May Day International

Report from North America: The Wisconsin Rebellion and its Limits in a Global Context

by Paul Street

The first third of 2011 brought a great global and popular stirring - a burgeoning springtime of peoples blooming in technical advance of spring. The most dramatic, regime-toppling revolts have taken place in Tunisia and Egypt, where millions poured into the streets to end the reign of long-term U.S.-backed dictators. A wave of popular resistance has spread, 1848-style, to other states (Yemen, Bahrain, Kuwait, Iran Saudi Arabia, Libya, and, most recently, Syria) across the Middle Eastern and North African arc of despotism, giving the lie to what Tariq Ali calls “the absurd [Western] notion that Arabs or Muslims were hostile to [and incapable of -P.S.] democracy.”

Europe has chimed in with major rebellions against harsh public sector cutbacks and other austerity measures state capitalist governments have inflicted in the wake of the world financial crisis. Last February, 250,000 workers and citizens marched in numerous Greek towns chanting “no sacrifice for plutocracy.” A 24-hour strike by public and private sector employees grounded flights, closed schools and paralyzed public transport in Greece.  The Portuguese put 300,000 people on the streets of their country’s major cities to protest austerity measures on March 12 of this year.  And last March 26th, a remarkable 500,000 people hit the streets in London, England to protest the British government’s deep cuts in public services. More than a quarter of a million people marched through central London for “an alternative in which rich individuals and big companies have to pay all their tax,  the banks pay a Robin Hood tax and one in which we strain every sinew to create jobs”. 

Mid-February of 2011 brought a general strike to protest food price hikes in Bolivia.  All of Bolivia’s major cities—La Paz, Cochabamba, Santa Cruz and Oruro—were paralyzed as workers marched in city centers and blockaded roads and highways to demand that the government increase wages and take measures to combat rising prices and food shortages.  As the World Socialist Web Site reported, “Long lines of workers marched through Cochabamba in a steady downpour, while thousands of factory workers, teachers, health care workers, other public employees and students took over the center of the capital of La Paz, punctuating their chanting of demands with explosions of dynamite.” 

The international character of this pre-May rebellion reflects the rolling global crisis of the profits system. It reflects the neoliberal “financialization” of the world economy[1], wherein the costs of bailing out giant financial and corporate interests imposes escalated unemployment, homelessness, insecurity, and budgetary austerity on working people and poor the world over – from the mega-slums of Cairo and Tripoli to the barrios of Quito and Mexico City, the Muslim suburbs of France, and the ex-industrial towns of the British Isles, to the ghettoes and working class communities of Wisconsin and Ohio. The global de facto dictatorship of capital is not restricted to any specific country and neither is popular struggle against attempts to pay for financial excess on the backs of the non-affluent majority.

The Madison Uprising

The spirit of popular rebellion spread even to the comparatively conservative, “inverted totalitarian” homeland of “corporate-managed democracy” [2], the United States.  It was sparked there by right wing Midwestern state governors’ and state legislators’ bold attack on public workers’ negotiating rights – the largest assault on organized labor’s political and collective bargaining power in recent United States history. Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, the business-backed and Koch brothers [3]-funded “Tea Party” governor initiated the attack. A fiercely dedicated capitalist ideologue carried away with a sense of his own messianic mission to inflict historic damage on organized labor, Walker was not content with standard crisis-period center-right austerity business as usual – with balancing budgets on the backs of working people and the poor while handing out tax cuts to the wealthy Few. He and his Republican Tea Party comrades saw a shining opportunity to go beyond that and make capitalist history by breaking the back of unions in the public sector – the last bastion of labor power in the U.S. (government workers currently account for half of the remaining unionized American workforce). On Friday, February 11, 2011, Walker advanced a “budget repair bill” that not only significantly reduced the wages and benefits paid to the state’s public workers but also effectively stripped those workers of their hard-won collective bargaining rights. 

