By Jane Anne Morris
What one can say with confidence is that…AFL-CIO business unionism does not meet the needs of working people at the end of the twentieth century. A qualitatively different unionism is needed. — Staughton Lynd, 1996
Madison, Wisconsin, September 2011. The world-famous Wisconsin Spring, sparked by a Republican attack on collective bargaining rights, took place two blocks from my apartment. Demonstrators were as taken aback as were Republicans at the unprecedented outpouring. For weeks it teetered on the edge of no one knew what, then collapsed into a “painfully moderate” denouement. But despite the fact that we were still “yelling at buildings” most of the time, for weeks it had an edgy do-it-yourself quality all too often missing at demos. For quite a while, no one was in charge, or, rather, everyone was in charge—an echo of the “We are all leaders” refrain of 1930s solidarity unionism and the Wobblies.
Perhaps the biggest lesson is how quickly the movement—what I call the Outpouring—was de-fanged. If such a spontaneous, unpredictable, roiling foment as we had here in Wisconsin does not lead to big changes for working people, and beyond—what would it take?
Repercussions and adjustments continue. The ball of yarn has not yet completely unraveled, but the paths not taken loom large. Labor will do better “next time” if it is as prepared as the Republicans were (bold program and strategy in hand) for this time.
Read all about it—the spring of our discontent
It was only after February’s crowds carrying “FitzWalkerStan” signs around the frigid Madison Capitol Square gave way to “Walkerville,” a sweltering tent city named after the governor, that the first two headstones of the Republicans’ Wisconsin agenda were erected. In June 2011, both the anti-collective bargaining bill and the budget bill (chock full of wish-list fantasies saved up by two generations of Republicans) became law.
About a week after an alleged altercation in the judicial chambers between two Wisconsin Supreme Court justices, Governor Scott Walker signed the budget bill into law. It is a measure of how enraged and divided the state is that he didn’t do it in Madison because he would have had to face thousands of protesters. Instead, he planned to exclude the public by having a “private” bill signing at a sheet metal factory two hours’ drive from the state capital. That venue had to be changed when news media learned that the owner was a convicted tax cheat, so Walker signed the bill at another metal works, with hundreds of protesters outside. Walker’s continued “private” bill signing is an apt metaphor for the current state of politics in this state.
The anti-collective bargaining bill that was originally part of the “budget repair bill” became law in the wake of a flurry of court cases and an election widely regarded as stolen. Passed by means of an illegal stealth maneuver in March, voided by a lower court on open meetings law grounds in May, it was reinstated in June by the state’s highest court. Between the illegal passing of it and the court action, Wisconsin had an April election to choose a Supreme Court justice that everyone assumed would be the deciding vote on the collective bargaining (open meetings) case, and thus the fate of collective bargaining in Wisconsin.
Because the Supreme Court race was regarded as a proxy for the statewide Walker/collective bargaining/budget struggle, signs supporting challenger JoAnne Kloppenburg were ubiquitous at Capitol demonstrations. In a race reminiscent of the 2000 Bush-Gore fiasco, Walker partisan David Prosser (a former Republican leader in the state legislature) was reelected—sort of—to the Supreme Court.
Two days after the April 5 election in which Kloppenburg had evidently defeated the incumbent Prosser by a tiny margin, news broke that Republicans had “found” 14,000 more votes. Only after a 5-week statewide recount process did Democrat/Progressive Kloppenburg concede defeat, unable to prove that the margin of victory—7000 votes (of 1.5 million cast) “lost” for two days on a former employee of the governor’s personal computer—were fraudulent. It seems no one witnessed what happened to the numerous open and unsecured bags of ballots observed during the closely watched recount. The court retained its 4–3 split in favor of Republicans/conservatives.
Meanwhile, the “Fabulous 14” Democratic senators who famously snuck away to Illinois to forestall a quorum went back to their offices. Attempts by three unions and the former (Democratic) state attorney general, Peg Lautenschlager, to get a restraining order to stop the governor from instituting airport-like security at the State Capitol—like much else in this state—was long mired in a legal morass.
