Pro-Worker Movement Gains Power in Wisconsin, But What's Next?
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Now that a series of crude power plays—violations of open meetings laws, restricted debates, denial of access to dissenting legislators, snap votes—have given Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker a momentary victory in his fight to strip public employee unions of their collective bargaining rights, the governor and his allies are claiming that they are implementing the will of people of Wisconsin.
Referencing last November’s election results, which gave him the governorship and control of the legislature, Walker has repeatedly said through the month-long fight in Wisconsin that “the “people have spoken” and “the voters have spoken.”
And, if we elected monarchs (or “kings for four years,” as Thomas Jefferson feared), then Walker’s pronouncements from on high might have to be accepted—at least by those inclined toward a docile citizenship.
But, of course, the United States went with a representative democracy model where elected officials are supposed to at least note and ideally respond to the will of the people.
The clear will of the people of, as confirmed by contacts with the offices of Republican legislators that ran in some cases 10-1 against the governor’s proposal, in polls that show less than one-third of Wisconsinites support the governor’s approach (and that a clear majority would replace him as governor if they could) and in mass demonstrations that have already drawn hundreds of thousands into the streets and that could draw hundreds of thousands more this weekend.
There is a lot of talk about where to take this energy, and a lot of options—all with credible arguments and all with support from serious players.
In Madison and Milwaukee, you’ll see posters calling for a general strike. The calls frequently reference some of the boldest and most romantically recalled moments in labor history, harkening back to the great 1934 struggles in San Francisco and Toledo, both of which garnered such broad support that they forced the hands of private employers and yielded significant games for what would become the International Longshore and Warehouse Union on the West Coast and the United Auto Workers in the Great Lakes states. Those actions, like the Flint Sit-Down Strike of 1936 and 1937, are the stuff of labor lore. But the Wisconsin struggle, a statewide fight that involves public-sector workers, is a different game in many senses. What’s significant is that some Wisconsin unions are serious about exploring options for mass action that borrow from more recent experiences—especially the “Days of Action” strikes organized by Ontario public-employee unions when they came under attack from the government of Conservative Premier Mike Harris in the mid-1990s.
“There are a lot of people in Wisconsin who are looking at what was done in Canada, how it was organized and maintained, how they made sure that emergency services were maintained, that vulnerable people were protected, while at the same time getting their point across,” explained Madison Firefighters Local 311 union president Joe Conway Jr., a key activist in the Wisconsin struggle.
Not all unions are on the same page with regard to strikes, general or otherwise. And there is concerns that Walker, who fancies himself as a new Ronald Reagan, might delight in firing striking state employees. But the Madison-based South Central Labor Federation has passed two motions relating to the effort:
“Motion 1: The SCFL endorses a general strike, possibly for the day Walker signs his budget repair bill.
“Motion 2: The SCFL goes on record as opposing all provisions contained in Walker’s budget repair bill, including but not limited to, curtailed bargaining rights and reduced wages, benefits, pensions, funding for public education, changes to medical assistance programs, and politicization of state government agencies.”
SCFL president Jim Cavanaugh says: “As the labor movement moves to address this naked class war waged upon us, we know we have already accomplished much, setting an example to the nation and the world for how to fight for our rights and for our children’s futures. It appears we have much more to do.”
And this is not just local talk in Madison. Communications Workers of America president Larry Cohen is talking about organization of of a national “no-business-as-usual” day of action on April 4, the anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
At the same time, many unions are embracing a plan to move money from banks and businesses that have supported Governor Walker’s campaigns and his current initiative. Firefighters’ union president Conway and members marched Thursday on the M&I bank branch in downtown Madison and began withdrawing money—taking out close to $200,000 in the initail action—as a protest against the support the bank executives have given Walker.
“Pull the plug on M&I Bank!” reads the literature distributed by members of Sheet Metal Workers International Association Local 565.
