What Labor and the Left Can Learn From Wisconsin

Speaking about life as a middle-aged baby boomer, Jeff Goldblum’s character in the 1983 hit, The Big Chill, declares that “rationalizations are more important than sex. Ever gone a week without one?” He could also have been talking about the response of enfeebled liberals to the failed recall of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker.


Rationalizations flew through the air after Walker trounced Democrat Tom Barrett by seven points in a special election held June 5. Liberal and union talking points condemned the flood of outside money that swelled Walker’s campaign war chest to more than $30 million, nearly 10 times the size of his challenger. The ground troops in Wisconsin castigated a tight-fisted Democratic Party and a missing-in-action Obama. The liberal blogosphere festered with accusations of vote rigging.


Others tried to strike a jaunty note by pointing to a seven point advantage for Obama over Romney in exit polling of recall voters; a rise in the percentage of union voters over the 2010 Wisconsin gubernatorial election; and a battle-tested get-out-the-vote machine for November (even though it didn’t deliver for Barrett).


At the Netroots Nation conference days after the recall, the spin finally snapped free of reality. Harry Waisbren of the “Job Party” claimed the election was a victory because Democrats squeaked out a 17 to 16 majority in the State Senate after flipping one seat. But, while Democrats may blunt Walker’s most extreme assaults, they are powerless to undo the savaging of labor organizing rights and social welfare that sparked the Wisconsin Uprising in February 2011.


The excuses and spin are pretty much hogwash. Yes, money matters. Yes, the Democratic National Committee was miserly. Yes, Obama mustered a lone tweet and Barrett refused to take a stand on restoring collective bargaining rights. But none of this changes the fact that Walker won mainly because he had a vision, however vicious, and he forged a rich/poor alliance that supported it. Barrett lost because he stood for nothing, because the Democrat Party shuns organized labor, because labor retreats from street politics even when they have the upper hand, and because progressives confuse elections with movements.


Walker’s cakewalk is a microcosm of why American politics tilts further and further right year after year and why progressives and unions are sinking into irrelevance. The recall is also a study in the paths not taken for the Wisconsin Uprising and how social movements can become entombed in the graveyard of the Democratic Party.


A Rich-Poor Alliance


Mike McCabe, director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a nonpartisan group that tracks money in state politics, argues that the secret behind Walker’s triumph—and decades of rightist success nationwide—is “a rich- poor alliance of affluent suburbs and poor rural counties.” 


McCabe says that in 2010 “Walker carried the 10 poorest counties in the state by a 13 percent margin,” which used to be reliably Democratic. He says, “Republicans use powerful economic wedge issues to great impact. They go into rural counties and say, do you have pensions? ‘No.’ Well, you’re paying for theirs, referring to public sector workers. Do you have healthcare? ‘No.’ Well, you’re paying for theirs? Do you get wage increases? ‘No.’ You’re paying for theirs.”


The scenario was far different 50 years ago, explains McCabe. “The Democrats were identified with programs like Social Security, the GI Bill, and rural electrification. People could see tangible benefits. Today they ask, ‘Is government working for us?’ And often their answer is no. They see government as crooked and corrupt. They figure if the government is not working for us, let’s keep it as small as possible.”


The disdain for public employees surfaced far beyond Wisconsin as well. In other ballots on June 5, voters in San Diego and San Jose overwhelmingly passed proposals to crimp pensions for public employees. While the measures are of questionable legality because they affect current employees under contract not just future hires, the margins of 30 to 40 percent reveal that the right is striking pay dirt with its strategy to blame government workers for the economic crisis.


Unsparing self-examination can uncover how public workers have been cast as enemy number one. As powerful as capital, the mainstream media, and the state are, left and labor movements need to look to their histories for the root causes of their failures as well as possible solutions.


Steve Burns of the Wisconsin Network for Peace and Justice expands on the argument that many people perceive little benefit from public services. He says Wisconsinites who aren’t municipal workers and don’t benefit from Badger Care, the state’s Medicaid system, tend to “look at the fuss about Walker’s budget cuts and think it’s an over-reaction.” Burns says their thinking goes, ‘Sure, there were cuts, but the roads are still paved, water still comes out of the faucet, and my kids still come home from school each day with homework and textbooks. There must have been quite a bit of fat in the budget that it could be cut so “severely” with no apparent effect on public services.’”


In Burns’s view, “most Walker voters were not motivated by animus towards Madison or unions or the poor. It’s more indifference towards people you don’t know personally, a general disengagement from politics and loss of a sense of community that extends beyond your immediate family and friends.”


For a sparkling moment the Wisconsin Uprising stirred hope that a new day was dawning on this barren landscape which would revitalize labor, politics, and society. Charity Schmidt, a PhD student in sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and co-president of the Teaching Assistants’ Association there, says the uprising broke new ground “because it moved beyond the interests of organized labor to address health care for all, voting rights, education funding and accessibility, housing rights, immigration rights, and so on.”


