What Might Have Been: One Report from Madison, Wisconsin

In all the post-mortems about what went down in Wisconsin, this comment on my blog from a union activist in Madison got lost in the shuffle.  I have no idea who this person is or if s/he is correct in his/her assessment. But it seemed worth posting here in full.

. . . . . . .

I’m a member of the Teaching Assistants’ Association. I was heavily involved during the actual occupation of the Capitol, and then gradually less so after we were kicked out. I was at the meeting of the Wisconsin South-Central Federation of Labor when it voted to endorse a general strike if the bill went through. It should be noted that the final version of the bill involved endorsing an “international” general strike, whatever the hell that would be.

Although, to be fair, since the leadership knew they didn’t have a strike fund or any advance work with any unions, they were only endorsing a strike in principle, I still thought I was on the set of a movie. Since, you know, the last general strike in the United States was in Minneapolis in 1934. I talked to a still-wet-behind-the-ears paid organizer for SCFL, and he told me that, indeed, there was serious talk about a general strike.

When things actually hit the fan, of course, it was only the directly-affected public-sector unions that had any real strike talk. In my own, undoubtedly the most radical, there was a hard core of activists who had been working around the clock on the occupation who favored going on strike. I was willing to be one of them, but it became pretty clear that we had no chance in hell of winning a strike vote. The primary problem was not our ”fat-cat” union bureaucrats (our officers actually don’t draw a union salary) but the bulk of our membership. Even among the people who showed up to our large and contentious general membership meetings there were many who strongly opposed our “teachouts,” in which we didn’t teach our classes on campus but sometimes made alternative arrangements to teach near the State Capitol. I imagine that among the much larger number who didn’t come to the meetings and didn’t participate in the teachouts, such opposition was even greater. Certainly, those members would never have voted for a formal walkout.

Even some of our progressive faculty were getting antsy about the continued teachouts, and, of course, there was a considerable public backlash against the wildcat sickouts that many teachers participated in, most notably members of MTI, the Madison teachers union.

Without knowing all the decision-making details within the big public-sector unions, I am still confident that there is no way that a grassroots groundswell for a strike was squelched by union bureaucrats and Democratic politicians. They might have tried (and likely failed) to squelch such a surge had it existed, but it was clear to the vast majority of those involved that we had already done pretty much all we could do and that there was not going to be any strike, let alone the fabled general strike, the chimera of the left.

It might be interesting to imagine what would have happened had there been some organized campaign to stop doing any other activism and start preparing for a mass public-sector strike. For those who think the recall was an overreach, you shouldn’t try to imagine what the backlash would have been against that.

Update (6/21, 8:30 am)

One commenter reminds us that the last general strike in the United States was in Oakland in 1946, not Minneapolis in 1934.


  1. Evan Rowe June 20, 2012 at 10:33 pm | #

    It would have been 10 times better to fail at a general strike, than it was to fail at the recall. The problem isn’t the tactics within the union rank and file–it’s that the union strategy fails to put its chips in organizing outside of their union. Strikes should be considered in some new generic form (probably just needs a good old rebranding)

    The leadership, i’m sure navigated its own political terrain as best it could–the problem is the information it banks on is bullshit. The Unions do not represent the working class, everything is falls beyond that. The only thing that matters now is whether the unions can reinvent themselves with a rapid expansion into new places.

    They actually have the resources to carry out serious thinking and organizing, and bring in fresh minds, and explain to their current members why they need to take more risks–including the jobs of their current representation, in order to expand into totally new terrain.

  2. Evan Rowe June 20, 2012 at 10:40 pm | #

    Another way to think of it, is to look at the unions for what they more accurately are like: professional organizations that protect their small parochial membership. They are like the AMA, except with less pie to protect. So it’s like debating the strategy and tactics of dentists, doctors, or lawyers and what tactics work best. They can’t win because they are caught in the trap of their own internal logic (both members and leadership) and an opposition that has basically already won the war of reducing the popularity of the unions by slowly shrinking its density and benefits over the the course of decades.

  3. barbara a fitzpatrick June 20, 2012 at 10:51 pm | #

    There was a 1946 general strike in Oakland, CA.
    At this point I think electoral remedies from a progressive position are unlikely unless there are people out in the street. Vote for democrats (Often Holding one’s nose); Sign on line petitions, but don’t pretend that is activism; and take it out into the streets. Its not a sure bet, but the only real choice we have. Backlash be damned.

