“Opportunities for Defiance”Embracing Guerilla History and Moving Beyond Scott Walker’s Wisconsin

by , , , , , , on August 16th, 2013

This long submission is an essay submitted originally to Labor: Working Class Studies of the Americas from graduate students at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee who are seeking to grapple with lessons and issues they took from battles in Wisconsin. Editor Leon Fink suggested that it was better suited to a dialog format of our blog and I agreed. We encourage readers to make their way through both the essay and the commentaries, one by Thomas Jessen Adams, a young scholar who is grappling with these issues himself, and one by Staughton Lynd, noted historian and activist. Then, please post your own comments about these issues. – Rosemary Feurer, Editor

In 1968, the call was “Below the asphalt of the highways is the beach.” In the Spring of 2011, several hundred thousand of my best friends went to Madison to push back on the most recent attempts of US elites to ruin what little stability our state government offered them. But I cannot believe that alone called them back, in growing numbers, day after day. When I went to Madison, I saw a glimpse of that beach beneath the structures of neoliberalism. The excitement that I felt, that I still feel, is for the collective struggle for a satisfying human life.

– Professor Joe Austin, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukeei


Beth Robinson

Beth Robinson
Beth Robinson received her PhD in History from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 2013 and is currently teaching at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi.
View all posts by Beth Robinson »

In February 2011, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker introduced Act 10, also known as the “Budget Repair Bill.” Threatening mass layoffs if the bill did not pass, Walker and his fellow Republicans used the budget deficit – which they themselves had helped to create one month earlier by providing new tax cuts and business incentives of more than $60 million – to propose the elimination of collective bargaining for public employees, increases in individual contributions to pensions and healthcare, and deep cuts to the state’s education and BadgerCare budgets.ii At the same time, officials in Ohio, Indiana, Tennessee, Maine, and Michigan introduced similar anti-worker legislation. Residents of each state engaged in protests, but none garnered national attention like the “Wisconsin Uprising,” in which tens of thousands of students, teachers, firefighters, nurses, and other public employees demonstrated outside the Capitol building while others, led by the University of Wisconsin-Madison Teaching Assistants’ Association (TAA), occupied the building itself. In a rare act of solidarity, all fourteen Democratic state senators fled to Illinois to deny the quorum necessary for a vote. Though temporary, this move allowed greater public scrutiny of Walker’s plans, which in turn led thousands more people to flood Madison with protest marches, acts of civil disobedience, and chants of “We are Wisconsin,” “Kill the Bill,” and “This is What Democracy Looks Like.” On some days, there were more than 100,000 demonstrators in and around the Capitol.iii

Studies of the Wisconsin crisis are many, and more are doubtless on the way in the next few years. Most germane to this article is Robert D. Johnston’s “The Madison Moment,” which appears in the Summer 2012 issue of the journal Labor. Rather than add his voice to the already loud chorus of those projecting meaning on the crisis or decrying the Democratic Party’s massive failings during the gubernatorial recall election, Johnston instead turns to self-reflection, analyzing and critiquing labor historians’ own contributions during those crucial months. This article is an attempt to continue in the spirit of Johnston’s call and reflect on our own experiences and shortcomings during those few months in 2011 and in the years since. By extension, we also seek to ask ourselves, and readers, how we will prepare for the next such crisis.iv

In their 1977 classic Poor People’s Movements, Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward argue that “institutional roles determine strategic opportunities for defiance.”v In other words, when people resist authority, they typically do so within the immediate, familiar surroundings of their every day lives. The Wisconsin crisis of 2011 impacted us in our institutional roles, which in turn shaped our reactions. In this paper, we discuss how we responded to Walker’s agenda, not just as historians or union members, but also as teachers, graduate students, state employees, and activists – how we learned to engage a life of what Staughton Lynd calls “guerilla history,” or history from below.vi

During the Wisconsin Uprising, we were doctoral students at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee (UWM). We all marched in Madison, strategized with our teaching assistants’ union in Milwaukee, and struggled to reconcile the events of the present with what we knew about the past. As scholars baffled by a neoliberal landscape in which teachers and other public employees were widely derided as “free loaders,” we quickly launched an investigative reading group. We also twice hosted the rotating Midwest Labor and Working-Class History (MLWCH) graduate conference, in hopes of bridging the gap between activism and scholarship that has long persisted within the “Ivory Tower.” As the teachers of students who went to Madison to protest, we also used our classrooms to connect their experiences to a longer history of activism in Milwaukee and beyond.

These were not separate identities and actions. We embraced and lived them all, even as we watched our collective bargaining rights dissolve. One of our professors, Joe Austin, describes the Uprising as a moment when “several hundred thousand of [his] best friends went to Madison to push back.” We were not alone in this crisis, and, like us, our best friends also experienced these events from a variety of angles and through a variety of identities. They, too, responded on many fronts.


Joseph Walzer

Because it so completely contradicted progressive Wisconsinites’ own understandings of their state’s history, the crisis of 2011 demanded introspection. At UW-Milwaukee, several graduate students and faculty members confronted their confusion about current events by forming an investigative reading group.

Scott Walker’s budget initiatives brought disparate groups together in demonstrations of solidarity and defiance in Madison, Milwaukee, and other cities throughout the state. The relative flexibility of graduate work allowed for significant participation by graduate students, who were affected by these measures as Teaching and Project Assistants (TAs and PAs), as students, as future public educators, and as scholars. Long bus rides to and from Madison and seemingly endless union committee meetings offered ample opportunities to ponder what was happening and to dissect the complexities of the conflict –within a circumstantially interdisciplinary framework. History graduate students worked hand-in-hand with those from English, Sociology, Philosophy, Mathematics, Biology, and Psychology, to name a few. As events unfolded, we asked questions critical to planning and shaping our collective response: What was the nature of the struggle in which we were engaged? Who, in addition to Walker, were we specifically struggling against? What forces were at work behind Walker’s legislation? Why weren’t all of the players readily visible or able to be directly targeted?

Many aspects of the recent and ongoing Wisconsin episode can be framed in terms of familiar power struggles between labor and capital, traditional forms of liberalism and conservatism, and the dynamics of urban and rural socio-economic and racial politics. However, our cohort of history graduate students at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee also recognized neoliberalism as the guiding ideological blueprint for Walker’s moves. Using strategies reminiscent of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, Walker’s administration instituted a regime of deregulation and dismantled public institutions while also using state power to enforce “flexible” labor practices and establish public-private partnerships. Viewed through this lens, Walker’s agenda was fairly straightforward. He declared Wisconsin “open for business,” and Act 10 was his welcome sign. Walker was undoubtedly the most visible actor in these political maneuvers. Less discernible was the complex web of power brokers working behind him to systematically disinvest in public infrastructures and channel public funds to private business interests. Public exposure of Walker’s association with the Koch brothers made the web only slightly clearer.

