Who led the uprising?

March 13, 2012
Part 3

One year ago last winter, a revolt against a union-busting Republican governor swept through the state of Wisconsin--and the image of the U.S. as immune from mass protest and in the thrall of Tea Party reactionaries was swept away in a matter of days.

Walker's attack sparked a mobilization of the union movement unseen in the U.S. in decades--and one that embraced countless individuals and organizations with no formal connection to labor. What began as protests by students and rank-and-file unionists and a sick-in by teachers in the capital city of Madison mushroomed into an occupation of the state Capitol building and daily demonstrations across the state and around the country. In the end, Walker got away with his union-busting legislation, but the impact of the battle in Wisconsin endures.

SocialistWorker.org's Lee Sustar reported from Madison throughout the rebellion. He has written a chapter for a book edited by Michael Yates titled Wisconsin Uprising: Labor Fights Back. We're publishing that chapter--this selection is the third in a three-part series.

Not About the Money?

At first, the novelty and excitement of a mass labor upsurge eclipsed any debate over the objectives of the struggle. After the February 17 sit-in that led to the full-scale occupation of the capitol, the protest settled into a routine: weekday noontime protests rallies by the Wisconsin AFL-CIO and evening protests anchored by a range of leftwing and progressive organizations such as Wisconsin Wave. Among the most popular labor speakers was Mahlon Mitchell, a Madison firefighter who had just taken office as the first African American president of the Professional Fire Fighters of Wisconsin (PFFW). The previous leadership had been forced to resign as the result of scandal surrounding union expense accounts.[51]

The firefighters' leader cut a very different figure from his predecessor. "Our house is burning down, ladies and gentlemen," Mitchell said to a crowd of more than 20,000 at the February 16 rally on the capitol steps. "And we're here to lead the charge. We're going to go in first. And if that house burns down, we will be right here beside you to help you rebuild that house," he concluded as cheers nearly drowned out his speech.[52]

Mitchell's speech borrowed the words of Joe Conway Jr., president of the PFFW's Madison affiliate, Local 311 of the International Association of Fire Fighters. Conway had used that image in an email to PFFW union locals across the state, announcing that an emergency meeting of his local voted unanimously to donate $20,000 to organizing resistance. Conway was a voice of authority in the union: he had taken the lead in cleaning up the PFFW's scandal, and his backing secured Mitchell's ascension to the PFFW's presidency.

In a press release, Conway explained why firefighters would be on the front line of the struggle, despite their exemption from the law: "It is unsettling that the governor has chosen to carve out protective services and treat them different from every other employee in public service. We are no different than the teachers, public works employees, office staff and municipal workers; we provide a service to our community, support the local economy and provide for our families just like all public workers."

Conway was a low-key but constant presence at every labor rally and among the handful of leaders pressing to widen the demands and take bolder action. Son of an activist in the 1969 Madison firefighters' strike, Conway had studied labor history at UW and dedicated his life to the union, passing up an opportunity to become the city's fire chief and remaining a full-time firefighter even as serving as local union president. When the legislature passed Walker's anti-union bill March 9, Conway called for a general strike.[53] Weeks later, Conway told a group of graduate employee union activists at the University of Chicago that he had disagreed with the union's sole focus on bargaining rights while neglecting concessions, citing the plight of a janitor who makes just $25,000 per year.[54]

Conway's views were in a minority among top Wisconsin union leaders. Even after the passage of the anti-labor bill, Mitchell was opposed to any industrial action by firefighters.[55] And although the SCFL, Madison's labor council, had earlier passed a resolution in support of a general strike, Wisconsin AFL-CIO president Phil Neuenfeldt said, "We don't have the authority to call that."[56] As Madison-based journalist and editor Matt Rothschild observed, "Many senior labor leaders in Wisconsin were reluctant to call the mass protests in the first place and pooh-poohed the importance of continuing with them....Just as the crowds were swelling, all of a sudden the labor leadership seemed to lose interest in mass action. It may be that the labor leadership in Wisconsin, which didn't know quite what to do with all those people in the streets, has now missed its main chance."[57]

