Leaders of the Wisconsin Uprising 3

See earlier posts from the book “Wisconsin Uprising”

3—Who Were the Leaders of the Wisconsin Uprising?

“It was another day, another demonstration in the midst of Wisconsin’s dramatic, nearly month-long labor mobilization against anti-union legislation. But the protest that took place March 1 was different.
The unions, following a 100,000-strong protest on Saturday,
February 26, had broken down their soundstage and dropped the
twice-daily rallies that had become a focus of national attention. Days earlier, union officials had—according to the chief of the Capitol Police—collaborated with authorities as they ended the occupation of the building that had been a focus of activism.1

Union leaders apparently believed that they had made their point by mobilizing masses of people to Madison, and that Republican Governor Scott Walker would sit down to negotiate a compromise, as even Wisconsin’s previous Republican governors had done.

Instead, Walker pressed ahead with legislation that could gut the
unions’ membership and finances as well as eliminate meaningful collective bargaining. So when the governor prepared to give his budget address at the capitol building in Madison, as required by state law, thousands turned out to protest, even though no union or organization had called for any action.

Thus as union members gathered that afternoon—in what had
become the usual gamut of teachers, firefighters, social workers,
highway repair crews, electrical workers, and more—the union officials who had presided over previous protests were nowhere to be seen. The sound system that had made speeches on the capitol steps audible from several blocks away was gone. The only amplified speeches this day came via the small loudspeaker belonging to the University of Wisconsin’s Teaching Assistant’s Association (TAA), whose members
offered an open mike for anyone who wished to speak.

But rank-and-file union members had organized themselves to get
to the capitol anyway. They were determined that Walker’s budget
speech would not go unchallenged. Many were private sector workers
who had seen their own wages and benefits cut—and often, jobs eliminated— in recent years. Among them was Jerry Thompson, who had
been a pipefitter at the now-closed Janesville plant operated by
General Motors. “I’ve been a card carrying member of a union for
fifty-two years,” he said, but he’d never seen anything like the protests in Madison. “I am retired but I want to be here because of solidarity.”

Madison teachers, who had returned to work the previous week
following their sickout, were also scattered throughout the crowd. It was part of the union’s tradition, explained teacher Joan Shahrani.

“We have always been concerned about teachers’ rights.”
Suddenly, around 4 p.m., the crowd—furious at a police lockdown
of the capitol and the isolation of the few-dozen protesters still
occupying the building—surged forward, tearing through the orange
plastic safety fence set up that day to keep protesters away from the
northwest entrance. About a dozen Wisconsin state troopers,
alarmed, sprinted toward the main door to the capitol, racing
demonstrators who were determined to get there first. In the scuffle that ensued, one trooper was visibly shocked to find himself squaring off against Ben Gall, a hardhat-wearing member of
Ironworkers Local 8 in Milwaukee, as scores of others tried pushing
their way into the capitol.
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The dozens of police officers posted inside the entrance finally
managed to get the doors closed, and the two shaken troopers who had been stranded outside nervously threaded their way through a crowd that was pounding the doors, chanting, “Whose house? Our house!”
Gall was asked if the police had roughed him up. The compact but
powerfully built ironworker said simply, “I don’t get pushed around.”2
He was angry, he said, because “Scott Walker kicked us out of our
house,” referring to the end of the occupation two days earlier. “This is a union-busting thing.”

Gall’s Local 8 veteran union brother, Ron Moore, explained why
the two men, like many other workers in the building trades, had made the trip to Madison that day despite the absence of any official call to action. “All we have, this is it. Right here. This is the epicenter for the working person’s future.”

After the shoving match with state troopers, the marchers gathered
around and discussed what do. Word came that a bigger crowd was
protesting outside the door on the opposite side of the capitol. TAA members carrying the sound system led the crowd in a brief march around the building, where they found other groups of union workers and supporters using the steps to the eastern entrance as a stage. The TAA loudspeaker was again opened up to anyone who cared to address the hundreds gathered nearby while thousands more milled around the capitol building.

Steve Tippel, president of Professional Fire Fighters of
Wisconsin Local 1440, in the North Shore suburbs of Milwaukee,
took the microphone. Speaking clearly but not shouting, he soon
commanded the raucous crowd’s attention. He took his union card
from his wallet and held it aloft. He’d got that card on his first day on
the job eighteen years earlier, he said. Ever since, it had meant solidarity, dignity, and mutual support. That is what the struggle in Wisconsin was about to him, and other firefighters who’d driven
across the state that day, he said.

