One of the most significant episodes in recent labor history, the events in Madison, Wisconsin, during the winter of 2011 also proved to be a critical moment for labor historians. This essay explores the various ways that labor historians served as public intellectuals—explaining, interpreting, and advocating for the movement against Governor Scott Walker's assault on public-employee collective bargaining. Although I conclude that most scholars did a fine job of using history to illuminate the grand uprising, I am critical of some scholars who led a simplistic cheerleading for the supposedly grand triumphs of Madison, or who retreated to a facile Popular Front-style liberalism, or who saw the events in Wisconsin as mere workings of a grand right-wing conspiracy. Ultimately I argue that one of the most promising contributions that historians made during the Madison moment was to both model and engage in the kind of historiographical debate that actively seeks the intellectual engagement of ordinary citizens.
Skip Nav Destination