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Learning From Wisconsin


Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker not only defeated the recall, he did so easily taking 54 percent of the vote. This is a big defeat for the union leadership who threw as many resources as they could afford behind this effort. How is it possible that this could have happened after all that had gone on before?

The massive uprising last winter in Madison, Wisconsin, that was spurred by Walker’s plans to balance the state deficit by slashing public workers’ benefits and wages as well as stripping them of their collective bargaining rights, was a flood no one saw coming. Walker expected opposition, but nothing of the nature and magnitude that developed. The unions and community members who initiated the state capital occupation were likewise surprised. The powerful current of solidarity and desire to fight austerity policies that benefit the wealthy few at the expense of working people ran wide and deep, though previously it had not risen to the surface. Madison, Wisconsin charged workers’ political consciousness in a way that prepared for the Occupy Wall Street Movement as well as greater social movements on the horizon.

This struggle was measurably affecting public opinion. While the many polls taken during this period were not consistent, there was an overall pattern of growing sympathy for the public workers and their supporters as well as increasing anger towards Walker. During the protests a New York Times/CBS Poll found that 60 percent of Americans opposed restricting collective bargaining while 33 percent were for it, 56 percent of Americans opposed reducing pay for public employees and only 37 percent were for it. In a Wisconsin Public Radio poll released on April 22, 49 percent said they disapproved of Republican efforts compared to 39 percent who approved.

How could such momentum be lost? Perhaps even more telling to Labor’s failure to build from these developments is the fact that in exit polls 36 percent of union members voted against the recall. If the task of the day is to reverse the one-sided class war Wall Street has been waging on the 99 percent, it is necessary to draw the correct lessons from Wisconsin.


What Happened

Last year’s protests, by themselves, were not able to defeat Walker’s plans. Some concluded, after losing both the June 14th decision of the state supreme court on the collective bargaining law and the state legislature’s vote on Walker’s budget, that they had little to show for all their exhausting sacrifices. Other tactics were necessary.

As the numbers of protesters declined from hundreds of thousands to a mere 1,000 by June 16th, many felt compelled to take an electoral campaign approach and attempt to recall Walker. There were three great difficulties with this, however. One was that Walker could not be recalled until he had been in office for a year. This prevented those advocating for a recall of Walker from striking while the iron was hot.

The second difficulty was that electoral campaigns are outrageously expensive, favoring the interests of a few with deep pockets, especially after the Supreme Court ruling of Citizens United. Walker had raised over $30 million from such gentlemen to combat the recall, leaving his opponents very far behind. Consequently, his backers were able to flood the TV and radio airwaves with so many misleading adds that it is likely that many voted for him just to make the noise stop.

Nevertheless, this lopsided relationship of financial resources, while playing a role, is not the main reason why the recall was defeated. This massive inequality of resources and its control over our political system existed at the time of the capital occupation in Madison. Nevertheless, the mass actions were educating and swaying public opinion towards progressive pro-working class views in contrast to what happened in the recall election where the pendulum swung in the other direction.

The main reason behind the recall’s defeat is political. It wasn’t enough to recall Walker. Someone from the Democratic Party had to be elected to replace him.

The Madison uprising had started as a movement that put forward its own demands, rather than whittle away at them in order to make them more palatable for the Democratic politicians. While some union officials talked about concessions in the spirit of “shared sacrifice,” this attitude was not reflected in the great numbers filling and surrounding Madison’s Capitol. Therefore, the shift from mass collective action to an electoral campaign accelerated the movement’s degeneration from an inspiring expression of independent working class fight-back to an example corporate co-optation by the Democratic Party.

The Democrats and Barrett

The Wall Street funded Democratic and Republican parties do not fundamentally differ in their aim to fix the deficit by making workers pay for it rather than the 1%, whose bailouts, federal loans, and tax breaks have increased as the deficit has grown. The Democrats are no more capable of countering austerity than the Republicans because that would require that they bite the hand that feeds them – the corporations, banks, and economic elite.

In fact, they are aggressively pursuing policies that will greatly exacerbate the historic divide between the rich and working people. For instance, the bi-partisan supported and Obama designed Simpson/Bowles measure, that will likely go into effect shortly after the presidential election, will slash hundreds of billions from Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security while providing the rich with even more tax breaks.

In addition, the recall election in Wisconsin demonstrated an even further distancing between the Democrats and the interests of Labor and working people in general. The Democratic National Committee was largely missing in action for most of the campaign. Not only did Obama fail to do anything to support the recall other than write a supportive tweet, he bypassed a trip to Wisconsin in order to speak at an event on June 3rd with Honeywell CEO Dave Cote in Minneapolis. (1) Honeywell is currently attempting to bust unions in three different labor disputes. Obama and the Democratic Party could not have made their priorities more clear with this slight. They value standing shoulder to shoulder with an anti-Labor CEO than with the unions.