“We’ve made the trip up here almost every day in support of union
rights,” Tippel said after his speech. “We may be exempt from this
bill, and we are grateful for that,” he continued, referring to the exemption from the collective bargaining ban for firefighters and police, which many believed was payback for the Milwaukee firefighters’
union endorsement of the Republican in the 2010 governor’s race.

“However,” Tippel added, “we are not in favor of anyone losing their right to collectively bargain.”3

If members of Tippel’s local could identify with other public
sector workers facing cuts, it was in part because they had already
experienced some painful concessions themselves. A year earlier,
Local 1440 agreed to reduce minimum staffing from twenty-nine to
twenty-seven firefighters per day, down from thirty when the North
Shore fire district was organized in 1995.

That made it all the easier for the members of his local—like other firefighters from around the state—to identify with public sector workers who were in Walker’s crosshairs. Asked if he thought the governor’s attacks would spark job actions, he said: “Whenever you back someone into a corner, don’t underestimate what they’re capable of doing.”

The leaderless March 1 protest highlighted a key dynamic of the
Wisconsin revolt. It was a groundswell by almost every sector of
organized labor, not just by public sector workers directly targeted by the legislation, but by their counterparts who worked for private employers as well. The action was driven at first by fear and anger and then sustained by the inspiration from solidarity and mass action that went beyond the plans of union officials. Indeed, labor leaders often had to scramble throughout the nearly month-long protest to provide
leadership to a movement that transcended organized labor to mobilize tens of thousands of non-union workers, students.

Thus when union leaders hesitated to take the fight forward March
1 and for several days afterward, a central question came to the fore:
Who were the leaders of this fight, and what was their aim?

Was defense of collective bargaining the only issue, or was this a challenge to economic concessions as well?

Was the goal to use workers’ power to block
Walker’s anti-union legislation, or was the mobilization simply a pressure tactic for the unions’ negotiators?

If the bill were to be passed, should labor use job actions and strikes to fight back? Or should unions accept legislative defeat and turn to long-term electoral remedies?

Individual union activist sought to build rank-andfile
networks in their union to better coordinate action and organize in
the workplace.

Compared to the mass protests mobilized by the big unions, such
efforts could appear paltry. But then the big union operations—
AFSCME, WEAC, and the state AFL-CIO—literally pulled the plug
on mass protests after February 26 and turned their backs on the occupation of the capitol.

It fell to a thin layer of activists to try to sustain
the mobilization, starting with the improvised budget protest March 1 discussed at the outset of this chapter. On March 3, the Kill the Whole Bill Coalition and the NNU organized a New Orleans jazz funeral march of several thousand to the capitol steps. Eric Cobb was emcee, and several speakers spoke against concessions and argued for the continuation of the struggle.

Among the organizers of the rally was Sam Jordan, an African
American longtime organizer and labor activist in Madison who
helped found Kill the Whole Bill Coalition. “We organized this rally just to show that there is a union voice out there that says it is about the money” as well as union rights, she said.

Still, the leading figures in labor were silent. With no mass
Saturday labor protest scheduled, Manski worked through Wisconsin
Wave and its allies to organize a demonstration on three days’ notice.

By then, the pattern of weekend worker mobilizations to Madison was
well established, so the Wave activists could be confident of an audience of at least thousands of people—and they had filmmaker Michael Moore as a featured speaker. Labor leaders, realizing that they had left a vacuum to be filled by others, also made a last-minute call for their own action, building on a rally called by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. But union officials were determined
that the protest remain “on message” and refused an offer by
Wave to collaborate. The unions rejected Moore as a speaker, apparently out of fear that he would call a general strike.63

It was apparent that the protests would continue, with or without
the blessing of top union officials in WEAC, AFSCME, and the
Labor militants, and activists and community groups had already
been grappling with those issues when top union officials abandoned
the protests February 26, so they didn’t hesitate to take the initiative in organizing their own actions.4

That put pressure on Wisconsin’s main public sector unions, which called another 100,000-strong protest— the biggest, and last, demonstration on March 12. But that demonstration came a day after Walker had signed the anti-union bill into law.

