It Didn’t Have to Be Like This

In the aftermath of this defeat, many commentators tried to portray it as inevitable. All the talk of general strikes was dismissed as the naïve sloganeering of a few wild-eyed radicals, and union leaders patted themselves on the back for pursuing the more “reasonable” strategy of letting Walker win.

In reality, a general strike was not only possible, but necessary. If the union leaders were willing to seriously follow through and organize a general strike, they could have shut down the state and forced Walker to give in. Instead, they let Walker get away with a law that would effectively wipe all of the public sector unions out of existence. Suffice it to say, if the pioneers of the labor movement had adopted the “reasonable” strategy of the union leaders in Wisconsin, we would still be stuck in conditions of the dire poverty of one hundred years ago.

The labor movement was built up from scratch through intense sacrifice. When workers first fought for the right to unionize in the 19th Century, they didn’t have unions to help them do it. Unions were illegal and union organizers were murdered by the notorious union busting company, the Pinkertons. The general strikes of the 1930s took on the full wrath of the capitalist state. Strikers were arrested, beaten, and shot. As many of the Wisconsin protesters pointed out, Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated while fighting for the right to unionize of public sector workers who were conducting an illegal strike. In spite of all this intimidation, at that time labor prevailed.

Compared to that, the circumstances in Wisconsin were much more favorable for the unions. They had overwhelming public support locally, nationally, and internationally. They had the temporary support of the police unions, and even the conservative veterans’ group released a statement condemning Walker’s threat to use the National Guard on the protesters. Right from the start, the unions were able to mobilize thousands of members to twice-daily protests. They could stage a mass sit-in and carry out a three-week occupation of the Capitol and, instead of being met with violence, be met with free pizza. There was widespread support among public sector workers and the broader working class for a general strike. Yet it was under these circumstances that the union leaders decided it was too “risky” to strike.

All of the objective conditions were there for a successful struggle to defeat the “Budget Repair Bill” and Walker himself. What was lacking was the subjective factor – namely, a leadership willing to carry the struggle out.

The Class, the Union, and the Leadership

The claim that the workers weren’t ready to strike is the union leaders’ excuse for their own inaction. This argument amounts to the union leaders blaming the workers for the leaders’ own failure. It is true that most of the rank-and-file union members did not go into the protests with a full understanding of the necessity of strike action, but it was the union leaders’ responsibility to educate union members and the broader working class and to provide the organizational framework for the strike to be carried out successfully.

When the protests began, the rank-and-file union members were prepared to go well beyond what the union leaders called for. The teacher sick-out was only acknowledged by union leaders after thousands of teachers were already prepared to take this step. With events coming to a head on the night of the second occupation of the Capitol, there was a clear opportunity to launch a general strike if the politically necessary preparations had been made. If the union leaders were willing to organize one, it would certainly have happened.

While the protesters were willing to go over the heads of the union leaders at the beginning of the protests, the lack of a strong layer of left-wing union activists and the low level of workers’ participation in the unions meant the forces were not there to organize a serious challenge to the union leadership. Carrying out a general strike – or any strike for that matter – requires organization. People who were looking for a strike – or any strategy of fight-back – instinctively looked to the unions for guidance, as they were the main organized force in the protests. Unfortunately, the union leaders told them not to strike but rather to accept concessionary contracts and to devote all of their energy to electing Democratic politicians.

They also struck fear into many ordinary union members by saying that mass strike action would make it easy for Walker to fire them en masse and privatize the state services. Yet the union leadership neglected to inform them that Walker already had the capacity to carry out wholesale privatizations, under the bill that had passed. In fact, the real danger was of the movement being defeated and a number of public sector unions being rapidly smashed because determined strike action was not urgently carried out.

Throughout the protest movement, the AFL-CIO organized official rallies at the big demonstrations. They could have used these rallies as an opportunity to call for a general strike, reaching the tens of thousands at the protests each day and the hundreds of thousands at the bigger demonstrations. This could have given the workers the confidence they needed to actually conduct a general strike. Instead, the state and national union leaders rigidly controlled the speakers’ list to prevent anyone from challenging the Democratic Party line. This extended so far as forbidding Michael Moore from speaking at one of their rallies for fear that he would be too radical.

The local unions also lost their opportunity. Once the protests escalated, workers instinctively turned toward their unions for help. Attendance at union meetings rapidly increased, bringing in people who never cared about union issues before. But rather than using this increased support to build for strike action, the local unions argued against it, effectively turning their own members away.

In the end, without effective leadership workers cannot carry out a general strike. There were not enough activists on the ground, with a clear understanding of how to build pressure for a general strike from below, to overcome this. It was the actions of the union leaders on the national, state, and local levels that assured that the workers would not be ready to strike.

