The right is riding high, but workers and progressives may finally realize that change happens through collective action, not electoral politics.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker did not win the June 5 recall vote because a parade of Daddy Warbucks stuffed his suit full of six-figure checks. The Democratic challenger Tom Barrett did not lose because he raised a scant $4 million to Walker’s $30 million war chest.
Walker won because he had a vision, however brutish, and he forged a rich-poor alliance that supports it. Barrett lost because he stood for nothing, because the Democrat Party shuns organized labor, because labor retreats from street politics even when they have the upper hand and because progressives confuse elections with movements.
In short, Walker’s cakewalk is a microcosm of why American politics tilts further and further right year after year, and why the Democrats, progressives and unions have an endless capacity for self-inflicted wounds. As much as liberals whine “big money thwarts people power” and the Obama campaign dismisses the loss as due to local conditions, the election portends deep trouble for a president and party facing an energized right in November’s election.
The recall is also a study in the paths not taken for the Wisconsin Uprising and why the Democratic Party is the graveyard of social movements. There was an expression among activists in Wisconsin that went, “One year longer, one year stronger” a year after the beginning of the “Uprising.” But the reality is that, one year longer, the left as an organizing force is, in actuality, “one year weaker.”
Mike McCabe, director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a nonpartisan group that tracks money in state politics, argued the secret behind Walker and decades of Republican success nationwide is “a rich-poor alliance of affluent suburbs and poor rural counties.” In the recall, Walker dominated country and suburb alike. McCabe said in 2010, “Walker carried the 10 poorest counties in the state by a 13 percent margin,” which used to be reliably Democratic. He said, “Republicans use powerful economic wedge issues to great impact. They go into rural counties and say, do you have pensions? ‘No.’ Well, you’re paying for theirs, referring to public sector workers. Do you have healthcare? ‘No.’ Well, you’re paying for theirs? Do you get wage increases? ‘No.’ Well, you’re paying for theirs.”
The scenario was far different 50 years explained McCabe, “The Democrats were identified with programs like Social Security, the G.I. Bill and rural electrification. People could see tangible benefits. Today they ask, ‘Is government working for us?’ And often their answer is no. They see government as crooked and corrupt. They figure if the government is not working for us, let’s keep it as small as possible.”
Into this story of Reagan Democrats – working-class white Democrats who shifted to the right years ago – entered the Wisconsin Uprising. In February 2011, thousands of university teaching assistants and striking public school teachers in Madison sparked an occupation of the Capitol after Walker unveiled plans to strip public-sector workers of collective bargaining rights and hack billions of dollars from public schools, higher education, health care, poverty and children’s programs. The takeover of the state building foreshadowed the Occupy movement, while the six weeks of nonstop protests by tens of thousands were “the biggest sustained mass rally for workers since the 1930s,” according to Matt Rothschild, editor of the Madison-based Progressive Magazine.
Charity Schmidt, a Ph.D. student in sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and co-president of the Teaching Assistants’ Association, explained the uprising broke new ground “because it moved beyond the interests of organized labor to address health care for all, voting rights, education funding and accessibility, housing rights, immigration rights and so on.”
The UW-Madison teaching assistants got the ball rolling, explained Schmidt in “It Started in Wisconsin,” edited by Mari Jo Buhle and Paul Buhle. After Walker introduced his “budget repair bill,” on February 10, 2011, teaching assistants conducted a Valentine’s Day’s action in the Capitol and coordinated with labor groups organizing a door-knocking campaign in Republican Senate districts around Madison to demand public hearings on the bill. Rothschild said the next day, February 15, Madison public school teachers “held an all-membership emergency meeting. They all took a democratic vote to say we’re going to go out on an illegal strike for the next four school days.” The same night, teaching assistants and students came prepared to sleep over at the Capitol so as to provide a continuous supply of voices to testify against Walker’s bill in legislative hearings. An attempt to squelch testimony backfired and the weeks-long occupation of the Capitol building began.
Just like the Occupy movement months later, the Wisconsin Uprising crackled with life. Rothschild said, “I would look out my window three blocks from the Capitol and see people stream up the street every day for a protest.” There wasn’t just outrage and anger, he noted, “There was jubilation, there was creativity; there was cleverness; there was fun. But there were also hard-edged slogans like, ‘How do you solve the budget crisis? Tax, tax, tax the rich.'”
It was also historic. Rothschild said, “Every sector of public workers was there. You had private sector unions like electricians, carpenters, machinists, teamsters. I’ve never seen anything like that. I’d read about it in history books and Howard Zinn’s works, but I’ve never seen real solidarity be a living, breathing thing instead of a hackneyed cliché at the end of a union meeting.”
The Wisconsin Uprising fired the imagination of liberals and leftists in Wisconsin and across the country because it was a mass, democratic uprising. Labor was taking radical action in defiance of all the powers arrayed against them. The occupation maintained the cause in the public spotlight for weeks. The crowds grew from thousands to tens of thousands. The air rippled with talk of a general strike.
