The 2011 mass protests in Wisconsin

When the newly-elected Republican Wisconsin governor, Scott Walker, sought to ram through anti-worker legislation stripping public employees of collective bargaining rights and cutting their pay and benefits, a mass movement of the working class erupted in the state capital of Madison, in Milwaukee, and throughout the state.

In early February 2011, Walker threatened to call out the National Guard if public workers resisted his attacks. Teachers and other public employees responded by walking off their jobs and staging daily protests in the state capitol building, which was occupied by large crowds for weeks.

The WSWS provided on-the-spot coverage of the protests in Madison and Milwaukee. In the course of the Wisconsin struggle, the WSWS expanded its use of video, including reports posted February 18, February 21, March 7 and March 14.

Workers marched with signs comparing Walker to ousted Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak and pledging to “Walk like an Egyptian.” Bill Van Auken commented on the significance of the American working class following the example of its class brothers and sisters in the Arab world:

The recent toppling of the presidents of Tunisia and Egypt by mass protests signified the re-emergence of revolutionary struggle by the working class. The conditions that created these struggles, however, are universal—mass unemployment, staggering levels of social inequality, and a political system that is completely impervious to the demands and interests of the vast majority of the population. The eruption of mass protests in Wisconsin is an initial expression of a new era of open class struggle in the country that has long functioned as the center of the world capitalist system, the United States.

The perspective pointed to the political lessons being drawn by masses of American workers:

Two and a half years into the global economic crisis that began with the financial meltdown on Wall Street in the fall of 2008, the working class in the United States is mounting its first major counterattack against the policies of the financial aristocracy. There is a growing realization that the political and economic system has failed. A new social order must emerge.

As part of a ruthless assault on the working class throughout the country, Walker was seeking not only to slash pay and benefits, but to eliminate the right to collective bargaining, with the aim of outlawing any form of organized resistance by the working class to the policies of the corporate and financial elite.

The response of the AFL-CIO and the other trade unions was to seek to preserve their own institutional and financial interests by maintaining their role in working with the corporations and the government to impose cuts on the working class. They sought from day one of the protests to smother them and channel them behind the Democratic Party. They repeatedly insisted that for them the issue was not the cuts in wages and benefits, with which they agreed. In “The political issues in the fight against budget cuts,” the WSWS wrote:

What, then, is the AFL-CIO’s bottom line argument? There is no need, it is saying, to attack the legal prerogatives and dues base of the unions. The AFL-CIO is willing and fully prepared to collaborate with state governments, Democratic and Republican alike, to achieve their financial and budgetary objectives.

But where does this leave the working class? The answer is: Without jobs, without adequate wages and salaries, without essential benefits and social services, without adequate schools and hospitals, without basic democratic rights, and without a future.

In opposition to the unions and the Democratic Party, the WSWS called for a general strike to mobilize the entire working class and bring down the Walker government, a demand that won widespread support. “The call for Walker’s removal,” the WSWS wrote, “does not imply a vote of confidence in the Democratic Party.”

Beyond the borders of Wisconsin there are Democratic Party governors and mayors who are calling for budget cuts no less draconian than those sought by Walker. The Obama administration is collaborating with the state governors and the Congress in Washington in the implementation of budget cuts that will wreak havoc on the lives of workers throughout the country.

However, inspired by the example set by Wisconsin workers, the fight against the attacks on workers’ rights will expand from state to state and across the country as a whole, in opposition to all the political representatives of the capitalist class.

Thus, the demand for Walker’s removal raises the most important issue of all—the necessity for workers to create their own, independent, socialist alternative to the corporate-controlled Republican and Democratic parties.

A critical role in demobilizing the protests was played by the International Socialist Organization (ISO), whose activity was entirely focused on bolstering the credibility of the unions and the Democratic Party. The ISO, along with the unions, hailed a political stunt pulled by Democratic state senators, who fled the state to deny Walker and the Republicans a quorum in the legislature and delay passage of the governor’s anti-worker bill.

On March 9, Walker succeeded in pushing through his legislation, which was seized on by the unions as an occasion to call off the month-long protests. In the brief period before the law went into effect, the unions rushed to sign multiyear contracts that preserved the automatic deduction of union dues from workers’ paychecks, while imposing sweeping concessions on the workers.

At the same time, the unions, backed by the ISO and other pseudo-left organizations, organized a petition drive to force a recall election of Republican legislators—a dead end designed to demobilize the working class and channel workers’ anger behind the Democrats.

In August, the recall elections were held. The results left the Republicans in control of the state legislature and demonstrated the bankrupt character of the whole campaign. The WSWS wrote:

From the beginning, the recall campaign was a reactionary diversion, aimed at demobilizing and suppressing working class opposition. The Democratic candidates made no secret of their support for cuts in social spending and attacks on public employees. Had the Democrats won control of the Senate, there would be no significant change in government policy in relation to the basic rights and interests of the working class.

The central lesson that emerges from the experience of the Wisconsin protests is the need for a revolutionary party and perspective to lead the struggles of the working class.

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