2019 Introduction

At the beginning of 2011, the city of Madison, Wisconsin became the setting for the U.S. labor movement’s biggest battle in nearly twenty years. 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; a second, shorter occupation of the Capitol; and a prolonged sick-out of Madison and Wisconsin teachers. For the first time in decades, the idea of a general strike was seriously posed within the labor movement.

The Wisconsin uprising 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. In turn, it provided inspiration for the Occupy Wall Street movement later on in the year. These movements led Time magazine to declare “the protester” to be 2011’s person of the year. Tragically, the movement in Wisconsin was defeated. Nonetheless, the Wisconsin uprising, both its potential for victory and its ultimate defeat, provide valuable lessons for today’s struggles. 

We are reprinting The Battle of Wisconsin: History and Lessons from the Working-Class Revolt of 2011 today with this introduction which updates the reader on the situation in Wisconsin post-recall. In the wake of Act 10, “right to work” legislation, and the Janus decision, the defeat that was the Battle of Wisconsin holds vital lessons, fully eight years on from the events.

As the new edition goes to press in 2019, elements of the Battle of Wisconsin are being repeated on a national scale. Instead of Scott Walker we have Donald Trump. Just as Walker’s attacks provoked a mass movement in 2011, Trump’s attacks have provoked a whole series of struggles since his election in 2016 on issues as diverse as women’s rights, immigrants’ rights, LGBTQ rights, anti-racism, science, the environment, and gun violence.

The reprinting of this pamphlet also comes at a time of resurgence of the labor movement. The West Virginia teachers’ strike in February 2018 put labor in the spotlight on a scale not seen since 2011. Unlike Wisconsin, the struggle in West Virginia won a concrete victory, inspiring a wider wave of teachers’ struggles across the country. It’s vital for activists in the labor movement to learn the lessons of 2011 for the struggles of today and tomorrow. We need to understand the reasons the movement lost in Wisconsin but won in West Virginia and compare these struggles to prepare for those to come.

The War on the Unions

Even with the resurgence of the labor movement nationwide, Trump and the Republicans want to continue attacking unions along the lines pioneered by Scott Walker in Wisconsin. The 2018 Supreme Court case Janus v. AFSCME, effectively makes the entire public sector nationally “right to work.” The question posed in Wisconsin in 2011 is now being posed nationwide today: How can we defeat the right? 

At labor’s high point in the 1950s, over 35% of U.S. workers were unionized. Now that figure is at 11%, and in the private sector only 7% are union members. The end of the post-WWII economic boom in the 1970s spurred big business to move to the offensive, and labor’s steady decline can be traced back to Ronald Reagan’s smashing of the air traffic controllers union, PATCO, after their 1981 strike.

But three decades of neoliberalism led to the massive crisis of capitalism that opened up in 2008. Seeking to make working people foot the bill for the crisis, the ruling class and its two political parties have relentlessly attacked our living standards and past social gains. The public sector and public-sector unions have been on the receiving end of some of the sharpest attacks. 

In Wisconsin, these attacks came in the form of Walker’s Act 10. Originally called the “Budget Repair Bill” (as it’s referred to in the pamphlet), Act 10 sought to destroy any ability of the public-sector unions to function as unions, removing their ability to collectively bargain, severely limiting their ability to raise money, and requiring annual recertification votes for the unions to continue as bargaining agents. 

The General Strike Demand

When the protests first began, they spread like wildfire. Student walk-outs and teacher sick-outs shut down schools across the state. Demonstrations grew to 8,000 people inside the Capitol and, on a typical day, tens of thousands outside.  At its peak, the number of protesters rivaled the population of Madison itself.

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. To win, it would have been necessary to escalate the struggle through strike action first in the public sector and then spreading to the private sector.

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. The pamphlet examines this issue in depth and explains why Socialist Alternative put forward the slogan of a statewide, one-day, public-sector general strike as a step toward further action. The exact character of a demand for strike action can vary from struggle to struggle. But reviving the strike as a weapon for the working class is a key task as demonstrated in Wisconsin and more recent labor struggles.

