From labor uprising to election disaster

June 12, 2012

Lance Selfa, author of The Democrats: A Critical History, now republished in an updated edition, explains the lessons of labor's defeat in the Wisconsin recall election.

SOCIALISTS HAVE long described the Democratic Party as "the graveyard of social movements." There was no better illustration of that description than the dissipation and defeat of the 2011 Wisconsin labor uprising at the polls on June 5--where Wisconsin's union-busting Republican Gov. Scott Walker won a convincing victory over Democratic Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett in the gubernatorial recall election.

Huge numbers of people, not only in Wisconsin but around the country, were energized by the revolt against Walker in February and March of 2011. Mere months after the Republicans' triumphs in the 2010 elections, a mass mobilization stopped the GOP's agenda of anti-union attacks and austerity cuts in its tracks.

The struggle came from the grassroots--a nearly spontaneous outburst of protest by unionists, students and others that led to the occupation of the Capitol building to block Walker from ramming through his "budget repair bill." Teachers in Madison stayed away from work in support of the Capitol protest, and their example was followed across the state. Suddenly, Walker's scorched-earth offensive against workers and the poor was halted.

From labor uprising to election defeat

But after several weeks, labor leaders and Democrats declared that it was time to end the occupation and shift the battle to the ballot box. If this seemed to many people who participated in the protests like a logical next step, for union officials and Democratic officeholders, the recall was the only way they saw to put the battle against Walker on terms they understood.

As argued at the time, this was a fatal miscalculation.

FIRST, THE demobilization of the massive and creative uprising allowed Walker to push through his attack. The shift of the labor upsurge into electoral channels crowded out the equally crucial task for workers to develop a strategy to resist union-busting and Walker's cuts in social programs. These attacks hit workers immediately, while the prospect of undoing them electorally remained months and years away--if they were undone at all.

Second, putting the struggle for workers' rights into the electoral arena put the fight on a plane where class politics became blurred and where Walker and his minions could count on millions of dollars from big business to come to their aid.

The Democrats were outspent 7-to-1 in the recall election. Yet despite this, they were happy to absorb the energy of the uprising. Without doing much, the Democrats recaptured the interest of their "base," which has now been trapped in a two-year cycle of elections, with the 2012 presidential election as the culmination.

In Ohio last year, the labor movement was able to defeat similar anti-union legislation pushed through by a Republican governor by utilizing a "citizens' repeal" referendum to overturn the law. But in Wisconsin, the recall triggered reruns of elections between candidates. Thus, the struggle was thrust into the standard realm of two-party politics.

Instead of getting a clear up-or-down vote on Walker's budget cuts or his assault on collective bargaining rights, voters were faced with a choice between politicians. In this setup, extraneous issues--like if the recall process was being used properly or whether Walker showed "courage"--could influence the vote. Moreover, the pro-labor side was asked to vote for uninspiring career politicians--like former Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk and Barrett--who had lost to Republicans before and who offered versions of "Walker Lite," rather than a real alternative.

Third, the shift to Democratic Party electoralism thrust the movement into a place where non- and anti-working class forces would help to determine its fate.

The Democratic Party may have a voting base of working people, unionists, racial minorities and women, but it depends on raising big money from segments of the capitalist class and wealthy individuals. So its program and appeals are always tailored to what its funders will support, rather than what its base really wants. What's more, in the context of the recall elections, the movement was forced to compromise with politicians like Falk and Barrett, who, in their day jobs, are bosses of public-sector workers.

The Democratic Party can't reflect genuine working-class anger and solidarity, because it's a pro-business political institution. This fact helps explain why, in the hands of the so-called political professionals, the raw-edged pro-working class political feeling in Wisconsin was turned into so much poll-massaged pabulum.

It also explains the national Democratic Party's neglect of the struggle. According to a 2011 New York Times report, the White House refused even to utter a few empty words in support of the Wisconsin uprising--because it didn't want to undercut its pro-business "winning the future" message (remember that one?). The White House's standoffish attitude, even to the recall effort, carried through to last week's defeat.

It does the left no good to write off Walker's victory as a win for out-of-state money over an underfinanced "people power" campaign in Wisconsin, as the Nation's John Nichols wrote. This ignores the fact that Walker--and more broadly, conservative politics--has a base in the state.

Huge turnouts in the largely white and affluent suburbs that ring Milwaukee provided the bedrock of support for Walker. But Walker also won thousands of downscale rural voters, as well as an astounding 38 percent of union household voters. How could this be? Leaving aside the fact that conservatives make up a solid minority of union households, it's also true that labor leaders and the Democrats didn't change the political dynamics in the state.

THE UNION movement's failure came in two steps: first, during the early 2011 uprising, it didn't take the opportunity to play a leading role in a broader social struggle that could have defeated all of Walker's attacks; and second, when labor turned to the recall, it allowed the Democrats to marginalize its demands and even its presence.

In the heat of the uprising, union leaders approached the struggle as a narrow, sectional battle to defend the right to collective bargaining--and the unions' right to collect dues--while standing aloof from the broader anti-working class attack that Walker was spearheading.

This was evident during the early days of the Capitol occupation, when there was mass sentiment not just for defending labor rights, but defeating the full package of cuts that Walker proposed under the guise of his 2011 "budget repair bill."

Instead, union leaders--whom Progressive editor Matthew Rothschild correctly characterized as "scared by the magnitude of a protest they couldn't control and [that might] go in a direction they wouldn't want"--fought to gain control of the movement. Once they accomplished this, they--with the national leadership of the AFL-CIO and Change to Win pushing from behind--channeled the struggle into the "safe" and more predictable electoral arena.

