The uprising that shook Wisconsin
In February 2011, thousands of people occupied the capitol buildings in Wisconsin in protest against spending cuts and attacks on union rights. The occupation lasted several weeks. Gerry Gold assesses what we can learn from those momentous events.
The Wisconsin Uprising of February 2011 took everyone by surprise. Four days after Republican Governor Scott Walker announced his assault on spending and union rights and conditions, 700 students marched two and a half miles to join 10,000 protesters at the State Capitol.
This key building in Madison houses both chambers of the state legislature together with its Supreme Court and the office of the Governor. Wisconsin demonstrators seized control of the Capitol, occupying it for weeks.
The bombshell that triggered the action was the deliberately provocative announcement by Walker of a bill to end decades of hard-won rights to collective bargaining. The occupation was the unexpected climax, an explosion of anger that had been building for years.
Highly organised, previously relatively well-paid US workers had been under attack for decades as manufacturing corporations transferred production abroad to low wage facilities in China, Latin America and elsewhere. Those with the few jobs remaining in big-name firms like Chrysler, GM, Harley Davidson and Tyson Foods were by 2010 earning two-thirds or even as little as a half the rates of the mid-1990s, with union leaders accepting worse and worse terms.
More recently, states bankrupted by the global debt crisis began shrinking and dismantling public services, cutting wages and jobs and attacking unionised workforces, especially the firefighters who played a leading role in Wisconsin.
A year after the uprising, as a number of accounts and analyses are appearing in print and on-line, on the streets the struggle is far from over. On 10 March 2012, the anniversary of Walker’s bill becoming law, more than 65,000 protesters, including union and community groups, students, Occupy from Wall Street, Fondulac, Madison, Milwaukee, Riverwest and elsewhere, once again flooded the State Capitol grounds for a people’s march and rally.
This time the march was sponsored by trade union bureaucrats from the AFL-CIO (the equivalent of the British TUC). It was part of the campaign to recall Walker. A recall election is a procedure by which voters can remove an elected official from office through a direct vote before his or her term has ended. The petition campaign collected over one million signatures between 15 November 2011 and 17 January 2012. It was the largest successful recall campaign in US history. The recall election is scheduled for 5 June.
An extensive collection of essays from Monthly Review Press provides a range of views on the Wisconsin uprising. In his essay “Disciplining Labor, Dismantling Democracy”, activist Connor Donegan describes some of the most dramatic moments of the uprising:
“By then the capitol was occupied twenty four hours a day, providing a space for essential movement building activities like communication, planning and a visible presence. When the Senate prepared to vote on the Budget Repair Bill, protestors quickly organised blockades in stairways, hallways, and the Senate antechambers to stop the legislators from voting. This not only was the fire that compelled the Democrats to break the Senate’s quorum by leaving the state, it is also why they were able to escape the Senate’s sergeant at arms. Police, who were scouring the building for the minority party members, were stopped by an ironworkers’ blockade while the Democrats fled the building.”
But by 9 March, the Republicans had amended their bill, eliminating items that needed a quorum, and a second occupation to prevent a vote ended when protestors were forcibly evicted.
On the Saturday after the Bill was passed, the national trades union leadership, the AFL-CIO, with many others, called a mass demonstration that attracted 180,000. But, as Donegan tells it, “the message from the AFL-CIO was clear: leave the streets and redirect your energy to electoral politics. Most saw no alternative course of action.”
As Donegan concludes: “The continuing global economic crisis that erupted in the 2008 financial meltdown force the ruling class – of investment bankers, corporate executives, the International Monetary Fund, politicians and state functionaries – to intervene in the markets in a most pronounced fashion.”
Donegan explains that the imminent global depression is endemic to the capitalist economy – the result of the over-accumulation of capital, which produces crises and slumps which “cause massive devaluations of capital – money, assets, and inputs to production, especially labour.” And he draws important connections between Wisconsin’s struggle over the Budget Repair Bill, the simultaneous overthrow of US-backed Hosni Mubarak, and the Real Democracy Now movement of “indignados” in Spain.
The overall lessons Donegan draws are clear and straightforward:
“As millions of youth find themselves ‘indignant’ and without a future under capitalism, hope is found in the struggle for a better world. The uprising in Wisconsin highlights the tasks ahead – popular education and independent political organisation which are at historic lows in the United States, must be undertaken.”
But, despite Donegan’s opening essay, the overall impression of the book is of catch-up attempts trying to explain the background. There is no real struggle to understand the significance of the sudden eruption of extraordinary events which had mobilised huge numbers after so many years of decline.
Whilst MRP’s editorial director Michael Yates draws a one sentence connection between the demands for democracy by Egyptians, Syrians and Iranians and the struggles in the United States in his introduction, there’s precious little else besides Donegan’s analysis in the essays to encourage those involved (or anyone else) to raise their sights.
Even Yates’ afterword, which pays a little attention to the Occupy Wall Street movement which began in Manhattan’s Zuccotti Park in September, seven months later, spreading to more than 2,500 cities and towns around the world, goes little further than hoping that the labour movement will “embrace OWS”.
