university policy became the terrain of struggle, a moment to assert the value of our labor and the importance of our education. We moved into a war of position.
In our more frustrated moments, when yet another member told us she just couldn’t afford the union dues, or few people seemed to care that the university was moving toward performance pay for custodial employees and tenured faculty alike, we called ourselves captains of the sinking ship. But in our sager moments, we knew there was good work to be done, even if it would not produce short-term victories. We reacquainted ourselves with the power our union had, absent bargaining: to build solidarity with others, to deepen our political understandings, to prioritize collective action. I stepped up to serve as a leader of our stewards council, then copresident. One executive board member silk screened a batch of T-shirts with an image of Sisyphus pushing a rock up a hill. We joined other social movement groups around town, marched with Black Lives Matter and immigrant rights groups. We led a series of organizing workshops titled, “Clear eyes. Full hearts. Can’t lose.” When the university administration unrolled yet another policy threatening graduate labor protections, we hyperlinked Taylor Swift’s “Shake It Off” in our email updates to members. When Walker signed Right to Work legislation into law in 2015, essentially extending Act 10 to the private sector, we crammed into the Capitol, our backpack-bearing and bespectacled members shoulder-to-shoulder with burly building trades workers. Minutes before the bill was passed, my fellow copresident and I—eyes bright, palms sweaty, jubilant and terrified all at once—started to chant, the packed rotunda joining in, I believe that we will win, I believe that we will win, I believe that we will win.
The truth was we wouldn’t win, not that round, at least. But we were after something else. If we measure unions’ successes exclusively in terms of the short-term outcomes wrought by their mobilizations—Did they get the goods? Did they defeat the politicians?—we dangerously narrow the scope and power of union activity. Workers’ collective power does not only come from these wins; it also comes from the spaces created and nurtured for future movements to take root, for future activists to form. This dimension of workers’ power is slower to build and more difficult to detect. But it is arguably the more vital project of a union: it relies on workers’ changing sense of what can become possible, the solidarities sown and sustained by each struggle to bring faraway aspirations into reach. Narrowly defined successes foreclose future possibilities as surely as a flopped mobilization can be used to cultivate new horizons. We may not always win, but we can fail better.
Leading this work felt noble, but it was also hard. We kept our spirits up day to day, but we were fighting uphill. By 2015, if we didn’t feel entirely defeated, the people around us did. And that became a force of its own. Faculty fled UW Madison in search of more secure jobs. A number of our most vital activists either dropped out of graduate school, reading the writing on the wall, or hunkered down, trying to professionally create a path out for themselves. In K–12 education, teacher turnover spiked and hasn’t stabilized since. Pessimism became a force we had to contend with. “What the emphasis on the ‘temporary’ character of obstacles to political class consciousness tended to obscure,” explains activist-scholar Mike Davis, “was precisely the cumulative impact of the series of historic defeats suffered by the American working class.” Each defeat infused a successive layer of despair and disempowerment in our ranks.
Workers’ power does not only come from wins; it also comes from the spaces created for future movements to take root. This dimension of workers’ power is slower to build and more difficult to detect.
This subjective sense of defeat was, of course, also objective. The right was growing in power. Walker’s electoral victories came into focus as, at least in part, the product of well-funded right-wing networks. The Koch brothers spent more than $5.6 million on Walker’s campaigns between 2010 and 2014, while right-wing philanthropies such as the Bradley Foundation funded advocacy and litigation to advance the agenda of free-market capitalism unfettered by workers’ protections. How could we win? The right had turned every space into a political contest, from professorships to school board elections. With a failed recall, and then a reelected Walker, we often felt powerless.
But were we actually powerless, or had we been disempowered? The difference is not a matter of degrees. Liberal “powerlessness,” labor theorist Jane McAlevey reminds us, belies a top-down theory of power, in which political and financial elites control the mechanisms of change, positioning the rest of us as dependents. But this configuration not only denies the agency of the oppressed; it also misapprehends the structure of hegemonic dominance. We had been clobbered, but we had not entirely lost our power. After all, the powers that be still needed us to work. Our task was to figure out where and how we were leaning into the structures of power, how we could walk away and let the planks topple behind us. But this task required an even more fundamental one: not just to figure out how to use our power, but to remember that we have it in the first place. Most of the time working people believe we don’t have power; now we had to remind ourselves that we did.
When it comes to making change, working people have two forms of collective power, to say no and to say yes. A no retracts our cooperation with power structures that simultaneously benefit and deprive us. A yes joins us to our vision of the world we want, expanding our political desires. In Wisconsin, we could not see the channels of our power clearly. While we turned to elections to register our collective refusal—“Anyone But Him”—we left unsung our visions of the world we wanted. We only fleetingly encountered our biggest assets: our numbers, and our power to withhold our labor and our cooperation.
Most people remember Wisconsin Uprising as the mobilization that tried and failed. But what doesn’t get taken seriously is what exactly we tried, or on what grounds we failed. The simplistic aim of defeating a nasty politician did not succeed. The program to push forward a broader analysis of solidarity and collective action had small flickers of success, in the TAA and elsewhere. But without a clear organizing program or support from union or Democratic Party leadership, the ability to transform these desire into a mass movement remained out of reach. Even the recently elected Democratic governor has shown no plans to overturn Act 10. And why should he, absent movements demanding it?
What we needed was a map. We needed to see the source of our strength, the coordinates of obstacles that threatened to diffuse our vision and thin our cohesion. We needed to know where to consolidate our momentum and where to keep our path on its own terrain. We needed a story of our power. Maybe we left one behind.
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