Social Movements & Political Action
Successful social movements include a political strategy in addition to direct action, mass mobilization, and deep building, to build power and win change. While not relying solely on electoral and legislative activity, movements must recognize and embrace the importance of these political activities as crucial venues in which to contest for power, actualize change, and realize our values.
In Wisconsin, our movement chose to open up a political front in the struggle. Of course, a political strategy presents pitfalls. The ledger of American history is replete with movements run aground by too quick or too complete a turn toward electoralism. Because the critical moment that catalyzed our movement took place in the political arena, a political strategy is a must for us in Wisconsin. Acknowledging that the background for this movement resulted from complex factors, we also recognize that a political strategy alone will not accomplish our objectives.
In Wisconsin, we do not believe that taking to the streets must be counterpoised to taking to the ballot box. Indeed, the movement here recognizes that we must do both, and more, to be successful. A political strategy and the direct action, mass mobilization, and deep building components reinforce one another. In fact, we see the political strategy as a way to develop the latter. In so doing, taking on the recall of Governor Scott Walker as the centerpiece of a political strategy, we are building upon the resonant, galvanizing uprising of Wisconsin in 2011 and developing a new model for movement activity.
Why Political Action
The political action of the Wisconsin uprising reflects the spirit of the fightback. Working people are fed up with our broken economy and democracy. We are not going to play by the conventional rules. We are contesting for governance and building power on our own terms to make our democracy and our economy work for us.
Just as in the successful fight against the anti-union SB5 in Ohio, Wisconsin unions and community organizations looked to an atypical but highly important level of democracy to right the wrongs committed against us. Instead of waiting until the next election cycle to throw the bums out, progressive forces in Ohio and Wisconsin both chose to throw out the playbook of convention and to establish democracy on our own terms.
Here, we can win a major victory by replacing Scott Walker with a champion, a fighter for our values who explicitly takes up our issues on the campaign trail and who will govern as the progressive. As important in many respects, we must not only win, but also win with a mandate. Walker instituted regressive tax cuts for profitable corporations, deeply damaging austerity measures, as well as cutting healthcare and education, pursuing a failed jobs strategy of vintage trickle-down, and eliminating collective-bargaining rights. We will raise up a coherent, potent agenda to frame this special election as a choice between the 99% and the 1%.
Our strategy and organization for the recalls connects directly to our objectives. Simply put, we cannot continue to do politics as usual. If we seek to do “better” what we must do “different,” we will not win. A political strategy cannot be grafted onto an organic social movement. Instead, it must flow from that movement’s activities and adherents. Indeed, the movement leaders at the grassroots demanded recall and a political strategy.
How We Got Here
We were faced with reactionary Republicans in charge of all levels of government and an organized right wing in the Tea Party. They came after us, forcing a crisis on labor and progressives. We created a political crisis for them, challenging them at every step with an urgency and immediacy required by a “kill or be killed” moment. We challenged the direction of the state by staging a mass uprising. We challenged governance by taking up a political strategy. We challenged by how we fought, relying on collective action by the masses.
When a defiant group of students and workers took over the Wisconsin State Capitol in February of 2011, many saw it as a spontaneous eruption of discontent and frustration. However, conditions alone did not spur a fightback. The uprising took root in the organization of a community-labor alliance formed between these students and workers over months of developing a shared analysis and fightback project. Combined with the galvanizing impact of militant, direct action that brought out many more individuals and organizations both at the Capitol and across the state, this form of alliance organization and its implicit reliance upon collective action and the embedded spirit of fightback sparked a sense of possibility along with immediacy and urgency.
When the first opportunity presented itself to go beyond protest and to expand beyond unions and already allied community organizations, the movement rose to the occasion. Progressive forces transformed a virtually forgotten race for the State Supreme Court into a battleground. We made it about the Walker ally in the race and the potential judicial challenge to Walker’s antiunion law. Coming from dozens of percentage points behind in the polls with a virtually unknown candidate, we lost by barely a few thousand votes statewide. The rapid mobilization of the consolidated forces that came together in the uprising presented new possibilities for an electoral strategy to complement the movement in the streets.
Thousands of activists, many involved in politics for the first time, circulated petitions to gather tens of thousands of signatures to recall from office eligible anti-worker Republican State Senators. The right quickly responded with recalls of its own, targeting pro-worker Democratic senators, setting off a summer of recall elections.
When the dust settled in August, progressive forces won five recalls. We saw our expanded base take action beyond joining a protest or a rally. We found collective action taking on new meaning for the masses. In communities across the state, those who bused in to the Capitol or who staged actions in their own necks of the woods took up clipboards and walk-lists. Progressive forces who never before worked together took up campaigning in a way never done previously. Community organizations, unaffiliated individuals, and public- and private-sector unions joined to form coordinating groups that not only knocked on doors and made phone calls, but also staged rallies and protests both to build energy and momentum and to drive a public narrative about the recall elections.
With the appetite of the movement whetted for an unprecedented recall of a Wisconsin governor, leaders consolidated organization and strategized about how to undertake gathering over 541,000 valid signatures in only sixty days. Debates on how and when to proceed raged in union halls, over dinner tables, and on blogs, Facebook, and Twitter. Collectively, we decided to circulate recall petitions beginning in mid- November, over the holidays, and in some of the most unfriendly weather in the typically inhospitable winter of the upper Midwest. Doubters remained. An unprecedented outpouring brought us well beyond our goal, gathering over one million signatures to recall Scott Walker.
