Recall in Wisconsin – the Alternative Was Worse

For the full, original article, feel free to visit the Trial by Fire.

The votes are in: republican Governor Scott Walker has survived his much publicized recall election, besting his Democratic opponent, Tom Barrett, by a sound 9 point margin.

In his victory speech, Governor Walker – now infamous for his successful campaign to strip collective bargaining rights from over 175,000 state employees last year, as well as repealing equal pay provisions for women -  gloated, “[Tonight] we tell Wisconsin, we tell our country, and we tell people all across the globe that voters really do want leaders who stand up and make the tough decisions,” adding, “the election is over, it’s time to move Wisconsin forward.”

Walkers’ opponent, for his part, was graceful in defeat, and expressed his own desire for the state to move on. Following his concession speech, Barret promptly called the incumbent Governor to congratulate him on a successful campaign, and both agreed that from here on out it was important to cooperate – sentiments, it hardly needs pointing out, wholly incongruous with the emotions of tens of thousands of Wisconsin working families today.

The greatest moment of the evening, however, was yet to come: that night, Barret was slapped by a woman while walking through a crowd of supporters. It was reported that the woman was upset over Barret having conceded so early.

Anatomy of a fight:

Of course, the blame cannot be put solely on Barret’s shoulders. Our defeat was arranged by a vast effort of Democratic Party officials and labor bureaucrats as early as last year, when thousands of party activists swarmed the city of Madison to put down the popular revolt – although at that time it was hard for many to spot; where in Tahrir the state had to resort to batons and rifles, in Madison, they carried clipboards and recall petitions. You can read the whole heart breaking story here.

The dominant discourse coming from liberal pundits, however, takes quite a different view of the defeat.
Some focus on the funding for the election. Mother Jones author, Gavin Aronsen, for example, provided his readers with a complete breakdown of donors to both Walker and Barret’s campaigns, leaving it to readers to infer - correctly – that the race was largely decided by monied interests.  Other commentators have focused on voter suppression efforts by conservatives, while others still have blamed the Democrat’s strategy of running a recall instead of trying to repeal the legislation itself, as was done in Ohio.

But this is merely the anatomy of the election – it only answers the question “how did Barret lose,” not the more important, “how did we lose?” How did we go from one of the most impressive series of wildcat strikes and occupations the labor movement has seen in years, to a failed recall election?

The answer lies in the structure and organizations of the labor movement itself, and not, as others have suggested, in the electoral process, or in strategic mistakes of labor’s leadership. The workers’ movement which exploded in Madison was, in many important respects, a threat to not only Scott Walkers’ administration, but to the union bureaucracy and to the Democratic party.

Because the union leadership’s priority is first and foremost to ensure its own survival, priorities for action are often rather at odds with what is desirable for the rank and file. The recall election demonstrates the principle.

Common pronouncements of a reinvigorated Democratic Party base aside, the fact remains that neither the unions nor the Democrats had any intention of fighting austerity measures in the state – they merely wanted to maintain collective bargaining rights, and were willing to allow Walker’s austerity measures to pass with barely a whimper. This, of course, was a tact entirely rejected by many working people, and the failure to even maintain the facade of representation had wide-ranging implications – partly emboldening teachers to ignore their union leadership, and take illegal strike action on their own.

That autonomous strike action, and the occupations which occurred afterwards, threatened to make both the leadership of the Democratic party and the unions irrelevant – or, even worse – to make them obstacles to be overcome.

The unions, in their bid to begin reigning in the freshly emboldened workers movement, flooded the streets of Madison with speakers and petitioners to literally drown out the rank and filers on the ground leading chants of “strike! strike! strike!”

On every corner of the capitol, soap boxes, microphones and bullhorns could be found, each station equipped with an emcee directing protestors to the nearest petitioner. Big name speakers were called in from all over the country to decry the republicans and extol the democrats.

“We have a great president…” remarked Rev. Jesse Jackson at the capitol building. “We have a great president. But he cannot do it alone. When we do not fight, we weaken him. We do not vote… if we had used our power to vote, we would not have Mr. Walker as Governor tonight.” He then paused to lead the crowd in a chant: “when we vote, we win! When we vote, we win!”

Labor leadership couldn’t have agreed more. The Wisconsin Education Association Council issued a statement urging its members not to go to the capitol to protest, but instead to go back to work, assuring its workers that they would “not back down.”

“Given the abhorrent and illegal action taken by the Senate tonight, MTI has received many calls as to whether those represented by MTI will be at work tomorrow, but rather engage in political action,” MTI Executive Director John Matthews is quoted as saying in a statement. “MTI advises those it represents to report to work tomorrow. The Senate’s improper and illegal action will be challenged in court.” Eventually, like the recall, the court challenges failed as well.

But even after the strategy so clearly failed – obliterating (in all but name) even the state labor bureaucracy itself – the union leadership apologized for nothing. After the absolute disaster that was the recall, which has left the labor movement massively demoralized and in retreat, Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, pathetically tried to spin the defeat as some sort of inspiring moral victory.

According to Trumka, Wisconsin “forced the governor to answer for his efforts to divide the state and punish hard-working people” in “today’s recall election…” The remark was absolutely delusional, but necessary, as Trumka knows that the only possible alternative for workers would have been ignore the mandates of labor leadership and forge their own, independent path.

The message was clear: workers were not to be allowed, under any circumstances, to devise their own strategy or take their own initiative in this fight.

The alternative was worse:

Once the recall was underway, its clear enough that the fight – as far as workers were concerned – was over. With working people firmly put back in their place by both party officials and labor bureaucrats, the initiative was once again in the hands of the political class. Protestors demobilized, occupations squashed and strikers sent back to work, there were now only two outcomes to the fight: a victory for Barret, or victory for Walker. In the final humiliating conclusion, Walker, of course, came out on top.

There is, however, a silver lining to these dark rain clouds – at least in two important ways.

First, a victory for Barret surely would have meant a passive acceptance of austerity (under the guise of democratic consent), as has been the case with nearly every Democratic administration across the states since the 2008 crash. Union leadership, grumbling, has often backed these cuts to benefits, wages and hours, in complete opposition to the real needs of its workers. Now, at least, it is beyond speculation that we do not consent to these attacks.

Secondly, a victory for Barret could possibly have meant the repeal of a number of bills – importantly, the rights to collectively bargain may have been restored, maybe. But it would have meant something else, also. It would have led much of the country to conclude (incorrectly) that labor unions, as they exist today, are still relevant to the needs and desires of America’s working class.

In fact, they are archaic and backwards institutions which only persist because of the massive support they offer to the Democratic party and the passive, whipped workforce they are able to offer to businesses. Barret’s loss may be our gain if it means that there is an opening for the rank and file to reinvent itself.

The devastation of public sector workers in WI may present us with a great deal of opportunity to rebuild labor – to make it more autonomous, and more insurgent.