As Wisconsin’s Democratic Party funneled collective resistance and direct action efforts into an ultimately unsuccessful recall campaign, our group of history graduate students returned to our own scholarly work in hopes of understanding how our struggles and failures related to broader historical trends. Along with a few of our history professors, we launched a reading group devoted to making sense of neoliberalism as we were experiencing it. We quickly recognized the need to look outside of our discipline. Occupying the uncharted realm of “recent history,” most historical approaches to neoliberalism have been conducted in the field of intellectual history – focusing on the ideas of Friedrich Hayek, Milton Friedman, and Ayn Rand, and the ideological distinctions between classical liberalism and neoliberalism. We hoped, instead, to try to understand how these ideas were applied to the day-to-day politics of American capitalism – what geographer Neil Brenner calls “actually existing neoliberalism.”vii Put more simply, we sought to learn the various ways that these theories translated into individual and collective actions. In addition to historians, geographers, anthropologists, political scientists, and sociologists have all made important strides to this end, giving our venture, like our bus rides to Madison, a decidedly interdisciplinary approach.viii

David Harvey, through his Brief History of Neoliberalism, and his revival of Henri Lefebvre’s “The Right to the City,” served as an important starting point for our endeavor. Harvey argues that the upper classes of advanced capitalist countries, faced with the crises of stagnating capital accumulation and the deepening regulatory functions and expanding rights regime of the Keynesian state in the 1970s, embarked on neoliberal projects to restore, secure, and bolster their power and wealth.ix While Harvey identifies the Keynesian-neoliberal break as occurring slowly and unevenly through the 1970s and 1980s, he also builds on Marx’s understanding of “primitive accumulation” – the “original sin” of capitalism – to position these neoliberal trends within the broader context of accumulation by dispossession necessary for capitalism to continually reproduce itself over time.x Moreover, noting that cities are both necessary and problematic for the elite, Harvey explains that the capital accumulation that has historically shaped and reshaped urban spaces has turned to the physical and symbolic enclosure of urban spaces and debt regimes, which have dispossessed many urban residents of their right to those spaces and precipitated a loss of democratic control.xi

From Harvey, we moved to the essays of political scientist Wendy Brown and anthropologist Loïc Wacquant. Brown notes that the present political regime actively merges the distinct agendas of neoliberalism, as a project of global capitalism, and the moral regulatory regime of neoconservatism, which at least partially helps account for the “voting against one’s interests” that led to Walker’s ascendancy.xii Additionally, Wacquant reveals what he calls “Centaur-state” mechanisms that in upper tiers appear as liberal democracy, but at the bottom embody a brutal regime combining self-help and mass incarceration. In other words, neoliberalism can be understood, on one hand, as a simple reduction of social relationships into financialized value.xiii On the other hand, Brown and Wacquant show that there is more at work than a normalization of Wild West-style capitalism. There is also a lethal brew of neoconservative paternalism and neoliberal appropriation that has effectively produced a political hegemony in which capitalists attempt to control the “game” through the state –and nearly always win. By clearly outlining the channels of power, this framework allows neoliberalism’s so-called “discontents” to come into clearer view.xiv

Our reading group eventually morphed into more of a writing group as conference papers and dissertation projects increasingly dominated our attention – ultimately dissolving as a few key members graduated and moved to different parts of the country. Our collective examination of the various ways social scientists and humanities scholars have handled neoliberalism was brief and barely scratched the surface of what the field has to offer. However, we gained some valuable insight into where historians can contribute to this discussion – rather, where we must. Through our group, we discussed a number of concerns with the periodization of the Keynesian-neoliberal break, as significant continuities between the two were revealed in our own scholarship. We also questioned the glaring omission of race as a central factor in many mainstream narratives of neoliberalism. As our colleague and mentor Rob Smith reminded us, many of the recent austerity strategies were practiced on inner city populations decades earlier. Our experiences in Madison – while clearly tactical failures with severe implications in the short term – also generated academic ambitions toward a long-term, useable historical framework for understanding and responding to future neoliberal attacks.


Jacob Glicklich

Act 10 was not just an abstraction for us. While we acted in solidarity with others who were impacted, we experienced cuts to our already very meager income and lost our collective bargaining rights.

The same forces that drove the Left to defeat in Wisconsin continue to create overly rosy interpretations of the crisis moment, primarily through a false narrative about the unity and effectiveness of protesters. There are structural reasons why individuals would shift the reasons for defeat, or deny evidence of failure altogether. In March 2011, the myth of one united protest movement allowed union leadership and Democratic politicians to demobilize resistance. Subsequent interpretations, from John Nichols’ optimistic accounts to Paul Buhle’s emphasis on Wisconsin's socialist heritage, suggest that every protestor had the same motivation. Even at UW-Milwaukee, however, there were sharp divisions among those who routinely went to Madison, particularly concerning how much to disrupt normal life in Milwaukee.xv

Within the Milwaukee Graduate Assistants Association (MGAA) there were significant debates and disagreements. The main approach was to coordinate bus trips to Madison and organize local rallies, while attempting to build member support for a strike. A subset of teaching assistants engaged in more disruptive tactics, including “sick-outs” and changing classroom curriculum to focus on contemporary events. On the whole, however, graduate workers offered little challenge to the status quo on campus. Discussion of a general strike was widespread, but there was not effective organization to build to such an action, or to extend disruption of teaching beyond the comparatively small number of already militant individuals. While some graduate workers in the History, English and Sociology departments engaged with campus mobilization centrally, we remained a minority even in our departments. In Milwaukee, socially approved activism formed a supplement to regular university life rather than an alternative to it.

I believe this approach limited the scope of resistance and helped ensure defeat for unions, schools and workers. In what can be understood as an existential crisis for public unions, workers had everything to lose by limiting their actions to permitted patterns. Yet they did limit their actions –even graduate workers in the humanities, whose research and meager wages should have given them every motivation to expand their resistance.

One of the greatest limitations on graduate activism was a reliance on faculty approval. Like graduate students, faculty did not speak with a singular voice. University professors, with a few important and honorable exceptions, largely shied away from support for significant disruption, often arguing that the Democratic Party would win the day. Many professors were eager to declare a level of support for graduate workers, for example by passing resolutions decrying further erosion of TA wages, but faculty as a whole were otherwise quite cautious. Because graduate workers looked to their professors, as mentors, for initiative (or at least advice), already existing fears were reinforced and became hesitation, passivity, and eventual deferral to the Democratic Party's recall as the only permitted tactic.

