By Teddy Shibabaw, Madison, Wisconsin

Tuesday, June 14, 2011 is a date that will live in infamy. The Wisconsin State Supreme Court handed Governor Walker and his corporate backers a historic victory. Legal challenges to the way the anti-union “Budget Repair Bill” was passed – based on a violation of the “Open Meetings Law” requiring 24 hours notice for voting on legislation – were defeated by a 4-3 vote.

Had the Supreme Court not ruled in their favor, Republicans had been threatening to put the bill to a re-vote in an “extraordinary session” – requiring no 24 hours notice – that same Tuesday. An attempt to vote on the anti-union bill again had the potential to re-escalate the protest movement in a serious way. The Supreme Court abided by the GOP’s deadline and handed the corporate elite a victory. A suffocating wave of demoralization set in for the entire movement, stunned by the court’s blatantly political act that sided with the union-busters.

Two days later, the State Senate passed three billion dollars in cruel cuts to vital social programs, clearing the way for Governor Walker’s signature. The cuts include $1.6 billion from public schools, $500 million from health care, $250 million from the University of Wisconsin system, 30 percent from community colleges, $74 million from police and fire services across the state and cuts to the Homestead and Earned Income tax credits that largely affect middle and low-income workers.

Meanwhile, the state will lose $2.3 billion in revenue due to corporate tax cuts. In other words, if they avoided the corporate tax cuts, the vast majority of cuts to social programs could have been prevented. This shows how the budget cuts in Wisconsin aren’t about “balanced books”: This is a blatant transfer of wealth from the state’s needy to the state’s rich and greedy.

The “Budget Repair Bill” that was challenged in the courts is a devastating attack on all the labor rights that public sector workers were able to win in the past half century. It prohibits virtually all collective bargaining for an estimated 175,000 state, local and public school employees. The Wisconsin State Journal summed up the draconian changes that will go into effect: “The law reduces public employees’ take-home pay to cover more of the costs of pension and health care premiums, ends payroll deductions for union dues, requires annual union recertification votes and forbids collective bargaining on things like vacations, sick pay, seniority preferences, overtime and grievance procedures,” (6/26/2011). The annual recertification votes require 51% of the entire bargaining unit to vote in favor, not just 51% of those voting.

It’s not possible to sugar coat what has transpired. It is one of the most dramatic attacks on the living standards and democratic rights of workers and poor people in recent history.

The question people in Wisconsin and beyond are asking is: “How could this happen?” How could every branch of state government refuse to listen to the historic expression of democratic will displayed over months of protests, sick-outs, school walkouts and other direct action? Being able to soberly answer this question is vital if we are to be better equipped for future struggles to stop further attacks or to win back what we have lost.

We Could Have Won

Our present fate was far from inevitable. Victory was within our reach in early March when we had 150,000 in the streets armed with a determined fighting spirit and rising worldwide solidarity. Weeks of protest had shown Walker was not going to back down to demonstrations alone. What was required was a decisive escalation of strategy and tactics.

However, despite being faced with virtual decimation of the public sector unions, the state-level union leadership shrank from wielding its most powerful weapon: the strike. Historically, workers have rarely won major concessions from corporations and their stooges in government without resorting to strike action. A one-day public-sector-wide shutdown, combined with a solid occupation of the Capitol, mass demonstrations, direct action and student walkouts could have been an inspiring launch pad for a serious strategy to defeat Walker.

Talk of strike action was not restricted to the margins of the radical left. It was being widely debated among tens of thousands of workers. Even the South Central Federation of Labor had come out in favor of one, though it had no authority to call such action. Strike action seemed like the next logical step to tens of thousands, protests alone having run their course.

Some of the arguments against strike action were concerns that it would be isolated in Madison, that Walker would fire strikers and privatize everything. However, if it was solidly organized with emergency mass meetings of all unions, democratic rank-and-file strike committees and a campaign of union and community outreach, then isolation would not have been likely.

Can Democrats Reverse Walker’s Agenda?

Unfortunately, the union leadership decided instead to direct the whole movement into safer channels: legal challenges and recalls. There is no question that Republicans deserve to be recalled and lose their jobs for what they have done. There is nothing wrong with pursing every legal avenue to stop the right-wing onslaught on democracy. However, the fact that the courts and elections became a central strategy of the movement meant we were basing ourselves on the distant hopes that newly elected politicians will reverse Walker’s agenda while we stall them in the courts. Instead, recalls should have been part of a strategy focused on opposition to all cuts, running independent working-class candidates and a clear emphasis on mass action, including strikes and direct actions.

