Class Struggle in Wisconsin

A lot has happened since I wrote my last column for the ISR, about whether mass struggle would return to the United States in the foreseeable future. In response to the question “When will something happen here?” I wrote:

The simple answer is I don’t know when, but the long-term nature of the current economic crisis and the struggles we have seen in other parts of the world in recent months make me quite certain that significant struggles will reemerge in the U.S. sooner that than later.

What most readers probably don’t know is that I live in Madison, Wisconsin, and I wrote those words on the evening of February 11. That was the day that Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak was finally forced to resign after 18 days of mass demonstrations. It was also the day that Wisconsin’s Republican Governor Scott Walker declared war on public sector unions in the state.

What followed was a spectacular demonstration of class struggle in Madison and across Wisconsin, with mass demonstrations reaching over 100,000 people, an occupation of the State Capitol for more than two weeks, sick outs by teachers around the state, and enormous solidarity from all sections of the labor movement, tens of thousands of non-unionized workers, and university, high-school and middle-school students. (Even my seven-year-old son spent days at the Capitol supporting his teachers, marching, and eventually leading chants.)

The protests went hand-in-hand with a remarkable shift in popular consciousness. Madison felt—and still feels—different. The solidarity and energy of the protests created a sense of community that had not existed before. Political conversations took place everywhere—in workplaces, in coffee shops, on buses, in the street. Strangers would stop and join in. At the height of the struggle, the feeling of confidence was palpable.

Why did this take place in Wisconsin? Certainly none of us expected it—me least of all. Although I argued, “objective circumstances will once again produce the potential for mass struggle in the U.S.,” I did not have in mind next Tuesday in my hometown when I wrote those words. All I knew was that after over thirty years of one-sided class war from above in the United States, we were getting closer to the point when there would be a response from below.

The economic boom that followed World War Two, and which sustained the idea of the “American Dream,” came to an end in the early 1970s. The ruling classes around the world went on the offensive, dismantling social programs, privatizing public assets, driving down working class living standards, busting unions, and deregulating the economy—the policies that came to be known as neo-liberalism.

The result was growing inequality and rising profits, but also a return to the boom-bust cycle of the pre-war years, with major global recessions in the early 1980s, the early 1990s, the early 2000s, and finally the financial crash of 2008. Three decades of neo-liberalism has left workers in the US worse off than they were in the 1970s, and has created huge pools of bitterness and misery in other parts of the world.  The world economic crisis, accentuated these problems.

Last year, the IMF issued a report warning that high levels of youth unemployment around the world were creating the conditions for political turmoil, uprisings and rebellions. It was predicting events that played out first in Tunisia—which started with a former student, Mohamed Bouazizi, burning himself to death on December 17 after police confiscated his unlicensed vegetable cart—and then on a much larger scale in Egypt, resulting in the overthrow of hated dictators in both countries.

The protests in Madison erupted in the wake of the Egyptian revolution, and from the beginning the demonstrators drew parallels between the two, with numerous signs comparing Walker to Mubarak. Even Walker’s Republican ally, U.S. Representative and House Budget Chair Paul Ryan (now busy trying to undermine Medicare and Social Security) told an interviewer, “It’s like Cairo’s moved to Madison these days,” probably unaware that he was implicitly comparing the Governor to a hated dictator.

Of course Wisconsin was not on the verge of revolution, but the comparisons were nevertheless apt. The spirit of mass protest was in the air, and Wisconsin workers took inspiration from the success of their Egyptian counterparts. But beyond that, workers around the world are linked together in a single global economy, which affects us all when it goes into crisis. Soon after the demonstrations in Madison had begun, one activist in Cairo’s Tahrir Square held up a sign that read, “Egypt Supports Wisconsin Workers—One World, One Pain.”

Wisconsin voted for Obama in the 2008 election, but last November with unemployment still high and disillusionment with the White House’s pro-corporate policies widespread, many Democrats stayed home, allowing Walker to become governor with only about 28 percent of eligible voters supporting him. Republicans also took control of both houses of Wisconsin’s legislature.

Walker ran a low-key campaign, which was thin on specifics, but he nevertheless took his election victory to be a mandate for a radical right-wing agenda, no doubt fueled by his conviction that he is receiving daily instructions from God about what to do. In January he pushed through corporate tax cuts that would cost the state $140 million over the next two years. Then, in February, he used the excuse of a $137 million shortfall in the current budget, to unveil a ‘Budget Repair Bill” that was little more than thinly veiled union busting.

Walker’s bill would strip most public-sector workers of most of their collective bargaining rights, end automatic paycheck deduction to pay dues, force unions to be recertified every year with support not just of the majority who vote, but of the entire bargaining unit. (As many commentators pointed out, if Walker were held to the same standard, he would never have been elected.) In addition, workers would be required to pay significantly more for health care and pensions.

Walker’s attack came straight from a playbook put together by the Heritage Foundation and other right-wing think tanks, and is part of a national strategy. Only 7.6 percent of U.S. workers in private industry are unionized, but in the public sector the proportion is almost 37 percent. So in the latest phase of their decades long war on the working-class, Republicans have taken aim at public-sector unions—an especially enticing target because these unions provide Democrats with much of their funding at the state and local level. Wisconsin just happened to be the first place where this strategy was unrolled.

