After the initial victory, Wisconsin was a changed place. Throughout the next three weeks, there was a nonstop occupation of the Capitol as well as spontaneous protests there twice a day. These swelled at lunchtime and in the evening when workers came off work to join the protests. Every Saturday, there were mass protests in the tens – and eventually hundreds – of thousands, as people came from across the state to show solidarity with the public sector workers. All of this was during a cold Wisconsin winter.
You couldn’t walk anywhere in the state without hearing political discussions, and they were overwhelmingly in support of the protests. When the Tea Party tried to stage a counter-protest on Saturday, February 19, they were completely dwarfed by pro-union protesters. A mere three months after the Tea Party brought Walker to power, the tides had shifted. The diversity of the protests could be gauged by the slogans on the hand-made signs, playing on subjects from Shakespeare – “Out, out, damn Scott!” – to Star Wars – “Imperial Walker” – to various internet memes.
Support came from unlikely places. Some small businesses showed solidarity across Madison. Four-Star Video Heaven, the local independent video store, created modified Kill Bill posters that read “Kill the Bill,” while Amsterdam, the local goth fashion shop, sold buttons reading “Proud Union Thug.” This was in response to right-wing attacks accusing the protesters of being “union thugs.”
Before the struggle began, most Wisconsinites were filled with pride that the Green Bay Packers had won the Super Bowl. During the struggle, current and former Packers players Curtis Fuller, Chris Jackie, Charles Jordan, Bob Long, Steve Okoniewski, Brady Poppinga, and Jason Spitz released a statement saying: “These public workers are Wisconsin’s champions every single day and we urge the Governor and the State Legislature to not take away their rights.” (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 2/15/2011)
Common on all the protests were contingents of police officers, state troopers, and prison guards. At one demonstration, there was even a contingent of state troopers – who had driven all the way from New York and New Jersey – clenching their fists in solidarity.
The overwhelming support for the protests extended well beyond Wisconsin. On February 20, Egyptian union leader Kamal Abbas, who had recently played a role in the revolutionary uprisings that overthrew Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak, released a statement in solidarity with the Wisconsin protests saying: “Today is the day of the American workers. We salute you, American workers! You will be victorious. Victory belongs to all the people of the world who are fighting against exploitation and for their just rights.”
To get a good picture of the international solidarity during the struggle, one can look at Ian’s Pizza, located right next to where the protests were taking place. When the pizza place donated their leftover pizzas to the protesters occupying the Capitol, it inspired others to call in orders from all around the world. The protesters received pizza donations from all 50 states and Washington, D.C., as well as from all around the world in places as diverse as Egypt, Morocco, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Mexico, Argentina, Nigeria, Russia, Greece, and all throughout Europe. Even Iranian dissidents ordered pizza for the protesters.
There was only one problem: Scott Walker still refused to give way. His response to the events of the previous week was to lay off 1,500 state workers and to threaten 12,000 more layoffs if the workers didn’t give in to his demands. Walker didn’t care what the public thought. He took his marching orders from his corporate backers. He would have to be pushed aside if he was going to be defeated.
At the protests, a popular chant was “One day longer!,” but as Walker remained intransigent, it became clear that a confrontation would happen eventually. This posed, underneath the festive atmosphere of the protests, an important question for the movement: How do we actually win?
“The Fight Is in the Districts”
The main hope put forward by union leaders and the Democrats was that, even if Walker himself wasn’t swayed by the protests, enough of the Republican senators would be compelled to change their votes to keep the bill from going through. There were 14 Democrats and 19 Republicans in the state Senate, so it would take three Republican senators changing their votes to prevent the bill from passing. The main focus of the union campaign was to lobby five wavering senators – Dale Schultz, Rob Cowles, Randy Hopper, Mike Ellis, and Luther Olsen – to vote against the bill. Then the Democrats could safely return, protesters could safely go about their dayto-day activities, and everyone would, presumably, live happily ever after. As Peter Rickman, Vice President of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) in Wisconsin, regularly explained to TAA members, “The fight is in the districts.”
There was nothing wrong with a strategy of putting pressure on the Republican senators, nor was there anything wrong with taking the fight out into the districts. After all, if three Republican senators could be swayed, it would be preferable to a protracted struggle. The problem was putting all the eggs in one basket without also building the movement to act if Republicans did not cave.
There was no guarantee that enough senators would flip. In fact, when they ultimately did vote on the bill on March 9, Dale Schultz was the only one to do so. Even if three senators had flipped and the bill had been voted down, they could have just passed a slightly revised anti-union bill. It might, for example, stop some of the attacks on collective bargaining while maintaining the attacks on health care and pensions.