While there was huge support in the union 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 wasn’t schooled in class struggle. Union activity focused more on the election of Democratic Party politicians and the use of concessionary bargaining that places “leverage” above collective action. Even with their unions’ very existence at stake, the union leaders weren’t prepared to engage in disruptive strike action that would upset their Democratic Party allies. Instead, during the Battle of Wisconsin, the unions focused on lobbying the moderate Republican senators and launching a campaign to recall Scott Walker. 

More recently, the 2018 West Virginia teachers’ strike now serves as an important instance of rediscovering the strike weapon and shows what could have been achieved in Wisconsin. Schools were shut down in all 55 counties in an illegal strike. Reacting to pitiful wage increases that did nothing to cover out-of-control health costs, teachers demanded a five percent pay hike for all public employees and for the legislature to address the ballooning costs of the Public Employees Insurance Agency.

Like in Wisconsin, the Democrats and union leadership played a similar demobilizing role, putting pressure on the workers to end their strike earlier and accept a worse deal. Unlike Wisconsin, however, West Virginia teachers organized a far more effective rank-and-file resistance to allow the workers to defy their own leadership and continue the strike. As a result of this organizing and the experience of the strike, a new radical leadership developed within the teachers’ unions in West Virginia, some of them identifying as socialists.

The strike in West Virginia began because of the work of dedicated rank-and-file teachers who had been organizing in their schools to politically and logistically prepare for a strike. When the strike began, the Democrats and union leaders had little ability to contain it, as action had been organized from the bottom up. 

In very different ways, the Wisconsin defeat and the West Virginia victory created ripples across the country. While the defeat in Wisconsin emboldened other right-wing politicians to launch further attacks on workers, the ripple effect of West Virginia was to inspire teachers across the country, spreading to Kentucky, Oklahoma, Arizona, and North Carolina. This shows the importance of struggles being won. Working-class people and socialists don’t struggle against the capitalist class just to prove a point but to win real gains. Victories increase working people’s confidence to fight for more.

These struggles are laying the ground for a new, more militant, leadership in the unions, something that was lacking in Wisconsin. 

In place of strike action, the Democratic Party and the union leadership consciously pushed to rebrand the movement as an electoral battle in the form of the recall election. This served as a means of demobilizing the struggle in the streets and brought it into safe channels.

In addition to ceding the entire struggle on the ground to the electoral field, the recall put faith in big business politicians in the Democratic Party who failed to represent the interests of the movement. The historical gains won by the working class were not bestowed upon them by benevolent politicians. They were the product of struggle. When Democrats, or Republicans for that matter, do pass progressive legislation, it’s the product of massive pressure from below. 

The Recall Election and Beyond

At the time The Battle of Wisconsin was first written, Act 10 had successfully been passed, the protests had been demobilized, and the legal challenges to the legislation had been dismissed. However, the gubernatorial recall was still in progress. And many working people across Wisconsin still had hopes that the recall could overthrow Walker and reverse his attacks. Since then, events have shown all too clearly the futility of relying on the Democratic Party for social change.

Using the anger against Act 10, over one million Wisconsonites (Sconies) signed the recall petition. Yet the Democratic Party candidate Tom Barrett didn’t even commit to reversing Act 10 on the campaign trail. In fact, Barrett, as mayor of Milwaukee, actually used the legislation to extract concessions from municipal workers. 

After consciously distancing his campaign from the mass movement that made the recall election possible in the first place, Barrett got 46% of the vote to Walker’s 54%, a wider margin than Walker’s original 2010 victory. Walker surviving his own recall election was viewed as a catastrophic blow by the Wisconsin labor movement. A prolonged period of demoralization followed, while Walker was emboldened to carry out wave after wave of further attacks. Many activists reluctantly voted for Barrett under the slogan “Grin and Barrett.” But, by diverting the movement into a failed election, the Democratic Party betrayed the movement that looked to them.

The same failed strategy was repeated in 2014, when Walker stood for re-election. This time, the Democrats put up Mary Burke, the former CEO of Trek Bicycles. Burke had been known for outsourcing jobs overseas to profit off of low wages. This allowed the Walker campaign to attack Burke from a populist direction, with TV ads describing her as “Millionaire Mary.” As a result, Walker was re-elected once again. These two elections further distanced the Democratic Party from the working-class layer it relies on as a voting base while revealing the big business character of the party as an institution. 

