Lessons from Wisconsin’s 2011 worker uprising

With the passage of Act 10 in 2011, also known as the Wisconsin Budget Repair Bill, Republican Gov. Scott Walker declared war on the labor movement in general and on public sector workers specifically. Act 10 was a hammer blow that essentially stripped collective bargaining rights from public sector workers, made it much more difficult for workers to organize, and forced unions to take massive concessions on healthcare, retirement benefits, and much more. Soon after, in 2015, Walker signed legislation that turned Wisconsin into a “right to work” state, issuing another blow to unions in a state once heralded as a bellwether of progressive politics and the labor movement.

The statewide protests against Act 10, known as the Wisconsin Uprising, comprised one of the largest sustained collective actions in the history of the United States. Anyone who was there in 2011 will attest to the collective spirit of resistance and solidarity that the uprising embodied, and the lasting impact it left on all who participated. But the protests were ultimately unsuccessful in beating back Act 10, and the short- and long-term effects of its passage have been devastating for working people and organized labor. How did this coordinated assault on labor come to pass in Wisconsin? How are people around the state today working to rebuild worker power out of the rubble left by Act 10? And what lessons can the rest of us around the country learn from the 50-year war on workers that has changed the state of Wisconsin for generations?

These are the questions TRNN Editor-in-Chief Maximillian Alvarez, Cameron Granadino (TRNN), and Hannah Faris (In These Times) went to Wisconsin to investigate in the summer of 2021 as part of a special collaboration between The Real News Network and In These Times magazine for “The Wisconsin Idea.” In this extended conversation, recorded a mile away from the State Capitol in Madison, Alvarez speaks with Frank Emspak and Adrian Pajak, two veteran organizers who were in the thick of the grassroots revolt in 2011, about the destructive force of Act 10, the missteps made by the labor movement, and the ongoing class war in Wisconsin.

Frank Emspak is Professor Emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Madison School for Workers and a labor activist based in Madison, Wisconsin. He is a regular contributor to WORT Labor Radio, Progressive Magazine, and a range of other media outlets. Adrienne Pagac is a scholar, organizer, and former co-president of the Teaching Assistants Association.

Read the transcript of this interview:

Pre-Production: Maximillian Alvarez, Hannah Faris, Alice Herman, Cameron Granadino, Eleni Schirmer (research consultant), John Fleissner (research consultant), John Yaggi (research consultant), Harvey J. Kaye (research consultant), Jon Shelton (research consultant), Adam Mertz (research consultant)

Studio: Cameron Granadino

Post-Production: Cameron Granadino, Stephen Frank, Kayla Rivara, Jules Taylor

The Wisconsin Idea is an independent reporting project of People’s Action Institute, Citizen Action of Wisconsin and In These Times.

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** (Disclaimer: This video content is intended for educational and informational purposes only) **

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Author: phillyfinest369


27 thoughts on “Lessons from Wisconsin’s 2011 worker uprising

  1. Wisconsin… the land of cow sh!t and beer farts… has a deeply progressive history 😂🤣😂🤣😂🤣😂🤣😂🤣😂🤣 the entire state of Wisconsin except for Milwaukee and Madison is basically all red. You people are a joke.

  2. Good show, sorry I missed it before. However, as a transit planner I have say that I side with the Walmart workers against the TWU. The latter are part of a political machine who have socialized medicine but do not support it for everyone. The Walmart workers must pay the state and local subsidy for the operation of transit, including healthcare for workers, but most of themselves have no insurance at all. And TWU is not an ally in environmental improvement, in the case of NYC, they endorsed the same candidate as the police.

  3. When I was in high school I was very pro union , then I went to work for not 1 , 2 or 3 but 5 unions ( all in democratic controlled new york and primarily run by democrats) and they were the worst most demeaning jobs I had . The last union I was in was a meat packing union . There was a position open for an assistant Supervisor . I never gave it any thought though I was one of the people vetted . Turned out the plant owner and a number of other co workers felt I was the right fit . Then the union boss wouldn't allow it because I , from day one , would not clean his ass with my nose . Wasn't that I wasn't a good worker . Wasn't even that I was one to rock the boat … I just refused to be toilet paper so he wouldn't sign off and instead gave his ass licker ( who was probably the least qualified person in the plant ) the position. I wound up quitting over the insult and not only have I never worked for a union again but the owner and couple other supervisors were the references that lead to me becoming an upper level manager .
    Fact is I have never , in 5 attempts , worked for an honest union with integrity . Unfortunately for unions I am not alone and my story is way to common , hence why so many people , including democrats like myself , are anti union because it looks , feels and smells like a good Ole boys club for those willing to sell out .

