Will Walker get the boot?

December 1, 2011

Madison activist Andrew Cole welcomes the campaign to recall Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker--but argues that the Democrats have an anti-worker agenda of their own.

NOVEMBER 15 marked the official start of the campaign to recall Gov. Scott Walker, the corporate stooge whose aggressive public-sector union-busting sparked a three-week occupation of the Wisconsin State Capitol in February and March as well as the biggest labor demonstrations the U.S. had seen in decades.

Organizers now have 60 days to gather more than 500,000 signatures to trigger an election. They have set an ambitious goal--gather 1.2 million signatures to recall both Scott Walker and Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch.

Months after last winter's mobilization, the tremendous energy that erupted in Wisconsin last winter is still there. Activists gathered over 100,000 signatures in the first week alone, and a November 19 kickoff rally in front of the Capitol building in Madison drew nearly 40,000 people. It was the largest demonstration in Madison since March 12, when more than 100,000 people rallied in opposition to Walker's union-busting legislation that had passed three days earlier. The law effectively eliminates public-sector bargaining rights and imposes sharply higher costs on workers to pay for health care and pensions.

Protesters gathered for a rally to to kick off the campaign to recall Gov. Scott Walker
Protesters gathered for a rally to to kick off the campaign to recall Gov. Scott Walker (Karen Hickey)

The protest movement ended in March by turning away from struggle in favor of an effort to recall six Republican state senators.

The state senate was the focal point of last February's struggle when the 14-member Democratic caucus fled the state to prevent a quorum and block passage of the bill in its original form. Walker's operatives in the state Senate then reworked the anti-union bill in order to pass it without a quorum, violating numerous laws to clear the Capitol of protesters and ram through a vote without any Democratic senators present.

In response, labor fixed on the recall strategy to deprive that Republicans of their majority in the Wisconsin legislature's upper house. Republicans responded in kind, targeting three Democratic senators for recall.

When the results of the recall elections came in, labor's effort fell short. The Republicans lost two seats, but retained a one-seat majority in the state Senate.

This time, the unions hope that the widespread opposition to Walker will both oust the governor, as well as four additional Republican state senators.

THE RECALL of Scott Walker and his henchmen in the state legislature is something we can all get behind. I will happily put my name on any petition that means Walker will face an election in which he must take direct responsibility for what his administration did. They ought to be held accountable for their brutal assault on the living standards of Wisconsin's working class.

The recall may even succeed in replacing Walker. Both the widespread support for the Occupy movement and the rejection of a similar union-busting measure in Ohio in a November 8 referendum shows that grassroots politics in the U.S. is shifting left.

But this doesn't absolve the movement of responsibility when it comes time to evaluating the politics of Walker's potential replacement.

Certainly, the targeting of the Republican state senators speaks to a desire among Wisconsin's union officialdom and many progressive activists that is about more than holding Walker and his cronies accountable for what happened earlier this year. It's part of a plan to return control of the state Senate and the governor's office to the Democratic Party.

Despite attempts to keep the coalition broad and politically independent, the Democrats' fingerprints are all over the recall campaign. The state party is bringing its full resources to bear on the petitioning drive, and is working closely with United Wisconsin, the official organizing committee for the recall effort.

The prospect of a genuine left-wing candidate emerging in such an environment is slim. The Democratic Party is calmly waiting in the wings to serve the 1 percent should the recall succeed in toppling Walker.

A passing glance at the record of the Wisconsin Democrats clearly demonstrates they are hardly friends of public-sector workers. Before Walker, Wisconsin's previous governor, Democrat Jim Doyle, and a state legislature controlled by many of the same Democrats who fled the state in February, passed a 2009 budget that included a two-year pay freeze, increased health care contributions and 16 furlough days for state workers.

As mayor of Milwaukee, Tom Barrett--Walker's 2010 opponent and a prospective opponent in a recall election--aggressively fought the teachers unions to force $100 million in cuts in what he called "waste." The "waste" included retirement and health benefits for Milwaukee Public School workers.

And even more recently, the Democrats running in the summer recall campaigns retreated from the militancy of the Capitol protests to run cookie-cutter campaigns centered on "middle class" rhetoric and the personal failings of their opponents. They barely made a peep about the value of public-sector unions or the importance of organized labor or collective bargaining--the very issues that triggered the recall elections in the first place!

In the end, this cold political calculus didn't pay off. The Democrats were unable to walk the tightrope of appeasing their corporate masters while whipping up enough support with fake populism to energize their base and thus failed to take back the state senate in August.

The roster of potential opponents for Walker is similarly disappointing even from the standpoint of the Democratic Party.

Many had pinned their hopes on former U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold, the only candidate with any semblance of progressive credentials. But despite the chants of "Run, Russ, Run!" after he spoke at the November 19 recall kickoff rally Feingold has repeatedly stated he has no intention of challenging Walker.

Nationwide, the record of Democrats in office is even more grim. While the results of the 2010 midterm elections forced Republicans to take responsibility for implementing austerity in Wisconsin, Democratic governors in liberal strongholds like Massachusetts and New York are carrying out their own attacks on public workers in their states, targeting health care benefits and pensions, just like Walker.

THIS IS an important lesson for the movement of workers and students that emerged from the Capitol protests. When it comes to electoral politics and wheeling and dealing in the halls of power, the 1 percent has the home field advantage. If we want to win, we need to fight on our turf, with our tactics: civil disobedience, mass street protests and the workers' ultimate weapon, the strike.

That's why it's important to remember that the Wisconsin movement wasn't born of electoral politics, but emerged from the creativity and independence of the rank and file.

The spark that lit the Wisconsin rebellion was industrial action. After members of Madison Teachers Inc. had a sickout February 17 and turned out en masse at the Capitol, leaders of their parent union, the 98,000-member Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC), called upon the entire membership to skip work and come to Madison.

Tens of thousands more union members managed to come to the Capitol on a regular basis, some also calling in sick or using vacation days. The building trades unions, whose members are being hammered by prolonged mass unemployment in the construction industry, were strongly represented from the outset.

Despite the demobilization and channeling of the movement's energies into the recalls, the independent spirit we saw during the Madison demonstrations has persisted in battles over free speech in the Capitol--as well as a 2,000-strong demonstration August 25, the day the cuts to state workers' benefits took effect, in which the rotunda was briefly re-occupied.

Occupy Wall Street, aside from drawing inspiration from the Egyptian occupation of Tahrir Square and the indignados who occupied public space in Spain and Greece to resist the austerity measures of their own governments, was directly influenced by the occupation of the Capitol in February and March. I had the opportunity to visit Zuccotti Park in October along with several other Wisconsinites, and can personally attest to the inspiration and solidarity that the Occupy movement takes from the Wisconsin fight.

The Occupy struggle should remind us of the potential showed by the Wisconsin movement. On March 9, the night the anti-labor bill was passed, thousands of kindergarten teachers, union construction workers, coffee baristas, socialists and unemployed united to storm the Capitol. Calls for a general strike rang out in the rotunda.

The question for the movement that emerged from the Capitol protests shouldn't be "Who can we put in power to make things right?" Instead, it ought to be "How can we rekindle the fire of February and March to rebuild a fighting labor movement, one united with the wider community in the struggle to defend the public sector?"

With a strong, politically independent movement creating immense pressure from below the question won't be which of the two corporate parties sits in the governor's office. A struggle in the streets, in our schools, and in our workplaces will put the battle on our terms. And in that kind of struggle, the power lies with us.

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