Thursday, February 7, 2013

The Wisconsin recall vote: Another wakeup call for the left in the United States of America

June 7, 2012

On Tuesday June 5 there was a recall election to remove Scott Walker, the Republican governor of the State of Wisconsin. Walker had won the elections as governor in November 2010 when a racist populist formation called the Tea Party mobilized millions to oppose the ideas of a new multi-racial USA based on social and economic justice. Within a few weeks after becoming the governor, Scott Walker exposed the deep conservatism of this Tea Party movement with attacks on the conditions of working peoples through what was termed ’austerity ’measures, which meant cutting back on the rights of workers. When the real target of these measures were revealed to be an outright assault on the democratic rights of working peoples, especially the right to collective bargaining by unionized state employees, there was open rebellion. This rebellion took inspiration from the uprisings in Egypt and brought international attention to the working peoples struggles in the United States.

There were many paths before the workers in how to respond to the program of the governor. Out of these possible paths, continuous worker education drives, general strike, continuous protests, building multi-racial alliances, opposing privatization, organizing across the USA for a new system, the leaders of this movement choose the path of pushing for a recall election. This push required 540,208 signatures and by January 2012 the movement for recall had garnered close to 1 million signatures. We will argue this week that the very nature of the campaign to focus on elections acted as a tool for the demobilization of the working poor in Wisconsin and placed the struggle on the terrain that would favor the monied classes in this recall.

The opponent of Scott Walker for the Democratic Party was the Mayor of Milwaukee, Tom Barrett. Barrett is the mayor of a city with over 50 per cent unemployment among peoples of African descent. The policies of Barrett were not fundamentally different from Scott Walker and pointed to the reality that the official Democratic Party in the USA does not have any new ideas of how to challenge the billionaires in the midst of the capitalist depression. The media and President Obama have cried that Scott Walker out-spent Tom Barrett eight to one, spending US $45.9 million in this recall election. However, while this focus on money is one indication of the corruption of the electoral system in the United States, the more profound question lies in the task of building a new movement for the poor and oppressed in the midst of this prolonged crisis of capitalism. The vote was another wake up call for those who want social justice. Last week we were alerted in Egypt to the fact that the electoral process was rigged against real and fundamental changes. This week, the Wisconsin recall vote acted as another teaching moment to alert progressives internationally that while elections can be a platform for struggles, this cannot be the only platform.


Wisconsin is a medium-size midwestern state in the United States with a population of 5.7 million persons. This was the land of differing native peoples whose land was occupied and settled by colonizers who made this territory a state of the United States in 1848. It is a state with a rich history. This is a history of populism and labor activism and at the same time the state that produced the infamous Senator Joseph McCarthy, the Cold War demagogue. Currently, the House Budget Committee chairman Paul Ryan is the flag bearer for conservatism from this state at the national level and the chairperson of the Republican Party, Reince Priebus, comes from this state. The history of dispossession of the First Nation Peoples stands as a permanent statement against the idea of ‘progressivism’ that has been registered as part of the history of this state.

Yet, in many respects this state can be distinguished from others by the long traditions of the trade union militancy since the 19th century. Worker protests and unionization had registered in this state over the past one hundred years and in the period of deindustrialization, the most militant section of the working class has been the public sector unions, that is, those employed as teachers, police officers, firefighters and state employees. During the height of the industrialization of the United States, there were numerous trade unions in Wisconsin in the building trades, construction, logging, steel, brewing and in the auto industry. In this period Wisconsin was at the top of those states with unionized workers with over 25 per cent of the working class unionized. This level of working class organization registered a decent standard of living for worker.

However, over the past thirty years there have been constant attacks against workers and other oppressed groups. From the period that Ronald Reagan launched the attack against air control operators in the PATCO strike in the early eighties, the trade union movement in the USA had been challenged. Bill Fletcher in the Book, ‘Solidarity Divided: The Crisis of Organized Labor and a New Path toward Social Justice’, had identified the limitations of the old forms of trade union organizing, especially with the major demographic changes in the US population. Neither the left nor the traditional trade union centers are prepared to analyze the history of whiteness and the chokehold over the working classes in the United States. Conservatives have not been shy to exploit this division among the working peoples of the United States and the populist racism of the Tea Party was one wake up call for the white left. Instead of calling out the racism of the Tea Party, the white left tiptoed around the clear racist propaganda and tactics of this wedge among working peoples.