    • Chatham June 21, 2012 at 6:38 pm | #

      I guess it depends on what you mean by out in the streets. Out in the streets only works if it serves to convince the apathetic masses of doing something. It’s doable, but things like protests or civil disobedience don’t tend to be helpful (and can often be counterproductive). Pamphleteering can be useful, as can rallies. Coalitions are important, as are small and achievable goals – so people can see that you’re actually doing things, and then jump on board.

  4. Matt Stoller June 20, 2012 at 10:52 pm | #

    If there’s no intellectual or ideological leadership around why a strike is a useful thing to do, then of course it’s going to fail.

    • scott June 21, 2012 at 9:33 am | #

      I agree and find this the most frustrating thing about the debate. The right has conducted a war against unions in a more intensified form for the last 40 years, demonizing them with well-funded campaigns while our liberal “leaders” sat there and sucked their thumbs. So, at this point, yeah, unions are demonized and there’s no “consensus” that unions and strikes are useful things. But just sighing forlornly that that’s the case and checking out isn’t a strategy. It didn’t get to be this way by default or nature or providence. The other side led a crusade to get ithings the way they are now, which means that they can be changed. And it starts with advocating what you believe in and why it’s right, not accepting the status quo of people’s opinions as a static given that must be dealt with rather than changed.

      • Sam Holloway June 22, 2012 at 7:36 am | #

        Well put, Scott. This is a foundational, practically genetic-level problem in this society. I like Henry Giroux’s take on it:

        As the major cultural apparatuses and technologies of public pedagogy are concentrated in a few hands, the educational force of the culture becomes a powerful ideological tool for legitimating market-driven values and social relations, based on omissions, deceptions, lies, misrepresentations and falsehoods benefiting the apostles of a range of economic, educational and religious fundamentalisms.

        The ‘other side’ has taken over a lot of the ground that many accept and go so far to labor for under the illusion that it’s on ‘our side’ (i.e. the Democratic Party). Scott Walker and the Wisconsin legislature’s assault on public employees was preceded by Obama’s appointment of former Chicago Public School ‘CEO’ Arne Duncan, who had no educational experience and used his position to push for privatization schemes and the undermining of the Chicago Teacher’s Union. One of Duncan’s first public acts was to vociferously praise a Rhode Island school district’s decision to bust its teacher’s union by firing all the teachers and hiring (some of) them back under different terms. Obama echoed that praise. I don’t remember which happened first, but one of Obama’s other early gifts to right-wing and neoliberal anti-labor forces was to announce a pay freeze on rank-and-file federal employees.

    • Douglas D. Edwards June 21, 2012 at 11:01 pm | #

      I agree entirely. And this point keeps getting lost in the back-and-forth over whether it would have been better to go for a recall, a general strike, or neither. No amount of organizing savvy or persistence will substitute for a persuasive message.

  5. SN1789 June 21, 2012 at 2:34 pm | #

    An organizing and agitation campaign by unions for working people would have built knowledge, skills and strength for working people themselves. A mulligan for Barrett demobilized people. a labor-as-labor campaign of resistance would have mobilized people.

  6. Sam Holloway June 21, 2012 at 3:38 pm | #

    To rather coarsely paraphrase the assertions of two of my favorite social and political critics (Jacqueline S. Homan and Chris Hedges), today’s Democratic Party represents the political culmination of the U.S. left having long since sold out its most ‘radical’ (and effective) elements in favor of horse trading with the wealthy right wing for an ever-decreasing menu of middle-class consumerist privileges.
    That said, I am in partial agreement with Evan Rowe: “…the union strategy fails to put its chips in organizing outside of their union.”
    Indeed. A general strike was, it seems, tragically and laughably unrealistic. The strategy of relying heavily on electoral politics (i.e. the recall), on the other hand, held far more promise in theory. The problem with adopting that strategy is that there was little or no effort to build consensus around a candidate who would represent a significant challenge to the hellish status quo. This isn’t a slam against anyone who had boots on the ground in the fight, it’s just an observation that such a candidate couldn’t be found for such a fractured, anemic, and poorly engaged electorate. In other words, putting the energy behind electoral politics would have been a very effective strategy for a better and more mature electorate. I’m not sure such a thing exists in Wisconsin or anywhere else in the States.

  7. Juan Conatz June 23, 2012 at 4:02 pm | #

    Thanks for posting this. I was actually in Madison, WI from March to June (while also traveling into town a couple times in February) , during which part of the time I was a stipended organizer for the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Because the IWW included a number of ‘dual carders’ that were also in some of the public sector unions and we, as a organization were pretty loud about the pro-strike talk, I have some things to say about this.