After acclimating to retreat and defeat over the last thirty years, it isn't surprising that Wisconsin labor leaders were opposed to taking the risk of calling a general strike or even a campaign of job actions to assert the relevance of the unions after the legislation passed. Yet from the beginning, most Wisconsin public sector labor leaders showed more interest in preserving their union apparatus than defending the interests of rank-and-file members. They accepted at the outset Walker's case that major cuts in public sector health care and pensions were necessary to balance Wisconsin's budget deficit, and confined their demands to the preservation of collective bargaining and dues checkoff. Thus union leaders were mostly silent on the other anti-worker provisions of the bill--such as severe cuts in Medicaid and BadgerCare, the state health program for low-income people, and the privatization of the University of Wisconsin's flagship Madison campus.

The key issue, according to Marty Beil, still executive director of the 22,000-member AFSCME Council 24, was the preservation of collective bargaining. "It's not about the money," was AFSCME's slogan. "We are prepared to implement the financial concessions proposed to help bring our state's budget into balance, but we will not be denied our God-given right to join a real union," Beil said. "We will not--I repeat we will not--be denied our rights to collectively bargain."[58] In fact, AFSCME Council 24 offered to take not only economic concessions, but also floated the idea of a two-year "freeze" on collective bargaining--as long as the unions could continue to collect dues through payroll deductions.

In short, the union leaders were prepared to see members take what would amount to at least a 6 to 12 percent pay cut and be without effective representation for two years in exchange for the flow of dues that cover union officials' own pay and benefits. Beil and other Wisconsin public sector union leaders saw Walker's attack on dues checkoff as a threat directed mainly at their own livelihoods--and they pushed workers to accept concessions in a bid to protect their own positions and incomes.

THE UNIONS' willingness to retreat did not go unchallenged. But from the beginning of the mobilization, a layer of rank-and-file union members, organizers, and activists, as well as a new crop of militants, began organizing to push for a strategy based on the widest possible working-class solidarity and a commitment to escalating the struggle. Out of this effort came the Kill the Whole Bill Coalition, which brought together activists like the socialist Sam Jordan, rank-and-file members of AFSCME locals of state and city workers, and graduate employees, members of the TAA at the University of Wisconsin.

The coalition issued a statement outlining its argument: "Walker's bold and shameless attack on labor has woken a sleeping giant. Our struggles and ever-growing mass rallies over the past week have captured the imagination of workers in this country and across the world. To walk away from this battle with only our bargaining rights intact would be a hollow victory. It's here in Madison that we can take a stand for labor and turn the tide of the last four decades in our favor."[59] The coalition made an appeal based not just on Walker's immediate attack but the experience of defeats like Harley-Davidson and Mercury Marine and the suffering that would be caused by cuts in public health care.

Among the participants in the Kill the Whole Bill Coalition (later renamed Wisconsin Resists) was J. Eric Cobb, who had recently taken office as executive director of the Building Trades Council of South Central Wisconsin. Cobb was among those at the February 21 meeting of SCFL arguing in favor of endorsing a general strike.

Cobb and his allies found a receptive audience among SCFL delegates. "There was virtually no debate on whether we should endorse a general strike--only how to prepare for one," wrote Robin Gee, a delegate from American Federation of Teachers Local 3872. "No one argued for accepting concessions. We have already made concessions for many years, and we've gotten to the point where we've got nothing left to give."[60]

Cobb successfully mobilized building trades union members to the demonstrations, workers who, as in the rest of the country, are generally considered to be among the most conservative sections of the labor movement. And when most union officials looked toward a concessions-based compromise with Walker, Cobb pushed building trades workers to embrace what he calls "the revolution." He wasn't surprised at the objections he encountered from the labor hierarchy. "The AFL-CIO isn't going to lead" such struggles, Cobb told a meeting of Chicago labor activists weeks later. The key, he argued, was organizing the rank and file.[61]

The Kill the Whole Bill Coalition found an ally in National Nurses United (NNU). Two NNU organizers, Jan Rodolfo and Pilar Schiavo, came to the scene to offer support despite the lack of members of their union in the Madison area. As the struggle unfolded, NNU Executive Director Rose Ann DeMoro published a statement opposing any further concessions. She wrote:

