Like many people, I was glued to the news in early February, watching as the Egyptian people filled Tahir Square, demanding that Hosni Mubarak step down. By Thursday, February 10, the world watched anxiously to see if the story would end in bloodshed or victory.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, the Governor of Wisconsin announced his “Budget Repair Bill” that would demand major cuts to social programs, and remove almost all collective bargaining rights for public sector workers in the state. The next day, as Mubarak was resigning in Egypt and handing over power to the military, Governor Walker announced he was planning to mobilize the state’s National Guard to do the work of any state worker who protested his law.
According to journalist John Nichols, most statewide union leaders assumed they were defeated. After all, public sector workers are under attack across the country, and many states do not even allow them the right to collective bargaining at all. A similar bill had passed in Indiana only a few years ago. But graduate students and undergrad Student Labor Action Coalition members were paying attention and ready to fight back. On Monday, the Teaching Assistants Association (TAA) at UW-Madison organized a small march from the campus to the Capitol to oppose the bill. Protestors stayed at the Capitol, and the next day began lining up to testify against the bill at a hearing. Their numbers grew quickly as other protestors joined them. Teachers began calling in sick and by Tuesday afternoon, and students from all Madison high schools walked out of class to march to the Capitol to support their teachers. Later that day Madison schools announced they would be closed on Wednesday since 40% of teachers had called in sick.
The protests grew, with tens of thousands outside of the Capitol, and hundreds more inside the Capitol, occupying the statehouse around the clock. People around the country (and even some in other countries) rallied in support of the Wisconsin protestors. Much has already been written about the next few weeks, including discussion of the 14 Democratic Senators leaving the state, to life inside the Capitol, to the resolution passed by the South Central Federation of Labor’s resolution regarding a general strike.
I will not go over the details of these past two months here but instead discuss current strategy and lessons for organizing. While Wisconsin has captured our attention, the struggle there is going on around the country. Some of it has been going on for awhile, such as in North Carolina, where the Black Workers for Justice and United Electrical workers have been fighting for collective bargaining rights for public sector workers for many years. Some of it is more recent – including large rallies in support of Wisconsin, and protests against other state budget cuts and attacks on workers’ rights. Many activists report unprecedented turnout and spirit of these protest and solidarity events. People are also scared about attacks in their own state, and are also eager to be part of a movement that finally wakes up to resist the attacks.
Here are five lessons I think we can learn from Wisconsin:
LESSON 1: Mobilizing a Fight-back takes Organization
Why is it that the protests in Wisconsin grew so quickly, and so large? Social movement research tells us that we can’t really predict when an “upsurge” will happen. In fact, as political scientist Eve Weinbaum argues, all social movements begin with a lot of blips – many of which are failures. But what makes for a “successful failure” that helps lay the ground for a larger movement? As with the Mohamed Bouazizi setting himself on fire in Tunisia on December 17, there is no magic answer about what will eventually set off a much larger wave of protest.
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 its Egypt or Wisconsin, the large-scale protests were built upon existing movement infrastructure and organization.
Madison is well-known for its hub of anti-war 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. The national public sector union AFSCME began in Madison, back in 1932. Madison is also home to Union Cab, a worker owned cooperative founded in 1979; along with a community radio station and extensive food and housing co-operative system. UW-Madison is also home to the first graduate student union in the country – the Teaching Assistants Association, which won its first contract in 1970. In Milwaukee, Voces de la Frontera, a workers center, began in 2001 and played a major role in the 2006 immigrant rights protests across the midwest. The Welfare Warriors has been organizing mothers and children in Milwaukee since the mid-1980s, producing a regular newsletter and fighting attacks on the poor.
The key point is that the structures of organizations were in place. While they are not all strong, they have access to resources, including contacts in the legislature, steward systems in the unions, long lists of contacts, and some independent media. Facebook is only useful if you have a lot of “friends” – and if your friends have friends. And if you and your friends have some history and trust around organizing. No one wants to show up at a protest and be the only person, so you need to have some faith that your networks will be there too.
This is an important point because activists sometimes want to find some kind of technical solution or magic bullet to organizing, and while the internet and blogs can be useful they can not take the place of good old-fashioned person to person outreach and organizational structures.
LESSON 2: The Right-wing is Making this a Fight of a Lifetime
We’ve seen some outrageous maneuvering from the Republican Party and their allies to get this bill passed. This should not come as a surprise, but it is still shocking.
Most notably, the Republicans were furtive in their attempt to pass the bill. State Rep. Gordon Hintz (D-Oshkosh) first heard about the Budget Repair Bill from a radio ad from a Washington D.C. lobby group on Friday, February 11, and found out he was expected to vote on it only a few days later without public debate. When the Senate finally passed the modified bill they gave less than two hours notice.