Wisconsin workers and citizens and many union supporters from around Wisconsin responded with an historic uprising in defense of labor rights. The Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison became the site of a remarkable rolling five-week protest that sparked support demonstrations across the country and received statements of solidarity from around the world. From one day to the next, tens of thousands of public union members, activists, and supporters marched and rallied around and inside the Capitol Rotunda.  In the first week of the protest, schools were closed within and beyond Madison as teachers and others public school employees flocked to the state capital to show their opposition to “Imperial Walker’s” attack on labor rights.  Marchers carried posters that likened the governor to the U.S.-backed Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak.  The Egyptian trade union leader Kamal Abbas reciprocated by sending Wisconsin workers a statement saying that “We Stand With You as You Stood With Us.” On February 22,  the Madison-based 97-union South Central Labor Federation (representing 45,000 public and private sector union members in southern and central Wisconsin)  passed a resolution in support of considering a general strike (technically illegal under the nation’s draconian labor laws).  The federation appointed a coordinating committee to contact European unions with experience conducting general strikes.

Walker had expected to pass his bill quickly through both houses of the Wisconsin state legislature. He was prevented from achieving this, however, when fourteen of Wisconsin’s Democratic state senators left the state, preventing the state’s upper legislative body (the Wisconsin Senate) from assembling the number of representatives required under the state constitution to vote on a budget-related matter. The real protest initiative, however, came from the bottom up and particularly from the Madison teachers, who acted before the “Fab 14” (as some labor supporters quickly labeled the absent senators) took flight. The crowds demonstrating around and inside seemed to be channeling the wisdom of Howard Zinn in 2009: “There’s hardly anything more important that people can learn than the fact that the really critical thing isn’t who is sitting in the White House, but who is sitting in—in the streets, in the cafeterias, in the halls of government, in the factories. Who is protesting, who is occupying offices and demonstrating—those are the things that determine what happens. It is becoming clearer and clearer to many, after the first year of Obama’s presidency, that it is going to require independent action from below to achieve real change.” 

“Put Down Your Posters and Pick Up a Clipboard”

More than two months after the onset of the historic Madison protests, however, it is clear that the “spirit of Wisconsin” can easily be over-celebrated from a left and global perspective.  On the evening of March 9, Walker and his Republican allies passed legislation abolishing public Wisconsin workers’ collective bargaining rights by separating the anti-union measure from budgetary matters, releasing them from the requirement that the 14 missing Democratic senators be present to hold a vote on the bill. No strike of any kind (general or otherwise) followed in the wake of this brash move. Even before the bill was rammed through, left labor journalist Lee Sustar notes, “talk of a general strike – frequently discussed among activists during the three weeks of protests at Wisconsin’s Capitol in Madison – dissipated as union leaders pressured union members to approve contracts that contain at least a 7 percent pay cut.” From the start, the state’s labor “leadership” was disturbingly eager to deal away worker salaries and benefits in order to keep their dues money – the source of their privileged, coordinator-class salaries, threatened by a portion of Walker’s bill that bans the collection of union dues through automatic workers’ paycheck deductions. At the same time, labor “leaders” stayed mostly mum about other anti-worker provisions of Walker’s initial bill, including steep cuts to Medicaid and BadgerCare (Wisconsin’s health insurance program for low-income people), and the privatization of power plants at the University of Wisconsin’s flagship Madison campus. [4]

After the bill passed if not before, Wisconsin labor officials focused on legal challenges and the difficult, drawn out process of trying recall of eight Republican state senators, whose removal would give the Democrats control of the state senate. The last big labor rally in Madison on March 12 “was a kickoff of an electoral campaign rather than struggle at the workplace.” An electoral campaign, that is, on behalf of the Democrats, whose own 2010 Wisconsin gubernatorial candidate Tommy Barrett criticized public workers’ supposedly excessive wages and benefits. “Thank You Fab 14” was a common statement on signs distributed by rally organizers.  Paying excessive homage to the fourteen senators (who had acted in self-interested accord with their reliance on unions’ political donations and electoral power) and ignoring the critical role that rank and file workers played in driving events from the bottom up, the rally’s organizers channeled popular energies into that timeworn coffin of class consciousness the American “two party” ballot box. [5]  The state’s labor “leadership” squelched direct action sentiment, prodding workers back into regular job routines and encouraging union members and supporters to focus on the effort to recall Walker and return the other state-capitalist austerity party (the Democrats – see below) to nominal power. “Put down your posters and pick up a clipboard” was the actual command issued by one state Democrat speaking to tens of thousands of workers and their supporters outside the Madison Capitol Rotunda last March 12th.