Working people did not create the recession or the budgetary crisis facing federal, state and local governments, and there can be no more concessions, period. It should be apparent that the right wants to scapegoat workers and their unions, and is trying to exploit the economic crisis for an all-out assault on unions, public employees, and all working people in a campaign that is funded by right-wing, corporate billionaires like the Koch brothers.[62]

DeMoro's article and demands became the basis for a leaflet along with "Blame Wall Street" signs during the mass protest of February 26. While the no-concessions contingent was small, its demands and literature were popular. An effort to organize on a "no concessions" platform was put forward the following day at the SCFL building. The speakers included Rodolfo, Cobb, SCFL president Jim Cavanaugh, MTI executive director John Matthews, journalist John Nichols, and Jesse Sharkey, vice president of the Chicago Teachers Union. Among the crowd of nearly a hundred activists were a number of rank-and-file members who were frustrated at the lack of direction from union leaders about what to do beyond turning out for demonstrations.

Sharkey explained how the rights of union teachers were under attack in Illinois as well--but by Democrats--in an attempt to solve the economic crisis on workers' backs. "There is a consensus among the political class in this country that public sector workers have too much, and we have to have less, and we have to give up the living standards that we have and work harder so that the system can run better. Both parties don't want to look at the four and half trillion in debt that was moved from the private books onto the public books." He added: "To say that we want to save our rights but that we are willing to sell out our dignity is a demand that makes no sense to me. I would rather not be the vice president of the Chicago Teachers Union and teach in the classroom rather than sell that injustice as something progressive."

Cobb criticized union leaders for trying to trade workers' income in exchange for maintaining collective bargaining. "It really disappointed me when I heard that some of these larger [union] bosses--and I may be putting my head on the chopping block here a little bit--made these concessions without talking to the negotiating committee," he said. "In my opinion that's a horrible mistake. I want to see this power pushed down to the membership. And I want the membership to step up."

He added: "These economic concessions [offered to Walker], they are not going to cut it. I know too many people that work in these offices, who work as nurses, work as teachers, that, if they were to take these hits that he's asking for, it would absolutely devastate them."

Rodolfo, summing up the discussion, criticized "Democrats and those who represent workers [and] get up publicly and say, essentially we're willing to concede pensions, we're willing to concede pay." She added, "We run the risk in Wisconsin of deep concessions [being defined as] a victory as long as we hold on to a little bit."

Besides NNU and Kill the Whole Bill Coalition, other activists opposed to concessions and favoring militant action pressed ahead with similar efforts. The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a well-established part of the Madison labor left, hosted a community meeting on a general strike that drew about one hundred activists. Activist and attorney Ben Manski, who was nearly elected to the Wisconsin assembly on the Green Party ticket in the 2010 elections, worked with the group Wisconsin Wave to bring together progressive labor unions, community organizations, environmental justice groups, and others into an alliance that could challenge the range of Walker's agenda. Religious groups and immigrant rights organizations made similar attempts. Individual union activist sought to build rank-and-file networks in their union to better coordinate action and organize in the workplace.

Compared to the mass protests mobilized by the big unions, such efforts could appear paltry. But then the big union operations--AFSCME, WEAC, and the state AFL-CIO--literally pulled the plug on mass protests after February 26 and turned their backs on the occupation of the capitol. It fell to a thin layer of activists to try to sustain the mobilization, starting with the improvised budget protest March 1 discussed at the outset of this chapter. On March 3, the Kill the Whole Bill Coalition and the NNU organized a New Orleans jazz funeral march of several thousand to the capitol steps. Eric Cobb was emcee, and several speakers spoke against concessions and argued for the continuation of the struggle.

Among the organizers of the rally was Sam Jordan, an African American longtime organizer and labor activist in Madison who helped found Kill the Whole Bill Coalition. "We organized this rally just to show that there is a union voice out there that says it is about the money" as well as union rights, she said.

