Autonomy Alliance members visited Madison, Wisconsin to participate in protests against Governor Walker’s attack on public-sector workers’ rights to collectively bargain. Travis Albert visited on Saturday, February 26, 2011, the peak time when demonstrators held ground inside the Capitol Building. Adele Johns and Andy Lucker visited on Saturday, March 12, the largest demonstration yet and immediately after the bill was passed. Lucker and Johns’s visit was when the “Fabulous Fourteen” Democratic Party Senators returned to the State. Stark transitions in consciousness occurred here, and important lessons must be taken from our accounts.
On February 15, 2011 demonstrators began to gather at the Wisconsin Capitol in Madison to protest a bill that would destroy public sector unions under the pretense of a crisis. Students and workers began to pour into downtown, staging massive protests and even occupying the Wisconsin Capitol. The democratic senators fled the state in order to prevent a vote on the matter. As days turned to weeks, the intensity of the movement only gained in energy as more information about the bill became available.
February 26, 2011
Despite the snow and the biting winter winds, Saturday February 26, drew the largest crowds in February. Estimations of the masses ranged from 70-100 thousand people.
Upon entering into the heart of downtown, a sea of ordinary people, 100,000 strong, were demonstrating their solidarity with public workers, and taking a stand against a governor controlled by business interests waging open class war. The signs and banners of the people detailed their opposition to Governor Walker’s “Koch addiction” as well as their personal support to all of the teachers and public laborers throughout the state.
Satirizing the bill’s provision that would allow public lands and state-owned power plants to be sold without bid to whoever the Right-wing government favors; statues around the capitol were all tagged with “for sale” signs. As the day went on, the statues were further utilized by more radical elements of the crowd to hold up signs reading “Capitalism = Slavery.” What made this sight unique was the fact that there was a station of “Cops for Labor” chanting “This is what democracy looks like!” right in front of one of the defaced statues. This is a valuable example of class-solidarity superseding institutional roles–one from which the radical left should learn.
The sight inside of the Capitol was inspiring. In the building where Wisconsin State governance happens, the most immediate attraction was the walls. The walls of the Capitol were covered with pro-labor and radical posters. An estimation of nearly 1,000 people had crowded into the three tiers of the building and their voices, combined with the drums, were deafening. Individuals crowded into the center of the bottom floor and gave impromptu speeches were generally hard to decipher, but the passion of their voices made their intention obvious. After every speaker, the crowd would once again erupt into cheering, chanting, and drumming.
Around the center of the Capitol, there were stations for medical care, areas for dining, and a small library. People left their book-bags lying around in the periphery without a worry of theft. For some of the people in the building, the Capitol had become their collective home. Most of the doors on the second floor were locked, but the halls were littered with people in sleeping bags, tired from keeping watch throughout the night.
The people in the streets and in the capitol are determined. They are realizing the strength of their collective power, and they are also realistic in their understanding of the longevity of this fight. The fact that some people made the Capitol Building their home for over two-weeks is telling of both the militancy of their non-violent tactics, as well as their commitment. However, the crowds were also aware that Governor Walker made it very clear that demonstrations alone will not prevent the bill from going through and being enforced.
The very visible presence of the “cops for labor” is important. The police are actually exempt from the union-busting bill, yet, as an organization, they demonstrate their support for the people in the streets. Even as I marched around the capitol, the policemen who were on duty would thank the protestors and give thumbs-up. Although their support has yet to be fully tested, the fact that class solidarity competes with institutional roles is a lesson that Leftists must learn to utilize. In recent history, the teachers went out on strike with the police, unexpected and out of solidarity. This is a classic example of giving what you get, and teachers have given a lot to the police in Wisconsin. As a result, the favor of solidarity is being returned with more solidarity.
The enthusiasm among the rank and file for a general strike on February 26 was incredible! The streets were abuzz in anticipation of serious collective action. Folks were organizing a meeting to plan for a general strike. Organizers said that, overwhelmingly, the people were ready, but were waiting for their unions. Eventually, the South Central Federation of Labor had already endorsed a general strike and mobilized its Education Committee to instruct members “on the organization and function of a general strike.”
A depressing aspect of Madison’s struggle has been the fact that many the protesters have been willing to be worse off than they were at the beginning of the year. This defense was vocalized in a frequent chant—“the bill goes too far.” Workers should not understand their concession as a sacrifice for the public good, because the budgetary crisis is a created crisis, no matter how it is dressed up by deceitful politicians.
