Wisconsin and the shape of things to come

March 16, 2011

What we do now to spread the inspiration and lessons of the mobilization against Scott Walker's anti-union attack will set the stage for the new Wisconsins to come.

SCOTT WALKER may have won the battle, but he ignited a war that is far from over.

After the uprising in Wisconsin, the class war in the U.S. is two-sided in a way it hasn't been for decades--offering the hope that in a few year's time, Walker's success in ramming through an anti-union law will seem less important than the birth of the movement of working people that arose to challenge him.

Walker took office as governor of Wisconsin with the aim of advancing along every front in the corporate-backed Republican war on workers--attacking unions, shredding the social safety net, imposing austerity in every realm of the government that doesn't serve the interests of capital, scapegoating the poor and oppressed.

When his "budget repair bill" was blocked by weeks of mass mobilizations, he resorted to an underhanded maneuver to pass it into law, which stripped away the ideological cover for the proposal and revealed its true purpose--nothing less than an assault on the working class, its organizations and the right to protest.

Workers and families from all over Wisconsin join in protest outside the Capitol in Madison
Workers and families from all over Wisconsin join in protest outside the Capitol in Madison (Jessie Reeder)

But this offensive against working people, which is being repeated in different forms throughout the U.S., has provoked a response unlike any in more than a generation.

The days and nights of action in the capital of Madison reflected the breadth of the new resistance--university students who organized the first protests; high schoolers who led the surge of demonstrators into the state Capitol building; teachers and other public-sector unionists who called in sick or organized job actions; labor activists and socialists from around the state and the country who turned out to protest and participate in the Capitol occupation; people from every walk of life who wanted to stand up for the victims of Walker's war on the most vulnerable.

The upsurge in Wisconsin gave a concrete and activist expression to a political radicalization that has been brewing in the U.S. for years. In the 2000s, it took shape in the final years of the Bush administration as a rejection of an increasingly despised president and his disastrous wars. It was sharpened when the Wall Street crash and the economic crisis revealed the failures of capitalism.

Barack Obama was the prime beneficiary of this left-wing shift with his 2008 presidential campaign that seemed to speak for the millions of people who wanted something different. But the first years of the Obama administration were a time of frustration. The Democrats in power betrayed the expectations of those who put their hopes in them. Yet with only a few exceptions, such as the new struggle for LGBT equality and the immigrant rights movement, there was little grassroots struggle in response.

Now, that impasse has been broken. The uprising in Wisconsin--taking inspiration from the wave of revolutions halfway across the world in North Africa and the Middle East--has given its participants and all those who sympathized with it a taste of the power of mass mobilization and the importance of struggle in winning real change.

In a month's time, Wisconsin's uprising has taught us an enormous amount--the necessity of protest; the special power of workers to paralyze the system; how Democratic officeholders and union leaders can be pressured to act; how these same figures will simultaneously attempt to demobilize the struggle and steer it in the direction of compromise and moderation.

These lessons need to be understood and put to use by everyone who wants to see more Wisconsins. They should be taken up in forums and discussions, but also put into practice in the day-to-day work of the building of every struggle in every corner of this society.

ONE CONSEQUENCE of Barack Obama's dismal record in office has been the rise of the Republican right, most obviously in the form of the Tea Party movement.

The Republicans were crushed by the Democratic landslide in the 2008 election and reduced to the smallest minorities in both houses of Congress in years. But because Obama failed to deliver on his promises of change and very quickly became associated with the same policies of defending corporate power as his predecessors, conservatives were able to repackage themselves, using fake populist rhetoric against Obama's "big government elitism."

Incredibly, the first party of big business cruised to victory in 2010 by portraying itself--in spite of its record of slavish devotion to Corporate America and Wall Street--as the defender of ordinary people against the Washington elite, led by Obama.

But this sleight of hand required that Republicans obscure their real agenda--an agenda that was bound to be exposed when the GOP took control of the House of Representatives at the federal level and governor's mansions and statehouses beyond that.

Thus, Scott Walker's first act in office was to push through two corporate tax breaks and a conservative health care policy that cost the state more than $100 million in revenues. Then he called a special session of the legislation to consider a "budget repair bill" to cover a shortfall he had just made worse. The message was crystal-clear: Wisconsin was open for business--as the billionaire Koch brothers understood when they opened a lobbying office across the street from the Capitol--and working people were going to be told to pay for it.