Still, the leading figures in labor were silent. With no mass Saturday labor protest scheduled, Manski worked through Wisconsin Wave and its allies to organize a demonstration on three days' notice. By then, the pattern of weekend worker mobilizations to Madison was well established, so the Wave activists could be confident of an audience of at least thousands of people--and they had filmmaker Michael Moore as a featured speaker. Labor leaders, realizing that they had left a vacuum to be filled by others, also made a last-minute call for their own action, building on a rally called by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. But union officials were determined that the protest remain "on message" and refused an offer by Wave to collaborate. The unions rejected Moore as a speaker, apparently out of fear that he would call a general strike.[63]

It was apparent that the protests would continue, with or without the blessing of top union officials in WEAC, AFSCME, and the Wisconsin AFL-CIO. So after May 5, union leaders stepped on the accelerator again, providing money and resources to mobilize another 100,000-strong demonstration for March 12. Forced to contend with the fact that Walker wouldn't compromise, and that Wisconsin senate Democrats couldn't stay out of state indefinitely, the unions directed the protest movement's energies almost exclusively into recall elections.

But before throwing their weight into the recall campaign, the unions sought to postpone the effects of Walker's law as long as possible by extending union contracts. They did so by offering local governments and school districts essentially the same economic concessions that Walker had demanded.

For their part, Madison Teachers Inc., which sparked a four-day job action by teachers statewide with a sickout February 17, responded to the passage of Walker's bill by narrowly ratifying a two-year contract that also included practically all of the economic concessions demanded by Walker. They were under heavy pressure to do so by WEAC, which pushed local teachers unions around the state to extend contracts and delay the impact of Walker's bill by locking in contracts--and dues income.

The argument for making concessions was that it preserved the union for a few years until Democrats could retake control of the state government. Yet it wasn't at all clear that elected officials would take a pro-labor stand. For example, Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz, a Democrat who had publicly supported the protests against Walker, didn't hesitate to take advantage of Walker's law by extracting major concessions from AFSCME Local 60, which represents Madison city workers. The deal increases health insurance premiums and implements a 50 percent contribution to retirement benefits in January 2012, and rolls back a pay raise at the end of 2011 from 3 percent to 2 percent. The result: $2.8 million more for the city's budget at workers' expense. The deal, said Cielsewicz, "proves again, [and] I want to underscore this, that collective bargaining works."[64]

Moreover, the recall campaign didn't become a referendum on labor and workers' rights that union leaders had promised. Instead, the issue of collective bargaining rights in the recall elections was sidelined by Republicans and Democrats alike.[65]


Could labor have won in Madison? If you shake off the defeatism of the last decades, step back, and look at the dynamics and potential of the struggle, the answer is clearly yes. A month-long mobilization showed that despite the retreats and atrophy of the unions in what had been long considered a "labor state," there was a rebirth of activism and debate over politics and industrial strategy that involved tens of thousands of Wisconsin workers, and thousands more who came to Madison in solidarity delegations from around the country. The idea of a general strike, usually confined to the pages of labor history books and discussions by socialist and anarchist militants, was suddenly a practical concern, with the SCFL carrying out education and preparation for such an action. The chant of "general strike" was taken up by the thousands who protested in the capitol March 9 when Walker's allies in the legislature suddenly rammed through the collective bargaining bill on its own.[66]

Ultimately, union members weren't confident enough in their own capacity and organization to reject concessions. Furthermore, rank-and-file militants were too small in number and were insufficiently organized prior to Walker's attack to be able to turn the struggle back to workplace action when union leaders turned decisively toward the recall strategy. In the 1970s, such networks of militants existed within key industries and unions, and drove strike levels to their highest level since the Second World War, often in defiance of union leaders.[67] As we have seen, this militancy was central to the establishment and growth of public sector unions in Wisconsin. But nearly forty years later, industrial restructuring, a relentless corporate offensive against unions and a demographic transition had all but eliminated such rank-and-file union organization in corporate America. And the decline in union strength in the workplace wasn't unique to the private sector, as public sector employers mimicked corporate "lean" production techniques in a constant push for greater productivity. The Wisconsin public sector was not immune from this trend.[68]

The consequences of this long decline in rank-and-file organization were clearly seen in Madison. Nearly four decades later, one of the lessons of the 1970s--that trade union officialdom is more interested in institutional self-preservation than taking risky actions to defend the interests of the rank and file--was made clear once more. For that reason, organizations such as Kill the Whole Bill/Wisconsin Resists have attempted to rebuild networks of union militants and dissident union officials who want to revitalize organized labor on the basis of class-struggle unionism and broader working-class solidarity. Such developments will be critical to successful outcomes in the struggles and inevitable clashes generated by the drive to austerity.

