The lessons of Wisconsin

June 21, 2012

Lee Sustar looks at what we can learn from organized labor's defeat in Wisconsin.

TO TRY and wash the bitter taste of the Wisconsin recall election debacle out of my mouth, I thought back to the words of a retired steelworker on the day the occupation of the Wisconsin state Capitol building took off--February 16, 2011--in protest against Gov. Scott Walker's proposal to gut public-sector workers' bargaining rights and slash away at social programs.

The steelworker had been active in the unions since 1969, he said. We were at an early-morning meeting of union members who were to serve as protest marshals during a demonstration aimed at stopping the Wisconsin Senate from meeting to pass Walker's anti-union legislation. "I've never seen the labor movement better than it's been the last few days," he said.

He made that comment just before the Madison teachers had called in sick and blockaded the Senate chambers en masse, joined by thousands of other unionists, students and people of all sorts. Within hours, the three balconies of the Capitol were jammed with people--and water, bratwurst and coffee were being carted in by the truckload, courtesy of the unions.

The occupied Wisconsin Capitol building in Madison
The occupied Wisconsin Capitol building in Madison (Carole Ramsden | SW)

By nightfall, the outpost at the Capitol staffed by the Teaching Assistants' Association--the union of graduate student employees at the University of Wisconsin--had morphed into a defiant, self-organized encampment. By the weekend, Madison saw the first of several mass labor demonstrations that drew tens of thousands of people.

Suddenly, tasks and priorities that had seemed impossible a couple of days earlier were obvious and easily achieved. More food needed? The building trades were on their way. A labor demonstration tomorrow? Teachers across the state were calling in sick and planning to caravan their way to the Capitol. Virtually every Madison firefighter not on duty would be on the scene to anchor the big noontime rally.

The movement exploded--and, of course, it all happened without poll-tested "messaging" from high-priced Democratic Party consultants and big-time union staffers who ran the disastrous effort to recall Scott Walker one year later.

Certainly, the unions poured substantial resources into mobilizing members during the Capitol occupation--from across Wisconsin and, eventually, from around the U.S. But union members around the state responded spectacularly to the call to action on their own because it finally gave them a chance to protest against the attacks they'd been suffering for years.

My chapter in the book Wisconsin Uprising: Labor Fights Back details the wage cuts, pay freezes and other concessions that once-powerful unions had taken at companies like Harley-Davidson, Mercury Marine, Kohler, Sub-Zero and others. With rising unemployment and aggressive employers, workers apparently saw no alternative but to accept the concessions.

But suddenly, in Wisconsin's Capitol building, labor was making a stand--and had the opportunity to win. That's why Teamsters, machinists, ironworkers and autoworkers rallied to support teachers, social workers and clerical employees in the public sector. The old labor slogan "An injury to one is an injury to all" became part of a living, fighting union movement.

WHAT WAS so powerful about the protests wasn't just the numbers, but the politicization of those involved.

Suddenly, it was easier for working people to conclude that their difficulties weren't due to their bad luck or poor choices. The common assumption among protesters was that their problems stemmed from an economy increasingly geared to the interests of a tiny minority--people like the billionaire Koch brothers who used political hacks like Walker to advance their interests.

In short, the Wisconsin uprising highlighted working-class consciousness. That's a term usually pooh-poohed by academics as obsolete Marxist jargon. But there's no better way to describe a movement that virtually no one expected. The question was whether the protests in the streets and the Capitol would be turned toward the place that workers have power--at the point of production.

Yet as Lance Selfa, Matt Rothschild and Doug Henwood have all pointed out, union leaders from the beginning refused to take up broader working-class demands around Walker's budget repair bill, such as cuts in health care.

It fell to smaller numbers of left-wing union members and supporters to take up the demand to "Kill the Whole Bill"--that is, link the opposition to Walker's attacks on collective bargaining with a wider struggle against his overall assault on working people and the poor. The signs and leaflets of this effort--supported by National Nurses United and the Kill the Whole Bill Coalition, later, Wisconsin Resists--were widely popular.

Union officials, by contrast, restricted their demands to the defense of public-sector collective bargaining rights, which Walker's legislation gutted. But even here, union leaders alienated their modestly paid rank-and-file members by declaring that the struggle was "not about the money." In other words, well-paid union officials were willing to allow Walker to push higher health care and pension costs onto union workers--as long as the unions could still collect those workers' dues.

What about workplace struggle to defend union rights? Not if union officials had their way--which they did. While the Madison-area South Central Federation of Labor passed a resolution to begin an education program to prepare for a possible general strike, union leaders were turning towards recall elections--first targeting Republican state senators, then Scott Walker himself.

