The re-election of Republican politician Scott Walker–union-buster, Tea Party favorite, crook and all-around barking dog—as Governor of Wisconsin after a huge, mass-based recall campaign, has been one of the biggest political stories of this election year. It has certainly dismayed millions of union members, progressives and Democratic voters in Wisconsin and the whole US. I would never argue that Walker’s victory is unimportant, but it doesn’t alter the most basic fact. The struggle that erupted in Wisconsin in Wisconsin has been, arguably, the most important battle waged by the US working class in several decades.
That importance is too easy to overlook, because the most recent, and longest stage of the battle was largely electoral and because the Wisconsin Upsurge was eclipsed last Fall by a broader development in the class struggle in the US, a development it helped to lay the foundation for–the Occupy! Movement. The point of this article is to help us remind ourselves of how Wisconsin has already changed things in this country.
The basic story can be told in a few paragraphs. Scott Walker, newly elected Governor in the traditionally unionized industrial state of Wisconsin, announced on Friday, February 11, 2011 that he was putting legislation before the Republican-dominated Wisconsin Assembly and Senate to mend the state’s budget deficit. The main item in the bill was to make collective bargaining between public workers’ unions and any level of state and local government illegal. Combined with a ban on “dues checkoff” (the means by which unions collect membership dues from the weekly paychecks of members), this amounted to an all-out effort to smash public sector unions in the state.
After picket lines on the weekend, protests started in earnest on Monday. By Tuesday, over 10,000 people gathered at the State Capitol building in Madison to protest. That night, 3000 protesters occupied the building (triggering, when I read about it, personal memories of sleeping on the cold marble floor when students seized the Capitol during a protest in the late ‘70s). They set up sleeping areas, a canteen to distribute food donated by local businesses and an information center. And they filled the walls with hundreds of home-made signs, all prefiguring what happened in Zucotti Park and cities around the US later in the year.
The next day, thousands of teachers called in sick and joined the demonstration, which drew over 20,000, forcing many schools to close to close. On Thursday, February 14, all 14 Democratic state Senators fled across the state line to deprive Walker’s Republican allies of the quorum they needed to pass the bill. They would stay away from their homes and families for three weeks so Walker could not send state police to force their attendance at Senate sessions.
On Friday, there were 40,000 at a rally, where the head of the US union movement, AFL-CIO president Rich Trumka, spoke. Meanwhile scores of rallies drawing hundreds and even thousands took place in cities and small towns in parts of the state remote from Madison, many of them the largest protests ever recorded in those places. Saturday’s rally drew 70,000.
Protests continued to swell, especially the weekend rallies in Madison, which soon drew 100,000 or more. The movement got a trademark meme too. When right wing commentator Bill O’Reilly denounced “union thugs” for roughing up counter-protesters in Madison, Fox News ran a clip behind him of someone pushing a pro-Walker guy. Alert viewers spotted the palm trees in the background and realized that it was from a demonstration in California. Huge cardboard palm trees began showing up at actions large and small in the Wisconsin winter, mocking right-wing media attacks on the protest.
The Cairo Connection
One of the most amazing things about the upsurge in Wisconsin is how hugely it drew inspiration and flava from the unfolding Arab Democratic Revolution. In this country, internal affairs in Middle Eastern and African nations are rarely reported on at all. This time, though, the popular revolt in Egypt in particular was so massive, and so caught the Western powers off-guard. that media coverage was broad and lacked the official State Department spin that usually renders mainstream international reporting so deadly dull.
Though it was only last year, it’s too easy to forget how many people in the US were talking about Tahrir Square, following the ups and downs of the anti-Mubarak struggle, going to bed worried about the protesters and waking up jonesing for the latest news. More than anything else, it was the determination of the people in Egypt to face down murderous attacks and push their demands day after day that won them the unexpected sympathy and support of so many here. After decades of anti-Arab, anti-Muslim poison actively pumped into the culture of this country, this was profoundly moving.
From the first day, signs in Madison made repeated references to Cairo and compared Walker to Mubarak. Some waved Egyptian flags. The wide publicity when Egyptian activists placed online orders for pizzas to be delivered to protesters sleeping in the Capitol in Madison showed that solidarity is a two way street.