The TAA’s Strike “Plan”

To get a clear understanding of how the union leaders demobilized their members, it is instructive to observe in detail how one union, the TAA, handled the strike question. It is, quite frankly, an embarrassment to the labor movement. The role of the TAA leadership is particularly important given the fact that many activists were actively looking to the TAA to give a lead, given the central role the TAA played at the start of the protests and in running the Capitol occupation as well as the TAA’s reputation as one of the most radical unions in Wisconsin.

For the first week and a half of the struggle, the TAA Stewards’ Council, the body responsible for developing strategy, never met. When the TAA leadership finally held a Stewards’ Council meeting, it was devoted entirely to discussing phone banking and upkeep of the Capitol occupation, with no mention of strikes.

In private conversations, the TAA leaders insisted they were prepared to take strike action against Walker, but they never discussed it at any of the Stewards’ Council or General Membership meetings. The only reason the TAA even set up a Strike Planning Committee was because of a rank-and-file motion at a General Membership Meeting on March 2, two and a half weeks into the struggle. As a result, by the time the Strike Planning Committee finally held its first meeting, the bill had already passed.

The day after the bill passed, the TAA was at last compelled to discuss strike action at a General Membership Meeting. Since the Strike Planning Committee hadn’t met yet, the presentation was given by Rob Henn, a TAA staffer. With 400 members attending, this was the largest General Membership Meeting since the first day of protests, with many union members eager to learn what strategy the TAA had in mind to save their union.

Henn prepared a FAQ on strike action that listed, in great detail, all the horrible things he claimed could possibly happen in a strike, but said nothing about the horrible things that could happen if the bill wasn’t overturned. When a rank-and-file member suggested that the dangers of the bill were worse than the dangers of striking, he replied by saying that, under the bill, the TAA would still be allowed to collect dues even if they couldn’t fight for anything, so the threat of strikes was greater. He did not mention that the previous day he was actively considering calling a semi-official wildcat strike.

Despite all this, the TAA leaders still had the gall to accuse general strike advocates of not taking strikes seriously. It was, in fact, the TAA leaders who didn’t take strikes seriously. If they did, they would have created a Strike Planning Committee as soon as the “Budget Repair Bill” was announced, or even two months prior when their contract was rejected. If they really took strikes seriously, they would have actively discussed strikes with their membership throughout the protests and called on other unions to coordinate strike action.

The most embarrassing part of the TAA’s strike plan was that the TAA was one of the best-organized forces in the entire movement. Most of the AFSCME locals didn’t even discuss strike action with their members, and the SEIU didn’t even mobilize their members to the demonstrations, preferring to send a few of their leaders to pose in photo-ops at the Capitol.

The Democratic Party

The failure of the unions to act is intimately connected to their dependence on the Democratic Party. Instead of encouraging their members to fight back against Walker, the union leaders encouraged them to sit back and let the Democratic Party lead the struggle. With the threat of mass decertification, the unions had little to lose and everything to gain by going on strike. The Democratic politicians, on the other hand, would jeopardize their relationship with big business if they were seen to be supporting strikes, especially a general strike.

The union leaders and a large number of the rank-and-file activists viewed the Democrats as their allies. This view became especially prominent when the “Fab 14” Democratic senators fled the state to prevent the passage of the bill. However, the Democratic Party has historically served as the graveyard of social movements. Once the Democrats assume leadership of a movement, that movement dies. We saw this in 2004 when the antiwar movement called off demonstrations so as not to embarrass the Democrats’ presidential candidate, John Kerry, and again when the single-payer health care movement dropped their single-payer demand in favor of Obamacare. The struggle in Wisconsin proved no exception.

The Democrats are willing to support unions insofar as they can receive their campaign contributions. They do this to build up a broad mass of support among workers and social movements in order to get elected. However, the Democrats’ main financial contributions – and their leadership – come from big business. 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 ( pr031711.php). This is why Democrats tried to restrict the demands of the movement to the collective bargaining issue and direct the movement off the streets.

The flight of the “Fab 14” occurred because the Wisconsin Democratic Party would be completely discredited if they allowed the bill to pass without the appearance of a fight. The movement was too powerful. But once they were positioned as leaders of the movement, they diverted it into a struggle to get more Democrats elected. Their subservience to big business interests was graphically demonstrated after the “Fab 14” returned, when one of them, Senator Timothy Cullen, cosponsored a constitutional amendment with antiunion Republican Senator Scott Fitzgerald to remove the quorum rule that allowed the “Fab 14” to flee in the first place.

Unfortunately, most of the union leaders put their faith in the Democrats, rather than in the power of their own membership, to affect change. When the Democrats said they supported unions making concessions, the union leaders responded in kind. When the Democrats called on protesters to leave the Capitol, the union stewards in the Capitol obliged. When the Democrats said that protesters should elect more Democrats instead of going on strike, the union leaders abandoned any support for strike action and threw their lot in with the recall campaign.

