The Battle of Wisconsin, 2011

Published On January 28, 2016 | By George Martin Fell Brown | History, Workers' Movement

George Martin Fell Brown, Madison, WI

Five years ago, the city of Madison, Wisconsin became the setting for the U.S. labor movement’s biggest battle  in nearly twenty years, as hundreds of thousands took to the street against the anti-union legislation of right-wing Republican Governor Scott Walker. The protests saw twice-daily demonstrations for a month; a two-week occupation of the state Capitol in Madison; a second, shorter occupation of the Capitol; and a prolonged sick-out of Madison and Wisconsin teachers. And the idea of a general strike was seriously posed within the labor movement.

The “Battle of Wisconsin” was also an early stage in a much wider revival in political struggle. Protesters took inspiration from the Arab Spring that began a month earlier. And, in turn, it provided inspiration for the Occupy movement later on in the year. All this led Time magazine to declare “the protester” to be 2011’s person of the year. At the same time, the movement in Wisconsin was defeated, and the blows Walker dealt the labor movement have also emboldened corporate politicians to launch a wave of nationwide assaults on organized labor. Nonetheless, the Wisconsin uprising, both its potential for victory and its ultimate defeat, provide valuable lessons for the struggles of today.

Scott Walker vs. the Working Class

Scott Walker came to power in 2010 as part of the “Tea Party revolution” that saw hard-right Republicans sweep the midterm elections. Fueled by the legitimate anger at Obama’s bailout of big business during the 2008 financial crisis, the Tea Party diverted that anger into support for right-wing attacks on the working class. Throughout the financial crisis, politicians in both parties scapegoated public-sector workers as “privileged.” But Walker went a step further and declared an all-out war.

The weapon Walker wielded was Act 10, known at the time as the “Budget Repair Bill.” Like the misnamed “right-to-work” laws, Act 10 meant that public-sector unions had to manually collect dues and workers could refuse to pay dues while still keeping the benefits of union membership. But Act 10 went further. The unions would no longer be able to collectively bargain over any issue other than wages. And, even then, wages would be capped to the rise in the Consumer Price Index. So the workers could only bargain against pay cuts and not for pay raises. On top of this, the unions had to hold annual recertification votes in which 51% of the bargaining unit had to vote to renew the union. Although it was billed as a means to balance the budget, it was really a naked attempt to crush public-sector unions in Wisconsin.

But the workers gave as good as they got. The protests began on Valentine’s Day, with a demonstration led by the Teaching Assistants’ Association (TAA) in Madison in which they delivered a valentine to Walker asking him not to break their hearts. But the protests soon ballooned. The next day, over a thousand high school students across the city walked out of classes in solidarity with their teachers. The day after that, the teachers themselves called in sick and flooded the Capitol. Demonstrations grew to 8,000 people inside the Capitol and, on a typical day, tens of thousands outside. Under pressure from below, the 14 Democratic state senators fled to Illinois to prevent the Senate from achieving a quorum and passing the legislation. At its peak, the number of protesters rivaled the population of Madison itself.

The protests transformed consciousness. People who never took part in activism before were crawling through windows to occupy the Capitol. Solidarity messages came from Egyptian trade unionists and the Green Bay Packers. People around the world ordered solidarity pizzas to feed the protesters. The protests cut through all the anti-union propaganda. It seemed like Walker himself was the only person not on the workers’ side.

The workers had moved into action, and they had public opinion on their side. Victory appeared to be in their grasp. But there was no organized force with a strategy to win. An early slogan in the protests, “One day longer! One day stronger!”, assumed that simply keeping up the protests would be enough to stop Walker. But Walker didn’t back down. To win, it would have been necessary to escalate the struggle through strike action. And it was here that the Democratic Party and the union leadership played a demobilizing role.

General Strike

From the beginning of the movement, the call for a general strike was raised. First advanced by the far left, it was taken up by sections of the broader movement. In countries like Greece, general strikes have become routine. But in the United States, a general strike was a big step for the labor movement. So it was incredibly significant that the South Central Federation of Labor (SCFL), with delegates representing 97 unions and over 45,000 workers in the greater Madison area, officially endorsed a general strike. The motion was nonbinding, but it demonstrated that a general strike was a serious possibility.

