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A Wisconsin Enigma: Mass Struggle, Then What?

Mass Struggle, Then What?

Paul Buhle is coeditor, with Mari Jo Buhle, of It Started in Wisconsin (Verso Books, 2012). He has been a Monthly Review contributor since 1970.

Michael D. Yates, editor, Wisconsin Uprising: Labor Fights Back (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2012), 282 pages, $18.95, paperback.
John Nichols, Uprising: How Wisconsin Renewed the Politics of Protest, from Madison to Wall Street (New York: Nation Books), 117 pages, $18.50, paperback.

It is curious as well as enormously exciting to be surrounded by a mass movement, full of enthusiasm, energy, and eagerness to adopt labor slogans and labor songs, almost as if the 1930s and ‘40s had come back. And it is all the more curious because the emergence of the movement seemed so spontaneous and unexpected, taking every Marxist (and any other) would-be savant by surprise, your reviewer most definitely included. Eighteen months and a major electoral defeat later, the “Wisconsin Uprising” goes on, with dampened spirits but a continuation of innovative extras. One small example is the “Overpass Light Brigade,” a group of urban guerillas who hold LED-lit slogans in various spots of the state, ridiculing Governor Scott Walker and his lackeys, until the cops arrive. But where is it going?

A little back story is useful here. Many MR readers will remember that the excitement began with the surprise, so-called “budget repair” bills put through in February 2011 by newly empowered Republicans in the state legislature and led by the governor. They stripped state workers of their historic union rights. Overnight, it became clear that this was a test case for a national right-wing agenda that included not only union workers but water safety, education, health care for the poor, and a wide range of gifts to business. It also contained strategies such as “Voter ID” to limit or practically eliminate challenges to the new agenda, and by the end of the legislative session in spring 2012, expanded to include assaults upon reproductive rights, sex education, and the ability of women to sue for job discrimination.

The fightback has been, from the beginning until now, pretty astonishing, and not only in scope. Fourteen Democratic Senators fled the state in February 2011 as protesters occupied the Capitol building (a circle of AFSCME members from Janesville actually surrounded, through the nights, a bust of the great Robert M. La Follette, Wisconsin governor-turned-U.S. senator, who championed peace and social justice in the first years of the twentieth century). Then a series of protest marches and rallies continued that rose to 150,000 in a city of about 200,000. In small towns, industrial areas, and resort villages across the state there were also protests of many kinds, often with grassroots humor of the Wisconsin sort (jokes about cheese curds, beer, and the Packers). The hapless, stupid-looking governor, mere tool of corporate interests, could not even host a party on any lake without boats buzzing near with insulting protest signs!

Some observers, out-of-towners, and local Wobblies alike, steeped in labor history, believed that a General Strike should have been attempted at the outset. From my own observations, the state workers, disproportionately women and mainly teachers and health workers, treated the “General Strike” signs as a warning rather than a strategy. For that reason, the protests flowed more naturally into the summer campaign to recall the governor and his closest followers in the Senate, with massive numbers of signatures gathered by an educational and mobilization campaign of unprecedented size and energy.

To complicate matters, Democrats and labor leaders both acted with an inconsistency that eluded easy generalizations. Some office-holding politicians took to the local struggles with great energy, idealism, and considerable self-sacrifice, providing the kind of leadership that was fairly common in the 1930s and ‘40s CIO days, when progressive Democrats were allied closely with the left. Others behaved in all too predictable fashion, never happy with the occupation of the Capitol, eager to disperse the big crowds into the districts, and no doubt a bit nervous about the evocative song lyrics frequently heard in the Capitol, which were crystal clear in the closing lines: “Take the two old parties, Mister/No difference in them I can see/But with a real Progressive Party/We could set the people free.” Falling back into thinking historically, I often felt that the mobilization around me recalled the Henry Wallace campaign of 1948, which was doomed by Trumanism but heroic in its efforts. Senator Glen Taylor, Wallace’s running mate, was himself a political folk singer and Pete Seeger, whose spirit is heard regularly in Madison’s Solidarity Singalong, was a Wallace champion.

