Wednesday, December 5, 2012

“Wisconsin Uprising Labor Fights Back” Book Review by Chris White

above:  In his work 'Wisconsin Uprising - Labor Fights Back - Michael Yates puts the case for labour movement militancy against austerity and abrogation of the rights of labour. The struggle for workers rights and public sector jobs in Wisconsin, America, mobilised tens and tens of thousands.  And in this book review of Yates' work - Australian labour movement authority and activist, Chris White examines the lessons from that struggle, including those lessons relevant for the labour movement in Australia as well.

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“Wisconsin Uprising Labor Fights Back edited by Michael D Yates (Monthly Review Press)
Book Review by Chris White

In February 2011 at the same time as millions were rising up in Tunisia and Egypt in the ‘Arab Spring’, the workers’ uprising in Wisconsin with 150,000 militantly protesting and the occupation by union members and social justice activists of the state capitol in Madison electrified and inspired the US labor movement.

Wisconsin workers showed their colossal display of solidarity and outrage after decades of union passivity and defeat.

In Part One, ‘On the Ground in Madison’ five chapters record the excitement. Michael D. Yates:

‘First, as one who was there much of the time and who participated as one of the throng, not as a leader, there was most definitely something special happening, and everyone present knew it. For much of my adult life the actual prospects for social change seemed slender…The Wisconsin protests reaffirmed what many Americans had forgotten or never knew: that when people come together in solidarity directed toward social justice they are capable of great sacrifice and unrivaled joy. When there is a sense of solidarity, of hope, of dynamism, everything changes. The feeling this engenders, this bonding, is like breathing fresh air for the first time.’

Workers responded to the ruthless ruling class assault by ‘Tea Party’ rightwing Republican Governor Walker destroying collective bargaining rights and public sector services.
Connor Donegan in the first of 16 chapters in ‘Disciplining Labor, Dismantling Democracy: Rebellion and Control in Wisconsin’ describes Walker’s Budget ‘Repair’ Bill:

 “It was a monstrosity designed to destroy public sector unions, expand executive power over all government agencies, and slash health and social services by $50 million while restricting eligibility, raising fees, and excluding undocumented workers. He also aimed to privatize public utilities in no-bid sales.

…the entire public sector will be ‘right to work’, the state will no longer deduct union dues from paychecks, contracts will expire if union representatives fail to receive support from a majority of members in annual elections, employees’ contributions to pensions will increase to half the actuarial costs, and collective bargaining will be limited to wages. Certain university and health care workers will have no right to organize whatsoever. The legislation promised to land a deadly blow to all of Wisconsin’s public sector unions, on top of an immediate drop in take-home pay totaling roughly $1 billion each year.

…an equally monumental offensive on public education is pushing its way into law….that will defund public schools while establishing a parallel system of private schools, funded by the state.

…Then the downward pressure on public sector wages and conditions and taking away union collective bargaining rights.’

Connor Donegan gives begins with the occupation of the Madison capitol building with some 300 teachers and students attending the public sessions of the Budget ‘Repair’ Bill, and then calling on others to attend. They did in their thousands.

‘On February 15th 2011 700 students marching in the snow for miles to join an already huge number of 10,000 protesters, with teachers already organizing rallies, and the Wisconsin Education Association calling out for sick days teachers and the closing of schools, and then this infecting others with urgency and militancy. When the Senate was to vote those occupying organized blockades of doors and stairways and the Democrats left the Chamber and the State to try to ensure there was no quorum to vote and the police were powerless. Left groups demands of ‘Tax the Rich’ and ‘No Concessions’ became popular. But Governor Walker tactically changed so that a quorum was not needed and the Bill was ready to pass.

Despite calls for a strike, union leaders backed down arguing for a movement to collect signatures for an electoral recall of Republican Senators.

Despite the following days seeing 150,000 rallying, the scene was set for the mass movement to follow the Democrats down the electoral path, while many new solidarity actions and groups and large May Day rallies followed, the efforts were on the raising of signatures for successful recalls but ended in by-elections that disappointingly fell short by one of ending the Republicans’ Senate majority…(I add as well, after this book was published, the result of the mobilization to recall Walker, saw him later defeat his Democrat opponent.)