It wasn’t until 2018 that Walker was finally ousted, after losing to Democrat Tony Evers. The Huffington Post described Evers’ electoral strategy as “going bland to defeat Scott Walker.” This time, under the impact of the popular hatred of Trump and the embarrassment of Walker’s own failed presidential bid in 2016, Walker lost by just over one percent of the vote.

Walker’s electoral victories were not, however, the result of society moving to the right. Nationally, the years since 2011 have witnessed an intensification of struggle, from Occupy to Black Lives Matter, to the Fight for $15, to the “red state” teachers’ revolt. In West Virginia and other states, the teachers used Facebook and democratic meetings which decided on action to control their movement and its messaging. This allowed them to challenge the attempts by union bureaucrats and Democratic politicians to hijack the movement. This even entailed shouting down Democratic politicians who spoke at their rallies. But in Wisconsin, the shift from mass working-class activity to electoral campaigns on behalf of the Democratic Party saw the workers left without a voice.

Many activists in these struggles still have illusions in the Democratic Party. But there are significant limitations on what can be achieved through the apparatus of the Democratic Party. Building a mass movement on the ground will come into conflict with the Democratic Party establishment, as it did in Wisconsin and West Virginia, and pose the need for independent politics.

The State of the Unions

The defeat of the Wisconsin uprising inspired right-wing governors across the country to inflict further attacks on workers. In the aftermath of the 2011 defeat, Indiana and Michigan passed “right to work” laws. Despite its pleasant-sounding name, “right to work” doesn’t give anyone the right to a job. Rather it expands a key aspect of Act 10 into the private sector, namely the removal of dues check-off. This means workers in a unionized workplace can refuse to pay dues to their union while gaining all the benefits won by the union. Wisconsin itself passed “right to work” legislation in the private sector in 2015, which was followed by Kentucky, Missouri, and West Virginia. In 2018, attacks on public sector workers were taken to the national level, when the Supreme Court ruling Janus v. AFSCME established “right to work” nationwide in the public sector.

The 2018 Supreme Court ruling on Janus revealed the extent of the obstacles faced by the labor movement. Socialist Alternative urged the labor movement to mobilize its members into the streets to fight the Janus threat. Instead, the leadership has focused on “internal organizing” – trying to establish more connection with rank-and-file members and convince them to stay in the union. This isn’t wrong, but to convince members to continue paying dues, the leadership needs to show how the union is actually fighting for their interests and mobilize them into action. Unfortunately, the leadership’s approach is the result of decades of labor retreat and accepting endless concessions in order to survive to the point where many unions have lost the capacity to mobilize in a serious way.

Even on the left of the labor movement, for instance at the 2018 Labor Notes conference, the biggest regular conference of the American labor left, there was a certain naïve sentiment that Janus would be just the sort of kick in the pants that the labor movement needs to get its act together.  For some unions, this has been true, however it remains a silver lining in a setback for the labor movement. Removing the dues checkoff, in the absence of a serious change in the direction of the unions, can also be just another factor in accelerating their demise. 

In Wisconsin, the defeat had serious consequences. Union membership statewide, in both the public and private sector, declined by 40% after the 2011 defeat. The AFT-Wisconsin lost 50% of its membership, the Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC) lost 58%, and AFSCME lost 70%.

As serious as the threats posed by Act 10, “right to work,” and Janus are, they don’t mean the death of the labor movement. The West Virginia teachers’ strike took place shortly after that state adopted “right to work” legislation, and most of the following teachers’ strikes took place in “right to work” states. National Nurses United has had some recent success organizing in “right to work” states like Texas. The recent organizing successes of Boeing workers in South Carolina points a way forward to organizing industry in the South, historically a “right to work” bastion. The very rights of public-sector workers that are under attack didn’t always exist and were won through struggle.

Even in Wisconsin, there have been significant labor struggles. Most noteworthy was the successful strike of the United Auto Workers (UAW) at Kohler at the end of 2015 and the beginning of 2016.  Workers and their union waged a successful, old-school strike complete with solidarity food drives and serious efforts to block scabs from crossing the picket line.