Throughout the Wisconsin drama, American labor “leadership” has shown itself remarkably ready to surrender on economic austerity and the broader plutocratic agenda.  It has been willing to accept (on behalf of un-consulted rank and file workers) unnecessary wage and benefit rollbacks demanded by policymakers who are feeding government deficits with tax breaks for the rich and corporate few. It briefly reluctantly mobilized workers and citizens because it sensed that its privileged position in the state capitalist pecking order was threatened by the assault on union dues and collective bargaining.  Having momentarily sparked mass worker and citizen action, however, it has now re-demobilized its members and supporters and guided their energy back into the standard, system-safe electoral captivity – re-demoting the temporarily engaged working-class citizenry back to its previous role as a subordinate segment of the corporate- and elite-managed electorate.[6]

But then U.S. labor’s “leadership” has long preferred a cautious approach that tends to “shy away from visible local mobilizations” (Roger Bybee) [7]. In April of 2009, United Steelworkers of America president Leo Gerard gave a revealingly myopic response when New York Times reporter Steven Greenhouse asked him why American labor seemed less willing than its European counterparts to engage in workplace occupations and mass demonstrations.  Gerard said “there were smarter things to do than demonstrating against layoffs — for instance, pushing Congress and the states to make sure the stimulus plan creates the maximum number of jobs in the United States….I actually believe that Americans believe in their political system more than workers do in other parts of the world,” Gerard told Greenhouse. “He said,” Greenhouse reported, that “large labor demonstrations are often warranted in Canada and European countries to pressure parliamentary leaders. Demonstrations are less needed in the United States, he said, because often all that is needed is some expert lobbying in Washington to line up the support of a half-dozen senators.”[8]

A revealing statement. The ineffectiveness of American trade unionism’s longstanding preference for conventional electoral politics and “expert lobbying” over direct action was seen with the corporate-managed democracy’s rapid dismissal of labor’s cherished Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA). That instantly dead bill – on which presidential candidate Barack Obama campaigned (along with his disingenuous promise to revise the North American Free Trade Agreement to include strong labor protections) before union rallies (even as Obama’s chief economic advisor Austan Goolsbee assured conservative Canadian officials that Obama’s “NAFTA-bashing” was harmless “campaign rhetoric” for clueless Ohio proletarians[9]) – would have been more effectively advanced with a wave of workplace occupations and marches.  That’s how American workers won the National Labor Relations Act (once a powerful vehicle for union representation and collective bargaining) during the 1930s. The turbulence created by working-class militancy during the Depression decade compelled Franklin Delano Roosevelt and other top Democrats to “argue the need for labor rights and the creation of a social safety to head off even more explosive confrontations between workers and authorities” (Bybee) [10].

The U.S. Labor pattern of attachment to political elites is different from the pattern in Europe and especially Latin America, where working class and other social movements enjoy significantly greater autonomy from party elites. So what if Bolivia’s President Evo Morales is left-leaning and indigenous? The nation’s popular forces expect him to respect the power of their social movements and their determination to resist the drastically increased cost of food and fuel imposed by capitalist elites.

Another difference between the labor struggles within and beyond the U.S. is that Europeans and Latin Americans are fighting against austerity as such whereas the state-level labor movements within and beyond Madison (see below) seem all to ready to sacrifice on givebacks as long as unions can be allowed to continue their basic institutional role.