Another issue of concern was the wild enthusiasm for the Democratic Party. The fleeing of the “Fabulous Fourteen” Democratic State Senators to Illinois has turned them into heroes. Although their decision to prevent quorum for a vote was a principled maneuver to kill the bill, the Democratic Party has consistently sold out workers in its history. They are a party upheld by the capitalist class, and at the end of the day, they will hold true to their financial backbone.
Saturday, March 12
Saturday, March 12, over 100,000 people clogged the Capitol Square in Madison, Wisconsin, to protest Governor Walker’s new proposal, which recently passed. Walker had managed to get the bill passed by reclassifying it as a non-budgetary proposal, so the bill would not require the quorum a budgetary bill required, allowing the “Fabulous Fourteen” Democrats’ absence to no longer matter. The bill passed, bringing outrage. With all the previous talk of a general strike, and the Central Labor Council’s previous agreement to lead one, if the bill passed, militancy was expected.
The sight of so many people demanding their rights, while awing, quickly became somewhat depressing. As the Fab-14 took stage, they were drowned out by chants of, “Thank You!” The Democrats had nothing to demand except for a recall. There were empowering speeches about workers and people, but it was primarily political theatre to coat the co-optation of the radical momentum the workers previously had to take power. The Democrats effectively replaced any talk of a general strike with talk of “the legal process,” “the power of the ballot,” and at all times, “Recall!” The obvious problem, though, is that a recall will take nearly a year to initiate; and the strategy assumes we succeed, passion is sustained, consciousness doesn’t change, and the next politician follows through on their campaign promises.
Two weeks ago, there was a lot of talk about getting the job done quickly through a practical strategy—a general strike—that would teach the state, its politicians, and the capitalist class a valuable lesson about attacking workers’ rights to collectively bargain. By mid-March, that was off the table. What happened!?
We witnessed a classic case of consciousness shifting. As part of the radical Left, never more have we seen a truer exhibition of the saying, “Strike while the iron is hot.” In February, the iron was hot and its strength weak. In March, a hammer was striking the iron of consciousness—that hammer was the Democratic Party—taking workers in the wrong direction.
Never before, to my knowledge, have a people in recent US history been able to sustain protests at the length of nearly two months, in the cold weather, with such passion, and with so many numbers, as in Madison, Wisconsin. On a typical weekday, the Capitol Square is clogged with 20,000 people, and around 75,000 on the weekend, sometimes 100,000!
The Industrial Workers of the World organized a meeting with a few immigrant rights organizations for that evening of March 12, to discuss a general strike. Armando Robles was a speaker at this meeting, and he offered some of the most concise insight on the workers’ struggle in Wisconsin. Robles organized and became President of United Electric, Local 1110, and eventually led the workers’ occupation at Republic Windows & Doors in Chicago, Illinois. Robles asked, “Why did you occupy the Capitol? Well, what do you do in a Capitol Building? You make laws. Okay, so, when you occupied the Capitol, you prevented the lawmakers from doing their dirty work.” However, he went further, emphasizing that the people suddenly had the opportunity to seize power and make public policy on the basis of popular councils and something very similar to direct democracy, but they didn’t do it.
Robles takes us back to the most consistently glaring lesson from Madison—at the peak of consciousness, the workers in Wisconsin lacked a program and direction, and the only leadership they found was their labor leaders who were prodded along to pass weak resolutions that would not be upheld. Out of this vacuum of power, the political leadership that emerged was the Democratic Party, who presented workers with a blame game against the Republicans, as if the Democratic Party could not have easily passed the Employee Free Choice Act when they controlled the US Congress and Executive Branch of US Government. The Democrats’ strategy will surely result in stalling for a year, followed by the creation of a new popular politician (who might be made into a hero so another Obama-like figure may emerge). Just as “Recall!” was substituted for “General Strike!” in the demonstrations, Democrats will probably substitute “compromise” as the popular slogan when they obtain control of the Wisconsin Senate.
The second lesson we need to take from Wisconsin is preparation. Wisconsin was an attempt by politicians to see how far they could go in curbing workers’ rights. They went pretty far, and the same efforts will be tried elsewhere; they’re already being tried in some states. We need to be ready to lead the way with programmatic demands and actions when it comes to our hometown.
· No to all concessions! We won’t pay for the bosses’ crisis!
· We cannot budge on our right to collectively bargain.
· All public property stays as public property. Nothing can be sold—especially not to the capitalist class, which caused this crisis.
· If any of these is infringed, then, we’ll have a general strike, immediately! No political acrobat can become a barrier to this. We can get our demands met without a bureaucrat when we show our power.
Travis Albert, Andy Lucker, and Adele Johns are all members of Autonomy Alliance, and they can be reached at email@example.com.