US: Lessons of the Defeat in Wisconsin

A promising mass movement was turned into a electoral contest between two corporate-controlled political parties

On Tuesday June 5, Wisconsin’s Republican Governor Scott Walker became the first governor in U.S. history to survive a recall election. His vicious anti-union attacks and budget cuts on social services had brought a historic movement of teacher sick-outs, protests, an 18-day occupation of the State Capitol and the possibility for mass strike action in early 2011.

At the time, the Wisconsin uprising seemed to signify the rebirth of the labor movement. Unfortunately, the AFL-CIO leadership and the Democrats redirected the whole movement to focus on recalling Governor Walker and some Republican state senators.

The effect was to turn a promising mass movement into a familiar electoral contest between two corporate-controlled political parties. This strategy has ended in stunning defeat, with Scott Walker beating Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett (D) by a larger margin than when they ran against each other in 2010 (54 percent to 46 percent). The right wing is crowing with confidence to further the attacks on workers and poor people. Many progressive activists and commentators, on the other hand, are demoralized and see no way out. However, history will prove that Walker’s victory was a pyrrhic one.

The American 99% has only just emerged from the previous decades where major mass movements were not a fact of life. It is not surprising that we have not won smashing victories from the start. Many commentators and ordinary people were caught by a similar surprise in 2004 when Bush got re-elected, believing we had entered a long, dark right-wing winter with no hope for spring. Yet we have seen significant radicalization in U.S. society in the recent years, culminating in the mass movements of the last couple of years.

Walker’s victory cannot erase the momentous events of 2011. 2011 ushered in an era of mass awakenng and revolt in every corner of the world. In the United States, this was expressed in the Wisconsin Uprising and the Occupy Wall Street movement. These two major events did more to change the political conversation around the country than any electoral campaign for the Democrats in recent memory. Wisconsin showed that it is possible for workers to fight back against unrelenting attacks on our living standards.

Occupy Wall Street in two months almost drowned out the “blame the public sector worker” syndrome in national politics and, instead, put the blame for our social, political and economic crisis where it truly belongs: with the top 1%.

Democrats Mimic the Right

The game-changing effects of the Wisconsin uprising and the Occupy movement mark a stark contrast to the apologetic austerity-lite politics of the Democratic Party. The Democrats’ approach has been bailouts for Wall Street and austerity for the rest of us. They failed to solve the economic crisis, and instead worked alongside Republicans to restore profit margins and stock values for Wall Street and big business. This apparent incapacity of government to help ordinary people get back on their feet helped lay the basis for the rise of the Tea Party and the scapegoating of public sector workers and their unions.

Instead of rejecting the Tea Party lies outright, Democrats tried to mimic the right wing by proposing further budget cuts and attacks on unions (albeit less severe) in the hopes of capturing independent voters. Denied a real alternative to vote for and tired of the Democrats’ broken promises, many who voted for Democrats in 2008 stayed home in the 2010 midterm elections. The end result of this strategy was the Tea Party’s sweeping victory that brought Scott Walker into office.

Wisconsin – A Failed Strategy

The right wing and the big business elite are beaming with the confidence that Walker’s victory gives them a mandate to dismantle public sector unions and make deeper budget cuts on social programs. Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels (R) said, “I think government works better without them, I really do … unionism had no place in the public sector” (Huffington Post, 6/10/2012).

This outcome was far from inevitable. Victory was within our reach in early March of 2011 when we had 150,000 in the streets armed with a determined fighting spirit and rising worldwide solidarity. Weeks of protest had shown Walker was not going to back down to demonstrations alone. What was required was a decisive escalation of strategy and tactics.

However, despite being faced with virtual decimation of the public sector unions, the union leadership shrank from wielding its most powerful weapon: the strike. Historically, workers have rarely won major concessions from corporations and their stooges in government without resorting to strike action. A one-day public-sector-wide shutdown, combined with a solid occupation of the Capitol, mass demonstrations, direct action and student walkouts could have been an inspiring launch pad for a serious strategy to defeat Walker.

Talk of strike action was not restricted to the margins of the radical left. It was being widely debated among tens of thousands of workers. Even the South Central Federation of Labor had come out in favor of one, though it had no authority to call such action. Strike action seemed like the next logical step to tens of thousands, protests alone having run their course.

Instead, union leaders and Democrats like Brett Hulsey (WI State Assembly) pushed for an end to the occupation of the state Capitol and the daily nonstop protests. They channeled the movement into a lesser-evil recall campaign and encouraged an “anybody but Walker” approach that topped the “anybody but Bush” mood of 2004. Neither Tom Barrett nor any of the other contenders in the Democratic primary offered an alternative worth voting for.

The Barrett campaign essentially boiled down to “I’m not Walker” or, as one clever sign put it, voters’ task was to “Grin and Barrett!” Despite his decrying Walker, Barrett actually used Walker’s infamous anti-labor legislation in order to unilaterally impose cuts on municipal workers in Milwaukee. Many Democratic Party activists blame workers for “voting against their interests” in Wisconsin. Truth is: the Barrett campaign wasn’t in the interest of workers, either. This is similar to the national elections in 2004.

To make matters worse, the Democratic Party leadership refused to fund the Barrett campaign or do anything to mobilize support for it. Barack Obama did almost nothing but send one tweet on Election Day itself. Even if Barrett had won, the unions would still be faced with the fact that they have lost tens of thousands of members as a result of Walker’s infamous Act 10 law. Statewide membership in the American Federation of Teachers has declined from 17,000 to 11,000 and statewide membership in the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees has declined from 62,818 to 28,745.

