The Role of the Left

On the ground, there was a lot of support for a general strike but there was a lot of uncertainty as to how to go about it. Especially since the union leaders were focusing on lobbying efforts, it was necessary for pressure to be built from below.

Arguing for a General Strike

From very early in the movement, Socialist Alternative argued that in order to build the movement the main demand at this moment should be for a statewide, one-day public sector general strike. This could be a launching pad to defeat not only the attacks on union rights but also the attacks on public services. On its own, a one-day strike often isn’t enough to win a struggle, but most of the workers were not prepared at this point to get involved in a long-term general strike. A one-day strike could, though, be a first step toward building more serious action as necessary. It would also be far easier to organize than a full general strike and could build workers’ confidence in their own collective strength.

Since the public sector workers were Walker’s primary targets and the largest contingent of protesters, it would be most strategic to build a public sector general strike rather than an all-out general strike. Furthermore, the Wisconsin public sector unions were already mobilizing their members for protests and lobbying actions. For a public sector general strike to succeed, it was necessary to pressure those unions to shift their focus from lobbying politicians toward strike action. At the same time, it would be important to draw into the movement young people and workers from outside of the public sector. This is why a general strike movement would need to raise the banner of “No Cuts, No Concessions!” rather than just demanding collective bargaining rights.

Another matter was the fact that public sector strikes are illegal in Wisconsin. Under state law, the employer is legally allowed to fire strikers and the state can assign prison terms lasting up to a year. The state is also allowed to fine individual members, or the union as a whole, up to $2,000 per day. However, a powerful, well-organized strike could overcome these legal problems. For instance, in 2004 the TAA, representing teaching assistants at UW-Madison, was able to go on an illegal two-day strike without any reprisals from the state. Furthermore, the labor movement wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for workers engaging in illegal strikes.

The rise of unionization and collective bargaining in the public sector was initiated by a 20,000-strong strike of New York teachers in 1962 in defiance of the reactionary, anti-strike Condon-Waldin Act. This led to a massive wave of teacher strikes throughout the 1960s, despite the continued existence of anti-strike legislation.

The legal threats brought out the importance of a general strike involving large numbers of workers rather than a single workplace. If one workplace went on strike, Walker could jail all the strikers and make an example of them. But it would be impossible for Walker to jail or even fine the entire Wisconsin public sector. The Ontario general strike in the 1990s and recent general strikes in Europe show the impotence of governments when facing powerful general strike movements.

Class Struggle vs. Class Collaboration

The obstacle to building a general strike was the outlook of the union leaders who accept the logic of capitalism and its political institutions and laws. That logic says that workers’ needs can only be considered if the economy can afford it. So when the capitalist economy was expanding along with healthy profits, they argued for increased benefits for workers. But now that capitalism is in a deep crisis, they argue that the logic of the market dictates the necessity of everybody making sacrifices.

Both in the U.S. and internationally, the demand by governments for austerity and attacks on workers’ living standards has come after the most powerful banks and corporations had their profits protected through trillions of dollars in government bailouts, tax cuts, and other subsidies. In Europe, tens of millions of workers have gone into struggle demanding “No Cuts” and to “Make the Bankers and Rich Investors Pay.”

Having accepted the distorted logic of corporate and political leaders, the leadership of the unions failed to mount a broad struggle against the cuts in the hope that somehow they might get a little something in return. Instead, the attacks and “sacrifices” are getting worse and worse.

The fact that Wall Street and Corporate America demand that politicians look after their interests while leaving the rest of us to twist in the heavy winds of crisis discredits the idea of “shared sacrifice” for some mythical common interest. In reality, this is a struggle between two irreconcilable classes: the working class that creates the wealth, and the capitalist class that profits from the work of others.

What the union leaders don’t understand is that you don’t win a struggle in this period of crisis by showing big business and the political establishment how “reasonable” you are. It was necessary to make the political and economic costs of Walker refusing to back down much greater than failing to pass the anti-union bill and the budget cuts.

