Socialist Equality Party members call for general strike at Wisconsin demonstration

By our reporter
11 March 2011

On the evening of March 9, Republicans in the Wisconsin state senate carried out a surprise vote on Governor Scott Walker's budget repair bill, bypassing the required quorum by splitting off the sections dealing with budget appropriations.

The bill sharply curtails collective bargaining rights for state workers, allowing the governor to to fire any workers who go on strike, and denying them the right to collectively negotiate over pensions and benefits.

Within hours, thousands assembled at the capitol. Members of the Socialist Equality Party addressed the crowds, calling for a general strike and a break with the Democratic Party, which had been carrying out secret negotiations with Walker before the vote.

Outside the capitol, Andre Damon, the National Secretary of the International Students for Social Equality, student organization of the SEP, spoke in support of a general strike, independent of the trade unions, to force Walker to resign. These calls gained vocal support, leading to resounding chants of “general strike" and "Walker must go" from the thousands assembled outside the capitol entrance.

This quickly caught the attention of the trade union leaders and Democratic Party officials, who sought to defend the record of the trade unions in the face of Damon's denunciations, and to talk workers down from the call from a general strike.

Eric Cobb, the executive director of the local building and contracts trade council and an emcee for the official demonstrations at the capitol, asked for Damon's megaphone and responded to calls for a general strike with inducements for workers to "be patient" and "peaceful."

Damon, a resident of Michigan, said that such calls by trade union leaders have led to the impoverishment of Detroit and the destruction of hundreds of thousand of autoworkers' jobs; he renewed the call for a general strike, which was enthusiastically supported.

Shortly afterward, John Nichols, political correspondent for The Nation magazine, took the megaphone to defend the record of the 14 Wisconsin Democratic state senators from Damon's denunciations, saying that Walker's publication that day of the documents was a groundless effort to discredit them.

Damon replied that Walker's documents only emphasized the spinelessness of the Democrats. He said that they had already agreed to most of Walker's demands long ago, and were negotiating in secret to give even more concessions to Walker.

After this, protesters who had sneaked inside the capitol through the windows opened the main doors, and thousands of people flooded into the building. The Socialist Equality Party had possessed the only megaphone on the capitol floor, and used it to facilitate a discussion of the vital issues facing Wisconsin workers.

When Damon spoke on the floor, he warned workers that a call for a general strike is meaningless if they do not build new organizations capable of leading a struggle. He warned that the AFL-CIO worked to isolate the PATCO air traffic controllers in 1981, and that there is no possibility that the unions would support the call for a general strike three decades later. He then turned to the Democratic Party, which he accused of caving to Republican demands, and supporting concessions equivalent to those called for by Walker in other states.

The criticisms of the Democratic Party and the trade unions prompted whisperings among the pseudo-left organizations leading the occupation of the capitol, followed by nervous cries of "Stop! Stop!" These people―largely members of the International Socialist Organization and Students for a Democratic Society―made it their business to try to police the demonstration and keep out opponents of the big-business parties.

After Damon's first speech inside the capitol, the various Democratic party and trade union operatives discussed with themselves what to do about the fact that socialists controlled the only megaphone. One, a middle-aged man with a large drum strapped to his midsection, offered to get "ten or twenty guys out here to throw the socialists out."

The Democratic Party supporters did not feel themselves up to this task, however, and Damon together with two other Socialist Equality Party Members spoke a number of more times to call on workers to form rank and file committees.

After the interventions, a number of workers caught up with the Socialist Equality Party speakers and thanked them for their firm support for a general strike. They discussed the perspective of organizing rank-and-file committees, and discussed strategies for preparing organizing committees at their workplaces.