Wisconsin: From the uprising to Recall Walker

IN FEBRUARY and March of 2011, all eyes were on Wisconsin. Coming off the 2010 midterm elections, an emboldened right-wing state government launched a savage attack on Wisconsin public workers by rescinding almost all collective bargaining rights, imposing sharp increases in health care and pension contributions, ending automatic union dues payments, and placing stringent annual recertification requirements on public sector unions. This amounted to pay cuts of up to 13 percent for state and city workers with the lowest incomes. Act 10, as the legislation was later designated, also came packaged with cuts to many public services and was an introduction to Republican governor Scott Walker’s draconian 2011 state budget that, among other things, slashed $1.25 billion from Wisconsin public education.

This was the latest round of austerity for post–2008 Wisconsin, which included a public sector pay freeze and 16 furlough days for state workers in 2009, courtesy of Walker’s predecessor, Democrat Jim Doyle. But this time, the working class fought back in what was the first mass struggle against austerity in the United States since the current crisis began.

Occurring in the immediate wake of the Egyptian revolution, tens of thousands of students and workers occupied the state Capitol in Madison for three weeks while Senate Democrats fled the state to block a quorum and prevent Walker and the Republican-controlled legislature from passing the bill. Demonstrations peaked with crowds of over 100,000 people as the rank and file of the Madison teachers’ union led the way in a four-day sickout that shut down schools across the state.

Despite the impressive fightback led by a previously moribund labor movement, Walker flagrantly violated the law to clear the Capitol of protesters and succeeded in passing the bill without a quorum. The fugitive Democrats returned to Wisconsin and did their part to channel the movement’s energies into an electoral strategy centered on recalling Republican state senators and Walker himself. Since the protests wound down over the summer, Wisconsin has seen an unsuccessful attempt to flip control of the state senate to the Democratic Party with summer recall elections, the emergence of the Occupy movement in Wisconsin, and the kickoff of the campaign to recall Scott Walker.

The summer 2011 recalls
After Act 10 passed and the fourteen Democrats returned to Wisconsin, the immediate energy from the protests was co-opted by the Democrats and, with the support of the union leadership, channeled into an electoral strategy targeting Walker and several Republicans in the state senate. Wisconsin elected officials aren’t eligible for recall until they have served at least one year in office. As Walker had only served a few months of a four-year term, the first piece of this strategy was to target six Republican state senators who were eligible in an attempt to transfer control of the state senate to the Democrats. The right also mobilized to recall three Democrats from conservative districts who had fled the state to prevent a quorum during the demonstrations.

This strategy ultimately proved unsuccessful. Democrats did not lose any incumbents, but they fell one short of the three necessary seats to gain a majority in the state senate. Despite this poor outcome, Democrats and their supporters in the media, like The Nation’s John Nichols, tried to spin the result as a victory. By the end of the year, some activists were so confused about what had happened that United Students Against Sweatshops announced as one of its victories of the year that the student movement had “won a pro-worker majority in Wisconsin” even though the Republicans still controlled both houses of the legislature and the governor’s office.

Despite claims to the contrary, the first phase of the electoral strategy was a defeat and a significant step back from the mass demonstrations and Capitol occupation. The Democrats failed to recapture the senate, in part because they refused to address the central issue of the protests. “Most Democrats involved in recall elections,” wrote one Socialist Worker commentator, “have completely ignored the issue of reinstating collective bargaining, even though it is the unions who generated the activists going door-to-door to campaign for these candidates.” Mike Tate, chair of the Wisconsin state Democratic Party, said in a press conference that only the media believed that the elections were about collective bargaining. As Madison journalist Jack Carver noted at the time, “Democrats tacitly play into [Walker’s] game. Instead of articulating how unions benefit the general population, they speak in the vaguest terms about the importance of preserving the rights of public workers.”

Democrats avoided any attempt to change the terms of the public debate on organized labor after Walker and the Republicans had spent months demonizing public workers. Instead of hitting back on behalf of the union members who worked on their campaigns, the Democrats accepted the Republicans’ terms. Presaging a fault line between the union leadership and the Democrats regarding whether Walker’s recall opponent will pledge to restore collective bargaining, many activists, especially those on the labor left, felt betrayed by the rhetoric of the election campaigns.

This approach to the elections was hardly surprising from a party that is politically committed to preserving capitalism, and that took an active role in implementing austerity in Wisconsin less than two years ago. The prospect of a militant mass movement of rank-and-file workers who are prepared to strike to advance their living standards and fight back against austerity frightens the Democrats almost as much as it frightens the Republicans and the ruling class figures who finance both parties’ campaigns.