To win the struggle in Wisconsin, it was necessary to mobilize the massive anger at Walker into a powerful movement with the aim of driving him out of office and defeating as much of his agenda as possible. To do that meant building up working-class understanding and a working-class movement by challenging the whole agenda of big business. This is where a socialist understanding of the class struggle is so essential.

Experiencing the enormous power of a general strike, workers’ consciousness develops rapidly. Workers can then see who really makes the economy and government services run. Workers’ power is their collective power to stop business as usual and so to hit the capitalists, directly or indirectly, where it hurts – in the pocketbook. For their profitability, businesses rely on public services running smoothly and keeping order in the population. A general strike in the public sector can bring government to a halt and create a massive political crisis. Such militant action in the public sector would naturally then spread into the private sector on the basis of solidarity and workers joining the movement to remove Walker and to press their own demands.

The unfortunate situation for activists today is that, in recent decades, many of these basic lessons of class struggle have been lost. Nevertheless, the deepening crisis of capitalism is beginning to reawaken interest in and consciousness of the necessity for a classstruggle approach. When we look at the history of our unions across the world, and especially in Wisconsin, we see that people who had a clear understanding of the class struggle, i.e. radicals and socialists, played a decisive role in building our unions.

An example of this from history is the three successful, high-profile strikes in 1934: of Toledo Auto-Lite workers, Minneapolis coal truck drivers and warehouse workers, and San Francisco dockworkers. Each of these strikes was led by determined socialists and radicals who were able to mobilize a broad section of the working class into what became citywide general strikes.

In each of these cases, the leadership emphasized the need for the workers to rely only on their own strength and solidarity and to place no trust in the government, courts, or capitalist politicians. The rank and file of the unions democratically planned the strikes and protests and was able to face down the company goons, police, and National Guard troops who were deployed to break the strikes. These strikes won union recognition and wage increases, victories that paved the way for a colossal movement in the 1930s that saw millions join the new industrial unions and the labor movement across the country.

We need to rebuild a sizeable core of activists today to learn the lessons of history so they can use class-struggle policies to win the battles of the day and help prepare the struggle for a democratic socialist society.

As part of understanding the role of important players in the Wisconsin struggle, we should look at the leading left and socialist organizations. What impact did they have in taking the movement forward and helping develop the movement for a general strike? We do this not in order to score points against other left organizations, but in order to draw out all the necessary lessons from this historic struggle so activists can be better prepared for the next wave of struggle. We do this from the perspective of comradely debate and in the interests of learning the lessons from how our different organizations approach the mass movements of our day. We also need to draw out clearly what strategies are necessary to prevent defeats in the future.

The International Socialist Organization

The group in the best position to have an impact on the struggle was the International Socialist Organization (ISO). The ISO was the largest revolutionary socialist organization in the United States and Madison was one of its flagship branches. In addition to a sizeable student presence, the ISO had active members in AFSCME locals 60 and 171 and a good concentration of members in the TAA.

The ISO also had an extensive journalism apparatus, including the newspaper Socialist Worker, the journal International Socialist Review, and the website Throughout the protests, the ISO engaged in extensive reporting. While the mainstream media, run by big business, generally attacked or ignored the protests, the ISO’s coverage of events proved useful for activists across the country eager to find the truth about what was going on.

On the ground, the ISO played an important role in the occupation of the Capitol, challenging the positions of the union leaders and the Democratic politicians. Their members, along with the NNU, were among the most energetic and effective at popularizing the “No Cuts, No Concessions” demand. They also helped set up the Kill the Whole Bill Coalition to challenge the concessionary positions of the union leaders. It is to their merit that they took a lead in organizing a section of the most left-wing part of the anti-Walker movement. Their main energies went into building support for the movement around this coalition. The coalition has changed its name and survives today as Wisconsin Resists.

The ISO showed their commitment to building the movement on the ground. However, the role of socialists is not only to build the movement but to point a way forward and raise what strategy, tactics, and policies are needed for the movement to be successful. When it came to providing a strategy for the movement beyond the Capitol occupation, they were found wanting. This becomes clear when one looks at their position on the general strike.

