marxism 2011 program notes: workers fight back: lessons from wisconsin

I've decided to post my notes from last year's Marxism conference after all. It's always bothered me that I never found the time to post them, so why not. It's not as if stopping the right-wing agenda, supporting a free Palestine, or the reality in Afghanistan is no longer an issue. And even if regular wmtc readers don't read these posts, they'll be out there for Googlers to find.

A caveat: I'm not going to try to shape these into essays. Hopefully turning notes into complete sentences will suffice.

So here goes!

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Workers Fight Back: Lessons From Wisconsin
Allen Ruff and John Ankenman
May 28, 2011

Allen Ruff is from Madison, Wisconsin, a member of Solidarity (US), and a historian of people's movements.

John Ankenman is a member of the IS and the United Steelworkers. He went to Madison in March of 2011, representing the Steelworkers.

Allen Ruff

The Solidarity branch in Madison has been drafting an assessment of the Madison actions, the three-week occupation of the Capitol Building. The occupation was the effort of unorganized labour, organized labour, students, farmers, seniors, people of all colours, unemployed people - all working together. It captured the imaginations of people worldwide.

It was a marvel of creativity and self-organization. One of his favourite signs was from the librarians: "We shall not be shushed".

The occupation of the Capitol Building was sparked by Governor Scott Walker’s so-called “budget repair bill”, but the discontent had been building for decades.

The actions were not only in Madison; they were statewide, throughout Wisconsin. And the conditions that led to the occupation are part of a national anti-worker program.

The actions were initially spontaneous, and as that subsided, those most organized co-opted the struggle - the Democratic party leadership and the union leadership allied to them. Thus, as the occupation continued it became more narrow and more conservative, the course and direction of the upsurge became narrowed, channeled rightward, with the left bloc silenced.

Thus the occupation becomes a vague “protest movement," which is largely symbolic, aimed at changing minds of those in power, not at a radical agenda. The protest movement never broadened to become mass resistance or civil disobedience outside the Capitol Building. There were no strikes other than the well-publicized teacher walkout - which was led by students! 800 students in a working class high school. Reverend Jesse Jackson functioned as a strikebreaker, leading the students back to class.

Walker's agenda included not only ending the right to collective bargaining (which was widely publicized), but also budget cuts aimed at working class: health care, education, seniors. The agenda included: putting the education department directly under government control, bypassing public oversight, huge environmental givebacks, huge tax breaks for the wealthiest corporations and individuals, an attack on all organized labour except firefighters and police. That's a purposeful, tactical move, but it didn’t fool all the cops and firefighters - many stood with the occupation.

Scott Walker campaigned under a “Jobs Jobs Jobs” ticket. Then in his acceptance speech announced: “Wisconsin is now open for business”.

His first act was to give state workers an unpaid leave - furlough days imposed by the previous Democrat administration.

This has to be seen in context of the state's history - traditionally, Wisconsin was one of the most progressive states in the US. Its tradition was called “the Wisconsin Idea,” pioneered by Bob Lafollett, and used as the groundwork for FDR's New Deal. The emphasis was on open, transparent, clean government, on government for the common good. This goes back for many generations and has great resonance throughout state. So the occupation of the Capitol Building had great historic and social underpinning.

But Wisconsin is also the state of Senator Joseph McCarthy. (Although to be fair, the people of Wisconsin couldn't have known what he would become.)

In the movement, the initial spontaneous slogan was "Kill The Bill". Democratic leadership co-opted this. Their response was going to be a lobbying day to tone down the bill, but they were pushed into an alternative slogan from the people: "Kill The Whole Bill".

Democratic leadership framed Walker's bill as an “attack on middle class,” which means that whole populations are left out of the equation, especially people of colour. There were contingents of white, middle class protesters with low political development thanking the police, insisting the cops were on our side.

Why did 14 state legislators 'flee' to Illinois? So there would be no quorum in the state legislature, and under the state constitution, the budget bill could not be passed.

The day they returned was the same day as "Tractorcade". There were 150,000 people in streets - a general strike would have been possible, but all the energy became channeled into efforts to recall Walker, make a change of government.

John Ankenman

Steelworks Union sent him to Madison for two weeks in March. When he first arrived, about 100 people were walking around the Capitol Building, and he saw the actions grow over the two weeks he was there.

He did phone-banking for rallies for recall campaigns, reported on the responses he received. He found great awareness of the issues - people already decided either positively or negatively.

There were only small numbers of people at the Capitol, although more people would arrive after working hours.

Then, on March 10, Walker stripped the fiscal issues out of the bill, leaving only the anti-union provisions. Now, with no budget issues at stake, a quorum was no longer needed - meaning Walker could pass his bill without the absent Democratic lawmakers.

After that, huge crowds came out, many thousands of people during the day, and easily 10,000 people at night after work.

Walker closed the state building illegally, so people snuck inside. Eventually so many people entered the building that security was overrun. The police stepped back and as many thousands of people as could fit entered building, with the rest overflowing to the streets outside. "It was just rocking,": there was drumming, chanting, speeches, singing.

Sometimes the cops were less than friendly. John needed to leave because he could get deported and have trouble travelling. But people did spend the night in the Capitol Building. He went back the following day, there were several hundred students in the rotunda, taking turns speaking about public education and public service. They were articulate and self-organized. He recalls one young student with autism speaking about people with disabilities would be disproportionately affected by the budget cuts. At one point, official estimates put the crowd at 200,000.

He witnessed Tractorcade: people began chanting "Thank you, farmers!".

He also went to the Menasha area, north of Madison, to work on the Senator Olsen recall campaign. He saw many signs and posters calling for a general strike, although there's no way to know how widespread the idea was. The dominant framework was reform, not radical action - that is, elect this person, recall this person - but the general strike sentiment did have a presence.

[Question: Did he have a sense that if leadership had advocated for a general strike, it might have been possible? If not now, when? Was this a giant missed opportunity?]

Allen Ruff felt that the issue was a non-starter, that it couldn't have worked, so would have looked like a failure, and been worse than not doing it at all.

[Question: How did that conservative level of union leadership prevail? Why didn’t rank and file push past leadership or drag them along with them?]

The revelation that Walker was gunning for the Democrats moved the narrative away from workers and a general strike, and towards protecting the Democratic party.

Also, the speed at which the movement was born and grew might have also possibly worked against a general strike, not leaving enough time to organize it.

[Selected audience comments]

- Double excitement re Egypt plus Wisconsin, movements communicating and supporting each other. People in Egypt ordered pizzas to be sent to Capitol Building, people in Wisconsin holding signs of solidarity with Egypt.

- Impressed that this occurred in the US, and how quickly it occurred. Changed the terms of debate in the US: the return of class issues, self-organization, standing up for union rights. This is an opportunity for left/workers movement to build on.

- Scott Walker as Mike Harris, Margaret Thatcher re union busting and austerity budgets. "Unions need to work out where they are" on this.

- There are going to be uprising and fightbacks, the question is how do you maintain it, how do you push it from below. We must build it at the base, be in the workplaces to help spread message and organize.

- How do you reach and organize the unemployed?

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