(To make this point from another angle, imagine for a moment how different things might have been if the first, and less reported, Tunisian upsurge had been followed directly by Libya and the brutal conversion of a mass protest movement into a bloody civil war by Qadaffi’s savage attacks on the populace and the deadly covert and open military intervention of NATO.)
The power of what happened in Wisconsin stemmed above all else from how the struggle has been waged. It was fought like a long strike, not a protest rally, not a big demonstration. There is a reason for this—from soon after it started, capable staffers from the Wisconsin AFL-CIO and other advisers quietly helped to organize the protests, to mobilize union, Democratic Party and public support, and to provide resources as well as media and logistical savvy to keep the huge demonstrations running smoothly.
This is not to take anything away from the semi-spontaneous character of the eruption (reminiscent of Tunis and Cairo) and the lack of media-appointed “leaders.” The start and character of the occupation of the Capitol building, for instance, were very much bottom-up.
The fact that this was fought as a campaign opened up all kinds of possibilities. The dogged persistence of the protesters and the determination of those occupying the Capitol building in February and March of last year provided time to create favorable new conditions through struggle.
Time to mobilize the people’s forces for action.
Time to develop tactics to stall a vote on the anti-union bill.
Time to expose the lies of the enemy and hold them up to ridicule.
Time to put a spotlight on the puppetmasters pulling the strings that animated Walker, especially reclusive right-wing billionaires, the Koch brothers.
Time to research and drag out Walker’s rotten and corrupt record in his earlier position as Conty Executive of Milwaukee County, the state’s most populous.
(Compare this with the organized trade union movement’s main response to newly-elected President Ronald Reagan’s 1981 crushing assault on PATCO, the striking air traffic controllers union. Solidarity Day drew a half a million angry union members to Washington DC for a monster march and rally–following which they all got on their buses and headed home to business as usual.)
One source of strength in this campaign was the Internet, especially Facebook, and associated new media like Twitter. As in Tunisia and Egypt, relying solely on the local Wisconsin news and national television coverage would never have permitted momentum to develop as it did. Information spread fast, statewide mobilizations were possible, and morale soared.
A Broad United Front
At the core of the struggle, of course, were the members of the public sector unions in Wisconsin, but a broad and powerful united front formed around them, drawing from many sectors.
The key ally in the first few days was college students, especially those from the University of Wisconsin’s flagship campus, conveniently located in Madison. Buoyed by a decades old tradition of struggle, they provided the shock troops for the occupation of the Capitol building and for much of the protest and support activity outside.
And it wasn’t just solidarity with University staff–they had a dog in the fight: The governor’s budget plan includes cuts to higher education, ending in-state tuition for undocumented students and detaching the Madison campus from the rest of the state university system (which would weaken student resistance to future attacks).
Also throwing themselves into the battle early and hard were public school students and their parents. Often industrial action (i.e. striking) by teachers is perceived or spun as an attack on the kids, but that one went nowhere this time. Students walked out across the state in support of their teachers–and parents marched right alongside. In some cases in the first days, it was spontaneous student walkouts that pulled out the teachers!
One reason was the over-the-top attacks by Walker backers on teachers as freeloaders milking an easy gig. A parent with only one or two teenagers knows how ridiculous it is to levy such a charge against someone spending the day with 30 or 40 of them at a time. Another impetus to mobilize was provided by Walker’s budget proposal. Not only did it cut almost a billion dollars from state aid to schools, it required school districts to reduce their property tax authority by an average of $550 per pupil, so citizens can’t even vote to let their local school districts make up the lost money! There would be no way to make up these cuts without taking it out of teachers’ hides.
Adding weight and unity to the battle were union members from the private sector (and federal unions like the postal unions and AFGE). Absent was the disgraceful elbow-throwing and backstabbing between public and private sector unions and within the different public sector unions to get preferential treatment from elected officials which has recently characterized organized labor in places like New York State.
Also important was a large contingent of liberals and progressives, including both Democratic Party loyalists and others who had worked and voted for Obama and were openly dismayed at how little Hope and Change they actually got.