Throughout the crucial period of the struggle, a review of the articles and flyers of the ISO finds no call or support for a general strike.

The following is the most concrete proposal the ISO put forward for the movement:

The challenge now is for public-sector union members in Wisconsin to show their unity and power in the workplace. This can be done in a number of ways – from wearing union T-shirts and buttons, holding meetings during breaks and lunch periods, and organizing informational pickets before work.

If there are to be further job actions – or more decisive measures – they will be all the more effective if union members take the organization and initiative they have shown in Madison back to their cities and towns around the state. That’s the only kind of pressure that politicians like Walker will ever understand.

At the same time, rank-and-file members should tell union officials that workers won’t accept any concessions – at meetings, through petitions and leaflets, and with signs and banners on protests. After the greatest show of union strength and solidarity in decades, it would be a crime to waste it on a deal that lets workers’ pay be cut (“Time to show our power,”, 2/24/2011).

While no one can argue against such proposals, they fail to touch on the crucial issue – the need for strike action, especially a one-day public sector general strike as a first step. Their first real discussion of the general strike only came in their theoretical magazine in the aftermath of the events:

The idea of a general strike, usually discussed by labor history professors and socialists, was discussed from day one of the struggle. The difficulty was that the low level of politics and organization in the unions prior to the movement made it difficult for militants who favored such a strategy even to find one another, let alone organize themselves to challenge the strategy of union leaders (“The lessons of Wisconsin’s labor revolt,” International Socialist Review, Issue 77, May-June 2011).

This paragraph shows the flaw of the ISO’s approach to this struggle. Socialists cannot limit themselves to the prevailing mood, demands, or consciousness in the movement. Instead, while taking into account the current level of consciousness, it is necessary to honestly point toward the measures that are needed to win. The issue was that a general strike was necessary and, as Socialist Alternative argued, the best way to build such a movement was through a 24-hour public sector general strike.

Furthermore, as the ISO itself acknowledges in the above quote, “The idea of a general strike … was discussed from day one of the struggle.” In fact, there was a raging debate on the issue throughout the Wisconsin labor movement. Socialists have a duty to engage in this debate and weigh in with what we think. Clearly, the tasks of socialists under the conditions that existed in Wisconsin during the struggle in February and March was to link up with the big layer of workers and activists who supported a general strike and help push it forward.

The claim that general strike supporters couldn’t find each other is astonishing considering the SCFL motion, the vast support for a general strike at the protests, and the large number of ISO members with “General Strike” buttons made by the IWW. Socialist Alternative members gave out 15,000 flyers agitating for general strike action and found broad support for such a demand. Our tables were approached with throngs attracted by the idea, many making firm declarations of support for it, some in fact boggled at the fact one hadn’t been called already.

At the same time, it is true that Wisconsin demonstrated the lack of a strong activist layer in the unions or among working people more generally, which was why the strong mood for strike action was not able to be translated into an organized struggle to force the union leaders to take action. Socialist Alternative fully recognized this. But it would be completely wrong to conclude from this that we shouldn’t educate and agitate for the ideas that would be needed to win. We explained that it was not enough to just support strike action but that an organized struggle inside the unions was needed.

In Wisconsin, there was mass action right at the start. The public sector unions were already engaged in coordinated action, trying to get people to the Capitol. There were already mass student walkouts, which inspired a wave of sick-outs by teachers who went above the heads of the union leaders in a de-facto strike. The idea of a general strike was widely being debated. The SCFL passed a motion calling for one, as did the president of the Madison Firefighters union. The capitalist media in Wisconsin was even reporting that a general strike was being threatened.

Beyond that, all of the public sector workers in the state were under attack, except police and firefighters. The TAA went on strike for much less in 2004. This time, public sector workers in general were under attack, so it was only natural that there should be a public sector general strike.