  4. That law also lets scabs work on or at a union shop and not be in the union while still enjoying all the benefits of the union and not paying dues. They use to tell us if we want to be union then work at a union shop. Why can't we say if they don't want to be in the union then go work at a scab shop?

  5. We have to stop thinking these "FAILURES OF LEADERSHIP" are errors. These losses are calculated. Some union leadership, like democratic leadership, WANT TO LOSE.

  6. Uprising? Uprising? I know u guys are desperate but uprising??? LOL The "real news" has become a forum for black folks to call out to the heavens for all the grievances, not that I don't think its justified. But u know what? Remain a fringe channel that keeps talking about an uprising in Wisconsin for a dude never remembers an uprising in Wisconsin in 2011. You guys are almost reaching parody status I'm sorry to say.

  7. I live in wausau Wisconsin. What the pandemic made clear is Wisconsin does not care to be inclusive. I was a end of life/memory care cna for 12 yrs and I worked one yr of the pandemic. So of course healthcare workers got sick first with not much safety protections. So I have underlying conditions and covid gave me long covid. I have a connective tissue disorder called ehlers danlos syndrome and it took me personally 31 yrs to get an accurate diagnosis and I unknowingly damaged my body. Long covid exacerbated all of my comorbidities and 70% of my mobility gone. I'm fully disabled now. The disability process took 2 full yrs to get and it was an extremely difficult process. Prior to the pandemic I had a section 8 voucher for 3 yrs no problem complying and still working. Since my mobility changed I tried to find accessible housing and the housing authority admitted there is no accessible housing within their guidelines so they took my voucher for not finding accessible housing in the time limit given to me. So I relied on rental assistance and the rental management company refused to take the payments because it was slightly late. That was totally out of my hands and before all of this no one ever heard a peep from me and I was capable of existing for the most part. So this rental management company decided to serve me with an eviction. So I'm not sure what they think is gonna happen, are they gonna carry my disabled body out of my house or what. I did everything right as any healthcare professional would do and it is still a lose lose situation. I searched for accessible housing for almost 3 yrs now. There is none period. I also have 2 daughters who also have ehlers danlos syndrome and we've been excluded from in person school for 2 yrs because the wausau school district decided not to follow health department recommendations the whole time to keep every child and family safe. This whole system is impossible to navigate through and I know if I find it extremely difficult even with a medical background so many others that don't through no fault of their own even understand the right steps to take. This is unacceptable and no one deserves to have so many obstacles for basic needs to be met. People with disabilities have to adapt to the world around us when the world should be adapting to us. Accessibility is almost non existent and we can't leave our house because people with disabilities and immunocompromised are thought of as an acceptable loss to "getting back to normal". Our disabled lives matter. Do better Wisconsin.

  8. I remember when the so-called "heroic" teachers faked sick to protest during the week (you know, for the kids or something). Many even went so far as to find unethical doctors to write fake sick notes to do so. What wonderful role-models. If your sweet benefits are threatened, trash the capital, inconvenience the taxpayers (and parents/children you say you care so much about), and act like petulant children. Such good lessons!

  9. I was a homeless advocate for 7 years and all this sounds too familiar. Most people don't want to rock the boat, and few people have the balls to really stand up to authority anymore. Certainly not on behalf of the homeless, but also just in general. Watching the Democrats throw the homeless under the bus in favor of gentrification and then pretend like all the problems are the Republicans makes it very obvious that the neoliberal Dems aren't truly progressive at all, they love their status quo, but the average left-leaner has trouble understanding this. I figured nothing will happen until a fire is lit under more butts and our pain is felt and understood more generally. Pretty ironic when COVID hit and suddenly all these funds suddenly were available to get homeless people into motels. If there is no will, there is no way. The will is missing. Our country is too comfortable, and the risk of civil disobedience just isn't worth it to the average person. Just as Frank and Adrienne are describing, any appeasing tactic will be explored, but actual direct confrontation has become close to taboo. In a weird twist I wasn't expecting but was made super clear by the pandemic, the Left is actually more loyal to authority than the Right, at this point. I was so disgusted with what I was seeing, that I finally got off social media and my last post said, "If the People are not willing to fight for their rights, they deserve to be oppressed."

  10. Lesson #1. Democrats' choice to replace Walker was essentially Walker Lite, his critique of Walker was that Walker tried doing too much at once.

    Lesson #2 Ben Manske refused to run a Green candidate because he is a Democrat in the Green's leadership.

    Lesson #3. AFSCME members don't give jack shit about indigenous people. They made it all about them, when the bill also threatened to poison a while tribe.

    These were my takeaways having been involved in the uprising, before leaving the cesspool of shitlibbery that is Madison.

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