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What Went Wrong in Wisconsin and Where Does Labor Go From Here?

By Emergency Labor Network

When Wisconsin workers occupied the Capitol and took to the streets by the hundreds of thousands in February and March 2011 to defend their unions and living standards, the effect was electrifying. Workers throughout the U.S. and the world were elated to see American workers taking such militant actions, reminiscent of the 1930s. Messages of solidarity poured in. “WE ARE ALL WISCONSIN!” was heard around the globe. The fight against the bosses’ union busting and austerity offensive was at last being joined by masses of U.S. workers.

Fast forward now to the lead article of the June 7, 2012 Wall Street Journal which notes in the wake of Walker’s victory:

“Organized labor, reeling from blows to government workers in Wisconsin and California elections, is grappling with the prospect of diminished political clout and fewer members in public-sector unions that have formed the core of the movement’s power in recent years.” The article goes on to point out that AFSCME’s membership in Wisconsin fell 45% after the Wisconsin legislature approved the law pushed through by Gov. Scott Walker, which barred a union shop and made union membership optional.

So what went wrong in Wisconsin leading to the current crisis?

In the beginning of this struggle, labor leaders, with some significant dissenters, settled on a strategy of agreeing to Walker’s economic demands, which were that union workers pick up a significant part of the tab for their health care and pension benefits. These concessions were publicly announced and amounted to over $100 million. But Walker rebuffed the idea that this was a sufficient basis to bring about a settlement of his dispute with the unions. Walker’s appetite having been whetted, he continued to demand that unions agree to having their members’ collective bargaining rights stripped away, with police and firefighters excepted.

Dissenters strenuously argued that the state was flush with money and there was no justification whatever for cutting workers’ benefits. Indeed, Walker’s budget includes tax breaks for corporations and the rich that will cost the state of Wisconsin taxpayers $2.3 billion over the next decade. What was needed was to increase taxes on the wealthy, not balance the budget or reduce the deficit on the backs of the workers.

But the other question raised by dissenters was this: In conducting negotiations with Walker, would it not have been infinitely better to begin by taking a firm stand against any givebacks? Why start off negotiations with Walker and his cronies by conceding so much without giving a massive fightback movement a chance to get off the ground in support of a “NO CUTS!” demand, along with building the campaign to prevent obliterating workers’ collective bargaining rights?

The reason all of this is so important is that it gave legitimacy to the utterly false notion that public sector union workers are overly compensated. In this age of austerity, nothing pleases the corporate class more than to have union leaders say, “Yes, our members are willing to ‘share in the sacrifice’ and we agree that they must accept cuts in wages and benefits.” And of course the right wing in Wisconsin was happy to run with that kind of glowing endorsement of its position. It is particularly outrageous to target public workers because during the past three decades the wealth of the rich has risen astronomically, thanks in large part to their tax rates going down.

From Mass Action to an Electoral Strategy

With the occupation of the Capitol and the gigantic demonstrations reaching a showdown stage, something had to give. The South Central Federation of Labor adopted a resolution calling for exploration of the idea of a general strike as a possible next step.

If the labor movement had united on a national basis at that point and called a truly massive Solidarity Day 3 “March on Madison!” it could well have spurred more far-reaching actions by the Wisconsin labor movement, including a generalized work stoppage and mass civil disobedience. In the absence of such national support, Walker’s legislation was approved and the struggle was then diverted to electoral channels by labor leaders and the Democratic Party.

First it was the failed effort to elect a more liberal justice to the Wisconsin Supreme Court; then the first efforts to recall Republican state senators, which did win two seats for the Democrats but not enough to overcome the Republican majority; then the losing campaign in the Democratic primary to elect Kathleen Falk as the Party’s candidate for governor (who, by the way, would not agree to the goal of a full restoration of Walker’s public service cuts or restoration of public workers’ benefits, and campaigned on her record of slashing $10 million from workers’ wages and benefits when she was Dane County Executive), and finally the attempt to recall Walker and elect Tom Barrett governor, which was decisively defeated.

[Note: As a result of the June 5 election, the Democrats did pick up one seat in the Senate, allowing it to become the majority party there. However, this in no way reverses Walker’s success either in imposing cuts in benefits or scuttling collective bargaining rights.]

Barrett is truly a piece of work. As Milwaukee mayor, he sought union concessions that went beyond those mandated by Walker’s collective barraging law, according to an AFSCME statement. In a debate with Walker, he made clear he was not labor’s candidate. He also said that he would not increase taxes on corporations and the wealthy. During last year’s outpouring of opposition to Walker’s budget, Barrett proposed an “alternative budget repair bill” that included Walker’s cuts to benefits and pensions, but extended them to police and fire fighters, whom Walker had spared.

The Wisconsin labor movement was deeply divided in the recall campaign. According to the exit polls, 38% of union households voted for Walker, as did 67% of male blue collar workers.

As Bruce A. Dixon, managing editor of Black Agenda Report and state committee member of the Georgia Green Party, wrote:

“Political campaigns are pretty much where movements go to die, get betrayed or are stillborn because turning a movement or near movement into a campaign robs it of the very specific features … which make movements potent and often unpredictable political actors. When movements become campaigns, their participants lose their independence and initiative. Instead of being ready and willing to act outside the law, they become its most loyal supporters. And instead of looking to their own shared values, they look to political candidates and elected officials who must remain inside the elite-defined rules of political decorum and law to preserve their candidacies and/or careers.”

For the labor movement to shift its focus from independent mass action in the streets to supporting Democratic Party politicians is a sure recipe for defeat. The Wisconsin experience underscores the need for the U.S. labor movement to establish its own class-based labor party, as the labor movement in other industrial countries has done. Such a party could go a long way toward unifying the working class and cementing ties with the youth, communities of color, and other progressive sectors of the population. The time to have a serious discussion about forming such a party is now!

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