How the Democrats blew it

June 14, 2012

Andrew Cole reports from Madison on how Gov. Scott Walker held onto his job.

"SPARE ME the spin. This was a whupping." So begins Progressive magazine editor Matt Rothschild's post-mortem of the Wisconsin gubernatorial recall, and it's hard to disagree.

On June 5, Wisconsin's Republican Gov. Scott Walker survived a recall election with 53 percent of the vote, managing to slightly widen his margin of victory from 2010 in a closely watched rematch against Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, the Democratic candidate.

In February 2011, Walker provoked mass demonstrations at the state Capitol building in Madison with a proposal--contained in what was called a "budget repair bill"--to restrict the collective bargaining rights of state workers to negotiating raises capped at the pace of inflation, while simultaneously cutting their benefits and slashing millions of dollars in funding for public education and social services.

The weeks of sustained protest that followed included an occupation of the Capitol and four days of teacher sick-outs and student walkouts that shut down schools in Madison and eventually around the state. Walker and his lieutenants in the legislature succeeded in passing the legislation despite the absence of the necessary quorum.

Wisconsin Gov. Scot Walker
Wisconsin Gov. Scot Walker (Jeffrey A. Rohloff)

How did Wisconsin's nascent anti-austerity movement go from storming the Capitol and shutting down public schools to such a humiliating defeat at the ballot box?

In the final days of the Capitol occupation, there was a palpable sentiment for escalating the struggle among wide numbers of participants, including even mass strike action. But without organization and the funding to develop it, or a strong tradition of workplace organizing, this was steam without an engine box to contain it.

The Democratic Party--famously known as "the graveyard of social movements"--played its predictable role in channeling the fightback against austerity into a lackluster electoral campaign geared towards putting another one of their empty suits in power. And they didn't even win.

Barrett, the unlikely standard-bearer for the uprising, is a milquetoast candidate on a good day. On a bad one, he represents the "kinder, gentler" form of austerity that public workers have experienced in states like California, New York, Illinois and Massachusetts, where Democrats hold the governor's office.

As mayor of Milwaukee, Barrett even made use of Walker's union-busting legislation to increase health care contributions for municipal workers, a fact that the right-wing Wisconsin Club for Growth gleefully used against him on billboards around the city.

In fact, this was just one more jab in a long history of dust-ups with Milwaukee's teachers union and other public workers. Barrett's record on organized labor was why union leaders flushed $4 million down the toilet in backing Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk against him in the Democratic primary--in spite of the fact that Falk bragged about winning concessions from public-sector workers without taking away their collective bargaining rights completely.

Barrett's performance on the campaign trail is exactly what we've come to expect from establishment Democrats. Any appeal that might have evoked the angry spirit of Wisconsin's historic protests was replaced by mealy-mouthed appeals for unity and "healing the divide" in Wisconsin.

Mahlon Mitchell, a Madison firefighter and the first African American president of the Professional Fire Fighters of Wisconsin, was the Democrats' choice for lieutenant governor. During the winter 2011 revolt against Walker, Mitchell became a symbol of the anger against Walker--he was a popular speaker throughout the uprising. But in the recall campaign, he spoke in the same weak language as Barrett.

Rather than framing the campaign in terms of the class struggle that erupted in Wisconsin a year before--or even articulating a consistent defense of unions--Mitchell served mostly as a foil to assuage the fears of those who were less than enthusiastic about Barrett's candidacy.

THIS LOSS is a harsh lesson for Wisconsin workers, but it's one that some commentators are doing their best to make sure we don't learn from. Walker's overwhelming financial advantage and the hesitance of the national Democratic Party to commit serious resources to winning the recall certainly played a role--and underscores the fact that electoral politics is treacherous terrain for any movement that seeks to reign in the power and wealth of the 1 percent.

But these factors alone can't explain what happened--any better than a focus on Tom Barrett's personal shortcomings as a candidate. The deeper problem is the fundamental weakness of any strategy for change that doesn't put working class solidarity and political independence from the twin parties of capital front and center.