The ISO was absolutely correct to highlight the “No Cuts! No Concessions!” demand, as did Socialist Alternative. However, even maintaining collective bargaining rights would require at least a one-day public sector general strike, and guaranteeing a reversal of all cuts would require much more than that. The ISO rightly attacked the leaders of AFSCME, WEAC, and MTI for accepting concessionary contracts. So why shouldn’t socialists also criticize the union leaders for opposing and campaigning against strike action?

Unfortunately, the ISO was not a force that pushed forward the need for a general strike. Subsequently, they failed to be a lever that could challenge the union leadership on this essential issue.

The Industrial Workers of the World

The other major force on the left was the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). While the ISO failed to take up the general strike call, the IWW made it their central slogan.

The roots of the IWW go back to 1905, when it became an organizing core of powerful left union activists, including the mass Western Federation of Labor. Quite quickly, it adopted an anarcho-syndicalist strategy, which was based on calling for a powerful upsurge of struggles of workers and organizing them into revolutionary unions, separate from the larger AFL-affiliated unions. However, the IWW was effectively smashed as a mass force by the Palmer raids as part of the vicious government crackdown on radicals during World War I. After that, most serious union radicals, including many leading IWW members, joined with the Communist Party and later the new, mass Committee for Industrial Organization industrial unions in the 1930s. Newer activists have looked to keep the IWW alive until this day. While they are much smaller now, they have campaigned to organize in workplaces that bigger unions won’t touch, such as Starbucks and Jimmy Johns.

The IWW were the biggest popularizers of the general strike demand. They produced an iconic poster depicting a cat beneath the phrase “General Strike,” which could be seen throughout the protests. The use of the cat in the poster was a reference to a wildcat strike, which is where a group of radicals organize a strike by moving around the official structures of the union.

They wrote a pamphlet putting forward steps to organize the general strike. On March 12, they held a public meeting, with 150 in attendance, about building for a general strike. The fact that this meeting was larger than any of the ISO’s public meetings during the protests contradicts the ISO’s claim that general strike advocates couldn’t find each other.

Although the IWW is not part of the AFL-CIO, many of their members are “dual carders” who are in the IWW as well as another mainstream union. One of the dual carders, Tony Schaeve of Plumbers Local 75, was a delegate to the SCFL assembly and played an important role in getting them to endorse a general strike.

The IWW’s anarcho-syndicalist methodology meant that it was more willing to go against the strategy put forward by the mainstream unions. However, this same anarcho-syndicalist methodology also entailed a rejection of organized structure that prevented the IWW from effectively combating the bureaucratic leadership of those unions.

The IWW’s General Strike Pamphlet argued, “The first step is to get as many workers to commit to the strike as possible.” While this is an important step, it was necessary to lay down a nuts-and-bolts strategy to achieve this. The vast majority of workers were just beginning to move into struggle and did not have the experience to know how to organize a general strike.

For a general strike, there also needs to be coordination between the different workplaces. Without some sort of structure in place, it is difficult to get workers to commit to a strike. Such a structure could not be built up from scratch on such short notice. Fortunately, there were structures in place during the struggle: the mainstream public sector unions. When the public sector workers were under attack, they turned to their unions for guidance and those unions formed the backbone of the protests.

To carry out a successful general strike, it would be necessary to organize in these unions and convince them to adopt a general strike strategy. The IWW should have used its profile to help organize public sector workers to build massive pressure to force their unions to organize a general strike. Instead, they put the burden of that work on the rank and file as individuals, without helping to create the mechanism to achieve it.

Much of their public material was centered on promoting the idea of a general strike rather than its necessity. Their General Strike Pamphlet emphasized that a strike would “cause serious economic disruption” and that it was “the ultimate tool of change.” But there was nothing about how to build for it, nor how to politically explain the ways to overcome the concrete obstacles, like developing a strategy to deal with the fact that public sector strikes are illegal in Wisconsin or answering what to do if Walker still doesn’t budge. This romanticism made it easier for the union leaders to portray their own conservatism as sanity rather than treachery.