No matter who’s in office, movements change society, not corporate-backed politicians. Being scared of Republicans and voting for a “lesser evil” isn’t part of an effective strategy to win victories.

Clinton vs. Nixon – “The Last Liberal President”

For example, under Richard Nixon, we got abortion rights, an end to the Vietnam War, the Environmental Protection Agency, workplace safety standards, expanded welfare benefits, huge increases in Affirmative Action programs, and much more. Nixon didn’t let these things through because he was such a benevolent “man of the people.” This had nothing to do with Nixon’s political character and everything to do with the explosive Black freedom movement, the anti-war movement, an epidemic of wildcat strikes, and the women’s liberation movement heralding a revolutionary challenge to the capitalist system that was best avoided by granting some reforms.

Democrat Bill Clinton, on the other hand, pushed economic sanctions on Iraq that led to the deaths of half a million children, allowed abortion rights to be eviscerated, drastically cut EPA funding, deregulated Wall Street by ending restrictions on investment banking, passed anti-labor neoliberal policies like NAFTA, and attacked Affirmative Action. The decisive element in this is the absence of a mass movement that threatened corporate rule. What was missing was a politically independent, popular insurgency that threatened to be more costly for the capitalist class to ignore than to submit to some of its demands.

In reality, the whole spectrum of official politics has been shifting to the right while the population has moved to the left. For instance, Americans were asked: “To balance the federal budget, which of the following would be the first step you would take?” They responded: 61% Tax the rich, 20% Cut the military, 4% Cut Medicare, 3% Cut Social Security (60 Mintes/Vanity Fair poll, 01/2011). 78% of Americans want “universal health care.” 59% support a “national health insurance program similar to Medicare, but covering everyone,” (CBS/ NY Times poll, 02/2009).

Contrast this to the Democrats across the country and Obama’s record.

In many states, the Democrats are leading the charge in budget cutting on the backs of the 99%. In Massachusetts, Washington State and California, where they have majorities in both houses of the legislature with a Democrat governor, they are leading the charge in hundreds of millions in cuts to social programs and public sector jobs, pay and benefits. In Massachusetts, the Democrats themselves proposed and passed laws restricting public sector workers from bargaining on health care.

Until Occupy Wall Street (OWS) forced everyone to change their rhetoric last fall, Obama adopted some typical Republican talking points about spending cuts. NY Times columnist Paul Krugman quotes Obama saying: “Government has to start living within its means, just like families do. We have to cut the spending we can’t afford so we can put the economy on sounder footng, and give our businesses the confidence they need to grow and create jobs” (“What Obama Wants,” NY Times 7/7/11).

Occupy Wall Street Changes the Conversation

Occupy Wall Street has shown that mass struggle is the way forward. We are not in this together with the 1%. Corporate profits have soared to historic highs while working class income has shriveled. Take it from the Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz on Democracy Now: “We’ve had a growth at the top, but … most Americans today are worse off than they were a decade-and-a-half ago” (06/06/2012).

This shows the power of protest and radical social movements. Before OWS, Obama was busy giving hundreds of billions of dollars in tax breaks to the rich. Now, he’s forced to at least pay lip service to taxing the rich by popularizing the so-called “Buffet Tax,” a reference to the quip by billionaire Warren Buffet on the absurdity of his secretary paying more in taxes than he does.

So far, though, Obama’s newfound populism remains rhetorical, not substantial, in policy. The tragedy of lesser evilism is that, in addition to not providing any real alternatives in the elections, it also demobilizes mass struggles and waters down our demands to what is acceptable to the corporate leadership of the Democratic Party. In 2004, the national leadership of the antiwar movement failed to call mass demonstrations against the wars in the fall because they were afraid to embarrass John Kerry, the supposed friend of ours who was outflanking Bush’s right wing on the war by calling for two army divisions to be added to the occupation.

Build a Movement to Win

If we don’t fall into the lesser-evil trap, then we can win major gains for the 99% on jobs, stopping austerity, ending the wars, saving the environment, and genuine single-payer health care. To build on the legacy that Occupy has started, we need a politically independent genuinely mass uprising that reaches deep into the communities of workers, the poor and youth. A large majority of the public – 77%, according to a December Pew Poll – agreed with the basic premise of Occupy Wall Street that big corporations and the 1% have too much power.

Mass protests, occupations and strike action need to spread and make the discontent of the 99% impossible to ignore and impossible to placate with rhetoric. Armed with a concrete political program of demands that corresponds to people’s needs and shows how we could transform lives, we can create an unstoppable force for fundamental change.

We also need to build a mass political party of the working class, one that can organize its struggles against big business and capitalism. This means uniting different sections of workers into struggle, clarifying the program of the party, spreading that program widely to the working class, exposing the corporate agenda, and building working-class power in labor unions, schools, local communities, and the streets.

We can start this process by running independent left candidates, at every level of office, who are rooted in our mass movements. Think of the powerful impact it would have if there was, in fact, an Occupy candidate for president that was running outside of the two parties.

Movements have won victories before. The labor movement gave us the weekend and the 40-hour workweek through strikes and mass demonstrations. Students and workers united to win public education. The civil rights movement became the impetus behind growth in public sector unions and decent social services.

All of these things are under attack now because they were never compatible with capitalist rule. As long as a small ruling elite control the economic and political system, any new concessions we extract from them are likely to be withdrawn later when our mass movements have receded. It is vital to place the question of system change at the heart of all our mass movements if our efforts are not to be in vain. We can only win lasting change if the economy, politics and society are transferred into the democratic ownership and management of the working class, the poor, the 99%. In short, we need a socialist transformation of society.

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September 2012