Wisconsin Recall Election: The Ballot Box and the Unions Are Not Weapons of the Working Class Struggle

Printer-friendly version

The bourgeois media on both the left and right are abuzz with the cacophony of analysis over the June 5th recall election of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. They pose to “explain” why, in a state where only 16 months earlier over 200,000 public sector workers and students walked off of their jobs and out of their classrooms to occupy the state capitol and challenge the Governor’s proposed changes to state law that would have seriously restricted the collective bargaining process for public sector unions, Scott Walker has survived the recall effort and retained his position.   Indeed, the question of what happened to the Madison, Wisconsin movement of 2010 is of great interest to the working class and its revolutionary minorities.  It is important to assess where the working class is heading, what its weaknesses and strengths are, and what perspectives may open up in the immediate and longer term future in order to effectively counteract the ruling class’ own strategy and mystifications, and to contribute to the working class’ sense of its own identity and consciousness.  The ruling class is already using the recent development in Wisconsin to its own advantage even in the case that, as it appears to be and as will be discussed below, the Wisconsin election outcome was not a planned, thought out strategy by a united ruling class.  Already, the left, the unions, and the Democratic Party are sensing the opportunity for a revival of democratic and reformist mystifications, casting themselves in the light of the “fighters for fairness and justice,” while the right, seizing on the temporary confusion and demoralization of the working class, is posed to use Wisconsin as a precedent for other states to endorse similar legislation and deepen their ideological campaign over “fiscal responsibility” and divide the working class against itself over the supposed “excessive” wages and benefits of public sector employees.  In this context, it becomes clear that revolutionaries have a responsibility in explaining the facts from a working class perspective.

The background

Gov. Scott Walker was elected governor of Wisconsin in November 2010 as part of the “Tea Party wave” that dominated the 2010 mid-term elections. Upon assuming office, he immediately began to push for legislation that would heavily restrict collective bargaining rights for most of the state’s public employee unions.  Under the new legislation, the public sector unions would no longer be able to negotiate pension and health contributions for their members.  The unions would also have to submit themselves to yearly certification votes to represent workers in negotiations limited to bargaining over salaries, where increases could not exceed the rate of inflation. 

Just sixteen months ago this proposal led to the biggest and longest sustained mobilization of the working class since the Obama election and the onset of the open recession as a result of the 2008 financial crisis.  This mobilization positively dispelled the temporary paralysis in which the working class had fallen into after the early shocks of the 2007-2008 economic turmoil, jolted the working class from the post-election hangover, and proved the working class’ ability to organize and its unwillingness to submit to the blows against its living conditions. The mobilization in Wisconsin electrified workers around the world, who immediately drew links with the events of the Arab spring, taking place most importantly in Egypt.  There is no doubt that this movement inspired workers across the U.S. and the world to feel sympathy and solidarity, and had the potential of sparking a sense of identity as one exploited class the world over.  Given this movement’s genuinely massive nature and its ability to spark a sense of solidarity within the working class across the state and beyond, it is appropriate to ask, why has a movement of such importance receded to a seemingly self-inflicted defeat just 16 months later?

The role of the unions:  demobilize and defeat

Initially, the Madison, Wisconsin workers’ and students’ mobilization took place on a genuine working class defensive terrain against the Governor’s proposed attacks.  Above all, it was because he demanded that state and local employees contribute half the cost of their pensions and above 12 percent of their health insurance premiums that workers and students walked out.  The Wisconsin public employees’ union –WSEU/AFSCME, almost immediately occupied the terrain of the struggle by diverting it from a struggle in defense of living and working conditions to one in defense of the unions, against “union busting.”  The union was worried that not even their open willingness to negotiate the proposed attacks –in the words of the head of WSEU/AFSCME, Marty Bell, at that time, “This is not about money…We understand the need to sacrifice”—or the help they gave to the previous administration in implementing a $100 million in cuts to benefits and a 3 percent pay reduction would be sufficient to stop the Governor’s apparent drive to dismantle it or to convince him of the indispensable role the unions play in derailing, demobilizing, and defeating working class’ action and discontent. 