Political Strategy Both As Realizing and Building the Movement
A few key themes emerged in our recall campaign of Governor Walker. We know that a political strategy can be potent for instrumental reasons. We can replace Scott Walker with a progressive champion, winning a mandate while also re-energizing ourselves to keep alive this movement as we go from defense to offense. Along the way, we can galvanize those outside of Wisconsin, dramatically impacting circumstances affecting the 2012 election cycle at the national level and do so in a way that lifts up working people and their objectives.
First, elections are a venue in which many people, including those not readily identifying with our movement, are accustomed to making political choices. We are meeting people where they are, to engage them in the democratic decisionmaking we need to affect a change which is not only in governance. Furthermore, elections hold clear time frames when a choice must be made, forcing immediacy to the question, “Which side are you on?” We are making this a referendum, with a clear choice and a binary outcome on a fixed timeline.
Second, we are drawing sharp, clear lines between us and them, between our direction and theirs. The “us” is the 99%, working class and poor people, and the “them” is the 1%, corporations and the rich. The “us” are the candidates for office, the movement organizations, and the broad mass of people fighting in this struggle, while the “them” are Scott Walker, the Koch brothers, and the right wing. Our direction is shared prosperity, and their direction is austerity. Our direction is a fair economy and a working democracy, while their direction is neither of those.
Recognizing the commonality of progressive forces, we are advancing keystone demands and issues. We do not say “austerity,” even though that is what we are fighting. We talk about how Scott Walker gutted BadgerCare, the healthcare program for low-income working families, to give tax cuts to the corporations and the rich who do not pay their fair share in taxes. We talk about how Walker went after unions because organized labor is the only answer to organized wealth. We talk about how tax cuts and trickle down do not create jobs, only painful cuts and greater income inequality. These are resonant issues that illustrate our principles, without requiring a long-winded lecture to get across the essential points.
No movement in history has been successful by failing to draw clear contrasts, to dramatize unfairness and injustice, to point out and polarize opponents, and to name the problem. Our message and narrative speaks to and about our movement, with the recall election as the venue in which we can be heard.
Third, we are building organization during the struggle. Few progressives would argue that we do not need an independent political organization of our own. Many in labor and many community organizations have long sought an alternative vehicle; some of us even worked to develop it at various points. Here in Wisconsin, we are building an independent political organization that unites labor and community forces in one vehicle, for this campaign and beyond. As part of our operating mantra, we are taking on issues, elections, and mobilizations as part of a coherent program to build the movement, contest for power, and change the political game.
The organization we see as the vehicle for the movement is called “We Are Wisconsin.” It arose during the fightback, matured during the ongoing fights against Walker’s budget and the summer of recalls, and reached greater scale as we readied for the Walker recall. No one sat down one day and said “We should have a movement vehicle that should include x, y, and z, that does a, b, and c.” However, we recognized from the beginning that we must build organization during our struggle. We could not form an organization unconnected to the fights and the people taking them on, nor could we delay building organization until after the fights themselves. We continue to find ourselves growing stronger for each fight in which we find ourselves and for the next ones because we build organization in the struggle.
For example, we began the recall petition gathering by staging a mass rally and march to Walker’s own neighborhood where activists signed recall petitions and committed to action for the rest of the signaturegathering period. We then conducted actions around the issues at stake and around the contrast between our side and Walker. These actions drive a public narrative and energize our base to take on more collective action. More traditional political activists get pulled into movement activities, and we all unite under one banner.
Fourth, we are bringing new relevance to collective action and to leadership by regular people. Because the recall election is so high-profile and because it is where so many grassroots activists and even previously disengaged people gravitated, the Walker recall effort has grown the movement. People are being thrust into action and thrust into leadership by taking action. From those who stepped forward to take over and occupy the State Capitol, to those who organized autonomous rallies in their communities, to those who decided to circulate recall petitions, leaders have taken on many roles since the uprising began, and they have been treasured and nurtured.
Since last February, hundreds of thousands of people took collective action for the first time. For many of the more than 30,000 who circulated recall petitions, activism has become a part of their regular lives. The recall election provides a way for these people to take ongoing, sustained action with a purpose that channels anger and frustration into activism that we know can change the world. With the Walker recall taking place, we have a framework through which people can take action. These activists, new and experienced alike, are working to become leaders through a concerted program and through innovative campaign activity.
We are not asking people simply to knock on doors or to make phone calls. Instead, we are mobilizing people to build leadership. Activists are being called to take up the mantle of leadership, so crucial to any movement. Activists are responsible for organizing a network of twenty or so friends, family, neighbors, and co-workers to be led to the ballot box and into the streets. We are reconceptualizing what it means to be an activist by transforming people into movement leaders with a base or following that takes collective action. On the back end, we have developed a new generation of citizen leaders who will continue the fight, realize the mandate of this referendum election, and take on struggles of greater and greater proportions.
Where We Could Go
In future reflections, obviously we hope to look back upon the strategic choices around our political strategy as part of movement-building. But we cannot see that far into the future. In the last analysis, at least here and now, we are more organizers and street fighters than we are pundits and intellectuals. Our vision is one of a new kind of movement politics driven by working people through our own organization that wins social and economic justice by fighting on multiple fronts. We know that if it can be done in Wisconsin, it will be done by this incredible movement full of new leaders. And we know that if it can be done in Wisconsin, it can be done all over the country.
Bruce Colburn is Vice President for Politics & Growth with SEIU Healthcare Wisconsin and a former elected officer of unions representing mineworkers, steelworkers, and bus drivers.
Peter Rickman is with the SEIU Fight for a Fair Economy in Wisconsin and is a former Co-President of the Teaching Assistants’ Association at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.