What Happened in Wisconsin?

By now everyone has followed the stellar developments, but what happened in Wisconsin? Where did the upsurge of working class unrest come from? What made it different from other large mobilizations? And most importantly, how do we understand the rebellion’s conclusion and demobilization? We hope to begin a discussion of the context and dynamics of the Battle for Wisconsin, with the ultimate aim of drawing out key political lessons for the next phase of our own struggle in Wisconsin as well as for others preparing for their own fight-backs.

Some Context: Global Austerity and Class Projects

We should start by pointing out that the Wisconsin upsurge comes out of the context of a global assault on working people. To say nothing of the past thirty years of neoliberalism, after the financial crash of 2008 world leaders reached a consensus that not only would they not pursue action against banks, but they would instead shift the crisis onto states and squeeze the working class to balance whatever deficits came as a result.

After its meeting last summer, the G20 stated in its Toronto Declaration that “advanced economies have committed to fiscal plans that will at least halve deficits by 2013 and stabilize or reduce debt-to-GDP ratios by 2016.” Only a few months later we saw strikes against the pension reform in France, student protests against massive tuition hikes in the UK, and a more-or-less general rebellion against the structural adjustments in Greece. The year 2011 began with revolts across North Africa when unemployment, harsh living conditions and political repression reached such a point that it drew out major confrontations across the continent.

In the United States, processes that were already in motion (foreclosures, unemployment and underemployment, tuition hikes, social divestment) accelerated after 2008, but a much more aggressive project was set in motion. Playing off of anger over the lack of any change from the Obama administration and the Democrat-controlled Congress, the Republicans swept the mid-term elections and opted for a state-by-state strategy. The Republicans were helped by the fact that there was practically no difference in the programs that the two parties offered; the debate wasn’t whether or not to cut, but how much, how fast and from where.

Soon after the inauguration of the Republican House of Representatives and new governors, nearly identical anti-union bills were introduced in Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan and New York, all key states with strong public sector unions. The common thread was that the bills were drafted by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a right-wing think tank that also developed Arizona’s anti-immigrant bill, SB1070.

How the Fight Unfolded: Political Space and Grassroots Militancy

On the same day in February that news broke about Mubarak’s resignation in Egypt, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker announced the introduction of his “Budget Repair Bill,” which was to be debated and voted on the next week.

Top officials of the AFL-CIO, the main US labour federation, called for two days of rallies at the capitol so they could get workers to lobby their representatives, with the hope of removing the restrictions on public sector unions’ collective bargaining rights from the bill. Barring that, the idea was to just tough it out until a 2012 election when Democrats could be elected to the state legislature and the law overturned.

What this did was actually create a vacuum of political leadership and open up a whole new set of possibilities for rank and file workers. The labour bureaucracy expected this attack to be just like every other and that after they gave their rah-rah speeches workers would step aside and let backroom deals be made. Instead, the breadth of Walker’s attacks on unions and social services triggered mass demonstrations that continuously built upon the developments in the struggle to become more militant and class conscious.

The bottom-up character of the protests began on the first Tuesday, February 15th, when a firefighters’ union local joined the protests, in spite of their exemption from the union-busting parts of the bill. They were soon joined by high school students who organized a walkout in support of their teachers. Workers took to the capitol, some of them to lobby, but more to take part in the public testimonies the legislature held for comment on the bill.

The occupation of the building actually grew out of the desire for workers’ opinions to be heard.  On the evening of Tuesday the 15th, as the speakers’ list became longer and longer, members of the Teaching Assistants Association put out a call that people should get sleeping gear to stay in the capitol to keep the testimonials going all night. On Wednesday morning conversations began to crop up that the bill had actually not moved forward because policymakers were obligated to take comment, and it became a basic consensus that the testimonies should go on as long as possible to delay the bill.

This shift to a more assertive posture was helped by the announcement that Madison Teachers’ Inc. (MTI) had closed Madison schools Wednesday by taking collective sick days in order to protest the bill. This prompted the Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC) to follow suit Thursday and Friday.