Accordingly, in the months following the surge in working class mobilization, the unions, together with the Democratic Party (who rely on the unions dues base to fund much of their state level political operations), made sure the “fight” would turn onto the democratic and electoral terrain of the “recall Scott Walker” campaign, accusing the Governor of engaging in anti-union/union busting tactics by making hay of the state’s real budgetary problems.  Over one million signatures were collected and a huge Get Out the Vote operation put in place in an effort to recall Walker from office.  At the same time, Gov. Scott Walker was not going to go down without a fight. He waged his own fierce campaign to stay in office, focusing on discrediting the Obama administration’s track record on an economy that won’t improve, inflating his own statistics regarding supposed improvements resulting from his “reforms” around Wisconsin’s own economic troubles—the state is staggering under the weight of a projected budget deficit of a whopping $3.6 billion—and getting the financial backing of mostly out-of-state ultra-reactionary billionaire donors to the tune of $63.5 million. Eventually it would emerge that the retain Walker campaign would outspend the Get Out the Vote campaign by 8 to 1. 

Gov. Scott Walker’s campaign also made use of a deeply anti-public employees campaign to divide the working class by sending campaigners to rural and suburban areas tasked with convincing the population there that the economic crisis could come to an end if only the public sector employees and their unions could be forced to back-roll their costly wages and benefits, blamed for the state’s persistent budget deficit.  Demobilized by the unions’ legalistic action, demoralized by a long campaign away from the terrain of a real struggle, and confused by the political chaos provoked by the unending factional fights between the two major political camps, it is perhaps not surprising that already in January pollsters indicated that Gov. Scott Walker would win the election.  It is also possible that the workers who ended up voting against the Governor’s recall did so at least partly because of a deep sense of lack of any perspective.  The union’s sabotage of the mobilization, shifting it from the defensive struggle over their living and working conditions to the anti union-busting campaign sent a signal that workers would be left on their own to face the attacks.  In this context, many workers may have concluded that it would then be better to tighten the belt and bite the bullet, believing the blows against its living conditions would then finally come to an end.  While this would express a serious weakness in the working class, it may also provide it with an opportunity to reflect on the role of the unions and question it, its tactics ,and its ultimate role.

But the unions have an extensive track record as long-time partners in managing the capitalist state’s economic policy and the deflecting workers’ anger.  Readers of our press may be familiar with our position on the role of the unions, and it is impossible to restate the full analysis here [1].  What is clear is that it is not only in states where Republican Governors are in power that similar attacks against the workers’ living and working conditions as Gov. Scott Walker’s have been enacted.  In New York State, for instance, recently an agreement was reached around the creation of a new pension Tier for new hires.  The new Tier –Tier VI, extends the retirement age to 63 from 55 and includes a new calculation of a member’s Final Average Salary.  In California, the Los Angeles school district and the teachers unions reached a tentative agreement early in June that would prevent thousands of layoffs in exchange for 10 furlough days.  Teachers would lose pay for five instructional days plus four holidays and one training day, equivalent to about a 5% salary cut.  The Los Angeles teachers union trumpets this as a victory.  If a tax increase were turned down –the demagogical ploy being that taxpayers have to cut their own taxable income to “subsidize” public workers’ wages and benefits—the equivalent of three additional weeks of school would have to be sacrificed.  Even with this agreement, 1,300 members still are likely to lose jobs because of declining enrollment resulting largely from the charterization of the public school system.  Others will be out of work because funding for some positions has been lost or redirected.  The list of similar examples is too extensive to compile here.  The unions have betrayed the working class and crossed into the enemy class’ camp a long time ago.  For almost a century now they have effectively been a part of the capitalist state’s apparatus of social control against working class unrest in support of the capitalist state economic policies [2]. So why then, are Republican Governors such as Walker—backed by well-financed monied interests—intent on weakening or outright destroying the unions?

Is the “union-busting” action a strategy of the ruling class?