The Recall Walker campaign
To wind down the Capitol occupation and the mass demonstrations of February and March 2011, the Democrats, in collusion with the union leadership, promised a recall campaign against Walker at the end of the year (the soonest that state law permitted it). “Recall Walker” bumper stickers, buttons, and signs were already highly visible by the end of February. The recall effort was counterposed to strike action and mass demonstrations, and prominent figures during the demonstrations, such as Democratic state senator John Erpenbach, argued that activists should stop protesting at the state Capitol and spend their time gathering signatures to recall several Republican state senators instead. The assumption was that the first set of recall elections would be a stepping-stone towards a campaign against Walker. But after the Democrats failed to recapture the senate in the summer, some leading members of the party and union officials began to have second thoughts.

In August, the Christian Science Monitor ran an article on the topic that included an interview with Marquette University political scientist John McAdams. According to the report, “A Walker recall in November 2012 could be overshadowed by the presidential election, which would shift priorities at the state level—both in manpower and campaign money. ‘I’m a bit skeptical that Walker is going to face a genuinely serious recall effort. There’s a lot going on in 2012,’ said McAdams.” The article also quoted an unnamed national labor official saying, “Unions are uncertain whether a Walker recall is worth the financial commitment, especially with labor under threat in surrounding states such as Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio, says a national official with the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), who asked that his name not be used because he is not allowed to speak publicly.”

Despite the vacillation at the top, however, it became clear as the November date when a recall campaign could start approached that there was massive sentiment among Wisconsin workers against Walker. Class-consciousness was not blunted by the defeat in March, but became even sharper. Tens of thousands of people were looking for an outlet for their anger, and in the absence of mass struggles in workplaces or communities, it was channeled in an electoral direction.

On November 15, the first day on which recall signatures could be gathered, the dam broke. In order to force a recall election it was necessary to gather well over half a million signatures within two months—a tall order in the holiday season and in a state with only about three million eligible voters. But within four days, over 100,000 signatures had been gathered. Over the next several weeks, anti-Walker signature gatherers could be found all over the state, outside supermarkets and post offices, at sporting events, on campuses, and on random street corners. While union groups organized some of the petitioning, much of it was spon­taneous—Wisconsinites downloaded copies of the petition from the Internet and went door-to-door in their neighborhoods collecting signatures.

In the end, well over a million signatures were gathered to recall Walker. When added to the signatures gathered to recall his moronic lieutenant governor, Rebecca Kleefisch, and four Republican state senators, including Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, the grand total was 1.9 million signatures. The recall effort against Fitzgerald was also a grassroots effort, led by two local activists in his district against the advice of Democratic Party officials, who thought it would be too difficult to gather enough signatures.

The signature gathering has been a reminder of the fighting mood that remains in Wisconsin; but now comes the more difficult part, especially for those who reject the Democratic Party as an alternative. Primaries have been set for May 8 and the general election will take place on June 5. The Democratic establishment favors Milwaukee mayor Tom Barrett, who lost to Walker in the 2010 election, as the party’s candidate. But major unions are opposed to Barrett, who has stated that he would not make repeal of Walker’s anti-union legislation a condition of signing a new state budget, and who was publicly ambivalent about signing the recall petition until this became too embarrassing for him. Barrett has also made enemies of Milwaukee’s public workers while presiding over austerity at the local level and has repeatedly tangled with Milwaukee’s teachers’ union.

The Democratic Party candidate that the big unions (including AFSCME and WEAC) favor, however—Kathleen Falk, Dane County executive (where Madison is located) from 1997 to 2011—is little better. While Falk favors the restitution of collective bargaining rights for public sector workers, she does so on the grounds that this will not prevent state and local governments from cutting their wages and benefits. Falk boasts of her record of “winning union concessions while respecting the bargaining process.” As she told a Madison TV station: “I sat down with eight unions and negotiated cuts in their pay, increases in their cost sharing of what they pay in their health insurance. I got the job done without abandoning workers’ rights.” Except, of course, their rights to decent pay and benefits.

Her record became a point of contention when Falk sought the endorsement of the Teaching Assistants’ Association (TAA), a union that represents graduate student workers at UW-Madison. The TAA established leadership and credibility beyond their small size by calling the initial Valentine’s Day protest last year and urging activists to keep the Capitol open overnight with constant testimony against Act 10. The TAA declined to endorse Falk, and she was sharply challenged by members on her record of budget cuts and negotiating concessionary contracts. The Milwaukee Graduate Assistants’ Association followed suit, passing a resolution that requires any candidate seeking their endorsement in the recall to pledge to not only restore collective bargaining, but also reverse all of the budget cuts in Act 10 and restore public workers wages and benefits. 

The Wisconsin Greens have hinted they might consider fielding an independent candidate in the recall. It would be welcome if a challenger to the left of the Democrats was to emerge, but as of early April this seemed highly unlikely. The Greens lost ballot status in 2008, so to get a third party or independent candidate on the ballot would require another extensive petition drive. Even a campaign for a write-in candidate is unlikely, since there will be immense pressure not to split the anti-Walker vote.