Dan La Botz, adjunct professor of history, and co-founder of Teamsters for a Democratic Union, documents the post-war reshaping of capitalism through the decline of manufacturing and the waning influence of the unions over the second half of the 20th century.
La Botz provides a useful summary of the political history of Wisconsin as a centre of the Progressive movement and stronghold of the Socialist Party in the early part of the 20th century.
“Modern Madison during the 1960s and early 1970s had been the scene of enormous anti-war protests by University of Wisconsin students. Many current residents of Wisconsin grew up taking part in those demonstrations and never gave up the notion that there was power in the streets.”
His hope is that the new resurgence will lead, not to an end to capitalism once and for all, but for the more limited aim of rebuilding the labour movement and the construction of a political party representing the interests of working people.
The next essay, from Frank Emspak, manager and executive producer of the Workers Independent News Service, effectively rips the ground from Under La Botz’s hopes. He describes (but can’t explain) the unexpected uprising, which, as he says “dwarfed any previous experience in Madison, Wisconsin, and in size and spirit rivalled anything since the march for Jobs and Freedom in Washington in 1963.”
He at least asks the key question of those advocating more and bigger rallies, and strikes:
“Mass demonstrations and mobilizations are one thing. But what to do if the political leadership of the state determines that they are not interested in negotiations? What to do if it finally becomes clear that the governor and his political allies will use state power to crush you?”
The answer from the trade union leadership and its allies was the election recall campaign. But $20 million dollars spent on media advertising and uncountable hours of volunteer time haven’t stopped the pay cuts, or inhibited the law preventing unions from collecting subscriptions. In some cases, unions’ income from dues has dropped 90%.
Emspak sees these state attacks against unions as part of an ideological conspiracy masterminded by corporate lobbying group the American Legislative Exchange Council, and funded by the Koch Brothers, billionaire industrialists and contributors to a string of right-wing think tanks as well as Walker’s election campaign.
Whilst it is certain that all of these forces are hard at work, Emspak misses out the objective driving force of the crisis of falling profitability that brings these forces out into the open and into direct conflict with the 99%. In a period when resolving the global crisis in favour of working people means ending the rule of capital forever, for Emspak the challenge is how to build union consciousness. And this remains the chief focus of the remaining half of the book. It is an inadequate approach.
Surely it’s no accident that the MRP publication makes only passing reference to a significant event that took place shortly after the occupation in Wisconsin. In January 2011, some weeks before the uprising exploded onto the streets, the Wisconsin Wave was founded.
Described as “a popular mobilization of workers, students, farmers, small business owners, the unemployed, retirees and others against corporatization and austerity, and for democracy and shared prosperity”, the project was begun by The Liberty Tree Foundation circulating a call for a “Wisconsin Wave of Resistance”. It began to offer an embryonic alternative to the undemocratic corporate-dominated, two–party political system.
On 9 April the organisers of the Wave called a People’s Assembly designed to “create the kind of solidarity and strategies required to overcome the corporate takeover of our state, reverse the damage that has already been done, and win reforms that strengthen Wisconsin’s democracy for future generations.” A message of support from the simultaneous People’s Assemblies Network meeting in London declared:
“People’s assemblies can unite every section of the community whose jobs, livelihoods and futures are threatened by a crisis not of their making. We are developing people’s assemblies in England, Scotland and Wales that, like your event, aim to recapture and extend democracy. We can all build on our common traditions and establish our independence from the state and failed politics. We recognise that the status quo is not an option.
“Through their self-determination in people’s assemblies, people can truly rule themselves and determine their own futures in ways which are based on the needs of everyone, the protection of the ecosystem and the welfare of plant and animal life. People’s assemblies offer a real practical way forward on both sides of the Atlantic and elsewhere around the world. Let us go forward together and stay in close touch to spread the message and the power of people’s assemblies throughout the world.”
From Wisconsin came an equally stirring response:
“We join you today, April 9, and every day in the global resistance to corporate power and the austerity that power seeks to impose in order to feed its greed.
Like all of you in London today, we understand too well that capital has no conscience and no flag loyalty as it scours the planet in an insatiable quest for people and natural systems to exploit. Like all of you, we understand the just cause and moral imperative of defending our democratic traditions, our people, and our principles against a coordinated attack by corporate elites and the politicians they own. And, like all of you, we know that we have to do much more than fight back. We also have to advance a genuine people’s movement that values every human being and insists on essential public services and human rights… Everywhere we look, we, the people, are taking a stand—empowered, united, and strong. No dictator’s edict, no billionaire’s bullion can stop us. It’s our time. It’s our future. It’s our world. Forward!
By August, the network had multiplied its connections many times over. With sponsorship and endorsement from a wide range of other organizations the Wisconsin Wave co-organised a four-day Democracy Convention.
This move to an open, participative forward-looking democracy points to a parallel alternative to the capitalist state. It contrasts sharply with the narrow, nostalgic, constrained, profoundly frustrating picture of events offered by the Monthly Review Press.
23 April 2012