How the Wisconsin Uprising Changed America and Why Its Renegade Politics Are Here to Stay

Published on AlterNet, by Sarah Jaffe, February 21, 2012.

… I believe in electoral politics. But I don’t believe in electoral politics starting at the top and coming down. I believe in electoral politics that takes street level militants and activists and makes them elected officials and then begins to bubble them up.

SJ: The one thing that I remember talking about very early on, was that Wisconsin public schools teach labor history.

  • JN: Yes. And it is absolutely true that some of that is under assault. I think that’s, frankly, one of the reasons, why so much of the right is so passionate about getting rid of universal curriculums and going to charter schools or going to privatization. They don’t mind having a little labor friendly school, as long as most people aren’t taught that.
  • When you go back and look at videos of the protests, the most brilliant videographer of the protests, a guy named Matt Wisniewski.

SJ: Whose footage was used in the Chrysler Super Bowl commercial.

  • JN: But they took out the labor signs.
  • If you go back and look at Matt’s videos–even strong supporters of the Wisconsin struggle forget how young it was. You look at these videos and you see thousands of people and they are all high school and college students. And you’re thinking, well hold it, isn’t labor supposed to be older? No. It was very young. In fact, I would argue, it looked a little younger even than Occupy.
  • In Madison there were a hell of a lot of high school students and young college students, and they brought rock ‘n roll, they brought passion, they brought courage, but they also brought a purity of vision with regard to labor that the labor movement has not had for a long time.
  • Labor’s biggest problem for a long time has been that it has been uncomfortable standing up and saying that we are the alternative to corporate power and that we’re good, they’re bad. A lot of unions don’t even want to go to quite that bluntness. But the young people did. And when they did it, then you started to see these older union leaders, go “Wow, okay. I guess we’re popular.” And they started to pick the message up.

SJ: You talk about the labor movement as something people connect to on a personal level, but also as this force that is the only institutional counterweight to corporate power. Yet we’ve seen unions taking on this “partner” mentality when it comes to corporations, we’ve seen unions backing SOPA, backing Keystone XL and the T-Mobile and AT&T merger. Maybe if they had a better conception of themselves as that alternative to corporate power rather than relying on it … //

… SJ: You write about the lack of labor beat coverage, the way the media got the story wrong in Wisconsin.

  • JN: The fact of the matter is that we do have a lot of bad media in this country, but the biggest problem is we don’t have enough people out there. We don’t have the labor beat anymore, and a paper the size of the New York Times, a paper the size of the Washington Post, an operation like CNN, you should have 10 people covering organized labor. This is a mass movement across this country.

SJ: There’s a class bias in media itself. You have to be able to take unpaid internships and go to a fancy school to get into a media job.

  • JN: You didn’t used to. When I was coming up as a kid if you were willing to go to some out-of-the-way town in Ohio or in Indiana and take a very low-paying job, you could be in media. You could get out of college and be reporting on city council meetings and labor strikes and all sorts of other things, very early on.
  • Now the problem is that those papers in Indiana, if they exist, have shed three-quarters of their reporters, and as a result, they don’t have those jobs anymore. So young people are forced to take these internships, they’re forced to try and fit into a media system that won’t even pay them minimal amounts.
  • It’s a nightmare. It is a dysfunctional situation for a democracy because we have vast areas which just get uncovered. And labor has been the most victimized of all of these. When you don’t cover it, you diminish it.
  • The wonderful thing about Wisconsin is that it was so identified with labor. And same with Ohio, and to some extent, Occupy. We haven’t won much but we have shifted a little bit of the discourse. We’ve forced media itself, by the power of literally putting hundreds of thousands of people in the street, to begin to cover a little bit of the story of labor.
  • Now we’ve got to pick that up and there’s two things that people have to do. Number one, we have to keep it in the streets. To simply steer into electoral politics is a disastrous move. You could do electoral, but don’t lose the street, because it’s the image, it’s the power, it’s the force.
  • Secondly, we have to recognize that people, during the Wisconsin fight, in Ohio, through Occupy, they’ve learned to do a lot of their own media, and this next media system that they’re developing is incredibly powerful. It blows apart the old debates between old media and new media.
  • So what we have is, we’ve got working journalists like yourself. You do a good story. Some working mom in Wisconsin sees Sarah Jaffe did a great story, okay, I’m going to put that on my Facebook and I’m going to like it. In fact, I like it so much I’m going to Twitter something about it. But I’m also going to get Matt Wisniewski’s video of the protests at the capitol, I’m going to put that on my page too. I went out myself and took some pictures. I’m going to put those up. Here’s my kid there. And wow, I just read this economic article that a friend of mine sent me. That’s really good too. So you start putting it all together on this Facebook page and then tweeting out saying, “Come look at this.” It’s like that Facebook page is a great newspaper.
  • That’s journalism. That’s news. That isn’t just organizing. If we begin to harness this, recognize that we still have to give resources to working journalists, we’ve got to have people go out and do the stories, but we also are going to have to give props and power to students, working moms. We have to make sure that people who go out and do this are celebrated for what they are.
  • They are the Tom Paines of our time, because Tom Paine was an unemployed, or under-employed journalist, who wrote a pamphlet, Common Sense, and he said on the back of it, I think these are really important ideas but I can’t go everywhere in America. If you like this pamphlet, the copyright is off. Copy it, print it up, give it out to the next person. That’s forwarding an e-mail. We were founded as a country by grassroots, independent journalists. We just didn’t have the same words.
  • If we get democracy in America–we’re a long way from it–it’s going to come because we have a small-d democratic communications feeding into a small-d democratic protest movement that is massive, that is unrelenting, unyielding, that is coming toward power without apology, and that, might just give us the country we want.

SJ: Let’s finish up with the Walker recall. What’s going on? …

(full long 6-pages interview text).

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