Indeed, despite the shrinkage and debilitation of labor in Wisconsin, rank-and-file union members showed that they still exercise enormous potential power because of their strategic location at the point of production. The sickout by teachers in Madison quickly became a statewide movement carried out by the rank and file and endorsed by union leaders only after it was already under way. Without that show of workplace power, it was highly unlikely that all-night participation in legislative hearings by a few dozen activists could have morphed into the occupation of the capitol, winning the active support of private sector workers who were still reeling from the harsh concessions their unions had accepted.

Without the occupation of the capitol, the Wisconsin labor struggle also would not have become a broad popular movement that attracted non-union workers, students, and even small business owners. And if the capitol hadn't been turned into a round-the-clock meeting and organizing center, labor would not have been able to sustain the political pressure to keep the fourteen Democratic state senators out of Wisconsin. The sustained occupation made repeated mass protests possible, making Madison into a mecca for union militants around the nation. Wisconsin thus became a touchstone for workers who were searching for both inspiration and strategies for their own similar struggles, whether against Republican copycat legislation in Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan or against less draconian but still severe attacks on public sector workers by Democratic governors in New York, Illinois, California, and Connecticut.

At the time of writing, some seven months after the last mass labor protest in Madison, it's too soon to draw any definitive conclusions about Madison's immediate impact on labor struggles. However, it was evident that the Wisconsin struggle opened the way to the outpouring of labor support for Occupy Wall Street and Occupy struggles around the U.S., an alliance with great promise for the renewal of a wider working-class resistance to austerity and economic inequality. After a thirty-year anti-union offensive by corporate America and its public sector counterparts, there is at last a two-sided class war.


51. Daniel Bice, "5 Firefighters on Union Board Resign Amid Expense-Report Scam," Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, January 13, 2011.

52. Lee Sustar, "Wisconsin Unions Turn Up the Heat," February 17, 2011.

53. TheUpTake, "Madison Firefighters Prez Calls for General Strike," March 9, 2011.

54. Joe Conway's comments at "Chicago: Lessons from Wisconsin" forum, University of Chicago, May 25, 2011.

55. Interview with Mahlon Mitchell, Madison, March 12, 2011.

56. Interview with Phil Neuenfeldt, Madison, March 12, 2011.

57. Matthew Rothschild, "We Need More Mass Protests in Madison," April 23, 2011.

58. Jason Stein, Patrick Marley, and Steve Schultze, "Assembly's Abrupt Adjournment Caps Chaotic Day in Capitol," Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, February 18, 2011.

59. Kill the Whole Bill Coalition, "Why We Demand to Kill the Whole Bill," February 24, 2011.

60. Robin Gee, "Madison Labor Raises the Stakes," February 22, 2011.

61. Eric Cobb, opening plenary, Labor Notes Troublemakers School, Chicago, May 21, 2011.

62. Rose Ann DeMoro, "Just Say No--No More Cuts for Workers," February 21, 2011.

63. Interview with Ben Manski, Chicago, May 25, 2011.

64. "Madison, AFSCME Local 60 Reach Labor Agreement," March 15, 2011.

65. Scott Bauer, "In Recall Campaigns, Union Is a Dirty Word--on Both Sides," August 1, 2011.

66. Interview with Mike Imbrogno of AFSCME Local 171, Madison, March 9, 2011.

67. See Aaron Brenner, Robert Brenner, and Cal Winslow, eds., Rebel Rank and File: Labor Militancy and Revolt during the Long 1970s (Verso: London and New York, 2010).

68. Public Policy Forum, "Tracking Local Government: Monitoring Performance Data Trends," Milwaukee, October 2010.

Further Reading

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