Scott Walker was elected governor in the wave of racism that had gained momentum from sections of the population that argued that Barack Obama was not a US citizen. These were called Birthers. It was a movement supported by billionaires such as the Koch brothers who were taken aback by the multi-racial alliance that had elected Barack Obama. The Democratic Party never rose to the challenge and in fact played around with the conservatism of this movement until the Congressional elections of November 2010 placed the Tea Party representatives in key positions across the country. In states such as Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin and Florida there were legislators and governors who set out to roll back the rights of workers and the rights of the poor. In every one of these states the attack on the poor and black came before the attack on the organized workers. The neo-liberal ideas about the privatization of education, the privatization of prisons and roiling back entitlements of the poor were supported by a servile media that wanted to demobilize the working peoples. There was no sector of the society that escaped the heightened racism. Probably the sector that was most affected by this racism was the youth. Police brutality, stop and search, the stigmatization of youths of color and the open racist ideas came in the period of tea Party insurgency. The killing of Trayvon Martin was only one public indication of the new wave of racism when Barack Obama was the president.

Governor Scott Walker entered office in January 2011 and within one month he placed legislation before the legislature to roll back the rights to collective bargaining by public sector employees. Prior to his election in 2010 tens of thousands of voters had turned out in 2008 to vote for a new direction in US politics, but after the election there were no forces to keep this population mobilized. Into this vacuum stepped Walker and other Tea Party governors across the United States. These state leaders gave subsidies to ‘investors’ while passing legislation to take away the democratic rights of workers. In Michigan, there was no governor who even wanted to take away the right to vote.

Scott Walker was among the boldest of these new Tea Party leaders and he proposed legislation to drastically cut the social wage of workers. The legislative agenda of Scott Walker was justified under the need for ‘austerity’ in the midst of the capitalist depression. While supporting the bail out of over US $1 billion to the banks and financiers who supported his campaign, Governor Walker proposed a bill where public sector workers would face an average cut in income of 7% through reductions to their pensions and health care. The bill would abolish collective bargaining rights for public sector workers over anything other than pay. Pay increases would be capped to the rise in the Consumer Price Index, so public sector workers could only bargain against pay cuts and not for pay raises.

Immediately, worker protests erupted in Wisconsin. Drawing inspiration from the Egyptian uprisings, the public sector workers occupied the state capital and dramatically signaled a new stage in the struggles for social justice in the United States. This occupation was beamed around the world as tens of thousands of workers came out in the Wisconsin cold to oppose Scott Walker. The most promising aspect of this opposition by the workers was the fact that the coercive sectors of the state, police and fire fighters, supported the strike. Teachers, students and university staff across the country came out in full force and the teaching assistants at the University of Wisconsin built the web platforms to internationalize the struggles.


From the outset of the Wisconsin struggles, the national leadership of the Democratic Party was alarmed by the radicalization of the workers. There were other forms of protests across the nation and by September the control of public spaces by workers and their sympathizers had grown into the Occupy Wall Street Movement. This Occupy Movement built on the forms of mobilization of people in public spaces and inspired a new level of consciousness in the United States about the domination of the society by the oligarchy in identifying them as the one per cent. Economists such as Joseph Stiglitz who had served the neo-liberal agenda of Bill Clinton joined in the opposition to big capital and wrote long articles on this one per cent, “Of the 1%, by the 1%, for the 1%.”

Stiglitz joined a discourse on ‘inequality’ as one aspect of the liberal agenda to weaken the understanding of the importance of class struggles in the capitalist crisis. Michael Moore had made an important intervention in the making of the documentary, Capitalism: A Live Story. In this documentary, Moore had called for the arrest and imprisonment of the bankers. Workers across the Uniuted States were caught between two messages, one of inequality and the other of class struggle. It was from the oppressed Africans and radical environmentalists where there was a more robust call for a new system. The media worked overtime to discredit the radical ideas to respond tom the crisis. It was the work of big capital to support the Scott Walker initiatives while seeming to be on the side of the workers. The choices before the working people were stark, there was either going to be a prolonged struggle or the capitalists and their representatives would impose austerity measures to weaken the working classes.