At the height of the protests many teaching assistants went to Madison, but most did not. There were specific failures in MGAA union leadership, and some members became involved in union decision-making only to ensure that the local did not call for a strike. By late 2011 the MGAA had been decertified, dues contributions had fallen off drastically (as they became voluntary, by law), and members had experienced a functional wage cut. A surge of pro-labor sentiment made graduate students more willing than before to express pro-labor and pro-teacher rhetoric, but their willingness to provide bank information for dues payments proved more limited. The mobilization of the MGAA was further hampered by the distraction of the doomed recall election and a hesitancy to engage in confrontation with university authorities.

Much of the commentary on the Wisconsin protests written after 2011 highlights the connections to Occupy Wall Street, suggesting an essential contribution made by the Madison protesters. Even if Wisconsin lost, runs the argument, it helped wake up the spirit of resistance through inspiring anti-corporate protests. I believe any direct impact is consistently overestimated, and serves as a way of claiming a nebulous long-term victory despite overwhelming evidence of defeat. There were productive results from the Wisconsin Uprising, but they took less tidy forms.

By rejecting Walker’s imposed re-certification process for unions, the MGAA defunded its permanent staff position and shifted to a pattern of constant organizing, effectively forcing itself into a more active relevance. Similarly, the removal of institutionally conservative staff (and reliance on visibly inept state union leadership) continues to open new possibilities for a more horizontal and active union structure. Additionally, numerous MGAA members have pursued active involvement in the ongoing labor struggle, including Dawn Tefft and Katherine Quinn's work for the American Federation of Teachers, Marina Pollock's involvement with Wisconsin Jobs Now, and Elizabeth Sauer and Greg Sutliff’s work with Chicago's graduate employees local. Despite lacking official bargaining capabilities, the MGAA as a whole has contributed to solidarity campaigns with the Palermo Workers Union boycott, the Chicago Teachers Union strike, and the Justice for Derek Williams campaign.

There is still enormous potential for graduate organizations both to build from the most useful forms of labor action, activist pedagogy, and horizontal organizing and to recognize the ongoing accomplishments of the many activist forces that were not given central platforms during the Madison protests.


John R. Terry

After attending the Midwest Labor and Working-Class History (MLWCH) conference at the University of Iowa in 2011, graduate students at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee hosted the 2012 and 2013 meetings.

The “Wisconsin Uprising” presented numerous challenges and opportunities not only for Wisconsin workers, but also for academics, graduate students, administration, staff, and faculty alike. Although historians (often, unfortunately) tend not to deal explicitly with the present as their subject matter, there are moments when the present is clearly history in making. Wisconsin in 2011 was one such moment. “History in the making” presents logistical problems for historians, including the significant delay involved in publishing peer reviewed work and the advance notice necessary for planning conferences. Nonetheless, conferences can provide an important venue for presenting exploratory work, bringing a variety of different scholars together, and allowing participants to give and receive feedback on the spot. They also contain some inherent flexibility since presenters, despite having submitted abstracts months in advance, can essentially plan their talks up until the day of a conference. For a group of five graduate students from UW-Milwaukee, that is what happened when we attended the MLWCH colloquium at the University of Iowa on April 16th, 2011, just thirty-seven days after the Budget Repair Bill passed. Of course, we had submitted abstracts several months earlier. Two of us presented on Blaxploitation cinema, one on the culture of beer gardens, another on post 1960s activism, and one on a Milwaukee hat makers’ union; none of us planned to present on contemporary Wisconsin politics. Given the flexibility of the conference, however, we ended up serving as an impromptu panel on our recent experiences, before joining hands with Staughton and Alice Lynd and the other conference participants and singing “Solidarity Forever” to close the conference.

As with so many great things in university life, we inherited the next year’s MLWCH conference over beers. We seized upon the conference as a venue to voice the things we might have been hesitant to express in the classroom, as well as an opportunity to put into practice the lessons we ourselves were learning. One of our first concerns as the MLWCH organizing committee was designing the type of conference that we would like to attend.xvi None of us had prior experience organizing a conference, but we all had experience attending them. We knew what we did not want: to have panelists show up the morning of the conference, read a 20 minute presentation, get a 10 minute comment from a disengaged chair, take one question, and go directly home with a fresh line on their CV. Instead, we tried to create a conference that would foster genuine engagement and lasting connections (to that end, I am still in contact with several presenters from MLWCH conferences).

One of the biggest problems that we had, which speaks volumes to the status of the label labor history, was the conference title. For many of us, popular perceptions of “labor” and “working class” seemed limiting. To draw scholars from beyond the confines of traditional labor history, we subtitled our conference “Power and Struggle” and provided a detailed paper call that we felt also spoke to issues beyond trade unionism, strikes, and work. We were fairly successful, and in the last two years, some of our most exciting presentations were on the construction of the family in working class protest, protest and solidarity through music, and the visual politics of protest – topics not typically associated with labor history.xvii Continuing a tradition from the Iowa City meeting, we also sought to make our panels more engaging by requiring presenters to submit papers to their fellow panelists and chairs two weeks before the meeting. We also asked that panelists give informal presentations of about ten minutes each and asked panel chairs to keep their comments to a minimum, in order to facilitate better and longer discussions with audiences (which averaged about twenty people per panel).

Another goal of ours, one lacking at many conferences, was to involve the broader community by including activists and organizations from outside of the university. For our keynote panels, we invited community activists, such as Christine Neumann Ortiz of the immigrant rights organization Voces De La Frontera,xviii and scholars active in the struggle to defend Milwaukee Public Schools (Jasmine Alinder, Rachel Buff, and Joe Austin).xix We also invited Wisconsin farmer Tony Schultz, whose involvement in the Wisconsin Uprising included a stirring speech from the Capitol steps,xx and Robert Johnston, whose piece in Labor critiques the contributions of labor historians during the crisis.xxi Our keynote panels connected our conferences not only to the events in Madison but also to the larger economic and social issues that continue to impact our communities. In short, they were relevant. At both conferences, we also offered free lodging and included post-keynote social hours, a “best practice” that gave attendees a chance to continue conversations over drinks and get to know each other before presenting the next morning.

Organizing the MLWCH presented us with an opportunity. We were able to see how the conference process worked from the inside. This has been an invaluable experience for us, and it has given our program an identity. It also helped us realize some of our limitations. We were unable to draw numbers that would suggest that we were reaching anyone who did not already oppose Walker’s Budget Repair Bill, and despite our invitations to community organizations, our conferences generally replicated the demographics of the “Wisconsin Uprising.” We have not involved people of color, the working class, or the unemployed or impoverished to nearly the extent that we would like. It is not enough for academics to teach, publish, and hold conferences if our mission is to make measurable, positive impacts in our communities. Milwaukee as a whole has not benefited from our conferences, even if attendees have. So, our impact has been limited, but it is a start. For 2014, we have passed MLWCH on, but we will continue to hold an annual history conference. We hope that what happened in 2011 has given us a vision of what we as scholars can and should do when the present is “history in the making.”