And while we are looking at how class forces lined up, it’s important to note that that traditional Marxist favorite, the peasantry, showed up. Todd Pulvermaker, 33, at the wheel of one of dozens of tractors driven by Wisconsin farmers to the huge rally on March 12, said: “Farmers are working-class Americans. We work for a living as hard as anybody, and this is about all of us.”
As anyone who ever made an interstate road trip in the US as a kid knows, the state’s license plates have read “America’s Dairyland” for decades. (A splendid 1985 grassroots effort to change it to “Eat Cheese Or Die” was killed by pointy-headed bureaucrats, perhaps worried about offending tourists from New Hampshire with their “Live Free Or Die” plates.) The license plates are not kidding. Agriculture is the number two sector of the state’s economy and 40% of US cheese comes from Wisconsin, so the organized showing by progressive farmers was very significant.
There were some unexpected and crucial allies:
The police union (to some extent following the lead of the firefighters union) took a larger view of their role as protectors of the existing order than they usually do, and declared Walker’s plan as an attack on that order. Furthermore, off-duty state cops took part in the (technically legal) occupation of the Capitol and also refused illegal orders to repress the demonstration. And all this was in spite of the fact that Walker hypocritically exempted the cops and firefighters from his ban on collective bargaining. For those among us with little love for the cops, it’s easy to miss the importance of this development in demonstrating to folks whose opinions were swaying as the battle raged how intolerable Walker’s proposals were.
The 14 Democratic Senators in the Wisconsin legislature who hightailed it for the border played a key role in the protracted struggle. They stalled the drive to push through the anti-labor law by denying the Republican politicians who controlled the legislature the votes they needed to hold a vote on Walker’s budget. This was a gutsy act, and a strategic one. As Mao Zedong, a guy who knew something about tactics, said, “When the enemy attacks, we retreat.”
Note that all the forces addressed so far in this analysis are Wisconsin-based. That was the battlefield, and the alignment of class forces in the state was the most important factor. That said, the massive support given by union members and others from the rest of the country–and around the world–helped keep the spotlight on Madison. On February 17, less than a week after things jumped off, protests were held in all 50 states in support of the Wisconsin struggle.
The End Of The First Stage
The culmination of the first and most massive stage of the Battle of Wisconsin took place in the second week of March. The Republicans figured out that by removing any references to state financial matters from the union-busting bill, it only required a majority to be present to pass it. On March 9 and 10 the Republicans in the Senate and the Assembly voted it up–the assembly took 17 seconds to pass it–and a delighted Walker signed it into law on the 11th.
The next day, the Wisconsin 14 returned to the state and were greeted by a rally of 150,000 people, the largest yet. Where was the struggle to go from here?
The movement was now confronted by three possible paths:
Escalate by calling a general strike.
This is an idea to delight any revolutionary’s heart (including mine), and the most strident advocates were anarchists and dogmatic communists, mainly from Trotskyist organizations. But the idea had broader appeal. The South Central Federation of Labor, the coordinating body for unions in the greater Madison area, voted to educate its members about the idea of a general strike.
The big problem was that it wasn’t going to happen. Talk is cheap. Only a handful of general strikes have been called in United States history, fewer have succeeded in shutting down the area where they happened and even fewer in gaining the demands for which they were undertaken. The last general strike to actually win took place in Oakland, California in 1946. It is illegal for public workers to strike in Wisconsin and sympathy strikes by workers not directly involved in a contract dispute are banned by federal law. Finally, no one could offer a realistic plan which showed how a strike could be mobilized and how it could win its aims.
Continue the protests combined with legal action in the courts.
This did happen. Legal challenges kept the new law from going into effect until April. Demonstrations continued almost weekly through July, as did more vigorous protests like disruptions of the Senate and Assembly but the numbers never reached those of the peak weeks of struggle. The law had been passed and put into effect. It was clear that no amount of demonstrating would change that.
Shift the focus to electoral politics.
This least attractive, to revolutionaries anyhow, option became the main focus of the movement. As it happened, Wisconsin is one of the 19 states which has legal provision for the recall of elected officials by popular vote, so this work could start immediately and provide an outlet for the anger of the forces which had made up the united front.