The same ambivalence could be sensed in the labor leadership. Twenty years since progressives had taken charge of leadership, especially in Madison’s Dane County, the labor movement sought to recover from the setbacks of plant closings by alliances which were previously unthinkable. Minorities, undocumented workers, and gay and lesbian activists have been invited to the smaller table and helped shape the generosity of the response to the new challenges. Indeed, the sense that “labor” represents society at large owes much to the decades of efforts of unions among others to improve education, health, and related parts of the necessary public commitment to Wisconsin’s future. The labor mobilization flagged badly since the dramatic spring events, contrary to what we might have expected (or hoped) until a huge labor-sponsored turnout in early March 2012 temporarily restored a sense of the original impulse. Measured against what we might have anticipated, the labor movement did not do so badly. It might have done vastly better.

Where is it all going now? One way to ask this inescapable question is to begin with another: Where did it come from? The two books under review present very different perspectives on this, and each is worth careful consideration. Within the logic of the two volumes may even be found the big questions, the ones that bestir and provoke readers into wondering whether our moment has at last arrived (again). As a reviewer with my own views (and my own anthology on Wisconsin events), I do not claim either argument to be so grand and convincing that it drives the other into nullity.

John Nichols—correspondent for The Nation, frequent guest on MSNBC’s Ed Show, and author most recently of the The S” Word, calling for the return of “socialism” to the American vocabulary—offers the voice of historic progressivism, updated. He finds the thread of radical democracy deep in the national fabric, all the way back to Tom Paine and (with reservations) James Madison, and forward through reform traditions, Robert LaFollette and Franklin D. Roosevelt alike (if not by any means identical). Nichols’s argument, hinged upon the defense of Wisconsin traditions against the onrush of Republican ultra-conservatives (backed and quarterbacked by a collection of out-of-state billionaires and their friends), may be called a non-Marxist but emphatically left-wing traditionalism, close to the cultural and coalition-building edge of the Popular Front (but without the Russian strings attached).

Whatever else can be said about Uprising, Nichols is a brilliant writer. I am reminded of Beyond a Boundary and even The Black Jacobins, two key works by my political mentor C.L.R. James, because James had begun as a novelist and never quite ceased to write like one. Nichols is a journalist from start to finish, but he tells stories of struggle with so much wit and verve that the book is almost impossible to put down. It rehearses some key elements of The “S” Word but in a mostly Wisconsin context, also rehearsing some arguments from his collaboration with Robert McChesney in The Death and Life of American Journalism. None of this makes Uprising less original; rather, it is a fast-moving synthesis of themes. It comes to a conclusion with a warning that could not be more clear:

There’s no confusing a Barack Obama with Franklin Roosevelt. But those who would dare to dream that Democrats might yet be turned toward a more aggressively progressive and militantly pro-labor politics would be wise to note the lesson of history and of Wisconsin. Organized labor must recognize that the hard work of building independent movements in the states remains the best route to changing the politics of the nation.

Wisconsin Uprising is a fine companion volume. No anthology can properly be expected to rest upon a single view comparable to that of Nichols’s. But this lively collection, edited by Michael Yates, tilts heavily in a contrasting direction. Taken at large, the writers (Connor Donegan, Andrew Sernatinger, Lee Sustar, Dan La Botz, Frank Emspak, Rand Wilson, Steve Early, Jane Slaughter, Mark Brenner, Stephanie Luce, Elly Leary, Michael Hurley, Sam Ginden, David Bacon, Jon Flanders, Michael Zweig, Fernando Gaspasin, and editor Yates) see Wisconsin as a microcosm in a less sentimental way. Capitalism, transformed into financialism of a global kind, is pressing the working class everywhere in search of further profits, and Wisconsin provides the test case of response.