The Democratic candidate that ran against Walker, Tom Barrett, is a typical corporate party man. That is, he is no legitimate friend of the unions and workers. As mayor in Milwaukee he attempted to take over the city’s public school district, angering the cities African-American community. (2) He is also a supporter of charter schools and has said this is an area where he can work together with Walker. (3)

During the uprising, he proposed an alternative budget to Walkers that extended its cuts to benefits and pensions to police and fire fighters as well, in opposition to the aspirations of those protesting at the Capitol. (4)

While dealing with Milwaukee’s government workers, represented by the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), Barrett refused to extend their contract after it expired. He used “Walkers’ tools” to enforce health cuts and went even farther in eliminating provisions that had been bargained for years, such as limits on overtime, mileage reimbursement, make-up pay for days lost to inclement weather, etc. In the end, rather than going after the 1%, his attack on AFSCME’s membership cost them almost $1 million. (5)

In regards to taxing the rich he stated on radio, “It is certainly my hope that by the end of my first term, at the end of my second term, and at the end of my third term that Wisconsin will take in less tax revenues from its citizens and businesses each year.” (6) Wisconsin’s corporate tax rates are below the national average. While working people should not have their taxes increased, it is impossible to close the state’s deficit as well as provide the jobs and services workers need without increasing taxes on the rich and corporations. Otherwise, there are no alternatives to cuts aimed at workers who have already been decimated by the economic crisis. This is the inevitable result of the mantra of “shared sacrifice,” which is another way of saying that workers should pay for the economic crisis the economic elite has created.

In the recall campaign, the issues that drove hundreds of thousands of Wisconsinites to brave the winter and take a stand in the streets, faded into the background. Given that there were no fundamental differences between Walker and Barrett on the issues of austerity, last Tuesday’s voters decided to stick with the devil they knew rather than the devil they didn’t.

Other tactics besides the state capital occupation were necessary to kill Walker’s bill in 2011. Attempting to transform it into another contest between a Republican and Democratic candidate, however, was suicide for the movement.


Missed Opportunities

What else could have been done? On February 21, the Madison-based South Central Federation of Labor passed an unprecedented resolution calling on the unions to begin to educate their membership on what would be necessary to pull off a general strike. Though this normally conservative Labor body had no authority to call for such an action, the unanimous passing of the resolution clearly indicated what was on the membership’s minds. The opportunity to build greater unity and use Labor’s most powerful weapon on a large scale for the first time in decades was a tangible possibility. What was lacking was the organization of those who supported such measures to pressure the union leadership into making the call.

Normally, most union leaders are hesitant to take such bold action, even in times of great crisis. These types of tactics upset relations with those Democratic politicians that have been mistakenly identified as allies and, truth be told, there is no shortage of Labor laws that would have had to have been broken to pull off a general strike. However, the unions were not built by playing by the rules of a game rigged in favor of the employers. If a law is unjust, if it cripples workers’ collective ability to resist the injustices thrown at them by a system controlled by the 1%, then that law must be intelligently, creatively, and massively defied. In order to do this, it is necessary that the rank and file is sufficiently educated and organized to push the more conservative labor leadership into opening up the resources to conduct a general strike or step out of the way for others that will.

Mass action opens up the possibility of grass roots democracy whereas electoral campaigns in support of corporate politicians such as Barrett are largely designed and controlled by a small team of “experts.” This is because, in order to be successful, mass action campaigns rely on the active involvement of the maximum number of participants. Without their input from the trenches and control over all major decisions and the leadership, long-term mass actions cannot be effectively maintained. It is with this approach that real democracy is experienced by the participants. That is, not the right to elect the lesser of two evils and passively take what the victor dishes out, but the liberating experience of having a voice to determine and execute all major decisions on a constant basis.

This possibility is not automatic. It must be struggled for and built. Nevertheless, a sustained mass campaign runs best when it is run democratically, whereas campaigns such as the recall in Wisconsin, are opposed to this because they are all about maintaining the rule of the economic elite over the 99%.

While Walker’s supporters are gloating in the belief that the recall results confirm they have turned the tide against such developments as the Wisconsin uprising, they are celebrating too soon. The defeat of the recall was a rejection of relying on the Democratic Party. It was not a rejection of grass roots struggles against austerity, which are inevitable as the conditions of the Great Recession grind on for workers. We can only rely on our own collective power through mass action to resist this and further bi-partisan attacks lurking just around the corner. If Labor is to take the lead, the union leadership must start building the necessary unity to flood the streets for good jobs and social services – not cuts.

Mark Vorpahl is an union steward, social justice activist, and writer for Workers’ Action – He can be reached at


(1) “Microphone Grabbed Out of Hands of Reporter Questioning Honeywell CEO” by Milk Elk -

(2) “The Barrett Election and Milwaukee Schools” by Terrence Falk –

(3) “Barrett Weighs in on Vacant MPS Buildings” by Bobby Tanzilo –

(4) “Barret Offers Alternative to Budget-Repair Bill” by Larry Sandler –

(5) “AFSCME says Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett demanded union concessions beyond those in Gov. Scott Walker’s collective bargaining law” Politifact -

(6) “Why the Democrats are behind in Wisconsin –

Mark Vorpahl is an union steward, social justice activist, and writer for Workers’ Action – He can be reached at

Mark Vorpahl is a union steward, social justice activist and a writer for Workers Action and He can be reached at

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