Rather than relying on our own collective strength and solidarity, the legalistic strategy put the initiative on the side of politicians and jurists, over whom corporate interests have much more control than we do. A recall campaign focused in a few districts meant that many of the tens of thousands that mobilized for the protests were now demobilized. This is precisely what gave Walker and the Republicans space to ram through virtually their entire agenda. Until the last moment, the anti-cuts groups to the left of the mainstream union leadership made heroic efforts to push in a different direction. However, most activists were focused on the next action they were going to organize and were not armed with an overall strategy and coordination that could have made a decisive impact on the broader movement. Only a united, democratically coordinated coalition working on the premise of providing a counterweight to the dead-end strategy of the union leadership would have had a chance in shifting the course of the whole movement. What was needed was to unite the whole movement around a “No Cuts, No Concessions!” and mass direct action strategy independent of the two corporate political parties.

Now, there is widespread demoralization and a more complete demobilization of union members and their supporters. The main plan for union activity revolves around the recalls. There is no guarantee that the Democrats will win these elections, but we are guaranteed that the Democrats won’t oppose budget cuts. We know that because they didn’t in the first place.

Union leaders and the Democrats accepted Walker’s cuts at the very start of this struggle, only opposing the attacks on collective bargaining. If all cuts had been opposed, then the unions would have been in a stronger position to mobilize the community support of people that receive and rely on state services like education, basic health care, state benefits and so on.

Across the country, Democrats are not only carrying out budget cuts; they are also attacking collective bargaining rights. In Massachusetts, with its one-party Democratic state government, health care can no longer be bargained for by unions.

A look at their campaign financing shows why Democrats cannot be trusted to fight on our behalf. The Wisconsin Democracy Campaign ( reports that, in the 2010 Wisconsin elections, two-thirds of campaign dollars for state House and Senate Democrats were from corporations and businesses while one out of eight dollars came from the labor movement. Democrats don’t bite the hand that feeds them, and corporate donors feed them much more than unions.

What to Do Now?

While we wait for the recall elections to take effect, many unions are faced with a struggle for their very existence. Either they hold votes to recertify or they’re gone completely. It’s still possible to fight against the implementation of the new anti-union law. If the public-sector unions don’t fight back now, they could be liquidated before the “Budget Repair Bill” has a chance to be repealed.

Where possible, unions should recertify. However, the recertification process is stacked against them. For instance these recertification votes will likely happen in the summer when the teachers aren’t at work. Moreover, even if they do manage to recertify, the law will restrict them to bargaining only on wages.

Workers in the public-sector unions can still place contract demands on the politicians, whether or not they have legal bargaining rights. If the politicians refuse to listen, the unions can force their hand by taking job actions: from slowdowns and sick-outs up to and including coordinated strikes and workplace occupations. Any attempt to victimize workers taking collective action can be defeated by organizing solidarity from the entire labor and anti-cuts movement in Wisconsin and beyond.

The power of such actions is independent of their recognition by the deeply pro-corporate legal system. All the rights that we are now being forced to defend were once illegal. They were won by heroic struggles that defied anti-union laws. When workers are organized and conscious of their power, no law or force can stop them.

Rebuilding the Unions

Unfortunately, the union leaders have completely failed to provide a way forward. The leaders of the two biggest public-sector unions in Wisconsin, AFSCME and the AFT, have declared their intention not to recertify. Scandalously, Bryan Kennedy, President of AFT-Wisconsin, said: “We may just continue to be a membership organization that advocates for all sorts of things,” (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 5/6/11).

This would mean that AFSCME and the AFT would effectively cease to be unions and become nothing more than lobbying groups for the Democratic Party. Even unions that are attempting recertification, such as the Wisconsin Education Association Council, have no clear strategy to carry it out.

It is up to rank-and-file members to defend the labor movement. After all, that’s who the unions are supposed to represent. They need to organize their co-workers and call on their unions to prepare for action. They need to put counterproposals and resolutions at their union meetings, calling on their unions to adopt a fighting strategy. If the leadership continues to pose an obstacle, they should be challenged in elections and pushed aside by new rank-and-file leaders.

Winning the Future

Much water has passed under the bridge. However, we are still at an early stage of the battle in the U.S. to defend jobs, services and living standards as big business and its politicians try to make us pay for a crisis they created. The merciless acceleration of budget cuts and attacks on our living standards will produce more and more titanic struggles of resistance across the country. Our brothers and sisters in Greece, Spain and the U.K. are also pointing the way forward with powerful strike movements. The revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia that served as inspiration for the Wisconsin struggle are deepening their challenge to the old regimes that are still in place despite cosmetic changes. Learning the lessons from the fight-back in Wisconsin, across the country and internationally will put us in a much better position to win future struggles.

Despite the cruel defeat that we’ve been handed in Wisconsin, we’ve won something much bigger that they can never take away from us: class consciousness and solidarity. All the tens and hundreds of thousands that took part in the Capitol demonstrations, sick-outs and school walkouts have been forever transformed. In a few months they have learned more than can often be learned in years. They have come to understand that we can only win a better future by fighting together and that we have enormous power when we do so. The next fight may seem distant from where we sit now, but it will start on a much higher plane than before.