Labor’s Defeat in Wisconsin and the Specter of 2012

On March 9, 2011 Republicans at the state capitol in Madison, Wisconsin approved Governor Scott Walker’s bill ending most collective bargaining rights for union-organized state employees.  The capitol had been occupied for over a month by unionists, students, and their supporters who were opposed to the bill.  This was the first mass labor upsurge of the 21st century in the United States, coinciding with an increased tempo of resistance by workers against unemployment, hunger, austerity budgets, and union-busting throughout Europe and North Africa.

March 9 was the turning point in the Wisconsin struggle.  Labor and its allies would either take the struggle to a higher level of rank-and-file activism and leadership (a general strike), for which there was very fertile ground, or the resistance would be pushed back, shunted, and demobilized by the official union leadership and the Democratic Party.

Five months later, the defeat of the mass movement in Madison are clear to see.  Labor tops and Democrats after March 9 carried out a successful strategy of emptying the state house of protesters and channeling their righteous anger and energy into the dead end of the ballot box.  Democrat and labor fakers spent all summer talking up the attempt to recall six of the Republican state representatives who voted for Walker’s bill.  Unsaid was the fact that Democrats and union leaders in Wisconsin were begging Walker to let them continue forcing concessions down their members throats, so long as the dues kept rolling in.

In a February public meeting in New York City, Workers World Party leader Larry Holmes told an audience that labor leaders would have no choice but to embrace and help lead the new rank-and-file fightback movement; otherwise they would lose pelf and place and end up on the unemployment line along with their members.  This was a happy and scientific insight into the material forces creating a contradictory and very uncomfortable situation for the public employee union leaders.  But said Wisconsin leadership saw it a little differently; they realized there was still a little more space to shuck and jive and retreat; forty years of retreat and givebacks had taught them all the ins and outs, and these tribunes of the people launched the recall like they were storming the Bastille.

Between national elections in the US there is always a gap of about two years where electoralism is not being presented as the only permissible form of political expression.  Within this window, by February 2011, resistance to state government austerity budgets and attempts to roll back collective bargaining in Wisconsin, Ohio, and other states reached a tipping point, and Wisconsin started to tip.  But the “genius of the two-party system” was able to arrest the tipping process.  Rank-and-file leadership did not have a chance to develop, spread, and interlink with other struggles around the country in time to prevent the organization of defeat.

The recall campaign successfully demobilized, confused, and distracted; the false hopes it raised and cruelly dashed underline the cynicism and brutality of its architects.  Today, campaigns for presidential nomination by Republicans, and BHO’s slight veer to the rhetorical left, have closed the window.

The US ruling class knows how high the stakes are for them in pushing through these union-busting austerity budgets.  The first Black president was elected precisely to liquidate Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid; he came very close during the debt ceiling debate, and had those programs (actually a portion of the social wage funded by the labor of  workers themselves) on offer on the chopping block when Republicans retreated from negotiations.

In Wisconsin the marshaling of huge national political resources by capitalist party machines and foundations, creating a recall campaign “wall of sound” to drown out a class struggle perspective, was just as effective as the media hysteria/stampede around the debt ceiling debate.

As these detours and distractions played out, mass demobilization allowed Democrats to continue their 200-year-old impersonation of a party looking out for the “middle class.”  It allowed labor to set up an aggressive fundraising and electoralist structure for 2012 and to prime its financial pump.  And it greased the skids for a further drive toward open and undemocratic semi-Bonapartist rule in Washington with the creation of a bipartisan Congressional committee to decide unilaterally which social programs can be de-funded (and how quickly), and which losing imperialist wars can be wound down to a less publicly obvious level of debacle.

Contradictions in this period of world recession, flowing from a classical crisis of overproduction, will create more resistance to state and federal budget austerity in the US.  It will also create more opportunities for rank-and-file fightback, and the development and integration of various local struggles into something larger on a national scale.

In every part of the movement we work in, and in every circumstance where political discussion is able to patiently and constructively flourish, we need to raise very starkly the class lines these crises and defeats exposed.  Reformists, liberals, and leftists in the petty bourgeois milieu are all taking up the banner of “bail out the people not the banks” in order to herd the skeptical into the Nobody But Obama Movement.  And Obama, as the months go along, will start dog-whistling Keynesian and WPA signals to get his 2008 supporters to forget about the reality of the last four years.  His myrmidons will start scare campaigns about the Michelle Bachmann-Rick Perry axis of crypto-fascist evil.  (These are the same types of operators who brainwashed me into voting for Walter Mondale in 1984 because Helen Caldicott and Carl Sagan had me convinced Ronald Reagan’s reelection would bring about nuclear winter.)

What none of them have, what we communists do have, is the class line.  Democrats and Republicans, regardless of the persiflage and bloviation and ravings of their media glove puppets, have increasingly converging plans to resolve their crisis of profits by dramatically lowering wages and altering even further in their favor the relationship of class forces in the United States.

But before any of those scenarios begin to germinate, our class and its oppressed allies in the US and around the world will have their chance.  The energy behind all the rebellions and eruptions of mass struggle in the US, Europe, and Africa in the last year are testament to a class-wide popular appetite to resist and act now.  But these spontaneous struggles must be lifted to a higher class organizational level, and that is where communists, as part of a broad rank-and-file vanguard in becoming, can play the best and most concrete role.

With patience and humility, and without giving an inch to the headwinds of electoralism and its media tsunamis, we can move from an age of defeat to an age of revolutionary advances.

Jay Rothermel lives in Cleveland, Ohio.  His blog is Marxist Update.  He is on Facebook.

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