THERE IS a sense of déjà vu haunting Wisconsin at the moment. One wonders if the state has fallen into some sort of hole in time and slipped back into the recent past. As the ISR prepared to go to press, the gubernatorial election occurred. The two men running were Republican Scott Walker and Democrat Tom Barrett, the same two men who ran in 2010. Once again, the only difference between the candidates was how aggressively they have attacked unions. Where Walker wants to destroy public sector unions with a single hammer blow, Barrett prefers to squeeze them lifeless, just like in 2010. Hence, the feeling of déjà vu. However, while Barrett is still the same dreadful neoliberal he was two years ago, Walker has since risen from an anonymous county official to become the most well-known governor in the country and a folk-hero on the right. So we are not in a time warp after all. In the end, the lackluster Democratic effort, combined with its institutional incapacity to conduct a fight based on the interests of the working class and poor of Wisconsin, handed Walker a deflating win.
Readers of the ISR may remember some news coming out of Wisconsin between these two elections. There were tens of thousands of people who converged on Wisconsin’s capital in defense of unions. Teachers walked off the job and shut down Madison schools. Working people from every union alongside nonunion workers occupied the capital building to stop union-busting legislation. Two recent collections of essays, Wisconsin Uprising: Labor Fights Back and It Started in Wisconsin: Dispatches from the Front Lines of the New Labor Protest in America, offer some analysis of the protests and give some hope that, thankfully, they yielded more than another occasion for Tom Barrett to dust off his stump speech. It Started in Wisconsin contains some interesting essays, but Wisconsin Uprising is packed with insightful analysis from some of the sharpest minds on the labor left.
During the protest, the spontaneous organization of the union rank and file, who were concerned with more than collective bargaining, was pitted against the lethargy and defeatism of the union bureaucracy. The first part of Wisconsin Uprising captures this tension, and describes the forces competing for influence over the movement. Many state workers responded to Walker’s demands for sacrifice by pointing to the years of concessions that the union gave up under Democratic governor Jim Doyle. Others noted that the amount of revenue that the state saved through the cuts approximately matched the amount Walker gave away in a corporate tax cut shortly after taking office. Rather than argue these points, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees president Marty Biel and Wisconsin Education Association Council president Mary Bell offered to take concessions in return for retaining collective bargaining.
In spite of the mass protests, the bill passed and Walker signed it into law. At a welcome home rally for the Democratic senators who left the state in order to prevent the Senate from having a quorum, speakers enjoined the crowd to “put down your placards and pick up a clipboard,” that is, to get behind the recall effort.
For labor militants, the anticlimax of Wisconsin raises the question of how things might have turned out differently. The South Central Federation of Labor passed a resolution instructing all member locals to educate their members on a general strike. The night the union-busting bill passed, local firefighters’ union president Joe Conway told journalists that all state workers should walk off the job. However, the militant elements of the movement were not sufficiently organized, and the strike never happened. In the chapter “Capitalist Crisis and the Wisconsin Uprising,” Madison activist Andrew Sernatinger explains, “In the Wisconsin moment, there were no standing networks of rank-and-file unionists who could agitate to make it more likely that their unions would do what was needed to navigate a militant course.” These networks are urgently needed so that the next Wisconsin does not become another missed opportunity.
Fortunately, the protests united a nascent left wing within Wisconsin labor that Socialist Worker journalist Lee Sustar describes in “Who Were the Leaders of the Wisconsin Uprising?” The Kill the Whole Bill coalition emerged to challenge both the end of collective bargaining and the austerity measures in the budget. The coalition brought together labor leaders willing to challenge the business union model, like Conway and local building and trades council executive director Eric Cobb. Although small in number, this emerging left succeeded in bringing demands for taxing the rich and opposing austerity into the broader movement.
The essays in the second and third sections of the book offer some lessons from Wisconsin and a vision for how to rebuild the labor movement. In “In the Wake of Wisconsin, What Next?” Jane Slaughter and Mark Brenner point out that Wisconsin proved that workers still have power, including the power to strike. If Madison teachers had not held their four-day sick-out, the protests might have fizzled after a few days.
In an instructive essay, “Back to the Future: Union Survival Strategies in Open Shop America,” Rand Wilson and Steve Early weigh the costs and benefits of state certification for public sector unions, and describe how unions in right-to-work states have managed to fight for their members. Wilson and Early recognize that loss of certification and automatic dues deduction was a serious financial loss. On the other hand, automatic dues deduction put a distance between union organizers and the rank and file.
It Started in Wisconsin offers less of an analysis of the events themselves but provides background on the effects of the cuts and on Wisconsin labor history. The only chapter to attempt any overview of the protests is Mari Jo Buhle’s essay, “The Wisconsin Idea,” and even this chapter is largely an ode to the history of the Wisconsin Progressive movement and its most prominent figure, Robert M. La Follette. Buhle presents the uprising as the heir of the Wisconsin Progressive tradition. John Nichols, Nation correspondent and author of the volume’s introduction, is also very taken with La Follette.
The Progressive movement is interesting insofar as it is a reminder that liberal politicians were not always as craven as the specimens we see today. However, Buhle and Nichols neglect to mention that progressivism was an attempt to capture the growing labor radicalism of the time and curb its influence. A progressive newspaper of the day, the Milwaukee Journal, explained, “[Conservatives] fight socialism blindly…while Progressives fight it intelligently and seek to remedy the abuses and conditions out of which it thrives.” Today’s labor movement has enough leaders who treasure class peace. What it needs is more advocates of class war.
Other essays are more useful. Roger Bybee’s essay on private sector unions, “The Role of Corporations,” is interesting for its account of how workers challenged plant closings in Wisconsin. Frank Emspak and Paul Buhle’s “Labor, Social Solidarity and the Wisconsin Winter” is a history of public sector unionism in Wisconsin, and Ruth Contiff reports on the effects of Walker’s cuts to public schools.
The labor movement is at a turning point. Buhle and Emspak write, “As the new laws took effect…one question that remained was whether the labor solidarity of the spring was a sort of go-down-with-your-boots-on heroism or marked the possibility of a new beginning.” If we are going to see that new beginning, labor militants should learn from the Wisconsin moment.