Dawson Barrett

Throughout the Spring of 2011, Wisconsin teachers were belittled, harassed, and threatened for defending their collective bargaining rights and opposing massive funding cuts for public education.

By December 2010, the Wisconsin legislature had already denied teaching assistants at UW-Milwaukee a new labor contract, and we were beginning to discuss how to respond to the election of our new boss. The crisis of that period made our relationship with our employers more hostile, but it also exposed the ill-defined, and fragile, nature of our relationships with our students. In professional and social circles, TAs debated how best to engage our students, who we viewed as natural allies. Like public school teachers at other levels, we quickly discovered that we had only limited autonomy within our classrooms. The details of Walker’s budget repair bill were complicated, and the idea of teaching an alternative curriculum was appealing. Most of us taught course material selected by a supervising professor, however, and the repercussions for going off-script were unclear. In my own discussion sections, I screened video clips of the protests, but only after carefully announcing that the last five minutes of class were optional. My colleague Bill Reck, meanwhile, asked his students to consider the contradiction that while he could be fired for violating his contractual agreements, the Governor’s decision to make “people living in poverty pay more for their health insurance” was hailed as sound policy.xxii In general, we were unprepared to articulate a defense of our own rights, let alone act on one.

In February, K-12 teachers across the state engaged in “sick outs” in order to attend the protests. In Madison, so many teachers called in that the school district shut down completely. Milwaukee TAs were not nearly as unified, though there were a few days when “class canceled” notices lined classroom doors all over campus. For a variety of reasons, the “sick outs” and their effectiveness were fiercely debated. It was unclear whether class cancellation would serve as a wake-up call for students, would breed resentment among them, or would simply be welcomed as an opportunity to sleep in. It was quite apparent, though, that “sick outs” provided easy fodder for right-wing media and cut us off from our classrooms – arguably our greatest point of impact. In Madison, several TAs improvised a compromise solution by arranging for their classes to meet at the State Capitol. Some Milwaukee TAs followed suit, asking students to meet in Spaights Plaza, the campus’ go-to spot for rallies.xxiii

Developing pedagogical responses to the crisis was made even more difficult by the extreme political hostility of the moment. In early March, the interim Dean of the College of Letters and Sciences issued an e-mail warning that all UWM employees were “prohibited from engaging in political activities using campus resources.”xxiv Because his e-mail was a response to comments on faculty listservs, the implication was that employees were breaking the law by even discussing budget cuts, collective bargaining, or potential labor actions by TAs. An accompanying statement from the UW system General Counsel threatened that employees could be “subject to discipline” for “political activities.”xxv Though the law, in fact, only prohibits the use of state resources for electoral activities (referenda, elections, and recalls), administrators’ statements were chilling, as intended.

Other threats were more blunt. When our union co-president Lee Abbott moved his class to observe a campus protest, one of his students forwarded his information to rightwing radio host Charlie Sykes, who posted it to his website. Sykes also broadcast the name and e-mail address of History Department secretary Anita Cathey when conservative graduate student John Grochowski forwarded him a message that he mistakenly attributed to her. Online comments called for Cathey to be fired, and the university was compelled to launch an investigation into the e-mail. Charlie Sykes fans also sent her threats and hijacked her e-mail address in order to promote Scott Walker and the Koch Brothers’ Americans for Prosperity. A formal complaint was also filed against my co-TA John Terry for discussing the protests in our US history class, and our supervising professor, Steve Meyer, received anonymous hate mail that semester, as well. The Spring of 2011, already turbulent and intensely stressful for those involved, was made more so by the very real threat that every word in an e-mail or classroom could lead to retaliation.xxvi

As paralyzing as those months were, however, hostilities eventually subsided and new opportunities arose. In my case, I was given the opportunity to teach two classes on my dissertation topic, American activism since the 1960s. During each of my previous six semesters as a TA, I polled my classes to see how many students had attended a political protest of any kind. On average, one or two students per section would raise their hands, roughly five to ten percent of the class. By contrast, in my Fall 2012 course, nearly half of the students had been to the protests in Madison. I offer this number not as evidence of a sea change among the student body (my course attracted a self-selected group) but rather as the foundation of a hope. These students entered the class already accepting the legitimacy of political dissent outside the boundaries of electoral politics, and they were but a few of the thousands of young people who marched in Madison.

We began our course with a question that too few have bothered to ask: Why did we lose? With hundreds of thousands of Wisconsinites marching on Madison, why were we unable to stop the passage of the bill? The class brainstormed, and, by the end of the first day, we had already concluded that 1) only pressure can affect those in power, and 2) large protests do not always create pressure. Over the next few months, the class explored the legacy of the 1960s; the rise of ALEC, the Koch Brothers, and the Business Roundtable in the 1970s; Ronald Reagan, hip hop and punk rock; globalization and the global justice movement; and the War on Terror. Through this history, we examined the evolution of American power structures in the neoliberal era, as well as the various ways that US social movements have attempted to influence them.

Early in the course, Occupy Wall Street began and provided us with convenient reference points for protest tactics, movement strategy, and police repression. A few students made trips to New York to visit Zuccotti Park, while several others engaged in Milwaukee-based Occupy actions. The course was not designed to create activists, but through it, the class did develop a better understanding of justice, austerity, and engaged democracy.

Perhaps the most significant portion of the course was the final group project, which required students to investigate the history and on-going activities of a Milwaukee-based activist organization or non-profit. At the end of the semester, each group made a public display for the student body and presented a brief summary of their research to the class. Then, together, using only the histories of their subjects –an urban civil rights organization, an immigrant rights group, a public school advocacy organization, an urban farm, a conservative think tank, and a homeless youth shelter– we developed a narrative of the economic and political changes in the city since the 1960s. Taking a page from The Yes Men Fix the World, we also mused about the headlines we wished to read about Milwaukee in ten years and discussed the challenges that the city’s residents would have to overcome in order to make them a reality.

I have no illusions that my course had any immediate impact on Wisconsin politics. Nor do I think that it radically changed the life trajectory of any of my students. However, I do think my course is an example of teaching that engages students in the on-going struggle for social justice, not only by providing them the largely unarticulated history that brought us to this point, but also by challenging them to become actors in creating a better future. In two semesters of the course, I had the pleasure of teaching just over forty students. One is now an organizer with UNITE HERE in Los Angeles. Two others participated in blockades against the Keystone XL Pipeline in Texas. One is now a touring speaker for an abortion rights group; two others are interns for an organization that fights for economic justice for working class women. Another has become a vegan chef. Two more worked on Barrack Obama’s re-election campaign, and at least five attended the 2012 NATO protests in Chicago. I think Walker and his fellow reactionaries are going to have their hands full.

