The balance sheet after Walkerville

June 21, 2011

Paul Pryse, Sarah Lynne and Phil Gasper report from Madison on the passage of the Walker budget--and the future of the grassroots struggle against austerity

DESPITE MASSIVE protests at the Wisconsin Capitol building in February and March and the revival of grassroots protest in June, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's austerity budget passed the state legislature on June 16.

There is no sugarcoating the fact that this was a big defeat for organized labor. But nevertheless, in the course of the struggle, a new labor left has emerged in Wisconsin to offer a different strategy in the struggles of the future.

Labor and anti-cuts activists in Wisconsin hoped there would be more big demonstrations in the week that the budget passed. But although the Republican governor's budget is highly unpopular, last week's protests were tiny compared to the mass rallies earlier in the year. Tuesday's demonstration brought out 1,000 people, and there were fewer on Thursday, the day of the vote.

The low turnout was a consequence of the big unions' decision to focus most of their resources on unseating Republican senators in recall elections scheduled for July and August.

Walkerville residents rally against the passage of Gov. Scott Walker's budget
Walkerville residents rally against the passage of Gov. Scott Walker's budget

At the beginning of the week, it was uncertain whether the unions would call for demonstrations at all. Responding partly to support for protest put out through Facebook, the state AFL-CIO called a rally the day before the budget went to the legislature, but it did little to mobilize its members.

Instead, union leaders urged demonstrators to work on the recall campaigns, and Thursday's rally ended with instructions to pack up Walkerville--the activist tent city set around the Capitol in the hopes that it would be a base camp for ongoing action--and leave. The Democrats also disparaged further protest. State Sen. Tim Carpenter of Milwaukee told an interviewer that "things have gotten out of hand"--and claimed that a "zombie march" by University of Wisconsin students to oppose education cuts "went over the deep end."

But the rationale for Walkerville and the demonstrations during the debate over the budget was very serious, said Green Party and Wisconsin Wave activist Ben Manski, who played a prominent role in the mobilization:

Featured at Socialism

Hear Wisconsin trade unionists and other activists at Socialism 2011 in Chicago, speaking at the panel meeting, "Wisconsin: The end of the one-sided class war." Check out the Socialism 2011 website for more details.

The movement came to a point at which it either had to escalate or de-escalate. Having rallied hundreds of thousands across the state, the time for merely rallying was past.

There were a number of efforts to escalate by targeting the big corporate lobbyists at Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce [the state's leading business association] and through disruptions of the legislature. But the escalation stopped there, and didn't move into long-term office occupations or into other forms of effective nonviolent civil resistance."

WALKER'S TWO-year budget hands out money to the rich, but leaves no public service unscathed.

Teachers in K-12 will take a $9,000 annual pay cut, and local school budgets face cuts of $551 per student. In higher education, Walker is cutting off enrollment in the Wisconsin Covenant, a needs-based grant program, and freezing funds for Wisconsin Higher Education Grants. Technical colleges, in great demand during the recession, will face a 30 percent cut in general aid.

Health care is also on the chopping block. Walker's budget slashes $500 million from state Medicare, depriving an estimated 70,000 people of health care.

Aside from the cuts, the budget law also transfers authority to change eligibility rules for Medicare and BadgerCare, Wisconsin's low-income health care program, from the state legislature to the governor-appointed Secretary of Department of Health Services. An amendment to the budget "appears to allow the changes to be made without rules or public hearings," according to the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families.

The budget is not bad news for everyone, though. Walker's corporate friends will make out just fine.

After the Republican-controlled Joint Finance Committee cut the production earnings tax for business from 7.9 percent to 0.4 percent, the business lobby Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce called it "icing on the cake." Wisconsin already has the fourth-lowest tax rate in the U.S. for new or expanding businesses.

Walker has tried to justify his spending cuts by claiming that Wisconsin is "broke." But while the budget deficit is real, Wisconsin isn't lacking for potential sources of tax revenue. Two-thirds of Wisconsin corporations routinely pay no corporate income tax, including giants like McDonald's, Merck, Microsoft, Pepsi, Kimberly-Clark, Kohl's and Snap-On Tools. Raising the corporate income tax to the national median would generate $1 billion annually, according to the Institute for Wisconsin's Future.

Wisconsin's richest 1 percent have the lowest personal income tax rate in the state, according to the Center on Wisconsin Strategy. Deloitte LLP, a consulting firm, ranked Wisconsin 12th for projected growth in resident millionaires.

WALKER HAS gotten away with the centerpieces of his anti-worker agenda. But the movement to oppose his agenda isn't dead. What takes place now, in the aftermath of the governor's legislative victory, will shape the struggles ahead.

At the same time as the budget was being debated, the state Supreme Court, in a controversial 4-3 decision, upheld Walker's law that eviscerates collective bargaining rights for state workers, including a ban on automatic dues deduction.

This will hit public-sector unions hard. But it is already forcing unions to reconnect with rank-and-file members, say activists. While union leaders may only be interested in getting members to sign up for automatic dues collection, for the labor left, this is an opportunity to reorganize.

In the lead-up to the protests during budget week, a group of delegates from unions and other activist groups, dubbed the Solidarity Roundtable, met to challenge the leadership of the labor movement to go beyond recalls. The group distributed a statement at the budget protests that called for a return to mass action. According to Manski:

This movement is already more than a resistance to austerity. It's a struggle for democracy, a struggle between popular power and corporate capital. In the coming weeks, you'll see mobilizations to prevent the recall elections from being stolen. In the coming months, there will need to be a focus on the legislature when it reconvenes.

We must demand a new, special budget session to undo the damage that has already been done. And there must be increased pressure on the people responsible for this crisis: the major corporations and their lobbyists.

Although the union leadership has bet everything on a recall strategy, activists around the Solidarity Roundtable have called for a "summer of resistance." With the upsurge of class struggle around the world, there is no doubt the Wisconsin working class will be heard from again.

Further Reading

From the archives