“What Mr. Walker and his backers are trying to do is to make Wisconsin — and eventually, America — less of a functioning democracy and more of a third-world-style oligarchy,” wrote New York Times columnist Paul Krugman. “And that’s why anyone who believes that we need some counterweight to the political power of big money should be on the demonstrators’ side.”

Walker expected to steamroller his proposals through in less than a week, but instead, the frontal attack on unions touched a raw nerve of class anger. On the Tuesday following his announcement, thousands of workers descended on the State Capitol in the center of Madison, joined by thousands of students from the University of Wisconsin, led by unionized graduate teaching assistants.

Part of Walker’s plan was a strategy of divide and conquer, which deliberately exempted firefighters and police from the new rules. But firefighters joined the demonstrations immediately, marching in full uniform and playing bagpipes. Even more surprisingly, off duty police officers also joined the protests, displaying signs saying, “Cops for Labor.” Private sector unions were also involved from the beginning.

Sick outs by Madison teachers were initiated by the rank and file. By Tuesday evening, so many had called in to say that they would not be at work the next day, that the school district cancelled classes. The teachers stayed out for the rest of the week and the following Monday, with union leaders scrambling to catch up, and teachers from other districts around the state joining the action as the week progressed.

The occupation of the Capitol building began on Tuesday night, with hundreds of protesters staying inside demanding to testify before the Joint Finance Committee, which was required to hold hearings on the bill. The occupation was initiated by students, but soon had enthusiastic labor participation, with particular unions designating certain nights for their members to sleep over.

This huge and militant response led all 14 Democrats in the Wisconsin Senate to leave the state on the third day of the protests, depriving Republicans of a quorum necessary to pass Walker’s bill. For nearly three weeks the legislature was gridlocked. In response to threats of layoffs, the South Central Federation of Labor passed a resolution saying that it would support a general strike. Others pointed out that the budget deficit would disappear if corporations and the wealthy paid their fair share of taxes.

The mood to escalate action was there, but union leaders were terrified of things going too far. From the beginning most said they would accept the economic concessions contained in Walker’s bill in exchange for the preservation of collective bargaining and other union rights, sacrificing their members’ paychecks to defend their own positions.

After the teachers returned to work, union officials were unwilling to call more job actions, and instead starting channeling resources into recall campaigns against eight GOP senators. This allowed Walker to wind down the occupation by slowly making access to the Capitol more difficult. Rallies continued outside, but on March 9, in a legislative maneuver, the Senate detached the anti-union sections from the rest of Walker’s bill and voted to pass them without the Democrats present.

The result was a huge and spontaneous outburst of anger around the city. Several thousand of us retook the State Capitol in the early evening, climbing through windows and pushing past cops, who eventually gave up trying to stop people from entering. The mood was electric, and the many teachers who had joined the occupation were waiting for word from their union to walk off the job again the next day. If that had happened, other workers might have joined them.

But instead of calling its members out, leaders of the teachers’ union urged them to go to work. As a result the battalions of organized labor were absent from the Capitol the next morning. The occupation succeeded in delaying the state Assembly from voting for several hours, but the cops eventually cleared people out, and the bill passed there too. Walker signed it the following day.

The passage of the bill represented a significant and unnecessary defeat. Even though, as I write this, it has not been enacted because of legal challenges, unions have rushed to sign new contracts or renegotiate existing ones, giving Walker what he wanted on health care and pensions. Once the focus had shifted from the state to the local level, the choice became one between concessions and layoffs. But the unions wanted to sign contracts covering the next few years, in the hope that Walker cannot void existing agreements.

Labor leaders hope that by the time existing contracts expire Democrats will once again be in control of state government. It is certainly possible that enough of the recalls will be successful to give Democrats a majority in the senate, and Walker himself may well be removed from office next year (Recall Walker bumper stickers are everywhere, and his poll ratings have dropped dramatically). But replacing Republicans with Democrats won’t be enough.

While the Democrats don’t want to destroy the unions, they want to co-opt them to push through their own austerity plans. Their defense of collective bargaining is that it is no barrier to forcing workers to accept concessions. What is needed is a mobilization from below to fight cutbacks proposed by either party.

Meanwhile, Walker and the Republicans are already planning further attacks. The two-year budget currently being debated will include massive cuts to education and health care, and Walker also hopes to copy legislation already passed in Michigan that would give him the power to dismiss local governments that are deemed to be insolvent, replace them with an appointed auditor, void union contracts, and impose more harsh cuts.

But the struggle that began in February has shifted consciousness dramatically. Wisconsin’s workers are still groping towards the kind of organizations that will be needed to respond to the continued attacks, but it is unlikely that they will take any of this sitting down. The same is true across the country. The next five or ten years in the United States is not going to look like the last twenty or thirty years, when class war from the top met little response from below. Instead, it’s going to look a lot more like the last few months in Wisconsin.


Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
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