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What Michigan Can Learn from Wisconsin


The parallels between the assault on unions in Wisconsin and that of Michigan are striking: both were met with spontaneous protests in their state capitols, which were in turn met with large police responses; both were passed hastily by governors who did not campaign on curbing unions; and both took place in traditionally blue, Midwestern states. One parallel that remains to be seen is if Michigan will suffer the same defeat that Wisconsin did. By learning from Wisconsin’s mistakes, Michigan could not only beat back the Right-to-Work legislation, but also become a sort of blueprint for how to defeat union-busting legislation.

Being a resident of Madison, Wisconsin, I saw first-hand the response to governor Walker’s Budget Repair Bill, which culminated in demonstrations peaking at about 150,000 strong. With numbers like that, a union victory appeared all but certain; however, the demonstrations ended up petering out, and the Walker recall failed.

Opinions abound about what went wrong. Let’s look at the facts. Shortly before Walker’s bill was signed into law, 40% of the Madison school district teachers called in sick—effectively amounting to a strike. (Wisconsin teachers are not legally allowed to strike over anything but pay, so they have to get creative with tactics like the “sick out”.) 40% of Madison teachers amounts to some 2,600 members, a pretty impressive number for a strike. Days later, the 97-union South-Central Federation of Labor of Wisconsin (SCFL) almost unanimously passed a proposal that endorsed a general strike and created an ‘Education Committee,’ which would teach members how to prepare for a general strike.

Evidently union members were not opposed to a general strike. So why did they settle with a recall? Though the SCFL almost unanimously endorsed a general strike, the Wisconsin AFL-CIO acted with typical courage and did nothing. In fact, AFL-CIO president Phil Neuenfeldt said that “we don’t have the authority to call [a general strike]”—quite the battle cry. The Democrats were no more helpful. One Dem you may have heard of said that “if American workers are being denied their right to organize and collectively bargain when I’m in the White House, I’ll put on a comfortable pair of shoes myself, I’ll walk on that picket line with you as President of the United States of America, because workers deserve to know that somebody is standing in their corner.” His name’s Barack Obama, and a lot of Wisconsinites got stood up waiting for him and his comfortable shoes at the capitol occupation. The Wisconsin state democrats made an equivalently sincere promise: that a recall could kill the bill.

I think Howard Zinn put it best when he said, “voting is easy and marginally useful, but it is a poor substitute for democracy, which requires direct action by concerned citizens.” The vibrant political participation characterized the 2011 capitol occupation gave way to a lengthy recall process. The republicans could not have chosen a better tactic than the recall. Again, let’s look at the facts. In Gallup’s most recent annual poll on confidence in institutions, the results showed the American public to have less confidence in organized labor than even banks—a stunning achievement of business propaganda. Only 21% indicated a “great deal/quite a lot” of confidence in organized labor, whereas 37% said that they have “very little/none.” Unions are going to have to spruce up their public image before they can rely on that same public at the ballot box.

Returning to Michigan and its recently passed “Right-to-Work” law (read: the right to enjoy things won by unions without being a dues-paying member of one), although Michigan can’t recall politicians, the lesson behind the failed Wisconsin recall still applies to the electoral process at large, should Michigan opt to vote in a Democrat majority in 2014. Public opinion with respect to organized labor probably does not differ dramatically between Michigan and Wisconsin. What’s more, as BBC investigative reporter Greg Palast writes, “almost 100,000 Wisconsin residents under 25 lost their right to vote due to a new ID law…the impact on voter registration lists was large enough to help Gov. Scott Walker beat back a recall campaign.” The ID law Palast is referring to was passed by Walker just prior to his own recall. It was craftily designed to prohibit out-of-state college students, traditionally blue voters, from casting votes in the recall: by requiring Wisconsin IDs at the ballot, many out-of-state students were out of luck. Republicans have been perfecting strategies like these since well before even Bush v. Gore. Add to this the fact that candidates backing union-busting laws generally have access to far more corporate funds (Walker outraised his recall challenger by 8 to 1), and I think Michigan has a solid reason to assume that, when it comes to the electoral process, the GOP has the home-field advantage.

In short, don’t make the same mistake we did, Michigan. General strike!

Ken Klippenstein lives in Madison, Wisconsin. He runs a political SF magazine called “Solidarity Science Fiction,” which can be found here:
He can be reached at

Ken Klippenstein is an American journalist who can be reached on Twitter @kenklippenstein or by email:

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