If anyone still thinks Walker is an exception, they need only look at the proposals of other Republican governors around the Midwest. For example, Michigan's new Gov. Rick Snyder has proposed cutting 8 to 10 percent from state education funding; eliminating the state's Earned Income Tax Credits and various other tax benefits that help predominantly working people--and reducing taxes on businesses by an incredible 86 percent.

But it's important to recognize that Democrats like Illinois' Pat Quinn or New York's Andrew Cuomo are also pushing cutbacks and layoffs--only they're doing it with kinder and gentler rhetoric in the hopes of getting the cooperation of unions and pro-Democratic liberal organizations. Obama himself has furthered this agenda with his three-year pay freeze on federal employees outside defense and national security.

This shows that the drive for austerity in the U.S. must be understood as more than Tea Party fanaticism. It is one vital part of the overall policy of the U.S. ruling class--another aspect of an assault on working-class living standards that has been underway for decades and has taken on a new intensity with the late 2000s economic crisis.

In other words, Scott Walker's policy is the policy of U.S. capitalism--to push down wages and benefits and cut away at social programs in order to expand the profits and power of the capitalists.

This may seem like it's stating the obvious, but it's an important starting point for understanding the outcome in Wisconsin: There was no opposition to Walker's plan from Corporate America in favor of moderation or a democratic process to arrive at a negotiated settlement because the interests of capitalism lie in as little moderation and democracy as possible when it comes to driving down workers' living standards.

THE OPPOSITION to Scott Walker had to come from below--and with the uprising in Wisconsin, we got a glimpse of the kind of power that can stop the ruling-class offensive on all its fronts: mass mobilization and workers' action.

The Democratic state senators who fled the state, denying Republicans the quorum they needed to pass the first version of the budget repair bill, got the credit for the roadblock that halted Walker's steamroller.

But it's important to remember the sequence of events. The occupation of the Capitol by thousands of workers students pressured the Democrats to take their stand. And that occupation wouldn't have happened without the action taken by teachers in Madison and then across the state--to call in sick and descend on the Capitol in large numbers, with their students marching alongside them.

The initiative for the teachers' sick-out and the first days of demonstrations came not from union leaders--whose first instinct, as it has been for decades, was to negotiate with the budget-slashers--but from rank-and-file workers. Thus, only after Madison teachers had taken action did Wisconsin Education Association Council President Mary Bell call on all teachers around the state to follow their example.

The mobilizations in Madison--with the occupation of the Capitol as the nerve center--were a blast of fresh air after the years of stale strategies of compromise. Workers and students in the thousands took the initiative in Madison and around the state, they organized to keep the Capitol occupation going, they drew on previously hidden talents and skills to sustain and extend the struggle--and perhaps most important, they united around the shared connections between their many separate struggles to build a united resistance.

No one who experienced the upsurge firsthand could fail to be touched by this. In all the many reports SocialistWorker.org published from Madison, one phrase seemed to appear over and over: "For the first time in my life..."

Leia Petty, a public school counselor from New York City who traveled to Madison at the end of February, captured the feeling that people's horizons were opening up in an SW article: "The sense of pride and dignity has returned to many who have never felt it in their life: proud to be union, proud to be a worker, proud to be standing up and knowing you're not in this fight alone."

By contrast, the strategy put forward by labor leaders and Democratic Party legislators in aftermath of Walker's sneak attack to ram through the anti-union law--of focusing on recall initiatives against Republican senators, and eventually Walker himself--represents a step away from the spirit of the uprising and the source of its power.

No one, of course, should expect the daily demonstrations and walkouts to continue without a let-up after Walker's bill was made law. The movement that blocked the Republicans for the better part of a month needs to develop a new strategy for confronting their attack.

There is wide support for the recall, flowing from the bitterness that so many Wisconsites--even if they were apathetic or even half-sympathetic before--now feel toward these undemocratic tools of Corporate America. No doubt many who took part in the demonstrations will throw themselves into this effort on the local level--according to reports, in a matter of days, canvassers had already gathered one-sixth the number of signatures needed to force the initial eight recall elections.

Nevertheless, the recall strategy will necessarily slow the rhythm of the movement. It will be months and even years before the recall votes even take place. By that point, the Republicans' corporate backers will have had time to mobilize their multimillion-dollar propaganda machine in defense of their political servants, and the momentum may have turned.

Even more importantly, the recall initiative shifts the struggle in Wisconsin toward the ballot box and away from the kind of mass action--especially workers' actions--that fed the upsurge.

For first time in years, the idea that workers should use their power as workers--by taking action on the job, by confronting management at work, by walking off the job, even by a general strike--to challenge an economic and political attack was not only clearly relevant, but a popular conclusion that many came to without prompting.

