Socialist Alternative

Behind Walker’s Win in Wisconsin

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Democrats’ Failure Shows Need for Independent Working Class Politics

Scott Walker and Mary Burke. Source: Journal Sentinel files, Associated Press
Scott Walker and Mary Burke. Source: Journal Sentinel files, Associated Press

Scott Walker has won the Governor’s seat once again in the midst of corruption scandals and investigations around criminal scheming. He easily defeated his Democratic opponent, former CEO of Trek Bicycles, Mary Burke, who ran an uninspiring campaign.

Walker has been a contentious figure since he “dropped the bomb” on the labor movement in 2011 with Act 10 which took away bargaining rights for public sector workers, provoking an unprecedented mobilization of over 200,000 workers, an occupation of the State Capitol and a standoff that lasted for weeks. This movement had the possibility to defeat Walker, but it was diverted away from struggle toward a recall election in 2012 that returned Walker to power.

Since 2011, the attacks on Wisconsin workers, students, Indian tribes, and the poor have been relentless. Union membership in the public sector has plummeted. Laws to make it harder to obtain unemployment; a massive purging of the rolls of BadgerCare (health care coverage for low-income Wisconsin residents); cuts to food stamps; the elimination of the 5-day work-week; the elimination of over-time pay; and attacks on local control and treaty rights have all been on the agenda. With such ruthless attacks, a victory for the Democrats should have been easy, yet Walker won with a solid majority.

Democrats’ Uninspiring Campaign

As a former CEO of Trek, Mary Burke offered very little to Wisconsin workers. Her campaign did not promise to repeal Act 10 and restore bargaining rights. Her background both as a CEO and as part of former Governor Jim Doyle’s administration did her no favors. Burke’s campaign attacked Walker over and over on failing to live up to its job growth promise, but refused to comment on his dismantling of public sector unions!

This allowed Walker to go on the offensive with attacks that resonated among working class voters. A huge part of Walker’s campaign money was spent attacking Mary Burke’s record as a CEO. The tone of the attacks proved that the Republicans must be well aware that consciousness has shifted to the left.

Walker attacks Mary Burke as an outsourcing capitalist
Walker attacks Burke as an outsourcing capitalist.

Televised advertisements highlighted Trek’s reputation of outsourcing jobs out of Wisconsin to profit off of low wages. Instead of spending resources accusing the Democrat of being a big city liberal, Walker’s attacks were mostly directed at the fact that she was a good capitalist, frequently referring to her as “Millionaire Mary.” In fact, his attacks on Burke’s wealth and business record were so sharp, that even the business press intervened to ask that he tone down his attacks.

As Walker was busy attacking Burke on issues such as low-wages and outsourcing, Burke was attempting to appeal to the right by mentioning the genius of Ronald Reagan’s tax cuts in her campaign material and taking no solid stance on the repeal of Act 10.

It is remarkable that after three years of non-stop attacks on working people that Walker did a better job tapping into working class anger than his Democratic opponent, yet, in this era of crisis and austerity, the Democratic Party has no options beside contradiction, back-stabbing, and appeals to the right wing.

Walker’s third consecutive victory has lead many active members of the Democratic Party to question the competency of Wisconsin Democratic party chair Mike Tate and some have called for his resignation. While this is understandable, the real problem is much deeper than whether this or that candidate would have been preferable or the lack of democracy in the party. While the majority of Democratic voters are well to the left of the party leadership, the leadership answers first and foremost to big business and their corporate political action committees. Even the more “progressive” wing of the Democrats is not prepared to countenance the type of social struggle necessary to push back the attacks of the right. What is really needed is a new party of working people and the poor which would receive no corporate funding and fight to mobilize the 99% on the streets and in the voting booth. This is what Socialist Alternative did in Seattle, electing Kshama Sawant and then using the electoral victory to help build a successful grassroots campaign for a $15 minimum wage.

Labor and the Democrats

Workers fighting for workers rights in the 2011 Wisconsin uprising. Source: Marc Tasman
Workers in the 2011 Wisconsin uprising. Source: Marc Tasman

At the height of the Wisconsin uprising of 2011, Socialist Alternative called on the labor movement to fight back with strike action, the weapon of the working class. We called on the public-sector unions to use the energy in the streets as fuel for a one-day general strike. This could have shown the strength of the movement, brought state government to a halt, and then could have been used to draw other layers of the labor movement into the struggle.

Instead, the labor leaders, threatened with their own destruction, looked toward the Democratic Party and the demobilization of the demonstrations at the Capitol as a safe way out. Thousands of working people responded to this movement to recall Walker only to see months and months of hard work go completely to waste campaigning for Mayor Tom Barrett. Barrett wasn’t just a losing candidate, but had used Walker’s Act 10 to attack teachers in his city of Milwaukee. In fact he publicly called for the expansion of Act 10 to take away bargaining rights from an even broader section of public sector workers.

The labor movement in Wisconsin has yet to learn the lessons following the defeat of the Wisconsin Uprising in 2011. This year, labor leaders once again opted to use much needed energy, dwindling resources, and its shrinking membership base to in a failed attempt to elect a Democrat. The labor leaders relied on a strategy initiated by the Service Employees International Union of using a ballot-initiative calling for a $10.10/hr minimum wage as a way to mobilize people to the polls while actively opposing any attempts to boldly raise the $15/hr demand that has proved so inspirational in the fast food strikes across the country. While the $10.10 minimum wage demand was rather uninspiring, the results were striking. The non-binding $10.10 resolution passed with ease, yet challenger Mary Burke was easily defeated. This, despite $10.10 being on her platform!

While labor’s strategy of mobilization failed to secure a win for the Democrats, it succeeded in proving that the Wisconsin working class no longer trusts them to deliver on their promises. The Wisconsin results were part of a national trend that saw Democrats punished for the continued attacks on working people. However clear voters were in their approval of social justice ballot initiatives, we can expect that the right-wing, having won most of the key races will be emboldened to pursue an even more grotesque and cruel agenda.

Building a Real Alternative

While the next four years in Wisconsin will see an invigorated right-wing pushing hard for an aggressive agenda challenging marriage equality, labor rights, environmental protections, women’s rights, and what remains of our feeble safety net, working people do not have to take this lying down. As in 2011 we must build up a determined mass movement to fight the right-wing assaults. This time we must not allow the movement to become sidetracked into the dead-end of the Democratic Party but rather see the struggle through to the end.

In 2011 the labor leaders opted for the recall while hundreds of thousands were in the streets clamoring for action against the Koch funded nightmare of Act 10. And tragically, this failed approach is evident again today when fast food workers striking for $15/hr and a union had their demands cut short in Wisconsin to fall in-line with a non-binding $10.10 ballot initiative. This is a strategy that not only failed to get the Democrat elected, but also failed to win even the very modest $10.10/hour minimum wage. This does not have to be the case. An election campaign can serve to build movements and long-term organizational structures to challenge the status-quo, but only when we rely on our own power and look to our own leadership. This is how a $15/hr minimum wage was won in Seattle, and this is how we can win and build throughout the United States.

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