Subject: [SocialistWorker.org] The lessons of Wisconsin
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Comment: Lee Sustar
======== THE LESSONS OF WISCONSIN ============================================
Lee Sustar looks at what we can learn from organized labor's defeat in
June 21, 2012
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.
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.
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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
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
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
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
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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
The attack on public-sector unions is thoroughly bipartisan, with Democratic
governors in New York, California and Illinois taking aim at paychecks and
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.
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