After the measures became law, public sector unions offered concessions on wages and conditions in return for their existence, but Walker refused winning the day getting both.’

‘Subjecting public sector workers to such conditions is a central component of the ruling class’s strategy to manage capitalism’s crisis. This is the same worldwide with “austerity measures” on working people while the rich and corporations do not bear the burden, and the high unemployment has the labour market disciplining workers further.’

In the Afterward, after the Wisconsin uprising, Michael D. Yates is encouraged by militant actions of the left OWS movement targeting the 1% ruling class:

‘One especially important opening is the possible alliance between those who are organizing OWS efforts and the labor movement.’ He recounts unions both joining OWS and attempting to co-opt the struggle. 

In Ohio a referendum defeated similar anti-union legislation.

In Oakland, the OWS and unions shut the port of Oakland with controversial debates. ‘Another problem is that organized labor has to confront legally binding collective bargaining agreements and a hostile labor law that usually prohibits various kinds of strikes and solidarity action. The ILWU, for example, has issued a statement saying, “To be clear, the ILWU, the Coast Longshore Division and Local 21 are not coordinating independently or in conjunction with any self-proclaimed organization or group to shut down any port or terminal, particularly as it relates to our dispute with EGT in Longview [Wash].” Members were advised as well that a public demonstration was not a picket line as defined by the collective bargaining agreement.’ 

Left socialist mobilisation was evident and how to develop class unionism is back on the agenda debated by a number of writers in the 16 chapters.

Chapters include analysis by Andrew Sernatinger on ‘Capitalist Crisis and the Wisconsin Uprising’ providing the context of the 2008 capitalist financial and public debt crisis and the Wisconsin response. He gives his account of the events, the first week mobilization without union and Democrat leaders and then the drama of the occupation of the capitol, the debates on whether to strike or not and assessment of in the end the lack of capacity of the working class to sustain the action.

‘After decades of neoliberal attacks and union demobilization, there was a serious lack of working-class organization, historic memory, and collective experience. Most people who showed up in February and March had never been to a protest in their lives, and fewer had been part of a strike. If there had been another strike of any kind, it would have been miraculous, but a general strike was solely a point of agitation; even so, it should give us pause that throughout the struggles in France and Greece the mass strikes that did materialize were not capable of repelling austerity measures.

 In the Wisconsin moment, there were no standing networks of rank-and-file unionists who could agitate to make it more likely that their unions would do what was needed to navigate a militant course for the movement.

Nor were there channels for community members and unorganized workers to meet and develop their own plans.

 …Despite setbacks and defeats, each struggle informs the next in kind, and statements of solidarity are sent from place to place in an understanding of common struggle. If we learn something from these places, it is that a radically democratic, “from below” orientation is not just a good idea or something we would like to see, but critically necessary for success in the battles to come. There is no simple move or strategy to take us out of this situation, but clearly we will have to prepare ourselves for patient, committed organizing and movement building.’

Lee Sustar in ’Who Were the Leaders of the Wisconsin Uprising?’ gives a detailed recounting of actions of rank and file unionists, from every sector of organized labor both public and private. Lee argues the recent Wisconsin history of resistance in the private sector helps explains why workers acted in solidarity. Public sector unions had to fight against former Democrat cutbacks.

 Militant unionists debated with union leaders over concessions or not, for more rallies and to widen the fight broader than collective bargaining. Appeals for strike action are hotly pressed with discussion on how to build a general strike - but not taken up. The turn to electoral recall politics is contested.

 ‘After a thirty year anti-union offensive by corporate America and its public sector counterparts, there is at last a two-sided class war.’

Dan La Botz in a ‘A New American Workers’ Movement Has Begun’ develops the important rise of service and public sector workers and their unions, combined with Wisconsin’s history of union struggle.

 He argues…’when a real labor movement arises, that is, a movement not merely of thousands or even tens of thousands but millions, it necessarily becomes transformative. Labor union officials who hesitate, who waver, or who knuckle under will soon find themselves challenged by new, younger leaders who will either force those officials to fight or push them aside. Such a movement will change the unions—often by changing the leadership first and sometime by changing the very institutions themselves….’