On that same Thursday, Iron and Steelworkers, Teamsters, Electrical Workers and other private sector union locals joined the fold and the protests’ character became increasingly militant, moving on their own from the AFL-CIO’s lobbying and amendment focus to demands to “kill the bill” and “recall Walker.” Calls of “Tax the rich!” were heard. Workers who came into the capitol initially to give testimonies and get shelter from the Wisconsin winter ended up staying because of the new, vibrant culture that celebrated workers’ power and fostered grassroots inter-union dialogue.

After the first few days when the movement was finding itself, its militant character really began to take shape in response to new developments from Walker and the legislature. First, despite an unprecedented turnout to speak against it, the bill was pushed through the finance committee to be brought to a vote. The critical mass of students, trade unionists and other workers realized that they weren’t going to lobby their way out of this one and started packing bodies in front of the Senate and Assembly chamber doors, in front of elevators and any entry, to ensure that the Legislature would not meet to pass this bill.  It was this mass action that forced the fourteen Democrat state senators to flee Wisconsin.

Soon after, a number of articles and reports came out showing that the budget deficit Walker claimed made his union-busting bill necessary was a complete fraud. Walker had inherited a surplus of $121.4 million and turned it into a $140 million deficit by issuing tax breaks and financial contributions to those who had put him into office. Following that was the notorious prank phone call in which Walker made it plain that he would never back down and would never cut any deals

All of these factors combined to produce even more historic developments. Workers began targeted campaigns against the Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce when they hosted the governor, pressure was put on the Koch Brothers lobbying office near the capitol, disability activists from ADAPT occupied the Republican Party offices in Madison and firefighters withdrew hundreds of thousands of dollars from M&I Bank downtown, forcing the branch to close for the day.

Obstacles and Legacies

It’s important to recognize not only the power of newly heightened consciousness and militant action but also the weight of existing forces in society. Even as workers were locked in a battle with Walker on his bill, the movement was shaped by the trade union bureaucracy, the Democratic Party and the legacy of white supremacy.

Labor Bureaucracy

The labor leadership had no intention of fighting the Budget Repair Bill. Top officials of the AFL-CIO and individual unions called the first rallies, which were supposed to be symbolic, to demonstrate that the leadership was doing something. But as the grassroots movement eclipsed the bureaucracy’s organizing, top officials realized that there was a problem.

The problem was that they couldn’t have workers lead themselves because if they started to get their expectations up the bureaucracy risked being dragged where it never wants to go: into a confrontation [2]. There was a real sense in the first week that the bureaucracy was tailing the movement on the ground. When AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka showed up he validated all of the anger Wisconsin workers expressed, but only so as to steer the movement in a more acceptable direction.

Even after rank and file workers had led the way by initiating sick strikes and blockades inside the capitol building, clearly stating that they wanted the whole bill to go, one-by-one the union leadership came out against them. Marty Biel, Executive Director of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 40, offered enormous concessions in exchange for an amendment that would remove the bill’s clauses requiring unions to recertify annually and restricting collective bargaining rights. Mary Bell of WEAC ordered teachers back to work at the height of militant activity. These demobilizing tendencies were even more obvious when the same union leaders demanded that their members report to work after the bill was rushed through in March.

Democratic Party

The second obstacle workers had to face was the Democratic Party. Just like the labor bureaucrats, the Democratic Party had no interest in taking a stand against the bill until they were forced to. From the beginning, Democratic legislators tried to convince protesters to leave the capitol because they were “getting in the way of the process.” At first “the process” was amending the Budget Repair Bill to be somehow less bad. Though their process would evolve over time, the constant plea of the Democrats to protestors was to leave and end the occupation of the capitol.

In the same way that the labor bureaucracy put a cap on job actions and reined in the movement, the Democrats did their part to stop grassroots activity as well. During his first trip to Madison, Jesse Jackson discouraged students from leaving school and marched them right back to class, away from the capitol. Democrat state assembly member Brett Hulsey addressed protesters in the capitol at least three times, telling protesters that the most important thing that they could do was to leave the capitol and end the occupation.

