The Turning Point

As it turned out, they didn’t have to wait for the Democratic senators to return. On Wednesday, March 9, the Republicans found a loophole. It seems there were different quorums for fiscal and non-fiscal bills. By excising the small part of the “Budget Repair Bill” that actually had anything to do with the budget, they were able to pass the remainder as a non-fiscal “Budget Repair Bill” without any Democrats present by arguing that the usual quorum rules did not apply in this case.

That evening saw a repeat of the entire preceding movement in fast motion. Through emails, phone calls, and text messages, the word got out that the Republican senators were voting on the bill without the Democrats. Within minutes, there were thousands gathering at the Capitol, ready to reoccupy.

The police opened a single entrance to the Capitol and insisted that the thousands of protesters enter single-file through a single metal detector. But the police were overwhelmed. Faced with angry chants of “Let us in!,” the police had no choice but to oblige. The metal detectors became a formality. Once enough protesters got inside, they opened the windows and the other doors and the remaining protesters got in that way. In preparation for the protests, Walker had brought almost every state trooper in Wisconsin to police the Capitol, but the troopers were forced to sit on the staircases and wait for things to end.

That evening, the Senate voted on the bill. It passed 18-1, with Dale Schultz being the sole Republican to vote against. Even if the Democrats had been present, the bill would have passed.

As the Republican senators left the Capitol, they were faced with the largest outburst of anger any of them had experienced. A simple but effective chant of “Shame!” filled the building, and protesters carried handwritten signs with the same message. The police had to clear a staircase so the senators could leave as quickly as possible.

After the departure of the senators, the protesters’ seething anger cooled down somewhat. This was the turning point in the struggle. Now all those strategy questions of the past mattered more than ever. One of the main chants that evening, initiated by socialists, was “General Strike!,” showing yet again the strong mood for strike action. This was highlighted in the front page headlines of the Wisconsin State Journal the following day. At the same time, there were competing chants of “Recall!” as debates took place in an open mic session on the ground floor of the building. Ad hoc meetings of different groups began to work out a strategy.

The General Strike Meeting

Most importantly, the SCFL called an ad hoc meeting attended by representatives of the different union locals to discuss the necessary steps to organize a general strike. Suddenly, the concept of a general strike, which would have been unthinkable a month before, looked like it might become a reality.

While this was going on, the TAA held an ad hoc caucus inside the Capitol to discuss how to react. Because of the TAA’s complicated strike vote procedure, they would not be able to carry out an official strike action by Thursday. Nonetheless, they agreed that, if the SCFL meeting called for a general strike on Thursday, the TAA would engage in a semi-official “wildcat” strike.

In this case, it was decided that TAA members would abandon the reoccupation of the Capitol so that they could focus on getting members prepared for a strike. If the SCFL meeting decided against a general strike, they would focus their energy on maintaining the second occupation.

Eventually, word came of the strategy decided at the SCFL meeting: Nothing. No general strike on Thursday. No general strike at all. No teachers’ strike. No resumption of sick-outs. No slowdowns or job actions of any sort. Nothing.

Under enormous pressure from the state and national union leaders, even the SCFL backed off on their call for a general strike. The teachers union, which many looked to for putting out a call for a strike given that they had sick-outs at the beginning of the struggle, acted decisively to cut across any steps in the direction of a strike. The statewide MTI leadership immediately came out and publically instructed their members to return to work and not repeat the sickouts of the previous month, despite the fact that there was no democratic discussion or debate within the union on this.

Rapid Demobilization

With that, there was a repeat of the demobilization of the movement in fast motion. The Democrats put forward a new strategy based on recall campaigns and fighting the bill in the courts. An injunction was filed against the bill, but this was not based on its content. It was based on the technicality that they didn’t give the public 24 hours’ notice beforehand. Since they had placed all hope on a technicality, any act of protest that was technically illegal – such as striking or continuing the occupation of the Capitol – was deemed “giving up the moral high ground.” The only form of protest the Democrats would now tolerate was the recall campaign.

Once again, the TAA Executive Board passed a nonbinding motion in support of the occupation. Once again, the TAA marshals ignored this motion and told everyone to leave. There was still enough anger for the occupation to continue through the night, but that was it.

The TAA held a General Membership Meeting, allegedly to discuss plans for strike action but, in reality, to argue against it. Other union leaders never even brought the subject up with their members. With strike action off the table and the unions’ continued existence under threat, the unions representing municipal and county workers agreed to rotten concessionary contracts. Unions such as MTI, WEAC, and AFSCME signed contracts that not only gave in to Walker’s demands on health care and pensions but made concessions that Walker never sought in the first place.