Scott Walker’s 2011 agenda was, among other things, an attack on teachers and an offensive against education. During the protests, I, like many other teachers and activists, was caught off guard. I struggled to figure out what types of contributions I could make. The crisis taught me, though, that when education is under attack, teaching itself can be a form of resistance. And if they shut down our schools, we have to make the whole world our classroom.


Our responses to the Wisconsin Uprising were shaped by our peculiar, overlapping roles in society. Along with our students, we are part of a generation that has incurred $1 trillion in debt in order to pay for our education. As hopeful future professors, we also face few job prospects in an industry that relies largely on temporary workers, online courses, and for-profit business models in order to avoid providing benefits or paying a living wage.xxvii Any work we do find will be in an increasingly anti-union climate. President Barrack Obama never did put on his “comfortable pair of shoes” and join us on the picket lines.xxviii In fact, he hired a chief of staff, Jack Lew, with an impressive resume of union busting while chief operating officer and executive vice president at New York University. On Lew’s watch, NYU’s graduate student teachers and researchers lost their collective bargaining rights.xxix Obama’s National Labor Relations Board, meanwhile, has yet to overturn the Bush-era ruling that private university workers have no legal right to unionize. At the same time, a number of graduate student unions at public universities, including our own, have either decertified or experienced backlash from university administrations.xxix

We do not celebrate the Wisconsin Uprising as a victory of tangible gains. Nor do we wish to re-live it for years to come. Despite its high moments, what happened in Wisconsin was a tremendous setback for workers, unions, educators, students, and communities around the state. In the starkest of terms, Governor Walker and his allies made far-reaching changes that will continue to have negative effects (disproportionately so for women and for people of color) on Wisconsin’s workers, education system, and environment. Walker’s backers spent decades building up to this moment, and we should not be surprised by their organization, strength, or ruthlessness. Our responses, weak by comparison, demonstrate the unevenness of the political landscape. However, they are not trivial. We are unlikely ever to confront power on a level playing field, but we are able to contribute to struggles for justice by being relevant, by being self-reflective, and by preparing for the next confrontation, even while licking the wounds of defeat. What we cannot do is take for granted that we are engaged in a fight.

We will be the first to admit that our responses were far from perfect. We hope that our experiences might still be helpful, though, as you think about how to engage the on-going crisis. We are not in mourning. We are excited, and the excitement that we feel, to again quote Joe Austin, is for “the collective struggle for a satisfying human life.” We are not just historians. We are teachers, workers, scholars, and students. And we’re not done fighting. Scott Walker and his allies were able to dictate our contract and destroy our labor union, but several of its members have since become full-time union organizers. Walker was able to slash budgets for public education, but students, teachers, and parents across the state have since formed pro-school organizations. We’re not done fighting. We’ll see you in the streets… and in the classrooms.


Thomas Jessen Adams

If there is a commonality in what gets lumped under the broad rubric of the American left—both contemporary and historical—it is the necessity to find meaning in defeat. Governor Scott Walker’s successful push to end collective bargaining rights for around 175,000 public-sector workers in Wisconsin in 2011 and the subsequent failure of a recall election meant to remove Walker in 2012 stands as one of the most glaring defeats that American labor and the American left have suffered in decades. The contributions to Opportunities for Defiance fit into this important tradition of post-defeat self-reflection. Too often we celebrate the mobilizations in our defeats as forms of agency rather that important moments to ask where we went wrong. As Beth Robinson puts it in her contribution, “we also seek to ask ourselves, and readers, how we will prepare for the next crisis.”

With its grand tradition of progressive politics, strong unions, and general upper-Midwestern populism, Wisconsin should have been one of the last places in the U.S. to have public-sector collective bargaining rights stripped away. Despite valiant efforts by Wisconsonians, including the authors of these brief essays, the efforts to defeat the Budget Repair Bill and recall Scott Walker failed. In some quarters, these efforts alone have been seen as a victory, an opening salvo in some imagined future vanquishment of the forces of corporate capital. Unfortunately, I think there is too much evidence from previous years and decades of defeat to accept the notion that protest alone, while invigorating, can serve as the foundation for a larger and sustained mass mobilization capable of challenging neoliberal revanchism on multiple battlefields. At the same time, while the efforts to save collective bargaining lost in Wisconsin, this defeat was much more hard fought than virtually any of the myriad similar defeats that dot the contemporary American scene. Indeed, I would argue that, the relatively speaking, near-success of both the protests and the recall campaign makes self-reflection on strategic choices and lack thereof, that much more important.

The conceptual strategy of these essays is to highlight the multiple positions in which graduate student teaching assistants at UW-Milwaukee experienced the Wisconsin protests and recall: as Wisconsonians; as scholars; as workers; as teachers; as graduate students. One of the beauties of this device is it shows the frequently divided loyalties that graduate student employees are forced to deal with in contemporary corporatizing higher education. The various ways that the authors experienced the protests further demonstrates what they label titularly as “opportunities for defiance.” In the moment of Wisconsin’s political crisis, finding ways to create a “movement culture,” to borrow from Lawrence Goodwyn, extended beyond the steps and hallways of the capitol and the solidarity of the picket line to encompass reading groups, small-scale protests, pedagogical choices, and outreach to other movements. Collectively, these essays demonstrate the various ways graduate students encountered the “Wisconsin moment” away from direct action and protest.

The danger here is that we lose sight of the fact that Walker’s Budget Repair Bill was not only an attack on approximately 175,000 public-sector workers, but also, as Gordon Lafer has reminded us, an attack on “the only serious counterweight to the unbridled power of the corporate elite,” that is, unions.xxxi As neoliberalism increasingly takes ownership of concepts like anti-racism, multiculturalism, anti-sexism etc. as forms of corporate legitimation, rebuilding a labor movement grounded in the workplace (or point of production, broadly construed) is of paramount importance. As the authors point out, as workers, scholars, teachers, graduate students, professors, etc., our contributions to this project can be myriad. In the end though, I think its incumbent on us to remember that solidarity, movement culture, and protest are tools that mean very little if they’re not harnessed to the larger goal of an institutional mechanism capable of being a counterweight (and hopefully more) to the increasing dominance of capital.


Staughton Lynd

I have a vivid visual memory of students from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee at the University of Iowa two years ago. Already in April, they were angry and frustrated by the timid response of the trade union movement to the never-to-be-forgotten uprising in Madison.