Labor leaders like Marty Biel, executive director of AFSCME Council 24, often explained their opposition to Walker by saying, "It's not about the money," but about collective bargaining rights. In other words, leading union officials looked at the fight against the "budget repair bill" from the point of view of its restrictions on their ability to collect dues and negotiate on behalf of "their" members. They conceded Walker's phony talking point that, due to a state budget crisis, everyone--including state and county workers--had to tighten their belts.

By approaching the Wisconsin battle from this narrow point of view, the unions actually made it easier for Walker to make them targets. In addition to the right wing's standard practice of pitting "taxpayers" against "greedy" public-sector workers, Walker's supporters pushed back against the solidarity between union and nonunion workers that was so evident during the Capitol occupation.

The right managed to turn the frustration of a significant section of working people about declining living standards and nonexistent pensions against their unionized brothers and sisters, rather than against the corporations and politicians responsible for workers' immiseration.

Many liberals will draw the wrong conclusion from this: that ordinary people are too right-wing or selfish to see that Walker and his ilk want to attack them, too. But that argument only holds water if the unions had actually tried to turn the Wisconsin uprising into a classwide fight against Walker and his billionaire backers.

The left-wing economics writer Doug Henwood is right:

Suppose instead that the unions had supported a popular campaign--media, door knocking, phone calling--to agitate, educate and organize on the importance of the labor movement to the maintenance of living standards? If they'd made an argument, broadly and repeatedly, that Walker's agenda was an attack on the wages and benefits of the majority of the population? That it was designed to remove organized opposition to the power of right-wing money in politics? That would have been more fruitful than this major defeat.

So for thousands of urban and rural poor people whom Walker threw off "Badger Care," the state's health care program for the poor; or the thousands of college students who will face higher tuition and cuts in classes; or the women who lost their rights to sue for employment discrimination and will face more restrictions on abortion access; the unions and the Democratic Party-run recall campaign had little to offer.

A May 13 "Status Update" from Wisconsin Democratic Party chair Mike Tate summarized Barrett's message thus:

Tom Barrett's plan to put Wisconsin first focuses on:
--Growing Wisconsin's economy;
--Educating our children and retraining our workforce, and
--Ending Scott Walker's War on Women

So the myriad of very concrete issues that brought thousands to Madison to protest in 2011 was reduced to these three bullet points.

But even if this narrow campaign message could have worked, there's a further problem--the difference between using liberal issues as talking points in an electoral campaign and actually mobilizing grassroots support to fight for them.

This also applies to the issue of collective bargaining. A class-solidarity approach would have shown in practice the connection between labor rights and the fight for education, health care, women's rights, and voting rights. Instead, in deference to political consultants who told them the labor vote was sewn up so candidates shouldn't appeal to it, the recall campaigns dropped the issue of union rights and emphasized "feel-good" themes like "healing the state" and "stopping Scott Walker's civil war."

And labor leaders let them get away with it. First, in the Democratic primary for the recall election, labor backed Kathleen Falk, who bragged about how she had wrung concessions from unions without taking away their bargaining rights. When Falk lost to Barrett, the unions fell in behind the Milwaukee mayor, who wouldn't even commit to restoring bargaining rights for state workers.

Meanwhile, Walker's millions funded television ads showing how Barrett took advantage of Walker's anti-union legislation in his dealings with Milwaukee workers. So when liberals ask, "How could workers vote for Walker?" they should have to answer the real question: "Why should workers have voted for Barrett?"

Democrats, as usual, tried to project a moderate and "reasonable" image. As a result, they sucked the life out of the movement and gave their supporters little positive reason to support them. On the other hand, the Republicans recognized that they were in a war. And they pressed for total victory for their side.

THE WISCONSIN defeat might serve a purpose if it forces organized labor to reevaluate its devotion to the Democratic Party. Unfortunately, if early signs are any indication, labor leaders are doubling down on their failed strategy.

In the wake of Wisconsin, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka issued a statement that bordered on the delusional:

A year and a half ago, Gov. Scott Walker and his friends in the Senate forced through an extremist anti-worker agenda that divided the state.

Last night, Wisconsin took back its Senate. While Gov. Walker remains in office after being only the third governor in American history subjected to the humiliation of a recall, his divisive agenda has been stopped cold.

Though Walker was shielded with a flood of secret corporate cash, Wisconsin made its voice heard. While we came closer to recalling Walker than many expected, we ended up coming just short.

In my book, losing by seven percentage points doesn't count as "just short." And winning the Wisconsin Senate--if the single Democratic recall win holds up in a recount--is likely to be a hollow prize. The state senate may remain out of session until new elections, in Republican-gerrymandered districts, are held in November.

If the AFL-CIO can spin defeat in Wisconsin into a victory in disguise, one wonders if it's capable of looking political reality in the face at all. Trumka's head-in-the-sand view is typical of a labor leadership that has no answers for the crisis facing working people today.

For socialists, the lesson of the Wisconsin defeat is that a powerful and creative movement, which combined industrial action and political protest, was derailed. By taking the "realistic" electoral road, the labor movement gave up the leverage it won during the 2011 uprising. And the Democratic Party showed for the umpteenth time why it is no friend of labor--and why labor would be better off declaring independence from it.

For the thousands of rank-and-file union members and activists who organized and maintained the 2011 Capitol occupation in Madison, who worked tirelessly to put the recall on the ballot, and who today are trying to hold together decimated public-sector unions and community organizations confronting the consequences of Walker's cuts, we owe an honest assessment of what happened in Wisconsin. That's the first step to figuring out where we have to go from here.

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