    I generally agree with the thrust of the comment: that the entirety of blame on the failure of a strike happening shouldn’t be placed at the Democrats/bureaucrats/leadership, etc. That’s doesn’t give you the complete picture. It’s more of a cookie cutter analysis. For liberals and socialists its along the lines of “the formal leadership is bad leadership and didn’t fight for a general strike or fought against it therefore we need to replace the formal leadership with people we like!” For anarchists its like “formal leadership is bad and therefore it is natural that they fought against the general strike idea”.

    The centering of this critique of leadership has more to do with the easy way in which it fits into people’s political perspective, but still looks at the participants as a faceless mass with none of their own subjectivity. These two ways of looking at Wisconsin erase the experiences, attitudes, opinions, reactions and organizing of a countless number of people.

    That’s not to say that the AFL-CIO or Democrats didn’t fight against the idea of a general strike. At a state level AFL-CIO I was told by one of the attendees that one of the international people stated “if you don’t have 75% of your workplace on board, we’re not even going to talk about a strike”. Obviously, this was a way of shutting down any talk of it by making the issue into one of negotiation and fighting, similar to the relationship between workers and bosses. The numerous speeches which pushed the line of coming to protests and going home also contributed, it its own way of fighting against people doing anything ‘too crazy’. The formative meetings of the AFL-CIO’s ‘We Are Wisconsin’ group happened largely during when most people were working, was probably not promoted to its members and was more of a big meeting of staffers, paid organizers and people in official positions in various unions and nonprofits. Anything like that in the context of tens of thousands of rank and file workers marching in the street, in my mind, was undoubtadly done with the intention of excluding those people from the ‘What are we going to do?’ question. A question that was a a strong minority undercurrent fro February until mid March. (See a paid organizer for an AFL-CIO unions perspective: http://uhavenothin2losebuturchains.tumblr.com/post/18400931279/why-m1gs-lessons-from-wisconsin)

    Anyway, on to specifics of the comment.

    I think there is some confusion on the part about SCFL passing a resolution (called a ‘bill’ by the comment’s author). I don’t remember the resolution including anything about an ‘international’ general strike. I checked the language of the resolution (see here: http://libcom.org/library/wisconsin-south-central-federation-labors-general-strike-packet) and didn’t see anything about that.

    You mention ‘public backlash’ against the MTI sickouts. What do you mean by this? I know, nationally, Fox News picked up on the story and there were right-wing groups that were trying to expose teachers who called in sick, but that’s inevitable, and not sure what I would call ‘public backlash’. They got a lot of support in Madison (probably supermajority) and their actions coincided with student walkouts in places I’d never imagine (like Platteville).

    Overall, I agree with what you are saying: any strike/general strike would not have come through formal union structures because people weren’t at that point where they could win a majority and that blaming Democrats/union bureaucrats as the sole reason strikes didn’t happen is not an opinion based on what happened.

    But I do not share your pessimism of whether strikes could have happened. I think they could have, but wouldn’t have looked like:

    A) Campaign for strike votes
    B) Hold vote
    C) Repeat in numerous workplaces, locals and unions.
    D) Announce strike.
    E) Strike.

    I think that’s what a lot of people, including pro-strike militants, expected the process to look like. That’s understandable. As was pointed out, the last official general strike in the U.S. (although it was called a ‘work holiday’) was Oakland in 1946. There wasn’t a reference point to really look to.

    In retrospect, pro-strike militants using a mixture of formal union structures and outside the union tactics concentrating on one workplace or job classification to go out and be supported by mass pickets/flying squads who then targeted additional places to spread strikes would have most likely been the most realistic chance for a strike. That could have happened, and for a short time, it felt that way. Even 40%-50% of a decent sized public sector workplace walking out would have received an enormous amount of support and getting a mass picket together would have been practically effortless. The anger that was there in the city and you could feel (which expressed itself in such things as the forceable second occupation of the capitol) could have translated into other places walking out. Such a thing would also change the question from ‘Are you for striking and all that may mean?’ into ‘Are you going to cross this picket line and betray your co-workers?’ in a way that make the issue about how you relate to people in your everyday life and not how you relate to AFL-CIO talking heads or politicians.

  8. hellahusker June 24, 2012 at 6:57 pm | #

    I agree with Evan Rowe – It would have been 10 times better to fail at a general strike, than it was to fail at the recall.

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