Beyond that, it was necessary to expand the struggle from its epicenter in Madison to the other parts of the state. Focusing exclusively on lobbying five Republican senators would diminish a movement that needed to ratchet up its actions.
However, for the leaders of the major unions, pressuring Republicans though a responsible discussion and debate also meant ratcheting down the action. Foremost in this strategy was the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the largest public sector union in the country. As soon as the protests began, AFSCME immediately announced that they were prepared to concede on everything except for the collective bargaining issue. Top union leaders even went so far as to accept a two-year freeze on collective bargaining (“A tough but needed state budget fix,” Wisconsin State Journal, 3/6/2011).
They framed the issue as being about freedom. They produced signs for the protests that read “It’s not about the money – It’s about freedom!” Nominally, this meant the freedom to collectively bargain, but collective bargaining doesn’t mean anything if you already give in to every demand right from the start.
And this strategy was not limited to AFSCME. On February 21, viewers of The Colbert Report were treated to an interview with AFT President Randi Weingarten and Democratic “Fab 14” Senate leader Mark Miller, who both said that they were willing to accept all concessions except collective bargaining. Neither of them ever consulted the protesters about this issue, but they were able to set the tone for the debate.
Fortunately, this position was not universally accepted. During the struggle, the Kill the Whole Bill Coalition was formed for the purpose of challenging the bill in its entirety, not just the attacks on collective bargaining. This became one of the leading organizations bringing together the left wing of the movement. Some union leaders also emerged with a much-needed fighting approach. National Nurses United (NNU), a collection of more radical unions led by the California Nurses’ Association, put forward the slogan “Blame Wall Street! No Concessions!” and produced a series of signs to challenge the concessionary positions of the other union leaders.
The NNU had a limited base of support within Wisconsin, but through their intervention they were able to become one of the most visible forces on the ground during the protests. On Sunday, February 27, the NNU, in conjunction with the Kill the Whole Bill Coalition, held a meeting of labor activists to promote a “No Cuts, No Concessions” strategy. On Thursday, March 3, the NNU led a lively, combative rally of thousands in Madison against all cuts and for taxes on the richest Americans to close budget gaps. Based on this important work, “No Cuts, No Concessions” became a key slogan of the more radical wing of the movement.
Unfortunately, the state-level union leaders took the disastrous position of arguing against the “No Cuts, No Concessions” strategy. They said it was necessary to maintain broad public support by showing how “reasonable” the demonstrators were as opposed to the “extremist” position of Walker. It was claimed that opposing concessions would alienate our supporters who aren’t public sector workers. But by accepting the necessity of cuts, they were reinforcing Walker’s myth of the overpaid public sector worker.
Rallying support beyond public sector workers was crucial, but unless the unions fought to defend every public service and every job, unless labor put forward a clear “no concessions” position, the divide-and-conquer tactics of the corporate politicians would gain traction. The Tea Party portrayed the Wisconsin struggle as a fight for union leaders to hold on to dues money and for the Democratic Party to keep a funding base.
By immediately accepting all concessions except collective bargaining and failing to aggressively defend public services under attack, the union leaders strengthened that perception. Social programs and workers were not the cause of the economic crisis and the budget deficits. It was necessary to put blame where it belonged: on Wall Street, the big banks, and the super-rich.
It was necessary to show that the struggle was about defending and extending public services and living standards for all. The movement had to clearly point to the wealth of the rich and big business and demand that this money be used to pay for needed social services and jobs. The wealth of this country’s 400 billionaires, if used for the public good, could fund a massive public works program to provide jobs for the unemployed, health care for all, education from kindergarten through the doctoral level, and much more.
As the protests went on, it became clearer that Walker’s attacks went well beyond the public sector unions. Hundreds of disabled people came to the Capitol to show support for public sector workers and to defend their services. There were attacks on Medicaid and BadgerCare, power plants and wetlands were to be sold to private corporations, and the University of Wisconsin was to be privatized. Accepting cuts would mean abandoning the people who depend on these services. It was necessary to show solidarity by fighting to defend and extend public services through increased funding.
Public sector workers shouldn’t be apologetic about having decent jobs. A New York Times/CBS poll from February 28 states, “Sixty-one percent of those polled – including just over half of Republicans – said they thought the salaries and benefits of most public employees were either ‘about right’ or ‘too low’ for the work they do.” People were with them in the fight against concessions and for good jobs. The unions’ current strength in the public sector should have been a base from which to go out and help to organize the unorganized in the private sector. This could enable a struggle to be waged there for bringing lower-paid private sector workers up to the higher standards won by unionized public sector workers.