With Walker unwilling to budge, a victory would require an escalation of action. In this situation, Socialist Alternative put forward the slogan of a statewide, one-day, public-sector general strike. On its own, a one-day strike isn’t usually enough to win a struggle, but most of the workers were not prepared, at the time, to enter an indefinite strike, especially when public-sector strikes were illegal. A one-day general strike would have been a big step forward and could have given the workers the confidence to defy anti-strike legislation, to engage in even more serious action and spread the fight to the private sector.

But while there was huge support in the ranks and among some local leaders for a general strike, most of the higher-up leaders – especially national leaders of key public-sector unions like the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) – sought to hold back the struggle. For decades, the labor movement was not schooled in class struggle, but in the struggle to elect Democratic Party politicians. Even with their unions’ very existence at stake, the union leaders were not prepared to engage in disruptive strike action that would upset their Democratic Party allies. Instead, the unions focused on lobbying the moderate Republican senators and launching a campaign to recall Scott Walker. Some union leaders offered to accept all the concessions demanded by Walker except for collective bargaining. Others refused such concessions but placed their faith in the “One day longer!” approach.

What was missing was a well-organized socialist force in the local unions. Such a force could have galvanized the mass sentiment for a general strike, challenged the Democratic Party’s demobilization, and defied the pressure of the national union leadership. Without this force, the movement was defeated.

By March, the “One day longer!” strategy exhausted itself. First the occupation of the Capitol gradually shrank. Then, on March 9, the Republicans found a loophole in the quorum law and were able to pass Act 10 without the Democrats present.

During the movement, the 14 Democratic Senators who fled the state were viewed as heroes, dubbed the “Fab 14.” But when it came to finding a way to defeat Walker’s attacks, the “Fab 14” revealed the demobilizing role of the Democratic Party. This was starkly demonstrated by “Fab 14” Senator Chris Larson from Milwaukee. After the passage of the bill, he returned to Wisconsin and declared, “Now … we trade in our rally signs for clipboards and we take to the streets to recall the Republicans.” But the bill had gone through and the protests had been derailed.


Through the recall election, the class struggle was transformed into an electoral struggle between a corporate Republican and a corporate Democrat. The Democratic candidate, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, was particularly uninspiring, having already lost to Scott Walker in 2010. Barrett sought to distance himself from the movement that made the recall possible. He refused to commit to reversing Act 10. As mayor, Barrett himself used Walker’s legislation to extract concessions from municipal workers under his control. Without any inspiring challenger, Walker not only survived the recall, he was re-elected yet again in 2014, this time running against former Trek Bicycles CEO Mary Burke. In the 2014 election, Walker was able to hit from the left, attacking Burke as an outsourcing capitalist.

Throughout all of this, Act 10 remained in effect. The consequences for the labor movement have been devastating. The AFT lost 50 percent of its membership and AFSCME lost 70 percent. The bulk of this membership was lost between the protests and the recall election. In 2015, Walker took his war into the private sector, making Wisconsin the 25th “right-to-work” state. Walker’s successes in Wisconsin have inspired further attacks on unions in other states, as well as nationally.

But while the Wisconsin workers may have lost the battle, the war is not over. The transformative effect the Wisconsin uprising had on consciousness is still being felt today. Wisconsin directly inspired Occupy and kicked off a whole new wave of struggles, from the Fight for $15 to Black Lives Matter. There are now new signs of struggle in the Wisconsin labor movement, as well. The struggles of Milwaukee teachers against school privatization show how public-sector unions can still fight back in a post-Act-10 Wisconsin. In the private sector, the recent Kohler strike revived the classic labor tactic of mass pickets. The defeat in Wisconsin has given labor a more difficult terrain to fight on. But workers are still fighting back. The ground is being laid for the rebuilding of the labor movement – but, for this to happen, the lessons of the Battle of Wisconsin must be learned.

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