Beyond Wisconsin and Republicans

Savage attacks on public sector workers, the poor, social justice, civil and voting rights and livable ecology are underway in numerous other U.S. states besides Wisconsin.  Bills to eliminate or curtail collective bargaining, ban teacher strikes and/or limit union-dues deductions are being advanced in more than a dozen other state legislatures. After dominant media had pushed the Madison protests to the margins of public attention (with no small help from Obama’s Libyan intervention), Ohio’s right wing governor John Kasich signed into law a bill that severely restricted the collective bargaining rights of 350,000 public workers – twice the number of workers impacted by Walker’s bill. The Ohio bill prohibits unions from negotiating wages, eliminates automatic pay increases and bans strikes. It applies to teachers, nurses and many other government workers, including police and firefighters, who were exempt in the Wisconsin measure. Michigan’s right wing governor has signed into law a bill that gives unelected “emergency financial managers” unprecedented power to shred union contracts, privatize city services, and consolidate or dissolve local governments.  Described as “financial martial law” by one approving Republican state legislator, Snyder’s measure was drawn up by a right wing think tank (the Mackinac Center for Public Policy) that is funded by some of the same hard-right millionaires and billionaires that backed Walker and his anti-union legislation. But while there have been some impressive Wisconsin-style protests in Columbus, Ohio, Indianapolis, Indiana, and Lansing, Michigan, none of the legislation passed or proposed in other states has sparked labor-led protests close in size or durability to the ones that rocked Madison. 

The state-level labor rebellion that emerged in response to right-wing provocations was a most welcome development. Still, it is one thing for existing labor institutions and leaders (themselves heavily integrated into the nation’s reigning state-capitalist order) to rally popular masses in defensive response to the worst policy outrages of the most reactionary politicians in the rightmost wing of America’s corporate-ruled “one-and-a-half party system” (Wolin). It is another thing to wield and expand popular power pro-actively and against the bipartisan neoliberal business agenda and to capture and act meaningfully on the legitimate popular anger that “the Tea Party” and the broader right has at times been able to exploit and misdirect. The left commentator Doug Henwood offered some sage and sobering advice at the end of a generally optimistic take on the early labor eruption in Wisconsin:

“It may be that had Walker not gone for such a maximalist agenda, this sort of protest might not have happened. Other governors may take note and opt instead for the death by a thousand cuts instead of one giant machete chop. But of course, it’s not just Republicans. Democratic governors like Jerry Brown and Andrew Cuomo also have it out for public sector workers, since, as everyone knows, you just can’t tax the fatcats these days. And you do have to wonder how aggressive unions in California and New York will be in protesting Democratic
governors” [11].

Consistent with Henwood’s reflections and concern, California’s Democratic governor Jerry Brown is pushing public worker unions to accept concessions beyond the $400 million they accepted last year. That state’s union leaders are giving Brown a free pass, embracing his call for “shared responsibility” even as he advances budget proposals that will devastate working people.  New York’s Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo is threatening to lay off 10,000 state workers if he doesn’t get $450 million in union concessions – this even as he calls for ending the state’s so-called millionaire’s tax.  Illinois’ Gov. Pat Quinn and his state’s fellow Democrats are pushing legislation that would slash union protections for teachers. The relentless, state-level attacks on public workers come from Democrats and Republicans alike, but union officials have been unwilling offer serious push back in states where Democrats hold elective power. 