There were still some glimmers of hope. One union leader, Joe Conway, President of the International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF) Local 311 representing firefighters in the greater Madison area, was supportive of the call for a general strike, saying: “I’m in total agreement. We should start walking out tomorrow and the next day and see how long they can last.” ( TVrBUtw) This courageous stand was in marked contrast with the rest of the union leaders.

With the unions in retreat, the most militant section of the protesters was the high school students. The Facebook page “Day X Walk Out on Walker,” set up the night before by East High senior Onawa Powell and Socialist Alternative organizer Philip Locker, put out the word, and numbers “attending” shot up from a couple hundred to over 1,000 by morning.

Early Thursday morning, students and Socialist Alternative members fanned out to three high schools to leaflet for the walkout. At 10 a.m., media reports said around 2,000 students walked out from Madison high schools – mainly East and West High – and descended on the Capitol building, adding a youthful, lively element to the day’s rallies. Meanwhile, in response to calls by Michael Moore for national student walkouts on Friday, well over 1,000 Madison students walked out again that day, joining together for a youth-organized teach-out on Library Mall followed by a march to the Capitol. Because of Socialist Alternative’s leading role in building the previous days’ walkouts, Socialist Alternative organizer Ty Moore was invited to speak for the organization. He urged students to keep mobilizing and to appeal to teachers and parents to support the general strike idea.

Because of the lack of bureaucratic traditions, high school students are often the first to move into struggle. This was the case now as well as at the beginning of the movement. Then, the student walkouts provided MTI members with the confidence to walk out, which in turn put pressure on the union leaders to call job actions. This time, unfortunately, the union leadership was so dead set against action that even these inspiring walkouts were not enough to restart the movement.

The Last Stand

Given the anger at the passage of the bill, it was almost inevitable that the Saturday, March 12 demonstration at the Capitol would be the most massive in the state’s history. By some estimates, the crowd possibly approached 200,000 in a state with only about 5.6 million people. The Capitol Square and all the streets leading up to it were filled with protesters, making it nearly impossible to get from one side of any street to the other. There were Madisonians, people from all over Wisconsin, and people from across the country. There were public and private sector workers, union and non-union, K-12 and college students, even a tractorcade representing farmer-labor solidarity in one of the few states with remnants of the family farmer population.

While this was the largest demonstration in the movement, it was not in any way a signal of a new fight-back. Unfortunately, the union leaders completely failed to use it as a platform to organize for a massive struggle to overturn Walker’s bill. Instead, along with the Democratic politicians who spoke at the rally, they used it to bring the movement in the streets to an end and divert it into a recall campaign to elect Democrats. The day after the demonstration, the state workers’ contracts expired without protest.

The demo focused, instead, on assuring the protesters that their cause was just. There were speeches by celebrities from Michael Moore to Susan Sarandon to Tony Shaloub, star of the television series Monk. The centerpiece of the demo was the return of the “Fab 14.” But there was no more fighting spirit in the demonstration.

The AFL-CIO and the Democrats consciously used the demo to assure that all energies would be centered on the recall campaign. Those participating in this demo were not expected to fight Walker but to thank the “Fab 14” for fighting for them. One of the “Fab 14,” Senator Chris Larson from Milwaukee, made this clear when he told the crowd “Now … we trade in our rally signs for clipboards and we take to the streets to recall the Republicans.” (“Missing Democrats return to Wisconsin,” Badger Herald, 3/20/2011)

There was great determination among many in the crowd to participate in the effort to recall Walker and the GOP state senators. Thousands of workers and youth signed up to volunteer for the recall campaign, reflecting their genuine desire to continue fighting Walker’s agenda and to not give ground.

Socialist Alternative members warned that, while Walker and the Republicans should absolutely be recalled, who would replace them? If the only alternative was the Democrats, then the workers who had been fighting to repeal all of Walker’s bill (not just the attacks on collective bargaining, but also the budget cuts) would have no representation, as the Democrats agreed with Walker on the need for budget cuts in social services. We argued for unions and progressive activists to come together to run independent, anti-cuts leftwing candidates in the recall elections.

Further, we warned that there were major limitations to the recall strategy. In the time necessary to conduct recalls, the public sector unions would have to hold life-or-death recertification votes. It would also give the political right time to regroup and launch new attacks. The senatorial recall campaigns were all in districts outside of Madison, so the epicenter of the movement would be abandoned.

Unfortunately, this warning turned out to be correct and the labor movement, in Wisconsin and nationally, was dealt a major blow.