In summer 2011, Wisconsin held nine recall elections (of six Republicans who supported and three Democrats who opposed the Walker/Tea Party/anti-worker agenda). Almost everybody sued everybody else for fraudulent petitions, procedures, and the like. To delay the recall vote, Republicans lined up “fake” Democrats to run in primaries. They all lost, but Republicans gained another month to run attack ads. Democrats, who had to win 3 of 6 recalls of Republican senators in order to gain the majority in the state senate, won only 2. Though all three Democratic senators the Republicans tried to recall survived, Republicans thus retained control of both houses and, so far, the governorship. State law permits recall elections only for those who have been in office for a year, so Governor Scott Walker’s recall comeuppance could not begin until January 2012.
Before getting to what might have, and still could, happen, a glimpse of how unsettled and unsettling the Outpouring was.
Solidarity is busting out all over
The first thing to say is that people carrying signs were in the Capitol and on the square all day long, every day, for a month. Supporters streamed in from around the state and the country. Unions making appearances included nurses’ unions, numerous public employee, law enforcement, and teachers’ unions, Correction Officers, CWA, Teamsters, ATU, Sheet Metal Workers, Painters & Allied Trades, Steamfitters, Boilermakers, State Engineers, Bricklayers, Carpenters, IBEW, Steelworkers, AFSCME, Pipefitters, SEIU, Stage Hands, and a group of seven smartly dressed airline pilots looking ready for takeoff. The union and labor core was joined by a (proportionately tiny) auxiliary of Wobblies (IWW), environmental, LGBT, peace, and social justice groups.
Signs proclaimed, “Solidarity from Michigan/LA/Penn.,” “Pittsburgh Supports Wisconsin” and “Minnesota Labor Supports Wisconsin.” A retired “Steelworker’s Daughter for Collective Bargaining” played “Solidarity Forever” on a recorder. The turbulent sea of signs included “Hosni Walker,” “Egypt supports Wisconsin Workers,” “Honduras Stands with Wisconsin,” “Realtors for Collective Bargaining,” and “Non-Union Household for Unions.”
Governor Walker had claimed that eliminating most public workers’ collective bargaining rights would give state and local governments the “tools” to balance their budgets and cut costs. A local talk show host took to calling him “Governor Tool,” a moniker that caught on. For months, the host devoted his call-in show to advancing the cause of the demonstrators, interviewing labor leaders, reporting on-site events, and educating and encouraging all Wisconsinites to support the cause.
Toddlers wearing “Union Thug” shirts perched on their parents’ shoulders. The parade of signs on the Capitol Square continued. “I am a Union Worker: I am Not the Problem,” “Wisconsin Open to Business, Closed to Labor,” “United We Stand, Divided We Beg,” “I [Heart] Wisconsin Workers,” and “Unions—the Inventors of the Weekend.” National labor leaders and politicians streamed in to speak at rallies and hang out; nearly everyone who’d ever run for any office in Madison joined the marches and addressed the crowds.
A herd of people dressed in deer costumes grazed through the crowd, their message not so obvious. Until you got close enough to read their slogan: “It’s not about the dough.” (Get it?) Public workers had repeatedly offered to take compensation cuts of various kinds to help ease the state budget “woes.” Details of wages and benefits were on the table; their collective bargaining rights were not.
Special of the day
People from Antarctica, all 50 states, and many dozens of countries including Haiti called in donations to Ian’s Pizza near the Capitol and asked them to send protesters food. For weeks, Ian’s delivered towers of pizza boxes to patient, polite, grateful demonstrators at “stations” around the square.
By the second week, there was a regular free mealtime buffet in a wing of the Capitol Rotunda. One day, the noon offerings included both spaghetti and mac-and-cheese entrees, a variety of fruits and salads, and the option to just make yourself a PBJ sandwich—all thanks to the generosity of local small businesses, donations from around the world, and the hard work of hundreds of volunteers. Everybody waited calmly in line, dutifully sorted refuse from recyclables, and generally kept the place as neat as a Lutheran church lunch.
