EMAJ Supporter Frank Emspak and Union Struggle



by Mark Lewis Taylor

I drove up from Chicago to Madison on March 11 to see how protestors were responding the day after Republicans’ rushed passage of the bill that not only unleashes severe budget cuts, but also deprives unions of key collective bargaining rights. I was hoping to find some way to be in touch with professor emeritus, Frank Emspak, of the University of Wisconsin-Extension School for Workers, and signer of several EMAJ public ads for Mumia from the beginning. Over the years, organized labor and Mumia have worked in a mutually supportive relationship. Lately, Emspak has offered valuable perspective on the Wisconsin situation, appearing, for example, on Democracy Now! He is also general manager of Workers Independent News.

        I found the spirits of Wisconsin demonstrators high, and protestors deftly mixing organizing fortitude and artistic imagination. The next day, March 12, would see 85,000-100,000 people fill the capitol square, in the largest labor solidarity demo yet. Clearly peoples’ movements in this country can mobilize large masses for key justice issues. Still, mainstream media continues to cover small Tea Party events with more care than such massive gatherings.

      On my visit to Madison, I also did find Frank Emspak by phone interview, just prior to my joining protestors in the Wisconsin Capitol rotunda for a “Solidarity Sing-a-Long” at noon. I return to that below, but here’s how the interview went.

Taylor: Given last night’s Republican vote, and Governor Scott Walker’s plans to sign the bill as soon as this morning, is there a chance of protestors turning out in less numbers, of a demoralization setting in?
Emspak: No, not really. Some of the staff at some Union levels may know some discouragement, perhaps. But actually, we knew this kind of bill would pass, that one way or another, the newly elected governor and his supporters would attack collective bargaining. The much publicized protests have been going on for some time, but I’d like to emphasize that organizing at grassroots levels had been going on long before the much publicized protests. What you see now is the fruit of planning, meeting, and extraordinary organizing that has been going on in Wisconsin for some time.

Taylor: I understand that today, from 2 pm on that there is a planned high school walkout, designed to support the protest.
Emspak: I hear that, too – and it has happened before. Students from diverse schools have been present in the hundreds and thousands. They are made up of youth from the cities, but also from the suburbs. White youth from areas thought to be privileged and protected are also stepping forward, knowing that their futures are jeopardized by this attack on workers’ rights. See the videos of high school students and teachers protesting in Wisconsin and linking our state struggle to the federal budget’s war on educators. Much of this is also covered at our labor radio venue, Workers Independent News. High school students have come from as far as 11 miles away, and further in the Madison area.

Taylor: Given your travel and watching the movement elsewhere, would you say that this movement and support is strong throughout the country – not just in Madison?
Emspak: Absolutely…take note that last Saturday, nearly every single state in the nation had something…some form of support for our struggle, which, of course is their struggle and going on in different ways elsewhere. There were several thousand, reportedly, in Springfield, Massachusetts. I would stress, too, that here in Wisconsin, this is not just a Madison thing. Nearly every major city in the state features protests and organizing efforts of some sort. It is not unusual to find workers giving themselves to as many as five meetings a week in order to formulate plans for their struggle. And the emphasis is falling not just on working conditions or budget cuts but on the “right to work” and the “rights of workers.” Many workers not in unions are finding themselves realizing the value of unions and of organized labor in this struggle. . . and this is a good thing.

Taylor: How would you describe the racial profile of the movement? Is this about more than the concerns of white workers?
Emspak: Indeed…well, I’m not sure what you mean about “white workers” – this has been a very diverse group. To be sure, the majority of organized workers in Wisconsin are whites. But watch what happens when city workers turn out, especially workers from Milwaukee. Then you’ll see the important presence of Black and Hispanic workers. If this is not stressed, much of the fault lies with the media, which is another reason that the independent media venues are so important. Mainstream media tend to focus on budget issues and budget cuts, instead of workers’ rights. They also tend to slight the importance of this workers’ struggle for women, for students, and for people of color. But the word is getting out.

Taylor: I see chalk-writing on sidewalks around the capitol building, and several read, “Need Money? Cut Prison Spending!” How do you see prison funding intersecting with this effort?
Emspak: Well, one problem is that 16-18 years ago, Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson began funding prison-building as if was a development project for the state. So today, public funds are subsidizing prisons as much as, or more than, workers’ needs. Things can get complicated sometimes, though, with prison guards on the state payroll having their own unions. How does one question prison spending while supporting prison guards’ workers’ rights and needs? Similar questions arise regarding unions in the defense sector, which are the most stable unions.

Taylor: EMAJ and movements for Mumia have always celebrated the peoples’ arts as crucial to organizing and protest. As with the anti-globalization movements, it seems that the arts are out in force here in Madison. There is today’s “Solidarity-Sing-Along” in the rotunda, tomorrow’s parade of tractors around the capitol (“Tractor-cade”), and also an art-workers march.

Emspak: Yes, the art of all kinds – music, dancers, performances at area theaters, the marches and singing – it’s just wonderful. I must say, that kind of energy, vivaciousness, the verve, is absolutely crucial. Just great.

Taylor: Is there anything else you’d like to add, other points you find it important to make whenever you speak on these issues?    Emspak: Well, yes…It’s crucial to support the independent media and press. In this whole struggle, it is they who have really carried the ball. And we need to be vigilant about the ways U.S. major media is controlling media access to coverage. They have their own themes to stress, like “budget” cuts, and they miss the crucial issues of workers’ rights, womens’ rights and those of communities of color. The state has tried, for example, to deny a press pass to independent videographer, Doug Cunningham, also radio producer for Workers Independent News. We’ve been successful in seeing that he gets one, but he has it only on a day-by-day basis. It’s a continual struggle, and one we must continue to wage.

Taylor: Thanks for your time, Frank. Hope our paths cross soon.

I ended the phone interview with Emspak, and then rushed up the hill to the Wisconsin capital building, where I stood in line to wait to go through metal detectors and a quick body-scan search. Then I joined hundreds of protestors already inside, ringing the rails around the rotunda on three floors, while speakers spoke upward from the center floor below, bringing greetings from all parts of the country and different sectors of Wisconsin working life. I took my turn with a brief speech, bringing greetings from EMAJ, and from the AAUP local chapter at my academic institution.
            The singing began soon. There were the dependable songs of labor tradition, such as “I’m Stickin’ to the Union,” and “Solidarity Forever,” protest spirituals like “Keep Your Eyes on the Prize,” “We Shall Not be Moved,” and “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me ‘roun.”
            Three women brought the house down with a trio performance re-adapting for the day an Andrae Crouch song, “Soon and Very Soon.” Its playful gloss on the gospel song pointed all organizers toward the recall effort now being waged against Governor Scott Walker and the Republicans who voted to attack workers’ rights:

There’ll be no more cryin’ here
Hallelu, Hallelu –
They will all be recalled!
Soon and very soon –
All will be recalled!” (see the actual March 11, 2011 performance here)