He recalls the debates over union leaders who channeled worker mobilization into the electoral recalls and to support the Democrats. One difficult debate is that of developing a party for working people. 

Frank Emspak analyses the right wing media appalling ‘reports’ but also importantly left media channels presenting the workers’ account. He tells of much of the excitement in the struggle, how workers organised and the efforts needed in the recall campaigns where all the eggs were put in this basket.

 ‘The Lessons of Wisconsin’ are summarized in the beginning of Part Two:
Grassroots, rank-and-file organization is critical to the success of any program of action; workers should always seize the moment and stay on the offensive as long as possible; compromise with capital is futile, given that capital wants the whole ball of wax and the working class is disorganized, confused, and insecure, easily manipulated and exploited; aggressive actions such as strikes are never outdated; traditional labor politics is a problem for and not a solution to the plight of workers; and workers always have power, whether they are in unions or not. A key lesson of Wisconsin is that a radically new labor movement will have to be built, from the ground up, if successful class struggle is to be waged.’

Rand Wilson and Steve Early in ‘Union Survival Strategies in Open Shop America’ survey how unions survive right-wing Republican anti-union States. They show the problems of public service unions with union dues dependence and workers as passive consumers of services who are not surviving. Where laws take away collective bargaining rights, they recount examples of how unions can survive with democratic organization and centres of mobilization for workers’ needs.

 Stephanie Luce in ‘What can we learn from Wisconsin’ promotes 5 lessons.

1. Mobilizing a Fightback Takes Organization

‘But despite some claims to the contrary, the upsurges are not built from scratch on Facebook and Twitter. No doubt these are tools that organizers can use, but whether it’s Egypt or Wisconsin, the large-scale protests were built upon existing movement infrastructure and organization.

Madison is well known as a center of antiwar and student organizing in the 1960s and 1970s, and the city and state had a progressive tradition long before that. In the 1990s, Wisconsin unions and community groups built Progressive Wisconsin, a statewide independent third party connected to the national New Party.’ She recounts more radical history of struggle.

‘…The key point is that the structures of organizations were in place. Though they are not all strong, they have access to resources, including politicians and staff in the legislature, steward systems in the unions, long lists of contacts, and some independent media. …activists sometimes want to find some kind of technical solution or magic bullet to organizing, and though the Internet and blogs can be useful, they cannot take the place of good old-fashioned person-to-person outreach and organizational structures.’


2. The Right Wing is making this the Fight of a Lifetime.

‘The Republicans have employed a number of other outrageous tactics.
I am not saying this to suggest Democrats don’t also pull dirty tricks. I am simply pointing it out to remind us that the opposition may stop at nothing to push their agenda. Just as organizers do during a unionization campaign, we need to be prepared to inoculate potential supporters—warning them of the range of tricks the opposition will likely try, including ones that are illegal.’

3. We have to be Bold.

‘Because the right has been so powerful, the left has often been timid, afraid of alienating “the middle” and losing everything. We temper our demands to sound “reasonable” but usually end up just ceding all ground. The protests in Madison did not start from a position of “reasonable.” Graduate students and public school teachers marched to the capitol to demand, “Kill the Bill.” They did not wait to see what focus groups or polls said about their message.

The head of the state’s largest police union defied orders to kick out the
protesters at one point, saying that despite what the legislature told them, they knew the difference between right and wrong.

 The solidarity was not just between unions. The protests against the bill were from workers angry about cuts in their health care and attacks on their unions, but also from thousands of people worried about the impact of the bill on public services overall.

…Protesters did not just oppose Walker’s plan, but asserted, “We are Wisconsin”—that public employees themselves, along with their allies, were the heart and soul of the state. In this way they did not start by ceding ground to the Tea Party/Republican mantra of smaller or no government.