Returning home after a midday Capitol rally (the other daily rally was at 5 p.m.), I heard Rush Limbaugh on the radio citing eyewitnesses describing the Capitol as trashed with kotex, beer cans, and bongs. He and some of our local AM rightwing radio personalities regularly described demonstrators as dirty, smelly, drunken, lazy, union thugs.
Inside the Capitol, the “thugs” used miles of blue painter tape to tack thousands of signs to nearly every square inch of wall and column. The Blue Tape Directive was one of numerous suggestions posted by demonstrators to keep the situation peaceful, neat, and safe. Between the events unfolding around us, and the efforts put into perusing the fine print of Republican proposals, the Capitol turned into a massive, spontaneous, uncensored teach-in. Outside on the sidewalks around the square, freshly chalked slogans and information appeared each morning. This continued long after the peak of the crowds. On March 25, the walks were covered with body outlines and a list of names and ages of all who died in the Triangle Shirt Factory fire exactly a century earlier.
Each day a new crop of handbills, makeshift cardboard educational exhibits, and walking placards about Republican budget details appeared. Each revelation provoked more disgust, and inspired even more people to scour the proposal. I have no doubt that this bill was more closely read by more people than any budget proposal in state history. Anyone who spent even a coffee break in the Rotunda learned that much more than public employees’ collective bargaining rights was at stake.
The Capitol became its own social system, with everything from education to sanitation handled deftly. During the day, sleeping bags and rolled-up mats were tucked away behind marble columns or in alcoves. Blankets spread on the Capitol marble delineated impromptu day care centers. Outside, marching bands with drums and accordions; inside, folk ensembles with fiddles, recorders, and guitars.
Twice daily during the peak of the Outpouring, at the end of each hour-long rally, a marching formation of plaid-skirted bagpipers led hundreds of fully geared-up firefighters, followed by a diversity of law enforcement officers, into the Rotunda. They circled the ground floor, went up the stairs, then around the first, second and third floor balconies. Pressed close up along the procession, and filling every available square foot of the Capitol, were 10,000 cheering labor supporters, from across the state and far beyond, waving hands and cowbells; drumming and shouting; high-fiving and hugging the public employees as they passed by; and most poignant of all, shouting a slogan I had never heard at a demo: “Thank-You, Thank-You, Thank-You…”
Office hours in the snow and pizzas through the bathroom windows
The governor’s threat to tap the National Guard to fill absent shifts inspired a woman to carry this sign: “Do you want the National Guard changing your catheter?” 10,776 individual emails in support of demonstrators were blue-taped to walls along a Rotunda stairway. One weekend, lab-coated doctors, prescription pads in hand, held office hours in a tent under a large sign, “Need a Note?”
When the Capitol was locked down, Democratic Assembly members hauled furniture out of first floor windows and sat outside in 20-degree weather so they could meet with constituents prevented from entering the Capitol. While the Fab 14 Senators were hiding out, hundreds of tiny sticky-notes of thanks stuck like so many butterflies to their locked office doors. The morning after a heavy late-winter snow, dozens of snowmen holding Solidarity signs appeared all over the Capitol grounds.
While the demonstrators were giving a clinic on civility and gumption, the Republicans were making no effort to even go through the motions of seeming equitable or fair-minded. Nor did they seem to understand the part about there being three branches of government. Their deft blend of arrogance and sleaze kept demonstrators fired up, and provided ample fodder for slogans.
For those of us who couldn’t recognize them all by sight, mug shots of all Republican legislators were blue-taped onto the walls. After an especially sneaky, underhanded, and illegal maneuver, a dozen Republicans had to exit via goat path between law officers holding back 10,000 demonstrators in the Rotunda screaming “Shame! Shame! Shame!” at tremendous volume. That was the last time during the Outpouring that Republicans dared show their faces openly at the Capitol.
