The recent social upheaval in Wisconsin, where during the last month hundreds of thousands of workers, students, retirees, and people without a job descended on the Capitol building in Madison to protest Governor Scott Walker’s overt union-busting legislation, has for many progressives been one of the most exciting moments in recent United States history. A breathtaking display of solidarity was demonstrated by individuals from a variety of backgrounds – in addition to the public sector union members defending their rights, countless firefighters, police officers, veterans, and private sector workers who are unaffected by the bill were active participants – and the whole experience seemed to provide a glimpse of the awesome potential of collective action as a way to address the problems we face. The courage exhibited by ordinary people, from the high school students walking out of class and their teachers “sicking-out” of work to the Democratic state senators fleeing the state to prevent a vote on the bill, has been contagious, leading thousands more to mobilize in opposition to similar attacks on the working-class in Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Tennessee and elsewhere.
With the dust now settling on the steps of the Capitol and the impressive wave of militant protest naturally waning, it seems necessary to consider what the experience in Wisconsin has taught us thus far and how we might try to sustain and expand upon the energy witnessed there. To begin with, as important as it was, the Capitol building sit-in wasn’t going to continue forever and the Democratic politicians were going to return to the state at some point; regardless of how this specific standoff was resolved, ‘normalcy’ was bound to resume in Madison, albeit with at least a momentarily more politicized electorate. Consequently, one clear lesson from the past month is that even the most robust demonstrations will often be insufficient to overcome the ideological and financial forces propelling the right-wing assault on working-class people and that absent dedicated organizing geared towards building on the energy that sparks such mobilizations they can’t achieve all that much in the long-run. The widespread exuberance around the alleged imminence of a general strike – notwithstanding the simple fact that the statewide labor movement had neither the infrastructure nor, at the leadership level, the will to execute such a move – sheds light on the pervasiveness of this impulse within progressive circles.
However, while on the one hand Wisconsin may have demonstrated that large crowds and jarring speeches may on their own be unable to withstand such vicious aggression from the right, on the other it highlighted the vital role that the labor movement, the source of those crowds and speeches, must play in offering the progressive response that working-class people are seeking. That there is a hunger for a political vision providing an alternative to the bi-partisan austerity programs being imposed all across the country seems obvious from the visible displays of anger in Madison and other state capitols and the public opinion polls that have exposed substantial popular opposition to these draconian measures.i Add to this the reality that, even if from only a logistical perspective, nothing other than the labor movement has the capacity to mobilize so many people in such an efficient manner and it is abundantly clear that trade unions must provide the backbone for any significant challenge to this coordinated national attack from the right. Indeed, perhaps the most important lesson from Wisconsin is the urgency of mounting such a challenge, for if we fail to do so not only does it appear that we’ll soon be left with virtually no public sector whatsoever, but also the very mechanism by which we won most of it in the the first place – the labor movement – may not exist much longer either.
Essential as a progressive fight-back is, if only for the labor movement’s survival, there will certainly be disagreement over how the response is conducted. While the union-busting bills currently making their way through state legislatures are particularly heinous, it is important to remember that they emerged in the context of more than three decades of retreat by the labor movement and the broader left, and thus simply returning to the status quo ante-November 2010, far from being a victory, would be a final surrender. Consequently, determining how to effectively respond to this most recent assault requires assessing what exactly we’ve done wrong for the past three decades, and while analyzing the failures of the US left during the latter part of the twentieth century requires volumes, it seems that a fundamental feature of our defeats have been the extent to which we’ve allowed the other side to define in the public imagination the boundary of the possible, to control the terms of debate. Unable to offer a bold vision for what our society should look like, both because of our own weaknesses and the intensity with which capital has attacked whatever we’re still holding on to, we’ve been confined to defensive struggles, always reacting to something and never initiating anything. And though one explanation for this is our tremendous anxiety to do anything that could have negative electoral implications for the Democrats – the vitriol launched at Ralph Nader in the aftermath of the 2000 presidential election being a noteworthy example – it is important to remember that the neoliberal regime that has put us on the defensive is thoroughly bi-partisan. Bill Clinton’s pursuit of NAFTA and “welfare reform” should serve as painful reminders of that reality.
Understanding the context in which these union-busting laws have surfaced, it should be unsurprising that the most recent phase of the fight-back in Wisconsin, guided as it is by the Democratic Party and statewide union bureaucracies, is charting the familiar course of electoral and legal avenues to overturn the law and will likely be content if that desired outcome is achieved. This approach is significant and will yield tangible gains; the courts have temporarily stalled the legislation and the recall effort seems poised to unseat a few vulnerable Republican legislators which could ultimately lead to a repeal of the bill. These would be concrete victories that for hundreds of thousands of people from the Midwest and beyond would serve as lasting reminders of the power of collective action. However, important as these achievements will be, on its own the electoral-legal strategy will at best take us back to where we started: state budgets being slashed as teachers, nurses, sanitation workers and countless others either lose their jobs or are forced to relinquish the hard earned wages and benefits on which they’ve depended while we all suffer the repercussions of deteriorating schools, hospitals, and basic social infrastructure. And while almost anyone seems preferable to Scott Walker and the entire Wisconsin GOP at the moment, again let us not forget that for the last thirty years, in that state and across the country, the Democrats have embraced the neoliberal order that has decimated public institutions and organized labor just as fervently as the Republicans, and often in more dangerously inconspicuous ways.
Resorting to business as usual with the Democrats, it seems, will squander what could otherwise be a the beginnings of an effort to build a dynamic class-based social movement aimed at basic concerns like the right to a high-quality job, education, healthcare, housing and, even more fundamentally, how wealth is distributed across our society. Building such a movement is a difficult, long-term project which requires disciplined organizing and carries no guarantee of success. Overtime it will likely demand the formation of an independent national organization that can articulate a view of the world and develop a political platform that resonates with the vast majority of people who have to worry about how to make ends meet. In the meantime, however, the situation in Wisconsin, for the first time in what seems like an eternity, can allow activists to experiment with starting that process. The extended duration of the recall campaigns provide the opportunity for rank-and-file union and community members to build some form of independent organization and to develop a platform to which aspiring candidates for elected office should be expected to subscribe. And though a general strike may not be the most practical or strategically viable course at the moment, activists inside unions can continue to build towards other job actions, both large and small, through daily conversations with their co-workers. This kind of organizing would surely influence union leaderships reluctant to pressure or veer away from the Democrats, and given the extent to which the latter is depending on support from organized labor in the upcoming elections it could inflect the content of their entire recall campaign.
The seeds for such an approach seem to exist already, among militants inside Madison Teachers Incorporated (MTI) who orchestrated the impressive ‘sick-outs’, the graduate teaching assistants from Madison and Milwaukee who were among the many refusing to leave the Capitol building, the newly formed Wisconsin Wave, the ‘No Concessions’ coalition spearheaded by the National Nurses United (NNU), or in the many other union locals and community organizations across the state that have been so instrumental in creating this moment. The challenge for organizers moving forward is to connect the leaders involved in these organizations and to harness the explosive energy flowing out of them. Difficult as that may be, it hasn’t been this possible in quite some time.
SAMIR SONTI is a labor organizer living in New York City who recently spent some time in Madison, WI. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.