In fact, labor threw away its chance to defeat Walker's union-busting agenda long before the elections. If you want a date, you could do worse than February 27, 2011--the day when union leaders informed Wisconsin's Capitol Police that they no longer supported the mass occupation of the statehouse--and the cops cleared the corridors. The chief of the Capitol Police confirmed this to me.

By abandoning the round-the-clock occupation that had galvanized labor in the struggle to stop Walker's anti-union legislation, the unions signaled the shift that was to become clear in the following days.

The twice-daily rallies and the weekend mass mobilizations would not be a springboard to the kind of job actions like the teachers' sickout that launched the struggle. And the occupation of the Capitol, while seen by labor as a useful way to keep up pressure, had also become an impediment to labor's strategy. And there was always the possibility that the radical ideas and militant strategies being debated in all-night meetings might just turn into risky workplace actions. Best to go with the familiar strategy of electing Democrats--and Wisconsin state law seemed to provide an opportunity to do just that.

HOW DID labor's supposedly "safe" option in Wisconsin--the recall elections against senate Republicans and Walker himself--turn into such a catastrophe?

Some point to the $4 million the unions spent on backing the Democratic primary campaign of Kathleen Falk, a former Dane County Executive who boasted of her tough stance in union negotiations. Her defeat opened the way for Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, who has hammered public-sector unions for years. But labor got behind him anyway.

Obviously, money was a factor--the Walker forces outspent Barrett by a 7-to-1 margin, and the Democratic National Committee kept a tight hold on the party's purse strings and big-donor money.

But labor's biggest wound was self-inflicted. The unions' narrow focus on collective bargaining rights allowed Walker to pose as a populist, stirring up resentment against public-sector employees for their supposedly high pay, cushy jobs and plush retirement benefits.

And there's a deeper problem. Since the 1930s, organized labor has outsourced its political operation to the Democratic Party. This strategy was always a loser: the Democrats are an avowedly pro-business party, and campaign promises have never matched reality. From the Second World War up to the 1970s, the unions could at least point to rising living standards for most workers. Capital tolerated the basic tenets of the New Deal--a federal social safety net and laws supposedly guaranteeing workers' right to organize.

But for the last 30 years, the Democrats have followed the Republicans in a bipartisan agenda of deregulation, privatization and free trade. Continuing to back Democrats--whether with the hope of a Barack Obama victory in 2008 or the fear of a Mitt Romney win in 2012--isn't a safe alternative to class struggle unionism.

The attack on public-sector unions is thoroughly bipartisan, with Democratic governors in New York, California and Illinois taking aim at paychecks and pensions.

Which brings us back to the potential on the streets of Madison in February and March of last year.

The danger now is that anger and cynicism over the failure of the recall will obscure the lessons of that struggle--above all, that working people are angry about their declining living standards and are prepared to take a stand. The problem was a lack of organization within and between unions, which could have pushed the struggle forward when union leaders hesitated, through workplace actions and strikes.

Union leaders in Wisconsin dismissed such a perspective out of hand as too dangerous. Such illegal actions would have violated the law and risked financial ruin for the unions involved.

Yet by missing the moment to press the struggle forward and taking the electoral road, public-sector unions in Wisconsin are shattered. Most have lost the bulk of their membership and finances, and they lack collective bargaining or official workplace representation. Further, Walker's success guarantees many more such attacks to come.

Resistance will come, too. The Occupy Wall Street movement's relationship to organized labor and that struggle's wide appeal to the working class was a nationwide echo of the Wisconsin struggle. Some top labor officials tried to follow their model in Wisconsin in channeling the movement toward electorally oriented efforts like Occupy Congress.

But the movement itself points to the fact that bigger class confrontations are in the offing, whether sparked by further attacks on public-sector wages, pensions and bargaining rights or attempts by huge and profitable companies like AT&T and Verizon to push health care costs onto workers. Employers have raised the stakes dramatically, and unions have to be prepared to confront their challenge, or face more Wisconsin-style defeats.

The task now is to get ready. The strike preparations by the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) are an example that can be followed throughout the labor movement. Months of intensive organizing--both among rank-and-file members and community allies--culminated in a vote in which nearly 90 percent of union members authorized a strike.

Anyone who attended the CTU's May 23 rally in preparation for the strike authorization vote will have found the scene was familiar from Wisconsin--a room jam-packed with thousands of workers who were both mad as hell, and jubilant about the solidarity and determination they shared with their sisters and brothers.

It was a reminder that the battle begun in Wisconsin didn't end with the failure to recall Scott Walker. It's about the age-old workers' fight for the right to organize and defend their interests--and that struggle continues.

Further Reading

From the archives