Through a “No cuts, No concessions” policy, it would be possible to further strengthen public support, but it would still be unlikely to sway Scott Walker and the Republican senators, who had clearly demonstrated that they valued the opinion of the billionaire Koch brothers more than that of the public.
A demonstration that the people were willing to shut down the government until these policies were dropped would have had much stronger persuasive force. By shutting down state services that businesses depend on (like public transit for their workers to get to work, garbage collection, etc.), corporate profits would be squeezed. While Walker wasn’t interested in the opinions of the ordinary people of Wisconsin, he was definitely highly attuned to the needs of his corporate masters. A hit to their profits would certainly get their attention and lead to many businesses calling up Walker demanding he do whatever is needed to sort out a deal with the unions to prevent further disruption of “business as usual.”
The most powerful weapon that workers have is the strike. Wealth is not created by the Koch brothers or the CEO of M&I Bank; it’s created by human labor. Despite Walker’s attempts to portray public sector workers as greedy spongers, the fact is that their work is what makes Wisconsin run. Many employers and politicians, even ones worse than Walker, have been forced to back down by strikes. Shortly before the protests in Wisconsin, after massive demonstrations convulsed Egyptian society, it was a nationwide strike wave that forced the ouster of Egypt’s dictator Mubarak. It showed how working people have the power to shut down society and build a new one.
We saw a glimpse of this power in the Wisconsin struggle itself, during the teachers’ sick-outs. This quasistrike action magnified the size and energy of the protests, creating an environment of intense pressure that forced the Democrats to consider the option of fleeing the state to prevent the immediate passage of the bill. But Walker was not just going after teachers, he was going after all public sector workers. To stop Walker, it was necessary for all the public sector unions to strike together and shut down the whole state: in effect, a general strike.
The South Central Federation of Labor
At the beginning of the movement, the call for a general strike was made by groups on the far left, most prominently by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and Socialist Alternative. Before the protests, such a call would have been unheard of. By Monday, February 21, the call found backing from the labor movement. This was when the South Central Federation of Labor (SCFL), representing 97 unions and over 45,000 workers in the greater Madison area, put forward the following resolutions:
Motion 1: The SCFL endorses a general strike, possibly for the day Walker signs his “Budget Repair Bill,” and requests the Education Committee immediately begin educating affiliates and members on the organization and function of a general strike.
Motion 2: The SCFL goes on record as opposing all provisions contained in Walker’s “Budget Repair Bill,” including but not limited to curtailed bargaining rights and reduced wages, benefits, pensions, funding for public education, changes to medical assistance programs, and politicization of state government agencies.
The SCFL didn’t have the power to cast binding strike motions, but this marked a significant step in legitimizing a general strike. The resolution was widely circulated among the protesters and reported on in a number of newspapers and journals, including the Wisconsin State Journal. At the weekly protests, there was widespread discussion and support among workers for a general strike. Between this and the NNU anti-concession campaign, the stage was set for a serious challenge to the dominant, conservative strategy of the top union leaders and the Democrats of lobbying and concessions.
However, the leaders of the vast majority of union locals and state and national federations continued with politics as usual. The union leaders often gave lip service to the SCFL and the NNU. Because the SCFL motion put the day for a general strike after the passage of the bill, it was possible for union leaders to continue a lobbying strategy while claiming they would organize a general strike if the lobbying failed. Of course, by the time the lobbying did fail, the same union leaders argued it was too late to organize a general strike. Similarly, it was possible for union leaders to endorse and participate in the NNU’s March 3 “No Concessions” rally and yet refuse to fight concessions in their own contracts.
Unfortunately, neither the NNU nor the SCFL would get their wishes. Walker’s bill was able to pass without any strike action beyond the initial sick-outs. Unions representing county and municipal workers all signed concessionary contracts with their local governments, while unions representing state workers, who had to negotiate with Walker directly, went without a contract altogether. On their own, the NNU was an outsider union and the SCFL was a body with only nominal powers.
To win, it was necessary to not simply put forward an alternate program but to actively challenge the union leaders on the ground. The SCFL should have energetically encouraged the leaders and members of other unions to start an organized discussion in favor of general strike action. Concretely, the call should have been put out for rank-and-file workers – in the unions and outside – to set up action committees in as many workplaces, communities, and schools as possible to urgently popularize the need for strike action and to take concrete steps to begin to organize for it, especially by organizing the maximum pressure on the union leaders to put out the call for a general strike. It should have begun an organized timetable of discussions and votes in union locals throughout the state. It should also have formed an elected committee to liaise with the other unions to set a date and discuss the coordination of a general strike.