This highlights the need for workers, the poor, and young people to create a movement politically independent from both the Democrats and the Republicans. If the unions hadn’t tied themselves to the Democratic Party, they could have won this struggle and the labor movement would be in a much stronger position. Instead, they pursued a strategy of lesser-evilism – and their members and working people in general paid the price.

The More Radical Unions

But the union leadership was not unanimous in hostility to strike action. After all, the SCFL endorsed a general strike, as did Joe Conway, President of IAFF Local 311, in a well-publicized YouTube interview. However, he came under enormous pressure from other leaders and avoided mentioning it again.

Most of the union locals represented by the SCFL made little effort to publicize the motion to their members. The TAA’s sole commentary on the SCFL motion was a throwaway remark in their strike FAQ:

A “general” strike is a strike by multiple unions in one geographical area – for example, in one city, region, state, or county. Many unions go on strike at the same time in order to maximize pressure. The South Central Federation of Labor recently endorsed a “general strike”; but it is important to know that their endorsement does not bind any union to action (“Frequently Asked Questions about a Strike,” TAA Handout, 3/10/2011).

For most people, the important thing about the SCFL motion was that a body representing 97 unions and over 45,000 workers felt that a general strike would be necessary to defeat Walker. For the TAA leadership, the important thing was that it was nonbinding.

The local and state union leaders viewed the SCFL resolution as a radical-looking decoration, like a yuppie in a Che Guevara T-shirt. For the SCFL motion to carry any weight, the activists in the SCFL would have had to mobilize members to challenge the state and local leaderships and bring massive pressure to bear on them to actually set the date for a strike and take the necessary steps to organize it.

The SCFL activists who put forward the motion for a general strike were no doubt willing to go through with it, but they were not willing to butt heads with the local, statewide, and – especially – national union leaders. When they held their planning meeting on March 9, it resulted in the circulation of four documents. These were a summary of the “Budget Repair Bill” by the Hawks Quindel Law Firm, a summary of the legal challenges involved in striking by the same law firm, a history of the general strike by Prof. Peter Rachleff, a labor historian at Macalaster College in Minneapolis, and an article by socialist activist Dan LaBotz about the mid-90s general strike in Ontario. But there was no explanation of why a general strike was necessary or what concrete steps were needed to organize one in Wisconsin.

Throughout the movement, the SCFL never called on the union locals to endorse their general strike call or their opposition to concessions. They never even called on the locals to circulate the resolution to their members. The union locals were the ones who had the power to call strikes, but the SCFL was unwilling to make sure they did it. Following the March 9 meeting, the SCFL posted the following message to their website:

At SCFL’s monthly meeting Monday, Feb. 21, delegates endorsed the following: “The SCFL endorses a general strike, possibly for the day Walker signs his ‘budget repair bill.'” An ad hoc committee was formed to explore the details. SCFL did not CALL for a general strike because it does not have that authority [SCFL’s emphasis].

Once the pressure of the labor bureaucracy was turned on, even the SCFL itself was content to be the radical-looking decoration others viewed it as. Rather than acting as a left challenge to the conservative union leaders, they ended up providing a left cover for the union leaders’ retreat from serious struggle. In effect, the radical union leaders delivered the struggle to the conservative union leaders, who delivered the struggle to the Democrats, who delivered the struggle to the Republicans.

Tradition of Class Compromise

Given the threat of decertification of every public sector union in the state, the behavior of the union leaders was tantamount to suicide. One would expect that even a conservative union bureaucrat would rather strike than lose his or her union. Unfortunately, this generation of union leaders and staffers never participated in the massive union struggles of previous decades. Instead, they have been trained in methods of compromising with the bosses in order to defend their dues base and union infrastructure. As a result, they preach passivity rather than struggle, which results in defeats, not victories.

Under Andy Stern, the SEIU established a tradition of dissolving their base of shop stewards and setting up mega-locals that are run by call centers. Under Randi Weingarten, the AFT has pursued a policy of negotiating concessions. Both the AFT and NEA endorsed Barack Obama’s “Race to the Top” program, even though one of the primary purposes of said program is to undermine the unions through privatizing public education and using test scores to determine how teachers get paid and who gets fired.

Three decades of concessions and defeats have resulted in union leaders being increasingly disconnected from the rank and file. Even the more radical and less bureaucratic unions, such as MTI and the TAA, had leaders who were trained in the strategy of campaigning for Democrats and saw no other means of fighting back.

This may explain the decisions taken by the union leadership, but it doesn’t excuse it. These mistakes inflicted serious damage to workers, the poor, and the labor movement in Wisconsin and nationally. In order to take the labor movement forward, we need to relearn a tradition of solidarity and mass struggle. This would require rebuilding fighting rank-and-file opposition movements within the unions, based on adopting effective methods of struggle. This includes the need to break unjust laws designed to make sure workers can’t wage an effective struggle. Moreover, it would require activists willing to break from the Democratic Party and the logic of the cuts that are demanded by the present crisis of capitalism. Such an activist base could have changed the outcome of the Wisconsin struggle.