Graduate students in history face difficulties today that I and my peers did not fifty years ago. My wife Alice and I are presently part of a teaching team at a local prison where we presume to describe world history. Most of the load is carried by a brilliant younger colleague, Thomas Sabatini. He has a PhD from the University of Minnesota, where he was a student of David Roediger. He attempts to survive by part-time appointments at two local public universities

For that reason I prefer not to comment directly on “Opportunities for Defiance.” Instead, I will describe as briefly as enthusiasm permits some teaching adventures of my own. The reader can lay these experiences side by side in finding his or her own way.

Mississippi Freedom Schools

For me the beginning of everything was SNCC’s invitation to coordinate Mississippi Freedom Schools in Summer 1964.

There was a “curriculum” painstakingly typed and assembled by Alice and myself from a variety of contributions. Copies were packed in brown jackets and traveled to the orientation at Oxford, Ohio in the trunk of my Rambler. But I told the prospective teachers at Oxford to consider the curriculum a security blanket that they could use when they and their students ran out of ideas about what they wanted to teach and learn.

I spent the summer driving from school to school to watch a play, to consult with two teachers at odds with one another, or otherwise to do some improvising of my own. I remember going to McComb the day after the Freedom House (housing Mario Savio, Marshall Ganz, and Dennis Sweeney among others) had been bombed. We met that evening on an adjacent lawn. All I remember is that we sang “I’m on my way to the Freedom Land” and Bob Moses led the verse “If you can’t go/Let your children go.”

Memorable also was what we called the Freedom School Convention. Delegates from the various schools gathered in Meridian, Mississippi to discuss, and vote on, various proposals for public policy. During the previous week the bodies of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner had been discovered, and so the weekend began with a solemn memorial service. I remember driving to the service and passing many young men in dark suits as they walked in silence to the church.

The main issue at the Freedom School Convention was whether at summer’s end an effort should be made to continue an alternative school system, or instead, young people should return to their distressingly inadequate segregated schools. I have never ceased to be proud of the decision made by the delegates. They would go back to their schools.

Years later I learned that on the day school began in Philadelphia, Mississippi where the three martyrs had been killed, young black men and women went to school wearing buttons that said “SNCC” and “One Man, One Vote.” It was the bravest act of the summer. They were sent home but took their act of defiance to court, and wonder of wonders, a federal appeals court held that wearing their buttons did not disrupt the activity of the school and so sending them home violated the First Amendment.

Mary Beth Tinker relied on that appeals court decision when she wore a black arm band to school to protest the Vietnam war. And the Supreme Court of the United States, citing the Mississippi case as precedent, agreed.

The Workers’ Solidarity Club of Youngstown

The Lynds moved to Niles, near Youngstown, in 1976. At that point I was a lawyer and Alice a certified paralegal. There was still a labor movement in town. We moved from Chicago because of two rank-and-file Youngstown steelworkers, John Barbero and Ed Mann.

Bob Schindler was an officer of a local of the Utility Workers. The local had experienced a long strike in which, as Bob and co-workers perceived the matter, they got very little help from the central labor union.

I was invited to teach a class on labor law at the “hall” (actually a house on the South Side, with a bar on the second floor). I think I may have been invited because Bob’s brother-in-law, Jack Walsh, a.k.a. “Union Jack,” had just been fired by the Schwebel Baking Company for leading a wildcat strike. Jack was consoling himself at a favorite watering hole when he saw in the local newspaper a photograph of Dave Dellinger, Bob Moses, and myself getting arrested in Washington DC. There was red paint all over us that had been thrown by folks who didn’t like what we were doing.

When I saw that photo in the paper I thought, “Oh, oh. Maybe I’ll have to leave town.” When Jack saw the photo he thought,, so he says, “That’s the lawyer for me.”

Anyhow, a year after that first class Bob Schindler asked me to teach another class for the local union. “What about?” I asked. “Whatever you want,” Bob replied. I told the group that I thought we were all broken-hearted lovers because of what had happened to the trade union movement. “What has gone wrong with the trade union movement?” would be the topic, I announced.

All I recall from the class is one evening when we discussed an encyclical just issued by the Pope, “On Human Labor.” The Pope said there were two kinds of labor, labor for money and labor for the glory of God. All one evening Bob maintained that when he went up on the pole he did so for the glory of God. A couple of years later I believe I came to understand what he meant. Bob was the senior man of a work crew that was called out when a storm had disrupted electric service. Their instructions were that if they found a customer who had lost electric power they were to repair the line and report the outage to the company, which would arrange for another crew to turn that person’s power back on the next day. Disregarding instructions, Bob and his crew would turn the power back on for, say, an elderly woman living alone in the cold.

When the class ended people did not want to stop meeting. We decided to turn the club into an entity we called “The Workers’ Solidarity Club of Youngstown.” For the next twenty years we met the second Wednesday of every month, functioning as what I called “a parallel central labor union.” We provided strike support, and how! But that is another story.

More Classes

Over the last two or three years, Alice and I have led a number of classes sponsored by the Catholic Diocese of Youngstown. This is not because we have become Catholics. We haven’t. But over the years we have grown close to a number of persons associated with Diocese, and they have come to trust us. Their sponsorship makes it possible for us to reach persons who are not already “members of the choir” of folks on the Left.

The first of these classes, at the new Catholic Worker house in Youngstown, was on Monsignor Oscar Romero. You can get an idea of what was said from a chapter in my book Accompanying (PM Press, 2012). Better yet, get hold of the best book of oral histories I have ever encountered, Maria Lopez Vigil, Oscar Romero: Memories in Mosaic (EPICA, 2000).

Then for the past two years Alice has led classes on “Crime, Justice, and the Death Penalty.” We will be doing a further class on “Nonviolence” beginning in September.

Finally, there is the class at the Trumbull Correctional Institution I mentioned at the beginning.

Edward and Howie

The two greatest exemplars of teaching on the Left I have known in my lifetime are Edward Thompson and Howard Zinn. Briefly:

Thompson wrote the most important history book written in the English language during the past century (The Making) while serving, outside academia, as an itinerant lecturer for a workers’ education association. There is a wonderful story of his teaching a class about changes in mining technology. He tried to draw what he was talking about on the blackboard. Finally a miner in the class said, “Mr. Thompson, give me the chalk.”

Howard Zinn encouraged me by his example to do oral history. But the most important thing about Howie’s take on teaching was his absolute indifference to all things academic. When I arrived at Spelman I asked him what paper or papers he was planning to present at what gatherings of historians. He looked at me as if I were talking a foreign language. He was one of two adult advisers to SNCC.


