Barry Sheppard: Wisconsin recall defeat caused by wrong strategy

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Protesters occupy Wisconsin's Capitol building in Madison to support the rights of public sector workers, February 17 last year.
By Barry Sheppard

June 17, 2012 -- Green Left Weekly -- In a much-watched election on June 5, Republican Scott Walker handily defeated Democrat Tom Barrett in a recall election for governor of Wisconsin. Walker is on the right wing of the Republican Party and Barrett on the right wing of the Democrats. Walker was first elected in late 2010. When he took office early last year, Walker launched a drive to smash public worker unions. In response, there were huge mobilisations.

Public sector unions went on strike and organised mass demonstrations in the capital city of Madison, the largest of which mobilised 100,000. For days, workers, students and other supporters occupied the rotunda of the Capital building, drawing explicit parallels with the Tahrir Square occupations going on in Egypt. This became known as the Wisconsin Uprising, and inspired millions across the country. It foreshadowed the Occupy wave that began in September.

How did this great movement in Wisconsin end up, more than year later, in the ignominious defeat of the re-election of Walker?

The heads of the AFL-CIO trade union federation blame the fact that Walker received seven or so times the money for his campaign as Barrett did. Billionaires across the country poured tens of millions into Walker’s coffers.

Some liberals and others on the left add that the Democratic Party nationally campaigned only lukewarmly for Barrett. Some point out that the candidate favoured by the unions lost out to Barrett in the Democratic primary, and that Barrett was a lacklustre candidate who had previously lost to Walker in 2010. Others point to the fact that Barrett didn’t even run on reversing Walker’s attack on the unions and shied away from identifying with the Uprising.

All of these things are true, but they miss the main point.

The Wisconsin Uprising inspired not only public workers, but began to draw in workers from more conservative unions such as the firefighters, who came to physically defend those occupying the Capitol from Walker’s threats to disperse them.

Many students from the university in Madison joined in. Workers across the country began to focus on the struggle in a national atmosphere of support for Egypt's revolutionaries in Tahrir. The momentum was on the side of uprising, and growing.

When Walker succeeded in driving through his anti-worker legislation in what amounted to an illegal coup on March 12 last year, there was a public outcry against this undemocratic act. The stage was set for an even deeper mobilisation.

Just at that critical moment, the union leaders betrayed the uprising, calling off the strikes and mobilisations. That marked the defeat, which has played out in the year or so since, culminating in Walker’s re-election.

After breaking the back of the mobilisation, the local and national union leaders steered the discontent into Democratic Party electoral politics.

There is no question that the heads of the Wisconsin public sector trade unions, totally in the pocket of the Democrats, recoiled in fear of the very mobilisations they had initiated. The caste of bureaucrats who sit atop the unions were horrified by the rank and file taking matters into their own hands.

What they did was launch a campaign to recall Walker and other Republicans. Activists were roped into collecting signatures for the recall, a huge endeavour. About 1 million signatures were gathered for the recall, and enough were verified by the state election board in February this year to trigger the June election.

On August 10 last year, Walker’s bill went into effect. It officially did away with most collective bargaining rights for public workers, turning Wisconsin’s public sector into an open shop.

Since that time, the Wall Street Journal reported, the membership of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees, the largest public-sector workers' union, has been cut in half, and the teachers’ union lost a third of its members to cutbacks.

In the Democratic Party primary to see who would run against Walker, there were two main candidates. One was Kathleen Falk, whom the unions backed. Falk was on a county board and oversaw cutbacks (austerity), as Democrats are doing all over the country. She campaigned on her record of slashing US$10 million from workers’ wages and benefits “without taking away collective bargaining rights”.

But the Democrats gave short shrift to the unions and nominated Barrett, Milwaukee mayor and the 2010 loser to Walker, instead. He didn’t even promise to repeal the Walker bill.

In Wisconsin we see a stark choice. One is the road forward charted by the uprising. The other is the road to defeat of subordinating working people to the Democratic Party, which has the same policy as the Republicans. This is the ruling class drive to make the workers pay for the current worldwide economic catastrophe the capitalist system has plunged us in.

The two wings of capitalist politics differ only over tactics about the pace and measures necessary to further their common aims.

[Barry Sheppard was a long-time leader of the US Socialist Workers Party and the Fourth International. He recounts his experience in the SWP in a two-volume book, The Party — the Socialist Workers Party 1960-1988, available from Resistance Books. Read more articles by or about Barry Sheppard.]

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From GLW issue 926