In the first round of recalls, petitions to recall six Republican State Senators were filed. Three Republicans had to be replaced to end their majority in the Senate and block further legislation. In August, two lost to the candidates the Democrats put up. Though this was a major accomplishment, it was not a victory. If your team needs to win three games to get into the playoffs, and fights really hard and wins two games, you don’t get to say you won. The legislature and Governor Walker continued to pass reactionary bills for the rest of the year, like his savage austerity budget and a law designed to cut students and poor people off the electoral rolls, in the name of fighting “voter fraud.”
But this was not the end of the electoral struggle. Governor Walker became subject to recall after his first year in office and on January 17 of this year more than a million signatures of eligible voters were submitted to state officials, along with petitions to recall his lieutenant governor and four more Republican Senators.
Meanwhile one of the Republican State Senators facing recall suddenly resigned in mid-March, leaving the Senate evenly split and ending the ability of Walker & Co. to pass any legislation they want. After November, 2011, Walker spent almost no time on Wisconsin state business and instead traveled around the country raising vast sums of money from the wealthy to fight for his job, over $30 million.
The electoral phase of the Battle of Wisconsin concluded on June 5. It concluded with a defeat—Walker beat a weak Democratic candidate by a solid margin in a very large turnout for a local election. There was a consolation prize—one of the Republican state senators who was also in the recall election went down to defeat in a squeaker, leaving the Senate with a slim Democratic majority, enough to blunt new attacks by Walker and his crew.
There will be plenty of summation to be done in the coming months. Was the enormous expenditure of energy and resources in the recall effort a mistake? Did Walker’s 10-1 money advantage and massive broadcast advertising buys make him invincible? In particular, we need a deeper understanding of the forces who turned out to vote for Walker and how they have been mobilized into a defense force for the large corporations at the expense of their own interests.
(Meanwhile there may still be twists and turns in the Battle of Wisconsin. Leaks from within the legal system, suggest that twin corruption investigations, by Wisconsin authorities and the FBI, will bring felony indictments of some of Walker’s top aides and maybe the governor himself, in coming months.)
What We’ve Won Already
But it is also important not to forget that the Wisconsin Upsurge has already won its greatest victories. “That’s easy for you to say,” I’ve heard friends from Wisconsin respond. True, vast amounts of money and time–hundreds of thousands, perhaps over a million person-hours—were expended in the effort to take Walker out. But it is the exactly the blunt impact of the electoral defeat that is leading too many folks to adopt a bleak and narrow summation. Rather, it is crucial that we remember the context in which this stage of the battle has been fought and the magnitude of what has been accomplished starting last February.
1. Wisconsin went a long way toward reclaiming for the crisis of legitimacy of the US capitalist system from the Tea Party. We live in a country where most people feel powerless over their lives, fearful about the future and unrepresented by the government. This sentiment should be the organizing terrain of the left, whose critique of the capitalist system is based in that reality.
Instead the Tea Party movement—part bought-and-paid-for Astroturf (fake “grassroots,” that is) pumped up by the mainstream media, part an expression of nativism, insecurity and wounded narcissism on the part of older middle class whites—seized the ground. The Tea Party came into being in response to the meltdown of the US economy that started in the Bush administration and to the election of a Black man as President.
The Tea Party forces had by and large been molded into an unruly and influential subsidiary of the Republican Party by the time of the 2010 midterm elections that propelled Walker (and many Congressional Republicans nationally) into office. But they were still portrayed by the media as an angry voice of populist protest. It took the Wisconsin eruption to end that.
Some local Tea Party activists actually sided with the protesters. Most, belatedly, got the message that they should oppose it, but wound up staying home anyhow. Their organizing efforts were pathetic. Their counter-protests drew in the hundreds, once or twice perhaps bumping into the four figures—and that with free buses bringing in members from other state!
In the face of a real eruption of protest, the myth of the Tea Party as the real rebels against a deeply corrupt and unresponsive political and economic system couldn’t stand. Its various organizational incarnations eroded even more rapidly and its activists’ focus on electing Republicans, the loonier the better, intensified.
2. Wisconsin substantially deepened and broadened popular understanding of the role that big capital plays in the US electoral system. This has been a running sore within the system especially since the US Supreme Court ruled in the Citizens United case in 2010 that, as legal “persons,” corporations could not be prevented from spending unlimited amounts of money, largely in secret, to affect the outcome of elections in the US.