Beyond the political unity, Matt Rothschild, editor of the Madison-based Progressive magazine, calls the uprising historic. “We had the biggest mass sustained rally for public sector workers in the history of the United States and probably the biggest sustained mass rally for workers period since the 1930s.” Equally important, Rothschild continues, was “the carnival atmosphere. There was not only outrage, there was not only anger, there was jubilation. There was creativity, there was cleverness and there was fun.… There was more joy than at almost any other protest I’ve been to.”


The uprising dusted off an old tactic to great effect: the occupation. The UW-Madison teaching assistants got the ball rolling, explains Schmidt in It Started in Wisconsin, edited by Mari Jo Buhle and Paul Buhle. After Walker introduced his “budget repair bill,” on February 10, 2011, teaching assistants conducted a Valentine’s Day action against the budget in the Capitol and coordinated with labor groups organizing a door-knocking campaign in Republican Senate districts around Madison to demand public hearings on the bill. Then on February 15, Rothschild says, Madison public school teachers “held an all-membership emergency meeting. They all took a democratic vote to say we’re going to go out on an illegal strike for the next four school days.” The same night teaching assistants and students bearing food and sleeping bags pitched camp inside the Capitol so as to provide a continual source of testimony against Walker’s bill in legislative hearings. An attempt to squelch testimony backfired and the weeks-long occupation of the Capitol building began.


Rothschild says, “More than the geographic uprising was a psychological uprising it caused in people’s minds around the country.” The uprising captivated progressives and the left because it was a mass democratic resistance. Labor defied the powers arrayed against them. The occupation kept the cause in the spotlight for weeks. The crowds multiplied from thousands to tens of thousands. The air rippled with talk of a general strike.


That seemed the next logical step, but few thought Madison could pull off a mass walkout. Allen Ruff, a former lecturer in U.S. history at UW-Madison, dismisses a general strike as pie in the sky, but concedes, “If one trade union leader had followed the lead of the teachers and called for solidarity strikes or to stay out, even short of a general strike, then the political and social terrain would have been far different.”


Schmidt lists factors why a general strike was premature ranging from “the lack of infrastructure to make sure children are cared for and families have money for groceries and bills” to the need for “rank-and-file democracy” and “strong networks of support with community groups” to an “overdependence on representative democracy and the courts to solve our problems.” But ambivalence creeps into her assessment. Noting that the labor federation in the Madison area “endorsed taking steps to prepare for a general strike,” Schmidt says, “It is a mystery to me why the movement did not go into a general strike and instead went into a recall.”


Alternatives to Recall?


Rothschild contends there were ready alternatives. “There could have been a rolling blue flu epidemic in which workers in one occupation after another call in sick. There could have been work to rule, just doing the bare minimum that the contract requires. But none of this.”


Ruff pins the blame on labor leaders who have become “too accustomed to business unionism and politics as usual and too fearful of penalties that would have resulted from a mass action.” he suggests psychology played a role, too: “There was a general deference among the masses of people present in the Capitol to established norms and authority like the Democrats, to trade union leaders, to the police.”


Rothschild adds that local labor leaders “did not understand the power that was present in those huge numbers. I think they were not only surprised by, they were scared by that magnitude of a protest they couldn’t control and maybe go in a direction they wouldn’t want. They didn’t have a strategic plan for this uprising.” He blames a mere handful of labor leaders and Democratic Party honchos for redirecting the energy into elections. “They did not poll union members much less poll the crowd as in occupations. There was no gathering of sentiments and approaches from below. It was all top down.”


All observers we talked to say the recalls were inevitable, but they sucked the oxygen out of grassroots organizing. Schmidt sees the two as complementary: “The electoral strategy needs to be complemented with movement building and direct action.”


Ruff says the movement drifted toward elections because there was no strong left pole offering a viable alternative. He says this stems in part from the century-old “Wisconsin Idea.” While it is celebrated for promoting progressive social reforms, popular democracy and transparency in government, Ruff argues it is fatally flawed because it is based on the principle that “there is no inherent conflict between capital and labor. Everything can be mediated.” Since labor could supposedly be incorporated into capitalism, says Ruff, this sapped unions of grassroots militancy over decades, which in turn has robbed institutions and activists of the experience and memory of “struggle unionism, militancy, and organization.”


Rothschild echoes this, “A lot of labor unions have become sclerotic. A tiny percentage of people show up at the meetings or are involved in the union. At the big protests, people would say, ‘I’ve been a union member for 10 or 15 years but I’ve never really been involved in my union.’”


For Schmidt, the answer to failed politics as usual can be found in a labor movement “revived by rank and file workers, who must rebuild internal democracy and stronger connections with community allies in the larger struggle for economic and social justice.” Tactically, she adds, labor must “maintain a program of direct action from interrupting legislative hearings and votes to sit-ins on campuses and in Capitols to protesting banks and chambers of commerce to occupying our public spaces and homes under foreclosure.”