Such actions have the potential to escalate the pressure on the Republicans and Wisconsin's business leaders and force a reversal of the union-busting assault. But this potential has to be mobilized and built up to be realized, and that won't happen if the most devoted activists are focused only on the recall.

We hope Walker and his Republican cronies are recalled. But in the meanwhile, there is another job to do, and given the aversion of labor leaders to doing it, it will be up to rank-and-file workers and activists--to build toward the kind of mass actions that can once again paralyze the state as the uprising at the Capitol did. This won't happen all at once--it must begin with discussions and actions in workplaces and local communities. But the goal must be to build for a fight that still needs to be waged.

SO WHAT lessons should we draw about the uprising in Wisconsin?

Some have already been referred to. For one thing, the movement against Walker's attack is a further confirmation of the famous words of abolitionist Frederick Douglass: "If there is no struggle, there is no progress." Walker's "budget repair bill" would have outraged masses of people regardless, but if people hadn't taken action--first as individuals and only later in larger numbers--there would have been no "Badger rebellion."

Second, the upsurge has put the working class and its organizations at the center of the struggle for change in the U.S. Many movements of the past few years have been shaped by the radicalization around class politics, especially since the economic crisis struck hard in 2008, but they didn't revolve around union action.

That changed with Wisconsin. The massive protests in Madison and the developing consciousness of large numbers of people about the real content of the Republican agenda put the organized working class at the center of the struggle. And at each stage of the mobilization, the actions of unionists, both public sector and their supporters in the private sector, drove the fight forward.

Third is the role of the Democratic Party and the trade union leadership. At the rallies in Madison, demonstrators expressed pride and support for the Democrats who fled the state to block a vote on Walker's union-busting legislation--a stark contrast, in many people's minds, with the behavior of the Obama White House and Democrats on a national level, who have made one concession after another to the right-wing offensive.

But again, it's important to remember who started this movement. It wasn't Democratic politicians who led the march into the Capitol for the occupation, it was protesters who helped the Democrats find the nerve to take a stand--and in some cases find the way out of the Capitol building and on the road out of the state.

The "Flight of the Fourteen" Democrats is a reminder--and a needed one after so many years with few if any examples--that Democratic politicians can be pressured to act by mass protest. But it's also important to remember--as SocialistWorker.org's reports from Madison detailed--the role that Democrats played in undermining the Capitol occupation at crucial points, and ultimately shifting activism into more moderate channels.

Another broader point is the responsibility the Democrats bear for opening the way for the Republican assault. It was Democratic former Gov. Jim Doyle who imposed 14 furlough days on state workers last year. And of course, disillusionment with the Democrats nationally during the Obama era was a prime reason that Republican candidates, Scott Walker among them, swept into office last November.

This history should raise doubts for anyone who has put their hopes in the recall elections. Even if the Democrats succeed and win back a majority in the state Senate and later the Assembly (which will remain in GOP hands until the next general election), there's no guarantee that the Democrats will repeal all of Walker's attacks.

On the contrary, the record of the Obama administration--remember, to take one example among many, Obama's promise to stop the Bush administration's shredding of civil liberties in the "war on terror"--shows the Democrats in power will maintain the status quo unless they face pressure from below. Labor, in particular, should know this all too well--after promising on the campaign trail to back the Employee Free Choice Act to make it easier to join unions, Obama refused to lift a finger to support the legislation.

These are lessons that will face the new movement that has emerged in Wisconsin and around the country. There's no reason to expect that they will all be learned overnight. The battle in Wisconsin was the first large-scale upsurge by our side in the struggle against austerity, but it certainly isn't the last. And the fights that do emerge will take place with the experiences of Wisconsin fresh in mind, and with a clearer sense of what must be done to win.

One final lesson is worth drawing out. Only months after an election that was viewed by the media and the whole political establishment--Republicans and Democrats--as confirmation that we live in a "center-right" country that supports austerity, the war in Wisconsin showed that there is vast opposition to the pro-corporate, anti-worker policies that have dominated in the mainstream.

SocialistWorker.org insisted even in the wake of the Republican victory that there was a simmering anger against the right wing's political agenda and against corporate power and the greed of the ruling class. But now we have the evidence before our eyes. We have the proof--after witnessing the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt and the broadest working-class mobilizations in a generation in the U.S.--that working people want an alternative and are ready to stand up for real change.

What we do now in spreading the inspiration and lessons of those struggles and in continuing the discussion and debates they raise will set the stage for the new Wisconsins to come.

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