After the Republicans passed the bill, a Dane County judge issued a restraining order on the bill, based on grounds that a conference committee had violated the state’s Open Meetings law. Despite the judge’s ruling, Walker went forward and published the law a week later and announced plans to implement it, including stripping dues check off and other unilateral measures.
There have been a number of other tactics the Republicans have employed. This should help 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. We need to be armed with our facts to counter their claims, but also anticipate their moves.
LESSON 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 to “Kill the Bill.” They didn’t 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 protestors 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 to 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. The repair bill, along with Walker’s proposed budget, includes a wide range of cuts, including on the state low-income health care program (Badgercare), school budgets, recycling programs and more.
Political analysts claimed that the November 2010 election results proved the popularity of the Tea Party in Wisconsin, and said it could be seen as a mandate for the Tea Party platform of smaller government. But those who marched on the Capitol building did not let that stop them. Instead, many signs and banners immediately framed the issue as one of basic rights and a defense of the public good. Protestors didn’t just oppose Walker’s plan, but asserted that “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. Public employees and their democratic rights were fundamental to the quality of life of all Wisconsinites.
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. Some national labor representatives came into town with a “script” to follow, and I heard a rumor that they were using polling numbers to guide their decisions. Some Democratic Party officials tried to get the protestors occupying the Capitol to leave so that others could negotiate a settlement. Later, some of the same Democrats tried to convince protestors to leave things to 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. If you base all your decisions on current attitudes, you don’t allow for the possibility of people changing their mind. The realm of what is possible can change quickly. When the Egyptian people used peaceful protest to topple a dictator one al-Jazeera reporter said in tears that suddenly it seemed as if anything was possible, from women’s rights to freedom for Palestine. If we believe that the white voters of Wisconsin are truly Tea Party supporters at heart, we close ourselves to trusting that they can learn and grow by struggling for their own rights, alongside their neighbors.
There is also a lesson for political leaders, and that is that you sometimes need to step out of the way of the members. The Wisconsin teachers unions urged members to go to the Capitol *after* the teachers themselves had started to do so in large numbers. Jim Cavanaugh, president of the South Central Federation of Labor, agreed that members were out in front. He said even AFL-CIO president Rich Trumka saw this when he came to Madison. John Nichols says that the TAA lead the protests because they didn’t let anyone tell them they couldn’t fight back, unlike the rest of the unions in the state who believed the fight was lost.
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.
LESSON 4: Hold Politicians Accountable from the Left
While Wisconsin, Michigan and Ohio are all dealing with Republican governors, there are plenty of Democrats elsewhere who are attacking on public sector workers. Notably, Andrew Cuomo ran for governor of New York based on the promise to reign in the unions. And on the national level, even with Democrats in the White House and controlling both houses, there were few gains for labor. President Obama only gave tepid support for the Wisconsin workers. The attacks from Republicans are more extreme in that they are explicitly trying to eliminate the right of workers to join unions, and they are proving that they are not even willing to negotiate. The Democrats have stepped up in places to defend workers’ rights to organize. However, few Democrats are willing to take the necessary steps to fix state budgets or influence the national agenda in a way that protects jobs, wages and benefits.
This highlights the question of accountability. One thing that we learned in the third party work in Wisconsin and that the Tea Party seems to highlight is the need for a left pole. The work of politics is about negotiation, and even when we don’t want to compromise, the reality of politics involves compromise on a daily basis. When negotiating, you want as many tools as possible to strengthen your hand. Having a mobilized left pole that is ready to take to the streets is a tool that Democrats theoretically should want if they were serious about their promises. The other pole is big money and big corporations, ever hovering about with the threat of withdrawl. The left has no other way to counter that pole other than with people power.
Right after Obama was elected, the network of over 13 million volunteers that got him elected was converted into “Organizing for America” and put under the auspices of the Democratic National Committee. Non-profits, labor unions, and activists in D.C. were given ‘access’ to the White House through coordinated regular meetings, but under unilateral terms set by Obama’s people. The rules were clear: if you wanted to maintain access you needed to stay on message.
When the attacks against ACORN ratcheted up the White House remained silent – as did most of the left, and one of the largest organizations of people of color was quickly dismantled. Although ACORN had problems, it demonstrated throughout its history that it wasn’t afraid to take direct action and pose challenges to those in power, even if they were supposed to be allies.
Obama was never going to be a left-wing president but even under his own agenda, he and his administration quickly benched one of their greatest strengths: a large movement of people that could mobilize for issues