The key in these recent successful strikes  was the independent organization and mobilization of the rank and file. They showed that a mass, organized, militant fightback can overcome anti-union legislation. This rank-and-file organization wasn’t a simple product of the anti-union legislation providing a “kick in the pants.” The workers had to build up these structures on their own. These successes in union organization are an important first step in reviving working-class struggle. Now the working class needs to organize politically.


Given the ultimate defeat of the movement in Wisconsin, it’s easy to draw pessimistic conclusions. The fact that Walker got his legislation through in the face of mass protests can be used to argue that protest doesn’t accomplish anything. Under this view, no progress would be achieved until Walker is voted out and people had to accept whichever Democrat was pitted against him, no matter how reactionary or uninspiring. 

Those of a more anarchist bent could draw a different, but still incorrect, conclusion. If the movement was defeated by the diversion of the struggle from activism and strike action into an electoral campaign, it’s reasonable to conclude that elections themselves are the problem. Both of these approaches ignore the role that independent working-class politics can play in using the electoral arena to boost struggles in the street.

On a certain level, the Wisconsin uprising seemed to confirm many of the “lesser evil” arguments used against building independent working-class politics. After all, there were significant differences between the Democrats and Republicans in Wisconsin, and Walker’s attack on the unions stands in marked contrast with the “Fab 14” Democratic state senators who fled the state to block the vote on Act 10. All this would indicate that, whatever the limitations of the Democratic Party, it’s still preferable to the Republican Party.

This view, however, looks at the relationship between the Democratic and Republican Parties in isolation. It ignores the role the Democratic Party played in derailing the movement itself, as well as their role in allowing Walker to come to power in the first place.

While the Wisconsin Democratic Party opposed Act 10, their interest was never in leading a struggle that could stop Walker in his tracks. The Democratic legislators were the most prominent forces pushing to divert the movement away from militant class struggle and toward the recall election. Afterward, they were the most prominent forces pushing for candidates like Tom Barrett who sought to completely distance themselves from the movement. Even if the Democrats’ program was formally a “lesser evil” to Walker’s program, the Democratic Party’s influence in the movement served to assure the victory of Walker’s “greater evil.”

The failure of the union struggle in the “swing state” of Wisconsin can be contrasted to the recent union successes in West Virginia and other “red states.” These states, dominated by the “greater evil” Republican Party, ended up seeing much more successful struggles. The key determining factor wasn’t which capitalist party was in power, but the increased class-consciousness that has developed in American society in the years since the Wisconsin uprising. 

The very success of the recent teachers’ strikes reveals another aspect of the setback that Wisconsin saw in 2011. While the West Virginia teachers were able to serve as a guide and inspiration for the strikes that followed throughout 2018, they themselves had to reinvent the wheel when it came to militant working-class struggle. But if the Wisconsin public-sector workers had gone on strike and won, this would have set a new precedent for the whole labor movement. The new labor leadership that has developed through the teachers’ struggles could have already been in place after seven years of struggle. 

The role of “lesser evil” support for the Democratic Party also serves to understand how Scott Walker was able to come to power in the first place, and how he was able to stay in power for so long. Walker’s rise was part of the national “Tea Party revolution,” driven by anger at the Democrats’ mismanagement of the financial crisis, which saw the Obama administration bail out Wall Street on the backs of working people. In Wisconsin, Walker was able to ride off of anger at the incumbent Democratic governor Jim Doyle. In the 2012 recall election and the 2014 re-election, the sheer uninspiring nature of the Democratic “lesser evil” candidates served to return victories to the “greater evil” Walker. 

As we fight against Donald Trump nationally, many figures in the Democratic Party establishment are quick to direct anger at the unwillingness of many Bernie Sanders supporters to line up behind Hillary Clinton after the 2016 primary. But if Sanders himself actually had used his support to continue running as an independent in 2016 after being blocked in the primary and launch a new party of the 99%, as Socialist Alternative had advocated, the movement would have been in a far better position to resist the right, regardless of how the election turned out. Polls were already showing that Sanders would have beat Trump in a one-on-one showdown. Even if Trump had still won, the building of a mass independent working-class party would have significantly strengthened the anti-Trump movement. Sacrificing the building of independent working-class politics in the name of stopping the Republicans only does harm in the long run. 

