by?Virginia Leavell?photos by?Vasudha Desikan
I take a stab at guessing my generation’s defining movement with: “Dude. There’s gonna be a tractor strike in Madison this weekend.”
Or at least that’s the attempt I whisper to Vasudha through our cubical wall on the 4th floor the Laborers’ International where the two of us work downtown.
Full disclosure: every day we talk through this wall. Or throw notes over it. Or carry on long dialogues over Google chat. What may look like boredom to anyone who’d have us writing memos instead is, at its heart, two young trade unionists trying to stay inspired.
“Are you watching this Gaddafi crazy shit on Al Jazeera right now?”
“Lunchtime Egyptian solidarity rally? And tea?”
The thing is that union staff like us work in a labor movement where fewer than 7 in 100 private sector workers belong to a union, and most of that declining number live in maybe half a dozen states. One of those states is Wisconsin, and in that state today firefighters are on the news talking about a general strike. We suffer from a lack of inspiring leaders, so footage like this makes us giddy.
By lunchtime it’s settled that we need to be in Madison in the next 36 hours to support Wisconsin workers. While we’re at it, we’ll attempt to renew our faith in a US labor movement and bottle up some Midwest tractor strike fire for hometown DC.
Three cars of friends and 14 hours later, our jittery crew of 13 arrives at the Wisconsin capitol building armed with gas station coffee and bags of bright orange Laborers’ schwag.
As a road trip team, we have been diversely inspired by the 2nd Intifada in Palestine, US resistance to the IMF and World Bank, and by the Wayside Center a month earlier at its first student organizers’ weekend retreat. We’re age 14 to 30, and none of us has ever seen anything like the scene of the Madison capitol building at this moment. A hundred thousand regular folks and 14 state senators have immobilized the state in defense of the many, many folks with regular Wisconsin public sector jobs. They’re angry, but also incredibly kind, and they have made the most poignant and entertaining signs.
For the day our crew is less outside agitators than ad hoc fan club. We march around the capitol, tweet, and photograph. We meet kids and grandmas at their first protest and visit old friends risking their PhD programs to organize against Governor Walker. We high five members of just about every trade union and encounter a nervous donkey in the middle of the crowd. The coffee and bagel shops are on our side. Off-duty cops and uniformed firefighters are rallying. On-duty cops are warm and welcoming. This last part is disconcerting at first, but we realize quickly that even the cops get it.
On the way out of town the next day, the city council member sitting next to us at breakfast quickly notices we’re not from Madison: “What on earth brought you so far?”
The youngest one of us, Rourke, is 14, and pipes up that this is his second trip. Last week his dad and he drove out here to support the capitol building occupation. He says he’s home schooled, and getting a lesson on labor and civil disobedience.
The thing for many of us though, is that we’re trying to figure out how to best take what needs taking. Wisconsin workers are holding the line for collective bargaining and will very possibly win. We want to know what we need to do to get to a place where we can stand on a strong enough foundation to move forward instead of being constantly on the defensive. Revolution is on the news and in our hearts, but not yet within earshot.
As it has to, breakfast and the weekend come to an end, and we book it all night again to make it home by Monday morning. We share photos and stories, and pull off an almost equally thrilling protest of visiting Wisconsin GOP fundraisers. It was admittedly satisfying to take over a downtown hotel lobby with a thousand friends and allies, and to bust into the Chamber of Commerce lobby unannounced. If this works in the defense of workers rights, it might just work on the offensive, too. An opportunity has arrived and all eyes are on Wisconsin and its sister states under attack. And whatever the outcome is of this moment, we’re right here picking it up, stepping it up, and getting ready to take what’s ours.
Virginia is a member of Wayside’s core collective, and Vasudha is on Wayside’s Communications Committee. Both work at the Laborers’ International Union of North America (LIUNA), live in DC, and think it’s time to go big or go home.