The Fight for WI Workers Is Still On: Activism Is Alive and Well, Now Focused on Recalling Republicans

Four months after Scott Walker signed his “budget repair” bill in defiance of unprecedented protests, Wisconsin remains a battleground with national implications. There’s been a strategic shift toward elections, and after a relative lull, an upswing in activity. Nine recall elections over the next six weeks will help gauge the strength of the resistance effort against Scott Walker, and how long it will take to reverse his course.

Wisconsin drew international attention and solidarity last winter as Wisconsinites used civil disobedience and massive protests to shame their newly elected governor and Republican legislative majorities and delay passage of Walker’s “budget repair” bill. The bill strips most public sector workers of most union rights. It restricts their collective bargaining only to wages, leaving benefits and working conditions at the discretion of management, politicians and political appointees. It bars their wages from increasing faster than the Consumer Price Index. And if workers respond by striking or collectively calling in sick, Walker’s bill lets him declare a state of emergency that empowers state officials to fire them.

After Republicans used legally suspect maneuvers to get the bill passed in March, protests diminished, but they haven’t disappeared. Some have continued protest actions at the capitol, including sing-a-longs and civil disobedience inside and a “Walkerville” tent city set up outside. Protests have also followed Walker across the state (on land and by boat), and targeted branches of the Walker-funding M & I bank across the country.

Progressives mobilized to try to oust Walker ally David Prosser from the Supreme Court in April, turning a normally low-key judicial election into a flashpoint, and a long-shot challenger into a near-victor. Prosser and three other justices sided with Walker last month, ending a Circuit Court judge’s restraining order against the “budget repair” bill and clearing the way for implementation to begin June 28.

Activists interviewed said the Supreme Court ruling, which removed the need for Republicans to re-pass the bill, has accelerated a trend of energy shifting away from the capitol and into predominately non-urban recall districts. Progressives have put recalls against six Republican state senators on the ballot for August 9; three of the Democratic senators who left the state to slow Walker’s bill face their own recalls July 19 and August 16. The recalls against Republicans cleared an initial hurdle on June 12: Democrats running to replace Republican senators all defeated right-wingers running against them in yesterday's Democratic primary in an attempt to sabotage the recalls. All of the activists interviewed were hopeful about shifting at least three senate seats from Republicans to Democrats, which would flip control of the senate and end unified GOP control of Wisconsin’s legislature. 

Public sector workers haven’t been the only ones targeted by Scott Walker. With Republican allies in control of Wisconsin’s senate and assembly, he’s signed a raft of right-wing legislation, including a voter ID bill that will make it harder for low-income people to vote, a “tort reform” bill limiting punitive damages, and an austerity budget slashing social spending. He’s cut back tax credits for the poor while cutting taxes for the wealthy.

The recalls will determine whether or not Walker and his allies retain unified control of the state legislature. They’ll also help gauge of the feasibility of ousting Walker himself, who is eligible to be recalled as early as January. By the end of the summer, Walker will emerge from the recalls either further emboldened to continue pushing a right-wing wish list, or forced to contend with a Democratic senate while fighting to save his own job.

That’s why so much of the energy that centered around Wisconsin’s capital has shifted into the nine more rural recall districts.

A Strategic Shift

“The energy has shifted from the capitol to the recalls,” said Rabbi Renee Bauer, the executive director of Interfaith Worker Justice, which has been mobilizing clergy and activists since the winter (and as a 501c(3), cannot participate in elections). Bauer said the last rally to draw 100,000 people was in March, and that the sentiment there was “OK, now we have to go do the work on the ground.” Jeremy Ryan of Defending Wisconsin, who was arrested 10 times for civil disobedience reclaiming public spaces at the capitol, said “It’s all focused on the recalls right now.”

Some described it as a necessary strategic shift. “Instead of bringing thousands of people to Madison to demonstrate,” said Marty Beil, executive director of the Wisconsin State Employees Union, “time was better spent taking those thousands of people and engaging them in recall activity.” SEIU Healthcare Wisconsin Vice President Bruce Colburn said the passage of Walker’s bills showed that progressives’ lack of legislative power left “an open door for Scott Walker and the legislators to do whatever they wanted…That was something that was unacceptable.”

Democracy Addicts blogger Ed Knutson said that activists “seem to be completely engulfed in working on the recalls,” but that the upcoming elections were “a direct result of the protest.” Ken Dundeck, communications director for the activist group Autonomous Solidarity Organization (ASO), said, “We can chant ‘This is what democracy looks like,’ but what democracy really looks like is us getting out in the field and talking to people at their doors.”

John Matthews, president of the union Madison Teachers Inc. (MTI), said he wants the “budget repair” bill overturned before the MTI’s current contract expires in 2013. He said that would require having enough politicians in both houses who either are “people of good conscience” or “people who are worried” that progressives could oust them. “We have to build that fear into them” with recalls, he said.

Others, like Adrienne Pagac, expressed concerns about the shift in direction. Last month Pagac was elected co-president of the Teaching Assistants Association (TAA), a union of graduate student employees whose members played a seminal role in packing capital hearings and refusing to leave. Pagac worries that getting out the vote is the wrong way to develop the leverage that could prove necessary against Democratic politicians as well. She said people may revert to electoral work because it’s “more familiar” than “exercising collective power” through direct action. TAA member Jill Hopke pointed out that last year’s Democratic-controlled Senate failed to ratify the contract TAA had negotiated with the University of Wisconsin.

A Lightning Rod

Many interviewed said they’ve been struck by the breadth and intensity of the mobilization in their state. Beil said “there’s a whole new breed of cat out there,” members of his union who have never been active outside of work before. John Matthews said the current moment is “unique” in his 43 years running the MTI, as evidenced by the mass walkout of teachers conceived and executed within 48 hours in February.

Levana Layendecker, communications director for the million-member national organization Democracy for America (DFA), said “Wisconsin is our biggest priority right now.” She said the magnitude of the grassroots protest movement inspired DFA members across the country and inspired an effort in support of the recalls that will be the largest state-based campaign in DFA’s history.

Allan Showers, a member of International Union of Operating Engineers Local 150 in Illinois, drove out in the winter to protest at Wisconsin’s capitol and now drives out to support the recall campaign. “If they fail to get those anti-union politicians out of office,” he said, “they’re never going to get what they had back.”

Marc Norberg said as a lifelong Wisconsin resident, he’s noticed a cultural shift across the state. At his hometown July 4th parade this year, he saw locals turn their back on the Republican Attorney General. For people raised to be “Wisconsin nice,” he said, that’s “the equivalent of throwing rotten eggs at a person.” Norberg, a 35-year member of the Sheet Metal Workers of America (SMWA), now travels the country coordinating the international union’s response to right-wing state legislation.

Norberg said although sheet metal workers were not targeted by the “budget repair” bill, many were enraged after Walker publicly announced he was ready to call out the National Guard against protesters. Two prior GOP governors have involved the Guard in labor disputes. “Both times,” said Norberg, “labor people have died.” Norberg said his union told out-of-state members eager to come join the protests in February to wait for the recalls. SWMA has now brought in members from a dozen states.

Other efforts underway include a federal court lawsuit, coalition building, popular education, and a move to write collective bargaining protections into the state constitution. Most activists interviewed supported the First Amendment lawsuit filed last month against the Walker bill but downplayed its centrality to the struggle. “Our victory will come by the sweat of our brow,” said Marty Beil.

Jeremy Ryan said he sees momentum swelling in Wisconsin after a decline following the bill’s passage in March. “We kind of lost that moment,” Ryan said. “I do believe we can get it back again.”

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