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Larry Marx 'Takes Five'
20 years of pushing for social change
Last Updated: Nov. 9, 2003
Wisconsin Citizen Action is celebrating its 20th anniversary and looking back at its accomplishments of advocating for issues of social, economic and environmental change. Considered the largest public-interest group in the state, the coalition comprises 207 organizations with 75,000 members and offices in Milwaukee, Madison and Green Bay. Since 1994, Larry Marx, based in Milwaukee, has been co-director of the organization. He spoke with reporter Georgia Pabst about the organization's work.
Q. How did Wisconsin Citizen Action start?
A. It started as a single-issue organization focused on energy policy and prices in the late 1970s. Eighteen organization came together to work against the policy of utility companies to shut utilities off to customers whose bills were delinquent, regardless of whether it was winter or summer. Some 500 seniors died as result of that policy. With a little bit of pressure, they changed that policy, and ever since, there's been a ban on winter shut-offs. That was a victory for what was then the Wisconsin Citizen Labor Energy Coalition.
Q. What's been the biggest, overarching accomplishment of Wisconsin Citizen Action during its 20 years?
A. The mining moratorium (in 1998) was a huge victory. Exxon, a mining owner, was spending $1 million in a media campaign and, God knows how much in lobbying against the bill. We were part of a broad coalition of groups and tribal councils who fought back and won . . . SeniorCare was a victory. With the Wisconsin AARP and a coalition of Wisconsin aging groups, we drafted legislation to pass SeniorCare. It's the third most generous benefit in the country for prescription drugs. Some 260,000 seniors do benefit or could potentially benefit from that.
Q. Does this job of organizing get easier or harder over the years?
A. (Laughs) It seems like the problems get harder, but the struggle seems a little easier. Maybe with time, age and maturity there's more lightheartedness and wisdom in fighting for social changes. There's deeper insights into how intractable some problems are. There's a joy and love to this work.
Q. Doesn't it get discouraging?
A. No question. You lose more often then you win, but the ones you win are enough to give you a glimpse at the kind of world we could create. A lot of us who do social change organizing work steep ourselves in history and know there are moments in this country when there are surges toward justice, like the civil rights and women's movement. I feel the rumblings of a similar surge right now.
Q. What's the hardest issue to crack?
A. I think how you crack poverty and how you lift people out of poverty is so multivariable that it's quite difficult. If it were easier to organize unions . . . surveys show 40% of non-unionized work force would sign up for a union if given the opportunity. It's tied to education, transportation and so many other variables. The infrastructure for lifting people out of poverty is decaying and the political will is decaying, too.
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