The Transitional Method

The big limitation of both the ISO and the IWW was their unwillingness to apply what Marxists call the transitional method. Workers’ consciousness was shaken by the financial crisis and even more by events in Wisconsin. This doesn’t mean, however, that they have automatically developed a well-rounded understanding of the capitalist crisis and the need for a new socialist society, or even a clear understanding of how to defeat Walker. This is why it is necessary to provide a bridge in consciousness to point the way forward.

The ISO hinted at the problem when they argued: “Simply calling for a general strike – no matter how enthusiastically it is received – is unlikely to get very far.” (“Now is the time to fight,” Socialist Worker, 3/11/2011) This is true, but the same could be said of other slogans, such as “No cuts! No concessions!” or “Tax the rich!” that the ISO employed throughout the protests. It could certainly be said of slogans such as “Socialism, Not Capitalism,” “Workers’ Power” and “Revolution,” which the ISO uses regularly in the “Where We Stand” column of their newspaper.

This doesn’t mean you drop these demands and stick with only those demands that can be immediately achieved. Rather, you should build up to them with other demands and actions that can pave the way forward and raise consciousness. A general strike in Wisconsin was becoming a popular idea, and it was a necessary step to defeat the bill. So it was essential to put forward the call for a general strike. But this call had to be linked to the political consciousness of the time.

This is why Socialist Alternative limited the scope of our demand to the Wisconsin public sector and called for a one-day strike, as opposed to an indefinite national strike as the IWW did. We also put forward concrete steps toward a one-day public sector general strike, such as calling on the unions to support the SCFL resolution, to hold mass meetings to make it possible, and to set up action committees in workplaces, communities, and schools.

For example, in our flyer produced immediately after Walker rammed his bill through the state Senate (, we called for:

  • Emergency mass union meetings to democratically develop an immediate plan for stepping up the struggle.
  • The formation of elected strike committees in the unions as well as action committees of students, unemployed, and community members to lead the struggle.
  • Set the date and make immediate preparations for a one-day full shutdown of the state as soon as possible through a public sector general strike, and prepare for a series of general strikes and other actions until Walker backs down.
  • Full mobilization of the youth and the unemployed as well as private sector, union, and non-union workers in support of strike actions.
  • Neighboring states to send caravans of activists to flood Wisconsin with hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of workers to stop this attack on the entire union movement.
  • Wall Street is to blame, not working people or their unions. Tax the super-rich and big corporations. Working people shouldn’t pay for a crisis we didn’t create.
  • No concessions! No cuts! Kill the whole bill!
  • The full right to strike for all workers; the right to unionize and have decent jobs, benefits, and pensions for all.
  • An end to the corporate domination of politics and our lives.
  • Working people of Wisconsin and the U.S., unite and fight for a working people’s party and a democratic socialist society!

Members of Socialist Alternative also distributed thousands of copies of a general strike fact sheet that addressed the legitimate concerns people had about legality and public opinion. We also recognized that a one-day public sector general strike might not be enough and were very clear that it would be a step to further action.

The IWW neglected these transitional steps, which undermined their effectiveness. The ISO, while putting out calls for solidarity, failed to put out any call for a general strike. In both cases, the end result was letting the union bureaucrats dictate the strategy. If these groups had gone into the unions with a fighting approach, they could have taken the struggle to a new level. Even if they had not been successful, they would have helped expose the failed policies of the union leaders and educated the most conscious workers and young people in methods that will be essential to defeat the next round of cuts.

Socialist Alternative

Socialist Alternative went into the struggle with a single member in Madison and a couple of members in Milwaukee. But, through a concerted national intervention and a correct strategy, we were able to build a new branch in Madison. We were present throughout the demonstrations from the beginning, supporting the struggle and boldly putting forward a fighting strategy, distributing over 15,000 leaflets that explained the need for a general strike and a socialist strategy. We produced a FAQ about strikes that explained how a strike could win and not just how it could lose. We held two public meetings on the need for a one-day public sector general strike.