At the same time, Schmidt notes labor can be its own undoing. She says some labor leaders fostered rifts in the uprising because “the message of collective bargaining and the middle class became dominant” at the expense of including all segments of society—the poor, elderly, immigrants and children.


This raises the question of whether unions are capable of remaking themselves as a conscious working-class force. Ruff says, “You need left elements into the unions. But the dilemma is there are no real left parties that can have a historical or material impact at a national level. Trade union consciousness is not necessarily workers’ consciousness. The argument to save the middle class lopped off whole segments of the working class.”


Robert Fitch, the late author of Solidarity for Sale, indicted the modern form of the union as the culprit in labor’s decline. He described unions as “fief- doms” afflicted by “corruption and stagnation.” In a 2006 interview, Fitch said “the American labor movement consists of 20,000 semi-autonomous local unions. Like feudal vassals, local leaders get their exclusive jurisdiction from a higher level organization and pass on a share of their dues. The ordinary members are like the serfs who pay compulsory dues and come with the territory. The union bosses control jobs—staff jobs or hiring hall jobs—the coin of the political realm. Those who get the jobs—the clients—give back their unconditional loyalty. The politics of loyalty produces, systematically, poles of corruption and apathy. The privileged minority who turn the union into their personal business. And the vast majority who ignore the union as none of their business.”


Canadian intellectual and labor activist Sam Gindin goes further, arguing unions in any form do not possess an “instinct toward the revolutionary.” Speaking to the journal Platypus, he said, “Unions can be involved in radical moments, but they certainly aren’t able to revolutionize the world in the absence of a Left.… Class consciousness requires an organization beyond even the most radical union.” The question is how to “build a culture where socialists can influence rank-and-file workers without supposing that the line between political organizations and unions isn’t real and necessary? I think we need to begin by appreciating the limits of unions, but also the potential. On the other hand, one needs a Left beyond unions, a Left that raises questions that wouldn’t be addressed otherwise.”


Writing in Truthout, economist Rick Wolff locates one such moment of potential in the Great Depression. Wolff explains, “Why did capitalism’s collapse in the 1930s affect workers so differently from what is happening in the current crisis? Back then, workers’ interests were advanced by a powerful alliance coordinating two sets of organizations active in two different segments of society. One ally, the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), built strong industrial unions to confront employers on the job about work, power and income there. The CIO achieved the greatest union organizing drive in U.S. history; there had been nothing like that before, nor has there been anything like it since then. The other ally, the socialist and communist parties, worked largely in residential communities and social and cultural movements, as well as in politics  throughout the public spaces of society. The CIO demanded a better deal for people at work within capitalism. The socialists and communists demanded and fought for basic social change to an alternative system that would do better than capitalism for most people.”


Wolff points to three lessons for today. “Unions succeed more in workplace bargaining when employers must worry that refusing to compromise might strengthen anti-capitalist movements. Unions are less vulnerable to criticism as narrowly caring only for their own members when they are continuously and clearly allied with organizations struggling for a better society for everyone. Socialists and communists built the community contacts and consciousness that undermined and defeated pro-business arguments against the CIO union drives” and New Deal social programs.


Looking back on this history, nearly a century old, the task may seem insurmountable. Gindin observes that many Marxists “have been disillusioned by the failure to fight for bigger things, a failure that has marked the labor movement for well over a quarter century now.” Gindin says as a result, when neo-liberalism began to assail workers more than 30 years ago, they “responded to social problems by assuming the responsibility personally. Instead of understanding capitalism as systemically incapable of producing a world of equality or justice or extended freedom, a consciousness that would have to be politically contextualized and delivered, those demands were met by working longer hours, changing one’s family structure and how it behaves, and debt, all of which only further the kind of dependency produced under capitalism.”


Wisconsin’s promise was breaking free of that dependency. After the recall defeat, Rothschild says he fears “people who protested for the first time during the Wisconsin Uprising may draw the conclusion that protest is useless, that change is never going to happen, that the whole system is messed up and there’s nothing they can do and they should go home and forgot about politics and just root for the Packers.” On the other hand, he says, “I have tremendous hope in what happened here over the last 16 months. Every sector of public workers was there. You had private sector unions like electricians, carpenters, machinists, teamsters. I’ve never seen any- thing like that. I’d read about it in history books and Howard Zinn’s works, but I’ve never seen real solidarity to be a living, breathing thing instead of a hackneyed cliché at the end of a union meeting.”


Schmidt also sees a reservoir of hope that can be tapped. People many finally “realize the change they want to see is not going to happen through electoral politics. Our power is through collective action, our power to withhold our labor, our power to interrupt their work.”



 Arun Gupta is a founder of the Indypendent and the Occupied Wall Street Journal. Steve Horn is a freelance investigative journalist and a researcher and writer at DeSmogBlog.