It is often asked why, if the unions are a part of the state’s apparatus of social control and economic management, is a faction of the ruling class so hell-bent about dismantling them?  It is undeniable that, even in the context of four decades of declining wages, cuts to benefits, and negotiations and contracts that have led to a steady erosion of the working class’ living standard, union jobs have maintained, overall, better conditions than non-union jobs.  But this, far from meaning that the unions act as defenders of the working class, only expresses the recognition by the most advanced and rational sectors of the ruling class that social peace comes at a financial cost.  This, from the point of view of the overall well-functioning of capitalism and its political organization –the state—is a cost that capitalism needs to shoulder.  However, the ruling class has not always been homogeneous or united in the understanding that the integration of the unions in the state apparatus meant that the unions had become one of its best allies against the working class. 

In the 1930’s, FDR’s legislation favoring unionization was contested until social unrest and mobilizations most notably around the issue of evictions, but also in the face of the 1937 strike wave threatening to unify the struggles of the employed and unemployed, made it clear for the dominant, clearer, more intelligent faction of the bourgeoisie that the only way to contain working class unrest and prevent it from developing was by giving the unions carte-blanche in organizing the workers. 

Today, capitalism faces an economic crisis that, it can be argued, is even more serious than the crisis of the Great Depression.  However, the working class, although not mobilized around imperialist war (not simply because there are no longer two imperialist blocs facing each other on the international arena, but because the Vietnam syndrome has become embedded in the working class’ consciousness), not internationally defeated as it happened with the failure of the Russian Revolution, and actually engaged in heroic attempts at regaining its self-identity, confidence, and consciousness, has not yet been able to assert itself on the social and historic terrain of the revolutionary struggle.  It seems that some sectors of the ruling class have become convinced that in this context of relative social peace, the unions are becoming unnecessary.  This reveals a short-term, myopic vision of reality.  It also seems the case that the so-far successful tactic of waging attacks against the working class piecemeal, sector by sector, state by state, has so far spared the ruling class from having to wage an all-out attack on the working class, especially regarding the hotly contested issue of social security “reform” and other so-called “entitlement” programs at the federal level.

 It is an open question whether the most reactionary faction of the ruling class now seemingly determined to drastically reduce, if not outright dismantle the unions would see the necessity of utilizing them at the level of the attacks on federal entitlement programs when these eventually will have to be passed.  So far, their actions have bordered utter insanity.  We think it would be a mistake to interpret the campaigns and actions of conservative Republicans as a rational and thought out strategy by a homogeneous ruling class to play the division of labor tactic and cast the Democrats in the role of the opposition.  This is the game played when it is assessed that the depth of the assaults on the working class is such that it would be dangerously discrediting for the Democratic Party to be in power, preferring to let it play the role of the opposition.  But the actions of the conservative Republicans have already pushed the Democratic Party now in power further to the right, already risking discrediting it, thus threatening to leave the two party system vulnerable.  The anti-union stance taken by most Republicans also threatens to gut the support base for the Democratic Party’s campaign fundraising at a time when in terms of both domestic political economy and international policy, it is the Democratic Party that has shown a better ability to lead capital in the throes of the economic crisis. 

We also do not think that the actions of a Scott Walker or like-minded Republican Governors are simply a reflection of the impasse, at the economic level, of heavily indebted state budgets.  For all the vaunted “benefits” of Gov. Scott Walker’s “reforms” as to balancing his state’s budget deficit, his attacks against public sector workers are projected to save the state only $300 million, compared to the projected budget deficit of $3.6 billion!  For all his divisive campaign pitting private sector against public sector workers, this represents a “rectification” of the state’s budget deficit of only 10%!  While the economic crisis and the accompanying reality of fiscal woes are a real factor contributing to the ruling class’ difficulties with finding and implementing a balanced, rational economic policy to manage the crisis, their lack of unity over which policies best suit the interest of the national capital reveals a tendency toward irrational political chaos and the loss of a long-term perspective, pushing a faction of the ruling class toward very risky actions such as the undermining of the unions apparatus and the destabilization of the two-party system, thus weakening the division of labor tactic.