…Of course, not all participants took such a bold stand. Leaders of the large statewide unions immediately and unilaterally agreed to the fiscal concessions in Walker’s proposal, against the wishes of local leaders and members. …Some Democratic Party officials tried to get the protesters occupying the capitol to leave so that others could negotiate a settlement…and tried to convince protesters to leave things in the hands of the lawyers pursuing legal challenges.

But the message here is that taking a bold stand can often build more support than pragmatic leaders might have you believe. …The realm of what is possible can change quickly. …There is also a lesson for political leaders, and this is that you sometimes need to step out of the way of the members…The status quo is against us, and many of the rules are not in our favor. Building a fightback movement will require us to disrupt the status quo, to break the rules, and to take risks.’

4. Hold Politicians Accountable from the Left

‘This highlights the question of accountability. One thing we learned in third-party work in Wisconsin and which the Tea Party seems to highlight is the need for a left pole: social movements and organizations that steadfastly make demands for what is necessary, and not just what is possible.’

 As well amongst the left…’ I am not saying that the differences in positions do not matter, because they do. …But instead of focusing so much energy on trying to persuade one another, we need to spend a lot more time talking to the millions of people who do not usually engage in political organizations and actions.’

5. Our Movement has to be Inclusive.

‘One of the reasons the Wisconsin fightback was inspirational is because it was so broad. Whereas the trigger point for many was the attack on collective bargaining, the protests were about more than that. The protesters at the capitol did not just talk about their unions, but about a whole way of life in Wisconsin. Teachers’ rights were connected to students learning.  Public sector bargaining was attached to the bigger vision of democratic rule. Unfortunately, too many of our unions have become narrowly focused on the immediate needs of their members.’

‘We are fighting for a democratic society in all aspects, and where our economy is centered around human need. We are for fighting collective problems with collective solutions. We cannot accept the lure of framing our demands to play best with focus groups or highlighting only the most “respectable” parts of our movement. This will only serve to divide us and then weaken us, and to limit our dreams.’

Recurring themes are that US unions have too much political reliance on the Democrats. Often Democrats in government fail to protect the public sector, go down the privatization road, and do not defend union collective bargaining rights. Michael D. Yates:

 ‘The Democratic Party has delivered next to nothing to labor for decades, except the knowledge that Democrats are not Republicans. Labor and progressives have been triangulated…Both options, it is now obvious, are dead-end streets, and the Wisconsin revolt only crystallized the point.’

The US politics is now consumed with the election and whoever wins the Presidency - and I believe Romney has to be defeated and Obama re-elected, even though he did not deliver for improved workers’ rights - many workers are now more schooled in these struggles and debate alternatives.  


Part three is on broadening and deepening the struggle. Key debates are on whether public sector unions struggling will survive or re-bound, changed, membership driven and militant. After Wisconsin, the September 2012 Chicago teachers 7 day strike won against Democrat Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who wanted to erode the power of the union insisting on concessions and advancing a billionaire backed “education reform” agenda. The Chicago teachers’ win shows union direct action and militancy grows – see

Michael Hurley and Sam Gindin in ‘The Assault on Public Services: Will Unions Lament the Attacks or Fight Back’ using Canadian experiences has important challenges for our public sectors in struggle now against the same right-wing policies. 

‘... We are living in one of those historic moments that cry out for rallying the working class to build new capacities, new solidarities, and concrete hope. The crucial question is not how far the attacks on the public sector will go. The question is how far we will let them go. How will working-class activists inside and outside the unions respond?’

‘An effective response requires a social movement much stronger than we currently have; and this raises the issue of the attack on unions. We obviously need to fight back; we know from experience that if we don’t, it only invites the other side to be even more aggressive.

But given what we are up against—a state determined to change the rules—it’s also clear that “business as usual,” even if more militant, won’t be enough….

The point is that “politics” needs to be redefined as building the kind of working-class organizations and capacities that can ensure that our needs are taken seriously. This means public sector unions using their significant resources to advance a political agenda that includes the entire working class.’

I argue similarly that changes are needed in Australia for workplace and political organizing by public service unionists to take more strike action, militant community protest and with a class orientation.

David Bacon in ‘Marching Away from the Cold War’ reports on the necessity to involve millions of immigrant workers joining revived huge May Day rallies.