Although our size and outsider status limited the ability of our intervention to dig deep roots, we nonetheless had a tangible impact. During the course of the protests, we came into contact with the student activists who led the initial student walkouts. We worked with them, printing leaflets, setting up a Facebook group, and discussing strategy, and we played a central role in organizing the March 10 walkouts of 2,000 students.

Despite our disagreements with the ISO and IWW, we nonetheless worked together. We worked with the ISO within the Kill the Whole Bill Coalition and attempted to coordinate work in the TAA whenever possible.

System Change

Even the struggle to build a general strike cannot be looked upon as an end in itself. Even if workers build such a movement, new important questions will arise. What to do next? How do we stop further attacks in this period of national and global economic crisis? Isn’t it all futile, since they will keep coming back for more cuts? Even though the movement in Wisconsin was defeated before it had a chance to seriously take up these questions, it is nonetheless vital that we provide answers when future struggles break out.

As socialists, we say resistance is not futile. The problem with our society is rooted in the failure of the capitalist system itself. Under this system, Wall Street, the big banks, and the top corporations control our political institutions. They reap the profits from their ownership of the factories and workplaces of this country. They will not give up their policies until they are removed from their position of power. This can only be achieved by a powerful movement of workers, young people, and the poor.

In Europe, the past year has seen a wave of 24- and 48-hour general strikes organized in Greece, Spain, and Portugal, and partial general strikes in the public sector have been organized in France and Britain. In order to defend social services and, in particular, the pensions of public sector workers, a public sector general strike in Britain on November 30 brought two million to the streets, the largest general strike in Britain since the 1926 General Strike.

A general strike does not only have a defensive role – to defeat the attacks of Walker and his kind – but it also allows workers to begin to see how they can build a new, just society. With big business figures like Walker using every resource of the state to crush unions and to savage social programs, the movement has to either raise its sights and use its real power or suffer further defeats.

The Occupy Wall Street Movement that developed in the aftermath of the Wisconsin protests has done the great service of bringing into public discussion the separation between the interests of the 1% and those of the 99%. The essence of the message is that a tiny majority of rich shareholders and wealthy individuals dominate our economy and politics. Their share ownership allows them to concentrate in their hands power over the 500 massive corporations that dominate the economy, media, and politics. The only way to really challenge this power and to change society in the interests of workers is to take away the decision-making power from big business and put it into the hands of the working class and young people. This requires bringing these huge corporations into democratic public ownership.

One of the huge benefits of a general strike is that it brings workers together to feel their power. It is only one more step to organize that power to create an alternative society. This would be achieved by workers coming together to form assemblies or councils in their workplaces, communities, and schools and electing delegates across industries, cities, and states to form a new government of workers and the poor.

In a socialist society, a democratic plan would be drawn up by the majority of the population based on their needs. In that way, the needs and priorities of the people in society can be worked out. A plan of production, with decision-making taking place at a local, regional, and national level, would then be drawn up to ensure that the economy is restructured to provide for these needs. It’s not a question of a lack of technical skill, as had plagued human societies in the past. We have the technical skill. It’s a question of power and how decisions are made.

No one can deny the depth of the present crisis, with tens of millions losing hope of ever finding work. Tens of millions more face losing their homes due to unemployment or to the massive profits big banks made out of the housing bubble and its subsequent collapse. No one can deny the narrow profit interest that drives big corporations to close down workplaces here in search of cheap labor and even weaker environmental regulations overseas. Clearly, under the rule of big business the environment will continue to be trampled by profit interests. In the coming period, when more and more cuts will be demanded by corporate politicians and big business, the need for a socialist society will have never been greater.

As workers and young people move into struggle, the understanding that there is an alternative to this diseased system is essential. It was this understanding that sustained activists from previous generations, both in the U.S. and internationally. Also, a socialist understanding helps us in our struggles by identifying our enemies – big business and all it touches, including the two main political parties – and showing how, by uniting workers, young people, and the poor, we have the power to defeat them. Today, our day-to-day battles are intricately linked to the need to defeat the capitalist system and to build a new society where human need, not profit, is the basis of decision-making.