Turns out they were getting in and out of the Capitol through secret tunnels, with inconspicuous entrances in other government buildings. Soon, those entrances were lined with protesters holding “Rat Hole to Walker Palace” signs. While Republicans were thus sneaking in to avoid meeting the public, members of the public (and some pizzas) were getting into the locked-down Capitol through unsecured bathroom windows on the second floor (later bolted shut).
The Republican coup de grace took place in a nearly empty and locked-down Capitol on March 9. In early evening, rumors began flying that the collective bargaining bill had gone down. All over town, people dropped what they were doing and streamed to the Capitol. Officers guarding the doors were somehow “unable” to hold back the throngs, and once again up to 10,000 demonstrators occupied the Rotunda. People took pictures of each other in goofy postures around the abandoned wanding stations. For a few hours, the Rotunda smelled like peanut butter again. Outside, vehicles circled the Capitol Square all evening, honking a spontaneous call-and-response to the rhythm: this-is-what-de-mo-cra-cy-looks-like.
Inside, the mood was simultaneously euphoric and angry. Euphoric, because after a week of being locked out of their own Capitol building, demonstrators were back. As the news reported the next day, “People took their house back last night.” Angry, because in an unprecedented (and to any fair-minded person, illegal) maneuver, the anti-collective bargaining bill passed the Senate—the precise circumstance the Fab 14 had fled the state to prevent. In retrospect, it was on this day that demonstrators’ bluff was called, and they backed down.
A near-general strike collapses in mainstream swoon
Three general strike “moments” were allowed to slip away.
General Strike One. There was no general strike the first week as news spread of the plan to eliminate most collective bargaining rights for public employees. Most people there did not know what a general strike is (something vaguely Italian?).
Still, in the first week of the Outpouring (February 14–21), we had a spontaneous near-general strike. Crowds increased from a few hundred, to 30,000, to 70,000 the first week, and by the second weekend were over 100,000. Absenteeism among Madison area public schools, among both teachers and students, led officials to cancel classes for four days. At one point, at least 24 school districts were closed, and some put the number as high as 45. Many state and local employees spent their breaks at the Capitol, with full knowledge of (and often in the company of) their supervisors.
The Fab 14 disappeared around February 17. As long as they were holed up in Illinois, the huge crowds at the Capitol retained some hope that despite solid Republican control of the governorship and both statehouses, legislative maneuvering could stop the bill. (Translation: Game Not Over yet, and so a general strike would be premature.)
General Strike Two. There was no general strike when the anti-collective bargaining bill passed the Senate in a sneaky maneuver March 9, even though people temporarily reoccupied the Capitol in a spontaneous act of protest that evening.
Though there was sentiment for a general strike among some rank and file, and limited official endorsement of the idea, there was never a unified call from elected representatives or unions for a general strike. Some elected officials spoke openly against the idea, while some unions liked it but accepted that (given current labor law) calling a general strike was outside of their (NLRB regulatory agency approved) powers. Still others suggested limited and unofficial boycotts of this or that bank or business that supported the Republican agenda.
Faced with a near fait accompli on the anti-collective bargaining bill, people returned with renewed vigor to the idea that the bad Republicans would be recalled and the Senate become Democratic, and/or that the judicial process would overturn the collective bargaining law because of open meetings and other procedural violations. Regarding that latter hope…the nonpartisan Wisconsin Supreme Court election was then only weeks away, and people turned to the candidacy of (Progressive Democrat) Kloppenburg, challenging the conservative Republican incumbent Justice David Prosser. Huge efforts throughout the state in the court race provided yet another electoral avenue to suck the demonstrators’ energy.