The intellectual climate set by the media and the official Democratic Party minimized the importance of measures such as occultation, general strikes or prolonged periods of worker education as to the real depth of the crisis of capitalism. In Wisconsin, there was a debate on whether there should be a general strike by the workers. This discussion of the general strike had gained momentum in the face of the clear strategy of Scott Walker to destroy public sector workers and their capacity for organizing. If the leaders of the AFL-CIO and the state workers union AFSCME had read the book of Bill Fletcher, they would have been better prepared to understand that there had to be new tactics to oppose Walker and the anti-worker sentiments sweeping the society. Instead these trade union leaders offered compromise after compromise. They offered to implement all the cuts demanded by Walker, provided he maintained the automatic dues check-off, the source of their own salaries, and preserved a role for them in negotiating the reductions in the income and benefits of their members.

The Democratic Party and the Union Bureaucracy were aghast at the discussions on the general strike and focused attention on garnering signatures for a recall of Governor Scott Walker. While there was some education involved in the process of gathering the more than one million signatures for this recall, the process itself limited the scope for cascading activities by workers and boxed the movement into an electoral struggle.

This demobilization through elections was deepened when the Democratic Party chose Tom Barrett as the candidate to oppose Scott Walker. Barrett is the mayor of Milwaukee, the largest urban center in the state and had stood in the election in 2010 against Walker. The fact that the Democratic Party and the trade union bureaucracy decided to go with Barrett was one more indication of how far removed the top brass of the party were from the concerns of the poor. Milwaukee had gained national notoriety for the oppression of poor blacks. The school system in Milwaukee is among the most racist in the nation and the rate of unemployment among blacks is as high as 50 per cent. Police brutality and the rates of incarceration among blacks and Latinos would have indicated that there would be no enthusiasm among the poor for the Governorship of Tom Barrett. Moreover, the same austerity that was being promoted at the state level by Scott Walker was being discussed in the back rooms at City hall by Tom Barrett. His nomination was a sure sign that there would be no massive ground operation in the black and brown communities.


Within one hour of the closing of the polls on June 5, it was clear that the Democratic Party and the trade union leadership had miscalculated. Scot Walker won the recall election with 53.1 per cent of the votes. Barrett received 46 per cent of the votes. This was the same margin that Walker had defeated Barrett in the 2010 elections.

Immediately when the results were declared the trade union leaders and the Democratic Party decried the role of big money in elections in the United States. The New York Times reported that Walker had spent over US $45 million with 70 per cent of the funds coming from outside of Wisconsin. The ‘progressives’ continue to point to the role of the Supreme Court Judgment on Citizens United to decry the role of billionaires in financing elections. Others in the media called the Wisconsin elections a dry run for the presidential elections in November between Romney and Obama.

Progressive forces across the United States are debating the elections and it is from the ranks of those who call themselves socialists where there is the most sophisticated analysis. Even this analysis from socialist elements excludes the role of Barrett and his relationship to Black people in Milwaukee. The recall election serves as a wakeup call for progressives. The future of the struggles against capitalism cannot be decided by electoral struggles. Electoral struggles are one of the many forms of mobilization, but with the billions of dollars available from the monied classes to mobilize the media, it will be necessary to clarify new forms of struggles that will ensure the steady and continuous mobilization of the working class. At the time of the Civil War in the United States Karl Marx had noted that’ labor cannot emancipate itself in the white skin when in the black it is branded.’ Today, public sector workers cannot gain democratic rights when these are the social forces at the forefront of the prison industrial complex. The struggles against capitalism will be heightened by this recall defeat. Barack Obama and the Democratic Party cannot decry the power of the monied classes when the policies of the present government have been to bail out the banks and the monied classes. These forces are using the bail out money to consolidate political power in the United States.

I will agree with those progressive forces who noted that the grassroots worked for Barack Obama in 2008. In 2012, the progressive and grassroots have to fashion new tools to work for themselves to defeat Romney and the Republicans. The grassroots must build structures that are stronger than the money and the media. In the process of building these structures they will be able to hold any politician accountable. The Wisconsin Recall election is an eye opener about the present balance of forces. The left will have to decide if they are equal to the challenge.