  • This paper is based on a panel presentation the five of us gave at the 2013 Labor and Working-Class History Association (LAWCHA) conference and the 2013 Left Forum. We thank everyone who attended those sessions and contributed to the discussions. We also wish to acknowledge Bill Reck, Louis Mercer, and Melissa Seifert, as well as Professors Joe Austin and Rachel Ida Buff, who were also members of the neoliberalism reading and writing group and/or helped organize the 2012 MLWCH conference.
  • i. Joe Austin, Keynote Address, 2013 Midwest Labor and Working-Class History Colloquium, February 15, 2013.
  • ii. BadgerCare is the healthcare provider for low-income Wisconsinites, primarily children. It was introduced by Republican Governor Tommy Thompson before he left his position to serve in the Bush Administration as Secretary of Health and Human Services.
  • iii. The Wisconsin Uprising has become a lightning rod for Leftists, union organizers, and other allies. Many Wisconsin residents, including labor historians, were shocked that austerity cuts and union-baiting could gain traction in their state. It is perhaps unsurprising then that there is still no consensus about what the Uprising represented, whether it marked a new beginning or the end for Wisconsin’s much vaunted labor tradition, or even whether it is best understood as a victory or defeat. Both activist and academic scholars seem to agree that “Wisconsin” represented a watershed moment, however. Historians, journalists, political scientists, and graduate students across disciplines have attempted to contextualize the events of 2011 by linking the protests in Madison to the Occupy movements and by suggesting that the crisis served as a catalyst for a renewed interest in labor organizing. Others have connected Wisconsin to the Arab Spring and to parallel anti-austerity movements in Spain, Greece, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere. Many of these texts have framed what happened in Wisconsin as a struggle between organized labor, on the one side, and the Tea Party-influenced, Koch brothers-financed Republican Party, on the other. We ourselves were deprived of our collective bargaining rights, and our union, the Milwaukee Graduate Assistants Association (MGAA), was forced to de-certify in the bill’s aftermath. However, the Budget Repair Bill was more than an attack on organized labor. It included sweeping cuts to the state’s education, health care, recycling, and transportation budgets, in addition to its collective bargaining provisions. By oversimplifying this struggle, labor organizers and supporters have generally overestimated their strength and, more importantly, undercut opportunities for building coalitions with others, who were also affected, in a myriad of ways. Abby Sewell, “Protestors Out In Force Nationwide To Oppose Wisconsin’s Anti-Union Bill,” Los Angeles Times, 27 February 2011.
  • iv. Among the many titles on the Wisconsin protests are John Nichols, Uprising: How Wisconsin Renewed the Politics of Protest, from Madison to Wall Street (New York: Nation Books, 2012); Erica Sagrans, ed., We Are Wisconsin: The Wisconsin Uprising in the Words of the Activists, Writers, and Everyday Wisconsinites Who Made it Happen (Minneapolis, MN: Tasora Books, 2011); Mari Jo Buhle and Paul Buhle, ed., It Started in Wisconsin: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Labor Protest (New York: Verson, 2012); Michael D. Yates, Wisconsin Uprising: Labor Fights Back (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2012); Jason Stein and Patrick Marley, More Than They Bargained For: Scott Walker, Unions, and the Fight for Wisconsin (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2013). Assessing Robert Johnston’s claims is beyond the scope of this article, with a few, related caveats in scholars’ defense. Johnston examines statements made during the peak moments of the Wisconsin crisis, a period in which stress levels were incredibly high – many activists and teachers became legitimately ill during those weeks from a combination of sleep deprivation and long hours of meetings, occupations, marches, and commutes to and from Madison. Furthermore, the crisis caught most people off-guard; many, though certainly not all, of Johnston’s critiques were corrected by scholars in the months that followed, as more sober analysis became possible. Lastly, crises are also the precise moments when solidarity most compels people to set aside their differences. Public statements during those periods, by design, do not provide the best reflection of critical scholarship. To his credit, Johnston, both in person and via e-mail, has discouraged us from altering this critique, though he has offered a rebuttal. Among his valid points is the fact that the “heat of the moment” defense should not be applied to most of the historians he analyzes, since they were far removed from the front lines in Madison. Robert D. Johnston, “The Madison Moment: Labor Historians as Public Intellectuals during the Wisconsin Labor Crisis” Labor 9.2 (Summer 2012): 7-24.
  • v. Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward, People’s Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail (New York: Pantheon Books, 1977), 21.
  • vi. Staughton Lynd gave the stirring keynote address at the 2011 Midwest Labor and Working-Class History Colloquium at the University of Iowa.
  • vii. Neil Brenner and Nik Theodore, “Cities and the Geographies of ‘Actually Existing Neoliberalism,’” Antipode 34, no. 3 (July 2002): 349-379.
  • viii. Because we are educators, it should be no surprise that we turned to self-education as a tactic. Indeed, our friend Tom Alter discusses Chicago schoolteachers’ similar efforts in his article, “‘It Felt Like Community’: Social Movement Unionism and the Chicago Teachers Union Strike of 2012,” forthcoming in Labor: Studies in Working-Class History of the Americas.
  • ix. David Harvey, A Brief History of Neoliberalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 9-19.
  • x. Harvey, Brief History, 159-165.
  • xi. David Harvey, “The Right to the City,” in Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution (London: Verso, 2012), 3-25. These perspectives were influential to my work on Milwaukee, as well as to that of reading group members Joe Austin and Bill Reck, and to John Terry’s work on Chicago. Beth Robinson’s work on anti-sweatshop movements, Dawson Barrett’s work on anti-corporate activist movements, and Rachel Buff’s work on immigration activism further connected opposition movements to these historical trends.
  • xii. Wendy Brown, “Neoliberalism and the End of Liberal Democracy,” in Edgework: Critical Essays on Knowledge and Politics (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2005), 37-59; Wendy Brown, “American Nightmare: Neoliberalism, Neoconservatism, and De-Democratization,” Political Theory 34, no. 6 (December 2006): 690-714.
  • xiii. Loïc Wacquant, “Three Steps to a Historical Anthropology of Actually Existing Neoliberalism,” Social Anthropology 20, no. 1 (2012): 66-79.
  • xiv. During the initial stages of the Wisconsin crisis, our group’s readings also included: Francis Fox Piven and Richard A. Cloward, Poor People’s Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail (New York: Vintage, 1979); Derrick Bell, “The Rules of Racial Standing,” Chapter 6, in Faces at the Bottom of the Well, reprint ed. (New York: Basic Books, 1992), 109-126; George Lipsitz, “The Hip Hop Hearings: Censorship, Social Memory, and Intergenerational Tensions Among African Americans,” in Generations of Youth: Youth Cultures and History in Twentieth-Century America, ed. by Joe Austin and Michael Nevin Willard (New York: New York University Press, 1998), 395-411. The diversity of these early readings reveals the great degree to which our experiences in Madison inspired the formulation of a more coherent reading program on neoliberalism.
  • xv. Nichols, Uprising; Mari Jo Buhle and Paul Buhle, ed., It Started in Wisconsin.
  • xvi. Another concern, of course, was funding. Thank you to the Milwaukee Graduate Assistants Association (MGAA), the University, and the UW-Milwaukee history department for providing funding and space for the conference.
  • xvii. David Seitz, University of Toronto; Meredith McBride, University of Chicago; Rosemary Walzer, professor, University of Wisconsin-Manitowoc; and Melissa Seifert, University of Illinois, respectively.
  • xvii. See the Voces De La Frontera website at: http://www.vdlf.org/.
  • xix. See the I Love My Public School website at: http://www.ilovemypublicschool.com/.
  • xx. For an example of Tony Schulz speaking up for farmers in Wisconsin at the Capitol see: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cKOvqXoWB7s.
  • xxi. Johnston, “The Madison Moment.”
  • xxii. Bill Reck, e-mail to Dawson Barrett, January 2013.
  • xxiii. For example, “Megyn Kelly vs. Union President Over ‘Sick Outs,’” Fox Nation, February 22, 2011, http://nation.foxnews.com/media/2011/02/22/megyn-kelly-vs-union-president-over-sick-outs (accessed January 15, 2013).
  • xxiv. Rodney A Swain, e-mail to UWM Letters & Sciences faculty and staff, March 3, 2011. To their credit, high-ranking faculty challenged Swain’s threats.
  • xxv. Ibid.
  • xxvi. Charlie Sykes, “UWM Teacher Turns Class into Anti-Walker Rally,” February 2011, WTMJ 620 News Radio, http://www.620wtmj.com/blogs/charliesykes/116236429.html (accessed January 15, 2013); Charlie Sykes, “Updated: Abusing University Facilities,” WTMJ 620 News Radio, March 2011, http://www.620wtmj.com/blogs/charliesykes/118160469.html (accessed January 15, 2013); Sharif Durhams, “UW Staff Reminded to Campaign on Their Own Time,” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, March 17, 2011, http://www.jsonline.com/blogs/news/118191389.html (accessed January 15, 2013). Among many other examples, see the intimidation campaign against UW Professor William Cronon in response to his writings about ALEC: Anthony Grafton, “Wisconsin: The Cronon Affair,” New Yorker, March 28, 2011, http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/newsdesk/2011/03/wisconsin-the-cronon-affair.html (accessed January 14, 2013). The threats against Anita Cathey were not uncontested. The history graduate student organization issued an official statement of solidarity, which was distributed throughout the department.
  • xxvii. Stacy Patton, “As Debt Rises and Job Prospects Dim, Some Say It's Time to Put a Warning Label on Graduate School,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, December 9, 2012, http://chronicle.com/article/Some-Say-Its-Time-to-Put-a/136217/ (accessed March 11, 2013); Audrey Williams June, “Jobs for Historians Rose Last Year, but Competition Remains Tough,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, January 2, 2013, http://chronicle.com/article/Jobs-for-Historians-Rose-Last/136403/ (accessed March 11, 2013).
  • xxviii. Sam Stein, “Obama Has No Plans to Visit Wisconsin,” Huffington Post, February 24, 2011, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/02/24/obama-wisconsin_n_827770.html (accessed March 12, 2013).
  • xxiv. Josh Eidelson, “Jack Lew’s Union-Busting Past,” Salon, January 9, 2013, http://www.salon.com/2013/01/09/jack_lews_union_busting_past/ (accessed March 11, 2013).
  • xxx. Stacey Patton, “Michigan Graduate Student Alleges She Was Fired as a Research Assistant Because of Her Union Activities,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, January 18, 2012, http://chronicle.com/article/Michigan-Graduate-Student/130378/ (accessed March 11, 2013).
  • xxxi. Gordon Lafer, “Left Anti-Unionism?” (blog post), The Nation, June 15, 2012.

