We need to more effectively publicize the Wisconsin struggle

Originally in The Progressive magazine

By Rebecca Kemble, July 11, 2011

Most of the 200-plus participants in the Eastern Conference for Workplace Democracy held in Baltimore in July would identify their politics as somewhere between progressive and radical. They are also people who tend to be well-informed. It was surprising, therefore, to find that many of those attending the session “Lessons from Wisconsin: Work­er Co-ops and Labor Unions in Solidarity” had such sketchy knowledge about the right-­wing attack and the popular fight back in our state.

Together with John McNamara, comrade and colleague from Union Cab of Madison Cooperative, we developed a slideshow presentation detailing the role of Madison area cooperatives in the Fitzwalkerstan Resistance over the past five months. Our intention was to spark a larger discussion about the increasing role of worker co-ops in the U.S. labor movement, and to explore new openings for public education and outreach initiatives.

The political and economic forces rolling through Wisconsin do not stop at her borders. We hoped to give other worker cooperators a sense of the possibilities for building resistance and solidarity when union-busting and public sector austerity come knocking on the doors of their states.

Much to our surprise, our typically media-savvy audience had a very rudimentary grasp of the facts on the ground. We spent most of the session filling in the gaps. “Supreme Court Justices choking each other? You’re kidding, right? He’s still on the bench?” and, “I’ve heard incarceration rates in Wisconsin are high, but school districts contracting for prisoners to maintain buildings? Really?” were just a few of the incredulous responses to our slides.

We never did get around to speaking in any detail about our conversations with rank and filers about how to reinvigorate grassroots democratic practices within unions. Nor did we delve too deeply into the ways in which the United Steel Workers is venturing beyond the world of Employee Stock Ownership Programs and dipping its toes into actual worker ownership.

It became clear that there is little or no accurate, up-to-date reporting on the particular ways in which the corporate agenda and the resistance to it are being played out in Wisconsin. The down and dirty details of what state senator Bob Jauch called “dictatorial madness” and State Representative Tamara Grigsby dubbed “a disgusting level of arrogance” by the governing class in Wisconsin are largely unknown to those outside our borders.

Corporate control of mainstream media is the big problem. For those of us unwilling to completely cede the realm of public debate and opinion, it is even more important to support community-based and independent media. Additionally, we need to create new ways of producing and distributing critical, on-the-ground reporting.

The first session I attended in Baltimore was entitled, “Building a Cooperative Media Network: Questions and Lessons for Participa­tory Demo­cra­tic Journalism,” and was led by Dru Jay of Media Co-Op (mediacoop.ca). This project is built on the collaboration of four autonomous reporting cooperatives in Halifax, Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver. Media Co-op is com­mitted to “covering stories from the perspectives of those who are most affected by those issues,” by reporters who are rooted in their communities.

As resources for conventional reporting dry up in the United States, this is a model we should definitely explore.

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