That seemed the next logical step, à la the Egyptian revolutionaries who had just ousted Hosni Mubarak, but few thought Madison could pull a mass walkout. Allen Ruff, a former lecturer in US history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said talk of a general strike was pie in the sky, but added, “If one trade union leader had followed the lead of the teachers and called for solidarity strikes or to stay out, even short of a general strike, then the political and social terrain would have been far different.”
Rothschild contended other radical alternatives were possible. “There could have been a rolling blue flu epidemic in which workers in one occupation after another call in sick. There could have been work to rule, just doing the bare minimum that the contract requires. But none of this.”
Schmidt listed factors why a general strike was premature ranging from “the lack of infrastructure to make sure children are cared for and families have money for groceries and bills” to the need for “rank-and-file democracy” and “strong networks of support with community groups” to an “overdependence on representative democracy and the courts to solve our problems.” But ambivalence crept into her assessment. Observing that the main labor federation in the Madison area “endorsed taking steps to prepare for a general strike,” Schmidt said, “It is a mystery to me why the movement did not go into a general strike and instead went into a recall.”
Ruff pinned the blame on labor leaders who have become “too accustomed to business unionism and politics as usual and too fearful of penalties that would have resulted from a mass action.” Ruff suggested psychology played a role, too: “There was a general deference among the masses of people present in the Capitol to established norms and authority like the Democrats, to trade union leaders, to the police.”
Rothschild added that local labor leaders “did not understand the power that was present in those huge numbers. I think they were not only surprised by, they were scared by that magnitude of a protest they couldn’t control and maybe go in a direction they wouldn’t want. They didn’t have a strategic plan for this uprising.”
Even as the uprising was blooming, it was being co-opted and demobilized. A telling moment for Schmidt came early on when “The message of collective bargaining and the middle class became dominant.” She said that the language in the Capitol consciously included all segments of society – the poor, elderly, immigrants and children. “The talk about the middle class fueled a division.
Obama and the national Democratic Party, meanwhile, shunned the uprising because it threatened their corporate benefactors, not just the right’s. Rothschild said in February and March of 2011, “We thought we’re fighting alone while the snow is falling and our ears are getting cold and red. Where is this president who said he would get his marching shoes on when labor rights were under attack?” In fact, Obama vowed in 2007, “If American workers are being denied their right to organize and collectively bargain when I’m in the White House … I’ll walk on that picket line with you.”
Ruff said state-level Democrats actively demobilized the uprising. “One got up in the middle of the Rotunda when there were a few thousand people present and asked them to walk out to show we are willing to compromise and around 1,200 people left the Capitol with him. At the last big rally in March, with more than 200,000 people present, Democratic Sen. Jon Erpenbach, said ‘I don’t want to see you people back here. Go back to your home communities and work on the recall.'”
Rothschild ticked off reasons why demobilizing the protests for elections was a mistake. He said, “It diffused the energy of people emotionally. It geographically diffused people. It fed the misconception that there are no routes for exercising power other than the electoral arena, that there is no workplace strategy you can do, there is no street strategy that you can use. Finally, elections feed the illusion that the only option is working through the Democratic Party.”
Labor and the Democrats have little to show for three rounds of elections since the uprising began. Republicans snagged a critical state Supreme Court post in April 2011. That August, the GOP clung to a razor-thin majority in the state Senate by holding four of six seats up for recall. Having pummeled the Democrats again by a 53-46 percent margin, Walker and the right are riding high. The only bright spot for Democrats is they captured one of four state Senate seats, giving them a 17-16 majority. But no legislative session is expected before January 2013 after regular elections for half the Senate, so the Democrats may lose their majority before they ever exercise it.
The sad fact is Walker should have been history. State prosecutors investigating political corruption have been circling the waters around him for two years and have picked off three of his former aides, an appointee and a major campaign contributor on criminal charges, stoking speculation that Walker is the big catch. In November 2011, as the recall kicked off with signature gathering, Walker was floundering with a 58 percent disapproval rating. And in addition to igniting the uprising, he pissed off most women in Wisconsin after bashing teachers and nurses, pay equity, sex education, abortion rights and social programs. But he glided to victory over a sputtering Democrat who did not offer voters a compelling route out of the economic chaos.
We got an inkling of how disconnected Democrats and labor are from genuine politics days before the recall. We slipped onto a conference call organized by We Are Wisconsin, a liberal coalition that channeled millions of dollars into Barrett’s campaign and coordinated the Democratic get out the vote effort. First up for discussion among the dozen representatives of liberal groups and unions was debunking a Marquette University Law School Poll that showed Walker with a comfortable seven-point lead. The analysis went like this: “It is partisan. The data set was skewed. It is an outlier compared to other polls. The news and numbers are trending Barrett’s way.”
Except Marquette hit the bull’s eye – Walker notched a 6.8 percent margin. Plus, other pre-election surveys came to the same conclusion. Charles Franklin, director of the Marquette Poll, told us that of 18 surveys conducted in the gubernatorial race since April, “Walker led in 17 in those and one was a tie.”