“M&I execs gave more money than even the Koch Brothers to Governor Walker and the Wisconsin GOP,” the message goes. “M&I got a $1.7 billion bailout while its CEO gets an $18 million golden parachute. Tell M&I Bank: Back Politicians Who Take Away Our Rights (and) We Take Away Your Business.”
David Goodspeed, Local 565’s business agent, says the unions top international leaders have taken up the cause, which means that substantial amounts of money could be removed from banks that back Walker. And the United Steelworkers union president Leo Gerard says his union “has started taking a very close look at where we are banking.”
This focus on the banks take up the message pushed by National Nurses United, which produced “Blame Wall Street” signs that have become favorites at the mass rallies in Madison, Milwaukee and other cities.
The economic pressure on the banks and businesses that back Walker becomes all the more important at a time when the Citizens United v. FEC ruling gives corporations a go-ahead to spend freely on behalf of candidates that do their bidding.
And that gets to the politics of the moment.
The first fight will come April 5, when Wisconsinites will choose a state Supreme Court justice. Incumbent David Prosser has aligned himself with the right-leaning judicial-activist majority on the High Court—a majority that favors corporate power almost as explicitly and consistently as does the US Supreme Court. Prosser says that, if re-elected, he would vote on the court as an aggressive and unapologetic “judicial conservative.” He is, as well, a former legislative leader with close ties to Walker.
Prosser’s challenger, veteran Assistant Attorney General JoAnne Kloppenburg, has taken a different direction. She promises to serve as a judicial independent who is interested in restoring the integrity of the court and following the rule of law—as opposed to the partisan demands of the governor’s office.
The national special-interest groups that have aligned with Walker will help Prosser, as they know that their agenda will face court challenges. Progressives will need to counter the out-of-state money with in-state grass-roots campaigning. But with hundreds of thousands of newly energized foot soldiers, that won’t be nearly as hard as it would have been just a few weeks ago.
The same goes for special elections (the primaries will be April 5 and the elections will be May 3) to fill three state Assembly seats vacated by Republicans who went into the Walker administration—those of Mark Gottlieb, Scott Gunderson and Mike Huebsch. Some political insiders want to focus solely on the Huebsch seat in western Wisconsin, as that district has tended to back Democrats in recent national elections. But if the movement that has developed in opposition to Walker’s anti-worker, anti-community, anti-schools agenda is to mean anything, it must compete beyond the traditional boundaries. That’s especially true in the Gunderson district, which includes sections of western Racine County that are home to many union members who work at state facilities in the region.
And what of the recalls?
There will be plenty of them. Tea partisans are already putting their Koch brothers funding to use, plotting to challenge Democrats such as Senator Bob Wirch, D-Kenosha, in the southeast, and Senator Jim Holperin, D-Conover, in the north. They might even go after a renegade Republican, Senator Dale Schultz of Richland Center. Progressives will need to be active in all those races.
But the recall initiative will be primarily offensive, not defensive. Every Republican senator who votes for the bill and is eligible for removal will likely face a recall race. Activists are already organizing to support these efforts. The only real question is: Where to begin? The answer is with state Senator Alberta Darling, R-River Hills. She’s a co-chair of the Joint Finance Committee, making her a lead player in Walker’s budget battles. More importantly, she represents a district that has long leaned Democratic when it comes to national politics. In addition, she has a ready-made challenger in former state Rep. Sheldon Wasserman, who came within 2,000 votes of beating her in 2008.
Ultimately, the movement politics that has developed since February 12 will seek to replace three Republican senators, and in so doing to restore the system of checks and balances that is so sorely needed in a state that is now being battered by the worst excesses of one-party rule.
But the process of restoring democratic governance must begin somewhere. And beating the point person for Walker’s draconian budget would be a good start to any recall drive—a drive that, if it realizes its full potential, could target the governor early next year, when the timeline for his possible removal (after he has served one year in office) kicks in.