With the implementation of the law delayed in the courts, labor
leaders used the protest to redirect the movement into an unsuccessful effort to mount recall elections of eight of Wisconsin’s Republican state senators and install a Democratic majority in that chamber.

While another large labor demonstration May 16 provided a coda, the
mass union mobilizations came to an end, their goals unmet.
Further discussion of the character of the demonstrations can be
found elsewhere in this book. The subject here is the conditions that laid
the basis for the transition from protest to mobilization, and from demonstration to occupation.

For although Walker’s attack on public sector bargaining
rights sparked the mobilization, the resistance immediately gathered mass support from unionized workers in the private sector, too—workers who had taken devastating concessions themselves in a series of recent contracts.

Indeed, it is impossible to understand the breadth and
depth of the working-class mobilization in Wisconsin without taking into account the scale of the corporate rollback of decades of gains in what
had been bedrocks of the state’s industrial union strength, as well as a previous series of attacks on public sector employees.

This essay will also look at how different currents in the labor
movement developed during the struggle. It will focus on the attempt to create a network of union members and supporters who rejected top union leaders’ calls to separate labor’s issues from the broader fight over Walker’s austerity budget as well as union leaders’ repeated
offers to accept all of the economic concessions demanded by Walker
in exchange for maintaining collective bargaining rights. These
activists focused instead on organizing a labor-student-community
alliance that could challenge the wider attacks on working people,
both those carried out by Walker and employers in the state.
Page 63
The Long War on Wisconsin Labor

If Scott Walker thought he could roll over Wisconsin’s public sector unions without a fight, it was likely because the traditional bastions of
the state’s union strength had already been decimated over the years by plant closures and concessions by union leaders in an effort to save jobs.

A labor movement known for its pioneering advances in the
nineteenth century and for achieving a good standard of living for
workers in the decades following the Second World War was unable
to resist the national trend of declining union strength.
Wisconsin’s union density was above the national figure of 14 percent
in 2010, compared to 11.9 percent in the United States overall.
But union density in the state is less than half the level of 1964, when one in three workers was unionized. Just 8.4 percent of workers in the
private sector in the state were unionized in 2010, less than half the level of 1983.5

The radical reduction in union members at Briggs & Stratton is
emblematic of labor’s decline in Wisconsin. This maker of small
engines and generators saw an epic strike in 1983 that highlighted
labor’s resilience. In the early 1990s the company still had 10,000
employees in the Milwaukee area before a wave of outsourcing.6 By
October 2010, the company’s contract with its main union, now affiliated
with the United Steelworkers (USW), covered just 350 workers
and cut take-home pay as the result of increases in health care costs.
Wages are $17 per hour—about one-third lower than the level of the
mid-1990s, after inflation is considered.7
Since 2003, following national contracts, automakers and parts
suppliers in Wisconsin began cutting wages for new hires before
closing plants altogether. The plant shutdowns included the Delphi
plant in Oak Creek,8 the Chrysler engine plant in Kenosha,9 and the
GM assembly plant in Janesville.10

The paper industry saw a similar pattern. The NewPage paper mill
in Kimberly closed in 2008, eliminating jobs paying around $28 per
hour—twice the amount of non-union jobs. Wisconsin has lost 16,000
paper industry jobs since 1997, about a third of the total.11
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Meatpacking, another key Wisconsin industry, also saw a decline
in wages in the aftermath of the defeat of the Hormel strike in Austin, Minnesota, in 1985–86. In 2011, wages at Hormel’s Beloit facility represented by the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union were $16.75 per hour—some 30 percent lower than in the
1980s, after inflation.12 At Madison‘s Oscar Mayer meatpacking plant, also represented by the UFCW, wages are lower still.13
The downward push in the Wisconsin meatpacking industry wasn’t
enough for Tyson Foods Inc. In 2003, the company, despite being profitable,
demanded that workers at its Jefferson plant take a one-third cut
in wages, to $9 per hour, pay higher health care costs, accept a freeze on pensions, and eliminate that benefit for new hires. The workers struck on February 28 of that year, and got widespread support that anticipated the outpouring of labor support in Madison.”14
Many Tyson strikers saw their struggle as part of a larger fight. “Big corporations are trying to take advantage,” Chuck Moehling, a twentytwo- year veteran of the plant, said on the picket line. “Let’s face it— there are not a lot of jobs out there, and corporations know it.
If they were losing money, maybe we could live with some part of this. But they’re not losing money. This plant here made $24 million. It makes you feel all the more committed to keep going, because you know that they don’t have any legitimacy in their proposals since they’re making
profits and increasing CEO pay as much as they are.”15 After nearly a year on the picket line, the workers accepted the company’s offer.16