As Charity Schmidt, a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and incoming co-president of the Teaching Assistant's Association (TAA), pointed out, the power of the Capitol uprising was rooted in a movement that went "beyond the interests of organized labor to address health care for all, voting rights, education funding and accessibility, housing rights, immigration rights and so on."

Rather than stand at the head of a movement that spoke for workers as a class, labor leaders fell back into their decades-old alliance with the Democrats--and even then, they were unable to pressure Barrett to make a forthright defense of collective bargaining rights.

In an essay detailing the history of the Wisconsin uprising,'s Lee Sustar wrote:

[F]rom the beginning, most Wisconsin public-sector labor leaders showed more interest in preserving their union apparatus than defending the interests of rank-and-file members. They accepted at the outset Walker's case that major cuts in public-sector health care and pensions were necessary to balance Wisconsin's budget deficit, and confined their demands to the preservation of collective bargaining and dues check-off. Thus, union leaders were mostly silent on the other anti-worker provisions of the bill--such as severe cuts in Medicaid and BadgerCare, the state health program for low-income people, and the privatization of the University of Wisconsin's flagship Madison campus.

This failure of leadership helps explain why the right-wing myth that public-sector workers constitute a privileged class that should bear the brunt of sacrifices continues to have so much purchase. As left-wing economist Doug Henwood notes, "[T]wice as many people (68 percent) think that unions help mostly their members as think they help the broader population (34 percent)."

Labor leaders didn't just fail to make the case that Barrett ought to govern to unorganized workers. They couldn't even convince a significant chunk of their own members.

"I guarantee you will not see 39 percent voting for Walker in this election," Mahlon Mitchell said in an interview, when asked about the percentage of union households who voted for Walker in 2010. "There will be a huge sway in that vote. That would be like a chicken voting for Colonel Sanders."

In fact, according to exit polls, Walker's vote in union households only dropped to 36 percent in the recall, hardly the "huge sway" Mitchell and the Democrats had hoped would propel them into office.

The lesson from Wisconsin is clear--when the "party of the people" and its union allies won't make a forthright appeal for class solidarity, divide-and-conquer carries the day.

THE DECISION to take the Wisconsin struggle from the streets to the ballot box instead of into the workplace will go down in history as a significant mistake. The recall was a conscious effort to scale back the struggle of Wisconsin workers that frightened the Democrats and complacent union leaders, and channel it, instead, into an arena that these forces could understand.

In the process, millions of dollars and tens of thousands of volunteer hours were wasted at a time when class struggle was intensifying around the country and the world. Wisconsin activists largely ignored the explosive debut of Occupy Wall Street while they gathered signatures and campaigned for the recall. Machinists at Manitowoc Crane quietly lost their strike when fellow unionists crossed their picket lines. Months before, this struggle looked like a promising example of newfound solidarity in the months after the uprising.

It remains to be seen what will happen to Wisconsin's fighting mood after this defeat. For some activists, the Democrats' failure to unseat Walker was the last straw. "I'm sick of voting for the lesser of two evils," said Jenna Pope, who worked as an organizer for United Wisconsin recruiting volunteers to turn out the vote for Barrett. "We need to stop relying on politicians and do shit ourselves. Organize. Mobilize. Strike. Occupy. Take over."

The TAA, the graduate employees union that refused to endorse a Democrat in the recall, has issued a call for a sustained social movement following the election to "build a strong opposition to stave off continuing and new attacks against our university, our unions, and our quality of life."

Workers in Ashland and Milwaukee have hit the picket lines to defend their unions and demand the right to organize new ones. University of Wisconsin students will face yet another tuition hike this fall at a time when students in Quebec are showing the world how to fight back and win.

Inevitably, some people will draw even more conservative conclusions from this setback--that the recall tactic itself was too radical and alienated supporters. Or they will become more cynical about the possibility of challenging corporate power and the right-wing agenda.

These struggles in workplaces, on campuses in communities need to be a forum for discussing and learning the real lessons of the Wisconsin recall, and building the networks of solidarity that can be mobilized when the fight takes off again.

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