That the Senate Democrats fled Wisconsin had nothing to do with them being a “progressive force” or somehow “on our side.” Rather, they recognized that they had no other choice but to leave. Why is that?

In the immediate sense it was because workers’ demands became more militant and in the US labour unions have attached themselves almost unconditionally to the Democratic Party. If the Democrats didn’t do something drastic, they risked losing labour’s allegiance and seeing more radical demands emerge. We should remember that the demand to recall Republican legislators was brought up from below, not by Democratic Party officials. The Democrats clearly knew that they were being forced to leave, and to ensure that nothing like this would ever happen again one of the “Fab 14”, Senator Tim Cullen, supported a constitutional amendment changing quorum laws.

Even beyond the political compact, Democratic Party officials have a material interest in unions existing as a source of their funding. The rights of union workers don’t matter in the least to them so long as political contributions from unions continue, so Democrats saw no need to fight for anything more than the preservation of collective bargaining rights.

White Supremacy

The last force that the Wisconsin movement had to grapple with was the legacy of white supremacy. Wisconsin is about 90% white, while Madison is 83% white and Milwaukee 47%, but the movement in Madison hardly reflected even the state’s demographics. A large part of this was that workers of color didn’t have access to the same resources as white unionized workers to be able to come out to Madison, or to have some measure of collective protection to leave work to come out to protests.

But the movement also developed in ways that alienated communities of color. While probably no one will disagree that off-duty police sporting signs that read “Cops For Labor” is unheard of, the majority of white workers embraced the police and didn’t show any signs of unease about the contradictory role police play in society. The same is true of the response to the anti-Walker march of prison guards in Madison. Though Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney made a powerful statement that his deputies wouldn’t be “palace guards,” he had closely collaborated with Immigration and Customs Enforcement in harassing Latinos and reporting non-status immigrants for deportation.

Many leaders of nonprofits and organizations based in communities of color pointed out the hypocrisy that it would take something this drastic for white people to care about unemployment, foreclosures and insecurity, which disproportionately affect people of color in the United States.

Some Lessons To Take Away

This is a whole lot to take in, so to condense everything we should recap a few key points and then draw out some lessons to take away.

First, we should see Wisconsin as a moment where political space opened up and working people got an opportunity to demand what they actually wanted. Working people aren’t passive or “asleep”; there just isn’t usually the opportunity to actually affect things. Moments like these are rare occasions where we see the potential of the working class to engage in militant struggle, and we get a window into what relations between people might look like in a sane world. Of course, while we marvel at the ability for people to come together and find a language of struggle so quickly, we shouldn’t forget about the real legacy of white supremacy and patriarchy.

All the same, it should be clear that the labor bureaucracy and the Democratic Party have no interest in fighting and moreover they will actively work to dismantle grassroots movements. We shouldn’t refuse to engage with labour leaders or the capitalist parties, but when we do our strategy should be to push them, as grassroots militants in Wisconsin did with sick-strikes, mass actions and motions passed at the local labor council.

Last, and most important, while heightened consciousness and a militant disposition are important, without independent workers’ organizations, such as rank and file caucuses in unions, our chances of resisting demobilizing maneuvers is pretty slim. Although it is difficult to build such organizations when movement energy is low, grassroots efforts still lay the groundwork for moments like Wisconsin and make them more successful.

While for the moment Walker has made his advance, we can be sure that five weeks of demonstrations in Wisconsin have opened a new chapter for resistance in the US. In the course of the struggle we’ve all learned something about what’s possible and what we’re up against.

Tessa Echeverria and Andrew Sernatinger are members of Solidarity: A Socialist, Feminist, Anti-Racist Organization in Madison, Wisconsin.


[1] For more on what’s in the bill, see Connor Donegan’s article, “Taking Stock and Moving Forward in Wisconsin: Reflections on a Struggle”

[2] For more on understanding the logic of the labor bureaucracy, see Charlie Post, “On the Labor Bureaucracy.”