The exposure of the Koch Brothers as major backers of candidate Walker and then Governor Walker came first. The golden moment was when Walker was totally suckered by a spoof telephone call from a blogger pretending to be one of the Koch brothers, which was recorded and circulated on the Internet, then in the mainstream media.
Looking into the Koch Brothers resulted in the shining of a light on some of their pet projects, especially ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council. This right wing think tank specializes in writing legislation, anti-environmental, anti-regulation, anti-women, anti-labor laws that could be put forward at the state and national level by affiliated politicians (mostly, but by no means exclusively, Republicans). The organization crafted the attack on public sector unions launched by Walker and his minions in the Wisconsin legislature.
The exposure of ALEC last year helped lay the groundwork for a massive fightback this Spring when ALEC-written legislation targeting women’s reproductive rights showed up in Arizona, Kansas and other states. This was followed by the vigilante murder of Black teen Trayvon Martin in Florida by a killer who proclaimed his innocence under an ALEC-written “Stand Your Ground” law. Angry protest erupted. Scores of legislators have resigned from the group and more than a dozen major companies, including Coca-Cola, Proctor & Gamble and Walmart have withdrawn their membership and their substantial donations from ALEC.
3. Wisconsin galvanized the reeling labor movement in the US. By 2010, fewer than 7% of private sector workers were in unions—the lowest level since 1932! Public sector workers, now the mainstay of organized labor, have become the target of the ruling class–facing huge layoffs as state and local governments cut back services and privatize operations.
Unions had gone all out to get Barack Obama elected in 2008, but got little for their efforts. He sidetracked their key issue, Card Check, which would have made organizing the unorganized easier. While dumping trillions into the banks, his programs to spend federal money to stimulate the economy were halfhearted at best, leaving jobs scarce.
Last year’s Wisconsin upheaval was the largest, most sustained defense of union jobs and public services in decades. Union officials and active rank and filers around the country were galvanized. Similar legislation was passed by Republican legislators in Ohio and unions mobilized heavily there for a ballot initiative which reversed the law and restored collective bargaining to public worker–by a lopsided 61-39 vote. Others wondered how they could kick off such an uprising when elected officials in other states, no matter how right wing, suddenly seemed awfully timid about making such rash attacks on public workers–and putting themselves in the crosshairs for Wisconsin-style resistance.
4. Wisconsin set the stage for Occupy Wall Street!
There are many obvious ways in which the Wisconsin upsurge laid the groundwork for the Occupy! movement that swept the US last fall, even including the trademark tactic—the occupation (technically legal) of public space for an extended period.
The most important thing, though, I would argue, is how it created the conditions for the trade unions and workers more generally to see themselves as part of–or at least allied with—Occupy Wall Street! from early on. This was a key element in establishing Occupy! as a new force in political struggle, in mass consciousness and even in daily life in this country.
For one thing, it underlined the possibility of the kind of broad cross-class united front that could be built in defense of public services and the living standards of working people. For another, it strongly suggested that the unions had alternatives to their traditional and obviously failed way of doing business: sustaining juiceless alliances with mainstream NGOs, lobbying incessantly in Congress and state legislatures, and dutifully providing money and shock troops to the Democratic Party in election years.
Without the leg up provided by the transformative experience of the Wisconsin Upsurge, it is unlikely that the unions would have grasped, let alone seized upon, what OWS! had to offer them. First, it provided a vivid new way of framing the issues, identifying the struggle as that of the 99% against the 1%, rather than the defense of the “middle class” against mean attacks from corporations and right wing politicians.
Even more important, it showed that it is not necessary to wait for a Wisconsin-type assault from right-wing elected officials to move people into action. We can take the offensive, and directly challenge the domination of Wall Street and its ownership of the political system.
And in turn, the willingness of working men and women and of unions to embrace, however timidly, Occupy Wall Street! insured that that action would set the stage for a whole new kind of movement and strategy in this country, one that has already rocked the 1% back on their heels.
This article is based on a piece written by the author for publication in a forthcoming issue of the Norwegian magazine Rødt, published by the Red Party there.Download this piece as a PDF