What can the working class do?

 The left, the unions, and the Democratic Party are licking their wounds and forging ahead a reformist rhetoric around the need to keep “fighting for fairness” and vow to avenge Gov. Scott Walker’s victory.  Tammy Baldwin, the Madison congresswoman who is seeking to claim the U.S. senate seat being vacated by Democrat Herb Kohl, sounds a populist message of “standing up to corporate special interests who have way too much power and way too much influence in Washington” and urges voters to “keep fighting so that people who work hard, play by the rules, can once again get ahead rather than fall behind.”    The forces of the left and the Democratic Party purports themselves as the guarantors and defenders of “fairness” in the coming presidential contention in a battle they are casting as one of “good” versus “evil,” in which they are supposed to be the fighters of human justice and morality against corporate greed and the “excesses” of capitalism embodied by reactionary republicans and Tea-Partiers running amuck.

Gov. Scott Walker’s victory is likely to provide the Democratic Party with a more powerfully mystifying anti-Republican demagogy as the November electoral campaign heats up. This is how they can make hay out of a difficult and volatile political situation.  For their part, the unions will continue their usual tactic of diverting any incipient resistance onto the legalistic terrain.  Already, in a foretaste of what is to come as other states and cities take Wisconsin’s lead, the cities of San Diego and San Jose have recently voted in favor of Propositions A and B, envisioning draconian public sector worker pension reforms.  Proposition B limits retirement benefits for new hires and requires current employees to either pay up to 16 percent of their salary more for their current pension plan or switch to one that is less “generous.”  It allows the temporary suspension of cost-of-living pension increases for retirees in a fiscal emergency. It calls for freezing salaries of public employees for five years and ending pensions for new city workers, substituting a 401(k) plan, except for police officers.  Proposition A bans so-called project labor agreements in which contractors agree to hire union workers on city projects.  These measures were proposed on the ballot box, emasculating the unions’ ability to negotiate, and will be litigated by the unions in the courts, resulting perhaps in a change to the most drastic measures.  Even in “liberal” California—where the public sector unions experience the height of their power—there are proposals to cut the union apparatus out of the bargain.

All of this reformist pollution of the mind and mind-boggling court litigation and re-litigation about the legality of these measures to make an end run around the union bureaucracy is likely to result in a temporary, but serious, demoralization and confusion in the working class.  The working class will initially find it very difficult to surmount the electoral and legalistic apparatus of capitalist democracy.  It will also be confused by the reformist calls of the unions and the Democratic Party.  But the assault on its living conditions is now being unleashed in its most brutal expressions, and the working class will have to return to the path of the struggle, where it can pick up the threads temporarily let go of 16 months ago when it first courageously mobilized in Wisconsin.

For their part, the more reactionary factions of the Republican Party and the Tea Party are gloating over the Wisconsin results, congratulating each other on the apparent success of their campaign about “fiscal responsibility” and the necessity of reigning in out-of-control city, state, and federal budgets, reading into the Wisconsin election result the American electorate’s acquiescence with the imposition of ever more brutal austerity attacks. They will continue to wage their divisive rhetoric against workers in both the private and public sector.  Workers cannot fall for this lie.  An attack against the public sector employees is nothing but an attack to the social wage of all workers and to vital services the whole working class needs.  Weakening one sector of the working class does not result in strengthening the other. It is a race to the bottom pure and simple.  It is only by unifying their struggle on the class terrain, against all bourgeois lies and traps, that the working class can find the perspective for defending itself against the class enemy and its brutal attacks.  This will not be easy, but it is the only path toward our emancipation from the oppression and exploitation of the capitalist yoke.

Ana 6/13/12

[1] See our publications online:  www.en.internationalism.org/inter/113/unions_htm, www.en.internationalism.org/pamphlets/unions.htm, and Internationalism#12

[2] See  www.en.internationalism.org/inter/158/editorial



Recent and ongoing: 


Scott Walker