The verdict was already in, but the veteran organizers on the conference call were convinced against reality that victory was in their grasp. The rest of the discussion burbled with talk of volunteers, early voting patterns, door knocking, mailings, “making three passes” at 535,000 phone numbers, analytics, television ad buys, voter suppression. It was all tactics. The sole mention of politics was a quick rundown of the issues in the Democrats’ ad campaign: the corruption cloud hanging over Walker, cuts to education and the “war on women.” There was no conversation about labor rights, Walker’s attack on democracy or the strangling of social welfare – the issues that catalyzed the uprising.
Whereas the recall began as a democratic, populist revolt, by the end, the politics were dictated by consultants, pollsters and advertising campaigns. Rather than spending the last 16 months organizing workers and the unemployed, building community groups, educating the rank and file on radical social history, democratizing union decision making, going door to door relentlessly and patiently explaining how unions can increase everyone’s wages and benefits, all the energy was spent on futile campaigns for Democrats who support austerity-lite policies.
Perhaps it is expecting too much of labor to act in the interest of all workers – as capitalists tend to act in the interest of all the rich. Robert Fitch, author of “Solidarity for Sale,” described unions as “fiefdoms” that are afflicted by “corruption and stagnation.” In a 2006 interview, Fitch said, “Essentially, the American labor movement consists of 20,000 semi-autonomous local unions. Like feudal vassals, local leaders get their exclusive jurisdiction from a higher level organization and pass on a share of their dues. The ordinary members are like the serfs who pay compulsory dues and come with the territory. The union bosses control jobs – staff jobs or hiring hall jobs – the coin of the political realm. Those who get the jobs – the clients – give back their unconditional loyalty. The politics of loyalty produces, systematically, poles of corruption and apathy. The privileged minority who turn the union into their personal business. And the vast majority who ignore the union as none of their business.”
Rothschild echoed this view, “A lot of labor unions have become sclerotic. The day-to-day functioning of the union has been with a small group of people.” That began to change during the uprising, he said. Workers would say, “I’ve been a union member for 10 or 15 years but I’ve never really been involved in my union.” Since Walker effectively eliminated collective bargaining and cut workers pay by forcing higher pension and medical costs on to them, many public-sector unions in Wisconsin have lost half their members or more. The loss of collective bargaining is a huge blow, but it does provide labor with a well-traveled if hard path out of the mess. Rothschild said some stewards and local labor heads recognize “they have to involve their members in the day-to-day functioning of the union. If unions are to succeed in this next generation, they need to be able to talk to their members and organize at the base, rather than just run an office.”
Charity Schmidt said, in her opinion, “Unions must rebuild internal democracy and establish connections with wider movements for economic and social justice.” She added that, at a tactical level, labor should “maintain a program of direct action from interrupting legislative hearings and votes to sit-ins on campuses and in Capitols to protesting banks and chambers of commerce to occupying our public spaces and homes under foreclosure.”
But the immediate task is dealing with the fallout of the triumphant right. Rothschild said Walker’s win has many negative ramifications. “It will be psychologically devastating to tens of thousands of people in Wisconsin and materially devastating to people who’ve already seen a 10 percent cut in their pay and no longer have collective bargaining in any real sense.” In terms of policy, Rothschild said, “Every item on the progressive agenda is at risk: the environment, the social safety net, public education.” Nationally, Walker’s victory “will hurt Obama’s chances in Wisconsin and maybe nationwide. And the message to every Republican governor and legislature is you can put your boot on the throat of labor and get away with it.” Finally, Walker’s cakewalk indicates how the right is energized, which will demoralize liberals and labor going into the presidential contest.
This is the pickle Obama is in. Mitt Romney and the right will have a king’s ransom in advertising dollars to promote their vision of Biblical fanaticism, 19th century Social Darwinism and high-tech surveillance and repression. It’s a bleak future, but the Democrats have nothing to offer than, “me too!” and Obama has little progress to point to. He came into office hyping a New, New Deal, but punted on the home foreclosure crisis even when the banks were on their knees, rubber-stamped a woefully inadequate economic stimulus and bungled health care reform.
Going into the election, the right’s strategy is to portray Obama as a failed overreaching liberal – which is working – but the lesson is Obama did far too little. Take the auto bailout, which while deeply flawed, saved an estimated 1.5 million jobs. Many of those jobs are in Ohio and Michigan, two swing states where Obama is polling better than expected. So where the Democrats can point to policies that benefit people, they are more likely to notch wins in November. But it may be too little too late with a pumped-up right facing off against dispirited liberals and inept unions.
Referring to Walker, but possibly foreshadowing a Romney victory in November, Charity Schmidt sees a silver lining. “There are two possible effects. One is people feel utterly defeated and just drop out of the movement. Or the other effect is people realize the change they want to see is not going to happen through electoral politics. Our power is through collective action, our power to withhold our labor, our power to interrupt their work.”