Some additional space for a political alternative has been created by the Occupy movement. Following the eruption of Occupy Wall Street last fall, Occupy encampments sprang up across the country, and Wisconsin was no exception. But despite some initial success, the Occupy movement in Wisconsin has been mostly unsuccessful at mobilizing large demonstrations or winning substantial support from labor rank and file like its counterparts on the East and West coasts. Wisconsin Occupiers have approached the campaign to recall Walker with caution. Much like the Occupy movement across the country, Occupy in Wisconsin is hostile to both capitalist parties and correctly insists on political independence. Occupy activists participated in gathering signatures for the recall petition and a Madison General Assembly officially supports the recall of Scott Walker. However, they have made it clear that they won’t lend support to an effort to elect a Democrat to replace him.

But for the majority of voters who support the recall, the election has increasingly taken on an “anybody but Walker” dynamic. Walker received a setback in late March when a federal court struck down two sections of Act 10—the elimination of automatic union dues deduction from paychecks and the requirement for unions to recertify every year. Despite this, the unfortunate truth is that Walker may well be reelected. Although his disapproval ratings are very high, he has a huge multimillion dollar war chest (much of it donated by his wealthy out-of-state backers, who can make unlimited contributions, due to a loophole in the law), and his potential opponents are weak. Polls show that a slight majority favor recalling Walker, but in matchups with his most likely opponents, he is ahead, indicating that the race is a toss-up at best.  Even though Mahlon Mitchell, president of the Wisconsin Firefighters’ Association, who played a prominent role during the Capitol occupation, is likely to be the Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor, the Democrats are repeating the failed strategy of last year’s recalls and downplaying collective bargaining and other union issues.

It is beginning to look like the best chance of unseating Walker may be if he is personally implicated in a growing scandal involving election law violations during his period as Milwaukee County Executive. One of his former staffers has already pled guilty to two charges and Walker himself is being investigated, but the inquiry may be proceeding too slowly to have any effect on the election.

Moving the struggle forward
Many activists both inside and outside the labor movement were radicalized by the Capitol occupation, but the level of political sophistication is generally low. The desire for a general strike demanding the repeal of Act 10 was palpable, but the kind of rank-and-file organization and tradition of strike activity that would have been needed to pull it off simply did not exist. A new network of radicalizing rank-and-file activists has emerged in the wake of the Capitol occupation; the task before them is to build the kind of organization and community solidarity that could make widespread job actions possible.

The contrast between the enthusiasm for the signature campaign against Walker on the one hand, and the weaker poll numbers for any Democrat who goes up against him in a general election, is telling. It highlights the failure of lesser-evilism—the idea that workers should vote for one of the two parties of big business even though both parties refuse to champion their own demands and concerns. It will certainly be demoralizing if Walker is reelected in June, but even if a Democrat is in the governor’s mansion, the attack on workers and the poor will continue, and only a movement from below can challenge that. The Wisconsin uprising last year was one inspiration for the Occupy movement in the United States and resonated around the world. The continuing vitality of movements in other places will in turn help the movement in Wisconsin to survive the election, whoever wins, and begin to organize a response to the austerity policies of both Republicans and Democrats.

The emergence of the Occupy movement around the country makes it clear that the prevailing conclusion of the 2011 Wisconsin protests—that it was a “flash-in-the-pan” or the last breath of a dying labor movement—is false. The language of the 1% versus the 99% has become ubiquitous, perhaps best exemplified by the president of the Madison teachers union, who referred to a school board candidate who the union opposes as a “1-percenter.”

Class struggle is back on the agenda, and Wisconsin was merely round one. The success or failure of the Democrat in the recall election will unfortunately be a decisive moment and we should not underestimate the potential for widespread demoralization among labor and left activists if Walker wins. But the continued economic crisis and the dynamic of class struggle locally, nationally, and internationally, mean that in the medium and longer term the political climate remains very favorable. In Wisconsin, as in the rest of the United States, we still have the best opportunity for rebuilding the working-class movement and socialist organization that has existed in the last forty years.

Issue #104

Spring 2017

Resistance and reaction in the time of Trump

Issue contents

Top story

Editorials

Features

Interviews

Reviews

Upcoming Articles

  • Resistance and reaction in the time of Trump

  • The driving forces of the Russian Revolution

    Karl Radek
  • The Front Populaire and the 
making of the French Communist Party (1920–1962)

    Selim Nadi

Upcoming Reviews

  • Uncovering Boston's radical history

    Keegan O'Brien reviews A People's History of the New Boston by Jim Vrabel
  • Terror in the French Revolution and today

    Samuel Farber reviews In Defense of the Terror: LIberty or Death in the French Revolution by Sophie Wahnich
  • The New Deal and Little Steel

    Tim Goulet reviews The Last Great Strike: Little Steel, the CIO, and the Struggle for Labor Rights in New Deal America by Ahmed White
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