As Allen Ruff has observed in a related review published in Against the Current (of the Yates and Buhle’s collections of essays and documents), two of the outstanding essays here are written by younger activists, Connor Donegan and Andrew Sernatinger, both keen to the bipartisan nature of the state’s response to the recent recession. Giving into business through cutback after cutback, while all but rewarding corporations about to leave the state anyway, the Democrats prepared their own doom while Republicans, as elsewhere in the country, seized the opportunity with a vengeance. The new ruling party was supposed to play ball in the familiar fashion. Instead, they not only passed sweeping legislation against labor, they also launched an unprecedented attack on women’s reproductive rights, among other late-session spring 2012 measures, and made every effort to seal in their power through voting rights legislation, again a near carbon copy of measures in other states. Democrats were caught flat-footed in no small part because they had been so cooperative—toward both Republicans and business.

Other essays notable to this reviewer offer a keen chronology of the complicated series of events (Frank Emspak’s contribution); a fateful commentary on the struggle for union survival (by Steve Early and Rand Wilson); and a hopeful projection by several authors, notably Dan LaBotz, that Wisconsin may possibly mark the opening of a new phase of labor strategy.

The evidence, growing in density from the completion of these books to the spring 2012, can certainly be read in this fashion. The major thrust of the recall effort was, after all, electoral (or perhaps anti-electoral) in the sense of overturning the 2010 vote through mass signature-gathering, preparations of candidates for the recall round of voting, and a certain degree of celebration of seemingly small victories offering hopeful signs against the inevitable onslaught of Republican campaign spending ahead; but it actually promised more illusions, disappointments, and betrayals down the line. The victories were very real; for instance the defeat of a disastrous open pit mining bill, thanks to the recall of two Republican senators last summer and the defection of another, protected precious waters in the north vital to Indian reservations. On the strength of the recall mobilization, the April elections saw the Republicans virtually wiped from the Dane County governing Board. These were victories that might easily have portended betrayal, as Democrats retreated into business as usual.

Walker’s nine-point victory on the back of heavily funded media blitzes—far more than any other campaign in state history, especially directed to delegitimize the validity of the state’s recall provision dating from the LaFollette era—was accompanied by the sobering news that nearly 40 percent of union households, plus all of the state’s thirteen poorest counties, voted for the state’s most right-wing gubernatorial candidate in recent history. The role of religious conservatives in working-class life, both Catholic officials and evangelical Protestant leaders, certainly played a role, with reproductive rights and even sex education at stake. So did the pervasiveness of right-wing talk radio and Fox News. But the successful media positioning of the state’s white Christian voters against Milwaukee (i.e., nonwhite) and Madison (i.e., counter-culture, gays, lesbians, and bike lanes) was not to be underrated. Nor was the sense in small towns that state workers—who were still unionized after the factories had shut down, taking private sector unions with them—were the privileged minority, along with presumably high-living teachers, school custodians, and so on. The right had also apparently sold large numbers of Wisconsin workers on the eradication of environmental protections as an obstacle to growth and jobs.

The prospects ahead are daunting, despite the single recall victory in June that brought the state Senate, at least temporarily, under a Democratic majority. And yet the struggles of 2011 are not far behind us. Progressives new to the political process, most especially women from ordinary walks of life, have announced themselves as future candidates—no small sign of mobilization. An indictment on assorted charges may well await the governor, a prospect that could turn state politics upside-down. There are enough other uncertainties to keep the Wisconsin left working and hoping.

It would be easy to read too much into the lines from labor songs heard several times per week inside the Capitol or outside. I recently sang these verses with a crowd of a hundred around “Lady Liberty” (a statue created by a Wisconsin woman sculptor in the 1890s):

Now the lessons of the past were all
Learned with workers’ blood
The mistakes of the bosses’
We must pay for
From the cities to the farmlands
To trenches full with blood
War has always been the bosses way, sir.
The Union forever
Defending our rights
Down with Scott Walker
All workers unite
With our brothers and our sisters
From many far off lands,
There is power in the Union.

That is to say: we reaffirm our determination in the face of all odds. Read these books and stay tuned!