The Need for Independent Working-Class Politics

The possibilities that can be achieved through independent working-class politics can be seen through Socialist Alternative’s own electoral work, most prominently through getting Kshama Sawant elected to the Seattle city council in 2013 with over 90,000 votes. Sawant ran as an open socialist, independently of the Democratic Party, refused all corporate cash and, upon election, only accepted the average wage of a worker in her district, donating two thirds of her salary to fund social movements. 

The key issue that Kshama and Socialist Alternative raised in the 2013 campaign was the call for a $15 an hour minimum wage, building on the heroic fast food workers’ strikes and the call for “$15 and a union.” None of the Democratic candidates took up this call. While newly elected Mayor Ed Murray sought to delay and water down a $15 an hour minimum wage through a subcommittee containing representatives of the Chamber of Commerce, 15 Now organized neighborhood committees across Seattle to wage a struggle on the ground, threatening a ballot initiative if the city council didn’t produce something substantial. This created pressure from below that eventually forced Democrats like Murray to change their tune. Six months later, Seattle became the first major city to adopt a $15 an hour minimum wage. In subsequent years, many other cities passed $15 legislation.

This initiative on the part of a single independent city councilor produced a significant concrete victory that completely changed the national discussion around the minimum wage. This is in marked contrast to the way the $15 an hour movement played out in Wisconsin. The Service Employees International Union (SEIU), through their front, Wisconsin Jobs Now, deliberately watered down their demand to a series of non-binding county-wide ballot initiatives for $10.10 an hour. The lower $10.10 figure was tailored to what Mary Burke was willing to accept during her 2014 gubernatorial campaign. When 15 Now activists mobilized activists across Madison to the Dane County council on June 26, 2014, with over 50 activists testifying as to why the initiative should be amended to be $15 an hour, Wisconsin Jobs Now sent four union staffers over from Milwaukee to testify in favor of keeping it at $10.10. The Democrats on the county board then voted with Wisconsin Jobs Now to keep the initiative at $10.10. The non-binding initiatives passed, but the steam behind the movement was allowed to drain, and the minimum wage in Wisconsin remains at the national minimum of $7.25, a pittance.

The example of Seattle shows what independent working-class politics can achieve even with just a single city councilor. If Wisconsin had an independent state legislator or city councilor in 2011 along the lines of Sawant, they alone would not have been able to single-handedly out-legislate Walker. But they could have used their platform to support the struggle, give a wider voice to the calls for a general strike, and speak out against the Democratic Party’s attempts at demobilization. This shows how electoral politics could have been used to enhance the struggle rather than water it down. 

This also points to a wider need to build an organized socialist movement in the working class. In the chapter of The Battle of Wisconsin entitled “The Role of the Left” we look at the role played by two revolutionary far-left organizations, the International Socialist Organization (ISO) and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). These two organizations had decent bases of support in Madison but, due to their lack of a clear way forward, missed important opportunities to impact the Wisconsin uprising in a positive direction.  The West Virginia strike benefited from the weakness of the union bureaucracy in that state. But it also benefited from the presence of open socialists in the leadership of the strike.

The presence or absence of socialists in the leadership isn’t enough to guarantee the success or failure of a particular strike. But a revolutionary party with a clear program and perspectives and a base in the working class can provide an important leading role in shaping the direction of a struggle.

Despite continued attacks on labor, the 2018 teachers’ revolt and the signs of revolt in other sections of the working class represent a turning point. 2018 saw the most workers on strike in a year since 1986. In addition, 2018 saw an uptick of membership last year concentrated among younger workers. But there’s still a desperate need to relearn the militant traditions of the past and to forge a new leadership that can assimilate the lessons of defeats like Wisconsin as well as victories like West Virginia. The ground is being laid for the rebuilding of the labor movement. As in previous periods, socialists will have a key role to play in that effort. For this to happen, the lessons of the Battle of Wisconsin must be learned.

June 2019