When the Fab 14 returned and spoke at a massive rally on Saturday March 12, they urged on the efforts to recall Republicans and (more delicately because it is officially a nonpartisan race) support Kloppenburg for Supreme Court. That weekend saw the last big demonstrations. After that, energy was completely and efficiently sucked into the court election, recalls of Republicans, and legal maneuvering. Despite the eleven-day tent city in June (which ended when the budget passed the state Senate), there were no more demonstrations even approaching the size of those the first month.
General Strike Three. There was no general strike on Thursday April 7, when Wisconsinites woke up to hear that “lost” votes now found gave Prosser a victory over Kloppenburg in the previous Tuesday’s Supreme Court election. It began to seem very likely that Republican shenanigans—that is to say, election fraud—had delivered the Supreme Court seat to the incumbent conservative. The reverse was especially bitter because Supreme Court terms in Wisconsin are 10 years.
I expected another spontaneous surge to the Capitol like there was March 9, but almost nobody came. At noon I saw around 50 people, many of us wondering where everybody else was. Instead, people put their faith in the efficacy of a long, agonizing recount, the results of which (Prosser by a hair, can’t prove fraud) were recounted above.
And You’re Out. Thus the three times when outrage might have shaped itself into a coherent general strike—the original anti-collective bargaining proposal, the procedurally marred affirmative Senate vote, and the seemingly stolen election—saw the outrage turned into detailed legal hair-splitting, judicial maneuvering, and electoral hopes centered on moderate Democrats. The air just went out of everything as the recall effort commenced. One sign said it all: “See You At the Polls.” (It was all I could do not to ask him, “And how is that working for you?”)
What would the general strike have been about? Apparently undoing the anti-collective bargaining and budget bills, which amounts to returning to the status quo ante of our former (Democratic) governor’s administration. Previous Wisconsin governor Jim Doyle, who disappointed even mainstream Democrats, is an excellent specimen of a DINO (Democrat in name only).
Even with such a vague goal in mind, such a general strike would likely have been unsuccessful or counterproductive because the necessary groundwork (clear goals, strategy, and support infrastructure, among others) had not been prepared. Long accustomed to the regulatory minutiae of NLRB procedures and rules, snugly if not ecstatically ensconced under the wing of the Democratic Party, and largely ignorant of the more vibrant brand of unionism that preceded the 1935 National Labor Relations Act, the Outpouring melted into the routines of GOTV phone banks, media buys, and other mainstream political routines.
Other paths not taken on revolutionary road
Strong sentiment, and clever signs opposing the Republicans, their proposals, the Koch brothers, big corporations, Wall Street, and ALEC (American Legislative Exchange Council) were inspiring and educational, but hardly constituted a plan beyond demanding that the scoundrels reverse their most recent actions. In contrast, late nineteenth century Populists gave the reigning powers quite a scare before they were coopted into the Progressive Movement and the Democratic Party. Such cautionary tales, along with familiarity with 1930s unionism, highlight the necessity to avoid counterfactual wishful thinking about the Democratic Party.
Instead, we could take a tip from labor history outside the NLRA bubble, and begin to devise strategies that address fundamental problems and play out in arenas far deeper than electoral politics. When “next time” arrives, labor could be ready to pursue, among others, some of the many paths not taken in Wisconsin. The list is long.
The Outpouring was not full of people with clipboards on a massive union organizing campaign: neither the standard (NLRB era) current model, nor along the lines of the solidarity unionism of the 1930s (such as the IUAW, Independent Union of All Workers), or other alternative unions. Such alternative models are more democratic and egalitarian, and explore the advantages of, for example, working without contracts, eschewing national affiliation, and not having dues checkoff.
This was not the time to talk about what an effective labor movement, like the one Peter Kellman outlines in Building Unions, would look like today. Nor was there interest in rewriting the 1935 National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) that “domesticated” the labor movement, repealing the Taft-Hartley Act (1947), which made unions “infinitely more controllable,” or upending the numerous NLRB and Supreme Court decisions over the decades that further shackle union power.
