Building a Movement to Transform Society

2011 will be seen as the year the fight back began. Decades of accumulated anger broke to the surface in country after country. Beginning in Tunisia, the oppressed people rose up to overthrow their dictator, Ben Ali. This then sparked young people, workers, and the middle classes to rise up and mount a heroic struggle in Egypt, resulting in the overthrow of the U.S.-backed dictatorship of Mubarak.

Revolution is again on the agenda. With instant access to world events through YouTube and social networking sites, these events were followed by young people and workers around the world. It became common knowledge during February 2011 that it only took 18 days of mass struggles for Egyptian workers and youth to overthrow Mubarak. This further inspired others to move into struggle in the Middle East and internationally.

Within days, Wisconsin became the next center of world struggles. In February, teachers and students took to the streets to oppose newly-elected right-wing Republican Governor Scott Walker’s draconian budget cuts and attacks on public sector unions. Carrying placards inspired by the revolutionary uprising in Egypt, the rapidly growing protests converged on the state capital to defeat Walker’s bill. The capitol building was occupied, massive demonstrations were built, and widespread discussion began on the idea of a general strike.

There was widespread discussion of the need for a general strike. The South Central Federation of Labor (SCFL), representing 97 unions and over 45,000 workers in the greater Madison area, endorsed a general strike. However, the motion was non-binding on its affiliates. Socialist Alternative distributed thousands of leaflets for a 24-hour public sector general strike as a first step to achieve this.

Today, it’s hard to accurately remember the energy and expectation that existed in February and March 2011 when the removal of Walker from power seemed possible as a result of the movement. Unfortunately, there was not a radical leadership able to achieve this.

What was needed was a strategy to organize and spread the strike movement to engage wider and wider layers of public sector workers, and at the same time bring in other workers in a drive to shut down business in Wisconsin. By making Wisconsin ungovernable and preparing for workers and the poor to pick up the reins of power from his weakened administration, Walker could have been defeated. The power of the U.S. working class could be seen re-emerging.

General Strike vs. Relying on the Democratic Party

The union leadership instead moved to contain the revolt and direct it into business as usual. Rather than build on the massive momentum and energy from below, they blocked any steps to make a general strike a reality, and instead chose a losing strategy of directing the movement into supporting Democrats in recall elections.

This was a tragedy for workers in Wisconsin. Tens of thousands of workers had their union rights shattered. The vicious cuts in education and social programs were allowed to go into law. Defeat in Wisconsin also meant a weakening of emerging movements in Ohio, Indiana, and other states where right-wing Republicans were also on the offensive.

But the Democrats failed to provide a real alternative for workers and young people. In Wisconsin, many Democrats had already voted for the majority of cuts and had shown no interest in fighting for the rights of union members. Previous Democratic Party Governor Jim Doyle had reduced pay increases and required state employees to take 16 unpaid furlough days over two years, which amounted to a 3% pay cut.

It was only the flight of 14 Democratic senators from the state of Wisconsin, to prevent Walker having a quorum to pass his anti-union legislation, that boosted them in the eyes of the public. Yet they had only done this, due to the pressure of the mass movement, in order to maintain an appearance of sympathy with workers. Despite their anti-worker record, union leaders paraded Democrats as friends of workers and youth.

By this action, the initiative was taken away from the grassroots direct action of workers and young people and siphoned off toward the Democratic Party, a party over whom corporate interests have far more influence than ordinary working-class people.

The movement was derailed, and all that was left was the recall elections. But even worse was the fact that the demands of the movement were deliberately dropped in the speeches of Democratic Party candidates. Instead of the election being a vehicle to further clarify whose interests should be represented in the government of Wisconsin – Walker and corporate interests or the needs of the working class and poor – the union leaders and liberals were silent as the Democrats ran their usual lesser-evilist campaign of running one inch to the left of the Republicans. The whole reason for struggle in Wisconsin had been buried.

While they attacked Walker’s extremism countless times, Democratic Party candidates never attempted to reframe the debate about who created the budget crisis and who should pay for it. Instead, they talked about “shared sacrifice” and for smaller cuts to programs that benefit working-class people. This could only mean that workers were counted as equally guilty for an economic crisis that was created by Wall Street and the corporate elite.

Some commentators defended Barrett’s right-wing politics as necessary to win over moderate “swing voters”. For instance, former Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz endorsed Barrett, arguing that “a candidate beholden to big unions is no more appealing to independent voters than one who answers to the Koch brothers.” (“How to Win a Recall Election“, The Isthmus, 4/12/2012). But Barrett’s embrace of austerity and “shared sacrifice” served to legitimize Walker’s agenda. Accepting that public sector workers needed to pay for the crisis only reinforced the right-wing propaganda that unions are only interested in taking their members’ money and funding Democrats. This played a key role in allowing Walker to win the election, even after the winter protests.

In the end, only two Democrats unseated Republicans in the state House, Walker was still in power, the anti-union laws were in place, and the cuts were allowed to pass into law. Socialist Alternative warned at the time that the recall strategy was not as “safe” as the union leaders made it out to be. We said:

“It will not be enough to stop Walker and his corporate offensive. A recall will take months, a year, or more (nor is there any guarantee of victory). But that won’t stop the immediate impact of this disastrous bill, as public sector unions now face the danger of being dismantled in the coming weeks.” (“Will the Recall be Enough?-We Need to Build a Mass Movement that Can Defeat Walker“)

Unfortunately, our warning was proven correct. The eventual Democratic Party candidate to contest Walker in the recall election was Tom Barrett, Walker’s Democratic Party opponent in the 2010 gubernatorial race. Barrett had the distinction of recently pushing though $100 million in cuts to retirement and health benefits for Milwaukee public school workers in the face of opposition from labor unions. It is no wonder that he failed to provide a real alternative to Walker, who won the re-election by 54% to 46%.

If the union leaders had backed the mass movement from below and organized a powerful movement in the streets, including rolling general strikes, a massive movement for worker rights would have been built. Walker could have been driven from office. The effect would have been enormous nationally. Millions could have been inspired to join the fight against the corporate agenda and for building a new fighting working-class movement. Unions would have been revitalized.

If instead of supporting the corporate Democratic Party candidates, unions put the tens of thousands of volunteers and $4 million directed at the Democratic Party recall effort into continuing to build a broad pro-worker movement and run independent candidates that exposed the corporate agenda behind both Walker and the Democrats, the movement could have kept moving forward. Such candidates would have helped build the movement in the streets.