Henwood could easily have added comments about the corporate-friendly, center-right direction of the national Democratic Party and the White House.  The corporatist Obama administration has pinned its hopes for an expanded economic recovery (vital for his chances of re-election) on further appeasement of the right and the business class. Obama’s failure to align himself with the public workers and their fight within and beyond Madison was consistent with his centrist campaign pledge to be a “post-partisan leader” ready to take on his own party’s union base.  It matched: his support (over the opposition of teachers’ unions) of charter schools and “performance-based” teacher pay; his recent advance of corporate neoliberal free trade deals opposed by labor; his recent public strengthening of ties with business leaders; his refusal to move in any meaningful way on campaign promises to reform the nation’s management-friendly labor laws, and his federal workers salary freeze (a move that angered by public sector union members).  Before the progressive labor rebellion broke out, Obama had already gone far down the path of joining business and the right in advancing the false narrative that American prosperity was being undone by overpaid public workers and excessive government regulation, not by the real culprits on Wall Street, who recklessly crashed the global economy in 2008

A progressive resurgence that confronts Democratic Party corporatism and militarism as well as the Republican variants of the same diseases will have to take place on the national as well as the state level if the American left is going to make meaningful popular-democratic progress against the unelected and interrelated dictatorships of money and empire that continue to rule America beneath and beyond the staggered, candidate-centered big-money big-media electoral extravaganzas that continue to define “politics” in the United States [12].

There are some encouraging signs on a national scale. Popular anti-austerity resistance in the United States is beginning to emerge on a coordinated national level with the emergence of the group “US Uncut,” which carried out fifty protests outside Bank of America (B of A) headquarters and branches on Saturday, February 26, 2011. Inspired by the British anti-austerity group UK Uncut (a key player in the March 26th British protests), this new organization goes beyond the “the spirit of Madison” by targeting national corporate tax evasion.  It points out the unjust absurdity of the federal government claiming to address fiscal deficits by slashing social programs and attacking public workers while failing to collect billions of dollars in unpaid taxes due from corporate giants like ExxonMobil, GE, and Bank of America.  As Carl Gibson, a US Uncut founder, noted in a press release prior to the February 26 actions: “Because of overseas tax havens and other tax loopholes, US corporations are making profits in America but barely paying taxes here. If we close those loopholes, we wouldn’t have to be cutting back on firefighters, library hours and student loans.”[13]

By the hopeful account of the progressive commentator Jonathan Hari in early February, US Uncut holds the promise of becoming the beginning of “A Progressive Tea Party” in the U.S.:

“Imagine a parallel universe where the Great Crash of 2008 was followed by a Tea Party of a very different kind. Enraged citizens gather in every city, week after week—to demand the government finally regulate the behavior of corporations and the superrich, and force them to start paying taxes. The protesters shut down the shops and offices of the companies that have most aggressively ripped off the country…They surround branches of the banks that caused this crash and force them to close, with banners saying, You Caused This Crisis. Now YOU Pay.”

“…Instead of the fake populism of the Tea Party, there is a movement based on real populism. It shows that there is an alternative to making the poor and the middle class pay for a crisis caused by the rich. It shifts the national conversation. Instead of letting the government cut our services and increase our taxes, the people demand that it cut the endless and lavish aid for the rich and make them pay the massive sums they dodge in taxes.”

“This may sound like a fantasy—but it has all happened. The name of this parallel universe is Britain. As recently as this past fall, people here were asking the same questions liberal Americans have been glumly contemplating: Why is everyone being so passive? Why are we letting ourselves be ripped off? Why are people staying in their homes watching their flat-screens while our politicians strip away services so they can fatten the superrich even more?”[14]

In the three weeks following Harri’s essay, hundreds of thousands of Midwestern workers and citizens determined to leave their homes and televisions behind to make some history from the bottom up. The answer to liberal columnist E.J. Dionne’s plaintive September 2010 question “where are the progressives?”[15] seemed to have been found in the streets and legislative halls of state capitals of the American heartland, where (in Madison) I saw a protestor holding up a sign that read as follows: “Governor Walker You Have Awakened a Sleeping Giant – The Working Class.” Sadly and all too predictably, , established trade union, Democratic Party and media elites have moved to put that Goliath back to bed.  Once roused, she might challenge not just the behavior of certain maximalist Republican governors but also the authoritarian organization of society and its key institutions, including the Democratic Party and the union bureaucracy, players and pawns in a profits system that threatens humanity with an ever dimmer future of mass poverty, savage inequality, plutocracy, war, and ecological devastation [16].  The Wisconsin moment is at once inspiring and instructive on the urgent need for left and labor strategy and vision that goes beyond what existing progressive “leadership” has to offer. 