There was no move to harness the tremendous energy of the Outpouring to reverse existing “free trade” agreements (such as NAFTA and GATT/WTO), and end efforts to finalize pending ones. What currently passes for “radical” in most labor venues is suggesting pursuit of ineffectual labor side agreements to current trade policy.
There were no big third party organizing efforts going on. Not for a labor party (not beholden to corporations or Democrats) to unequivocally represent workers’ interests; not for a revitalized Green Party that is more than a pimple on the Democrats’ hide.
To the contrary, the “Fab 14” Democratic senators, all of whom hightailed it for Illinois to prevent a quorum, were enshrined as heroes. Though there are seeds of radical democratic reform in a couple of them, they have for the most part gone along with the corporate agenda that has increasingly dominated both major parties in Wisconsin.
In the 2011 recall elections, Democrats ignored the collective bargaining issue. Instead of building on the Outpouring of middle class union members, Democrats chose to downplay it. “None of the nine Democratic recall candidates mention the issue of collective bargaining on their websites,” noted one reporter. He later added, “with all the momentum from the union issue, Democrats running in recall elections have decided that just about everything else is more important than collective bargaining.” Calls for “reigniting the labor movement, not simply protecting what remains of it” were few and far between.
Betrayal of labor by Democrats has a long history (one still being written today); faux labor parties or programs intended to shepherd labor into the Democratic party for critical elections are nothing new. Eric Leif Davin argues that the 1930s was the last serious effort to keep labor from falling into the hands of the always disappointing Dems. With Wisconsin-like scenarios playing out across the nation, the time may be ripe to revisit that possibility.
One day longer, one day stronger?
Today, union workers—and others—all over the state are being laid off, taking unpaid furloughs, enduring pay and benefit cuts, and suffering in deteriorating work conditions. Unions are also feeling the pain from the Walker legislature’s elimination of automatic payroll deduction for union dues, and mandated yearly certification votes that require not a majority of those voting, but a majority of members, to recertify a union. Some unions are laying off their own workers, making new arrangements for dues collection, and in many cases deciding to not pursue annual recertification.
At the Labor Day celebration at the Madison Labor Temple, speakers complained about corporations, and urged renewed efforts to recall the governor and elect Democrats next time. I asked around if there was any plan beyond denouncing corporate-conservative-right wingers and electing Democrats, and got mostly blank stares.
Students of labor history in the US will note that NLRA recognition and union certification are mixed blessings. Some of the 1930s solidarity unions opposed the automatic dues checkoff because they found it tended to make membership more passive and encourage the union boss versus rank-and-file division. Further, non-certified organizations of workers are not bound by the same onerous conditions and prohibitions that limit government-certified unions.
Heightened awareness and changed conditions evident in the Outpouring present opportunities. People are having to think hard about their unions, the implications of certification, and dues collection, as well as the broad range of new Republican laws that are affecting public services and quality of life on all sides. They are having conversations they would never have had even a year ago.
Wisconsin unions had the organizing ability and energy to form less domesticated unions and channel the Outpouring into a real revolution. However, they lacked the historical knowledge or imagination to use it for something larger than voting for mediocre Democrats and paying lawyers to nitpick procedures.
But there will be a “next time.” Nurses and teachers screamed side by side with firefighters, cops and steelworkers. Family Farm Defenders staged a magnificent tractor parade. Maybe some of the Great Washed took a leaflet from some of the Wobblies or socialists who frequented the fringes of the demo. Changed circumstances are leading union members to think outside of their conventional union boxes, and perhaps revisit the solidarity unionism of the past.
Will Wisconsin’s unions be consumed by a campaign to recall Governor Walker and re-elect Obama? Or will they be ready to explore less regulated, non-hierarchical, more community-based unions that foster solidarity among all workers—the “qualitatively different unionism” that Staughton Lynd championed in 1996?
We are all leaders, as was evident during the Outpouring, before we forgot and returned to scripted electoral and legal reactions. We could all be leaders again. We will have to be, if we are to avoid continuing as foot soldiers in the war against ourselves.