‘One sign carried in almost every May Day march of the last few years says it all: “We Are Workers, Not Criminals!” In the largest U.S. May Day event in 2011, marchers were joined by the public workers who had protested in Wisconsin. May Day marches and demonstrations over the last five years have provided a vehicle in which immigrants protest their lack of human rights and unions call for greater solidarity among workers facing the same corporate system. The marches are usually organized by grass-roots immigrant rights groups, which have been increasingly cooperating with labor unions and the AFL-CIO.’

Michael Zweig in ‘Seeking New Priorities as Labor Challenges War’ argues for the importance of US Labor against the War

and the unions’ campaign to shift military spending to health, education, housing, welfare priorities and impose a millionaires tax and tax on financial transactions. See Organizations like USLAW and New Priorities are necessary in Australia with US marines in Darwin and the upgrading of US bases in the containment for war with China.

Fernando  Gapasin details Union City experiences in ‘Building Communities of Solidarity’. Ellen Leary argues that ‘Wisconsin is overwhelmingly white, and most of the protesters were white. It is not possible to build a labor movement without the active participation and leadership of people of colour.’

 I met the ILWU International Longshore and Warehouse Union in San Francisco and learnt how this union implements “An Injury to One is an Injury to All”. The union takes militant direct action against the anti-union laws winning against a corporate attempt for a greenfield non-union site as recounted by Michael D. Yates ‘Class Warfare in Longview, Washington: “No Wisconsin Here”. The ILWU did not rely on the Democrats and class unionism was victorious.

I agree with editor Michael Yates. ‘These essays are outstanding. The accounts of the events in Madison in the winter and early spring of 2011 are the best I have seen in writing, with context, detail, and analysis…the connections of the Wisconsin revolt to the existential questions facing the labor movement are handled with a clarity, intelligence, perspective, and urgency that is exactly appropriate to the task. This book is a fundamental historical document in its own right and will stand the test of time. … The writers, high quality US labor journalists and scholars, on the ground at the time, examine the causes and impact of the revolt, and debate lessons to be learned by union leaders and left activists on how the labor movement might proceed in this new era of union militancy.’

These debates for Australian unionists and left activists are similarly pressing. Much of our corporate and LNP’s right-wing politics with state governments O’Farrell, Newman etc are from the same Republican tactics, no more so in their attack on workers rights and wages and conditions, their laws to destroy public sector unionism and savage ‘austerity’ cuts to public education, health, welfare etc services. Abbott as PM will try on the same attacks. See

The lessons for Australian workers and their unions are the same in developing the fight for mass struggle against this rich class assault. Like US unions, the ALP political dominance over unions, ‘laborism’ and voting in ALP governments in Australia demands a debate to change the politics of our unions.

 While Australian unions defend more strongly workers’ interests with wins with community unionism campaigning, like US unions, we are not developing class unionism - needed in the challenges working families face against the ruling class assault.

Michael D. Yates concludes: ‘Those of us who have written for this book have, to use Gramsci’s memorable phrase, always had an “optimism of the will.” It might be time for an “optimism of the intellect” as well.’

Connor ends with Rosa Luxemburg: ‘The organization does not supply the troops for the struggle, but the struggle, in an ever growing degree, supplies recruits for the organization.’

With this book we can join in the debates and assist in showing why workers struggle.

I posted reports on the uprising. I now have these chapters on my blog - search for ‘Wisconsin Uprising’.

Chris White worked for unions for 27 years and was Secretary of the UTLC of SA. He now lives in Darwin and is an Honorary Senior Research Fellow at The Northern Institute, Charles Darwin University.


1 comment:

  1. this seems to be taking the view that the USA actually has a mainstream left-wing movement which is not true, sure there are some pockets of resistance here and there by people like Wes Clark (Democrat) and Bernie Sanders (Independent) neither of these men will last forever indeed Bernie is almost 80 years old and was a Socialist before it became a profanity, the Social-Democratic Party and the Green Party need to start grassroots campaigning and they also need to infiltrate these unions because collectively they're about as useful as a catflap in an elephant house


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