2 responses to ““Opportunities for Defiance”: Embracing Guerilla History and Moving Beyond Scott Walker’s Wisconsin”

  1. Leon Fink Leon Fink says:

    As I anticipated, the UWM panelists offer a remarkable set of reflections. Together, they capture the feel of the Wisconsin Moment, both its initial exhilaration and subsequent sense of bitter deflation. Like the anti-war movement of the sixties, however, I suspect that the dramatic intervention of these activists and their allies will force an extended reckoning for both friends and foes for years to come. Among other lessons, we should remember that two imaginative tactics–seizure of the state Capitol and the walkout and walk off of the state senators–counted a great deal in turning initial,protest towards sustained resistance. Yet curiously,in bemoaning an enervating political campaign, the panelists do not really confront the question of whether other imaginative measures were available at the time. If not, instead of a retrospective replay, should we not be planning for a longer-term strategy and Wisconsin’s second act?

    • Dawson Barrett says:

      Prof. Fink, thank you for the kind words and for forwarding this project along. As far as the other measures available at the time, I think Jacob has a more clearly formed opinion about than I do. I will say this, though. There was a lot of talk about a General Strike during that period, and I think it would have been a moral, and possibly even strategic, course of action. In reality, though, no infrastructure existed to make that happen, and indeed the overwhelming majority of sympathizers had no idea what the term even meant — a failure and a lesson in itself. But there were other tactics being discussed, planned, and carried out, including strikes, occupations, boycotts of Walker supporters, and acts of civil disobedience. Unfortunately, they were never more than scattered, and the networks necessary to coordinate them were weak or nonexistent. As I mention in my piece, there was also a great deal of fear and hesitation.

      The second question you raise, about the next act, interests me much more. For us, this article was really about what we took from 2011 and applied toward the future – and we encourage readers to consider the opportunities in their many roles (and share them on this page, if they want). We saw a need for more organizing – with our union, through graduate student conferences, in a reading group, etc. As Staughton Lynd makes clear, we can also be teachers in a variety of contexts.

      I can’t speak to Wisconsin’s future, but personally I am inspired by the actions of the CTU (see Tom Alter’s article in the current issue of Labor) and Scholars for North Carolina’s Future (formerly Scholars for a Progressive North Carolina, http://sites.duke.edu/SNCF). The biggest lesson I got from the Wisconsin crisis was that everything is under attack. Nothing is off-limits, not the integrity of public education, not the assumption that teachers and firefighters aren’t freeloaders. And we are guaranteed to lose if we don’t realize that.