[1] See David McNally, Global Slump: The Economics and Politics of Crisis and Resistance (PM Press, December 2010).

[2] Sheldon Wolin, Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008).

[3] The multi-billionaire capitalists and polluters Charles and David Koch are leading financers of the Republican Tea Party phenomenon and played a critical role in sponsoring Wisconsin governor Scott Walker.  See (among many possible sources), Jane Mayer, “Covert Operations: The Billionaire Brothers Who Are Waging War Against Obama,” The New Yorker (August 30, 2010); Eric Lipton, “Billionaire Brothers’ Money Plays Role in Wisconsin Dispute,” New York Times , February 21, 2011 at http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/22/us/22koch.html; Ryan J. Foley,  “On Prank Call, Governor Discusses Strategy,” Associated Press, February 22, 2011; Lipton, “Billionaire Brothers’ Money.”

[4] Lee Sustar, “The Labor Movement After Wisconsin,” Socialistworker.org (April 2011).

[5] Mike Davis, Prisoners of the American Dream: Politics and Economy in the History of the American Working Class (New York: Verso, 1986); Alan Dawley, Class and Community: The Industrial Revolution in Lynn (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000).

[6] Wolin, Democracy Incorporated, 55, 59, 64, 239, 284-86. 

[7] Roger Bybee, “Is U.S. Labor Prepared to Fight?” Z Magazine (June 2009): 35-36.

[8] Steven Greenhouse, “In America, Labor Has a Long Fuse,” New York Times, April 5, 2009.

[9] For details and sources on this revealing incident, see Paul Street, Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics (Boulder: Paradigm, 2008), 34.

[10] Bybee, “Is U.S. Labor Prepared?” p. 38

[11] Doug Henwood, “Wisconsin Erupts,” Left Business Observer, Feb.16, 2011.

[12] There are some encouraging signs on a national scale. Popular anti-austerity resistance in the United States is beginning to emerge on a coordinated national level with the emergence of the group “US Uncut,” which carried out fifty protests outside Bank of America (B of A) headquarters and branches on Saturday, February 26, 2011. See Alissa Bohlig, “US Uncut’s Anti-Austerity Protest Hits Bank of America,” Truthout, February 28, 2011 at http://www.truth-out.org/us-uncuts-anti-austerity-protests-start-small-strong-against-bank-america68108;  Art Levine. “US Uncut Spreads Spirit of Madison,” In These Times (February 24, 2011) at http://www.inthesetimes.com/working/entry/6998/us_uncut_spreads_the_spirit_of_madison_protests_saturday_over_budget_c/

[13] See Alissa Bohlig, “US Uncut’s Anti-Austerity Protest Hits Bank of America,” Truthout, February 28, 2011 at http://www.truth-out.org/us-uncuts-anti-austerity-protests-start-small-strong-against-bank-america68108;  Art Levine. “US Uncut Spreads Spirit of Madison,” In These Times (February 24, 2011) at http://www.inthesetimes.com/working/entry/6998/us_uncut_spreads_the_spirit_of_madison_protests_saturday_over_budget_c/


[14]  Johann Hari, “How to Build a Progressive Tea Party,” The Nation (February 3, 2011) at http://www.thenation.com/article/158282/how-build-progressive-tea-party?page=full

[15] E. J Dionne, “The Tea Party Movement Is a Scam,” RealClearPolitics, September 23, 2010.

[16] On the increasingly grave ecological risks, see, (among many possible citations) James Gustave Speth, The Bridge at the End of the World: Capitalism, the Environment, and Crossing From Crisis to Sustainability (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008); Herve Kempf, How the Rich Are Destroying the Earth (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green, 2007); Bill McKibben, Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet (New York: Times Books, 2010).