The recession that began in December 2007 saw a new wave of
attacks on unions. At the Woodman’s grocery chain, a company that is nominally employee-owned but controlled by the Woodman family,
management seized the moment to try to decertify UFCW Local 1473
as the workers’ bargaining agent. Despite a multi-union, statewide solidarity rally in May 2008, the company succeeded.17

Wisconsin Teamsters also found themselves under intensifying
pressure. In August 2008, drivers for Waste Management Inc. in
Milwaukee waged a month-long strike that ended largely on the company’s terms—a five-year contract that replaced defined-benefit pensions with a 401(k) account.18
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Other corporate employers also used the recession as a weapon to
inflict greater, even decisive blows, against the unions. At the Mercury Marine boat engine plant in Fond du Lac, the parent company, Brunswick Corp., used a threat of a plant closure in 2009 to obtain a contract that froze wages for seven years and cut pay by 30 percent—
to about $11.50 per hour—for both new hires and laid-off workers
recalled to their jobs.19 The workers, members of the International
Association of Machinists (IAM), initially rejected the deal before
accepting it.20

Motorcycle manufacturer Harley-Davidson took a similar
approach the following year. Members of the IAM and the USW
agreed to concessions at Harley’s two Wisconsin plants, as did their
counterparts in Pennsylvania and Missouri, including a seven-year
wage freeze, higher health care costs for workers, and the hiring of casual workers who will be paid less than permanent employees for identical work and receive no medical or retirement benefits.21
Another storied Wisconsin industrial powerhouse, the plumbing
and fixture maker Kohler, in 2010 obtained similar concessions from
UAW Local 833, which represents about 2,300 workers in two plants.
The contract freezes pay for upper-tier workers at $22.54 an hour for five years and provides them with $1,000 signing bonuses. Lower-tier workers will receive wages that are one-third lower, and will have to pay more for health care.22

By early 2011, a concessionary statewide pattern in manufacturing
had been established across Wisconsin. Appliance maker Sub-Zero
got members of Sheet Metal Workers Local 565 to accept a seven-year
agreement that imposes a 20 percent cut in wages and benefits for all 350 workers.23

Meanwhile, another mainstay of Wisconsin private sector
unionism, the building trades, suffered their worst wave of unemployment in decades. After reaching a peak of around 130,000 in 2006, the number of statewide jobs in the industry was less than 90,000 as 2011 began.24 The president of Plumbers Local 75 reported a 20 percent jobless rate in his local in mid-2011.25 The number of idled union
construction workers helps explain the building trades’ large and consistent turnout during the Madison mobilization. Overall, joblessness in Wisconsin when the uprising began in February 2011 was at 7.4 percent—better than some states but still well above the pre-recession figure of around 4.5 percent.26 Page 66

Thus, by the time Walker declared war on public sector unions, their counterparts in private industry were already embittered by three decades of retreats and humiliating setbacks in recent struggles.

Moreover, the progressive leadership of the Wisconsin AFL-CIO under
longtime president David Newby and of the Madison-based South
Central Federation of Labor (SCFL) under Jim Cavanaugh had played
an important role in promoting such cross-union solidarity efforts.
Wisconsin’s unionized workers in the private sector, therefore,
were primed to respond to public sector workers’ call for labor solidarity in February 2011—and in large numbers.
Public Sector Unions Get Squeezed

While corporate employers were pounding unions, public sector
workers were also suffering from stagnant and declining wages and, in recent years, the assumption of a portion of health care costs. A twenty-year-old effort toward partnership-style collective bargaining had already unraveled by the time Walker took office. If Walker concluded that he could move decisively against public sector unions, it was in part because his Democratic predecessor in the governor’s
mansion had already extracted major labor concessions.
Walker’s move to eliminate meaningful public sector collective
bargaining turned back the clock half a century, when the state legislature came to terms with the reality that municipal workers and
teachers were organizing, irrespective of their legal status.

Public sector unions in Wisconsin were first recognized under state law in 1959, but the process wasn’t fully formalized until 1962 in a tumultuous
period of organizing, struggle, and strikes.27 The state legislature extended collective bargaining rights to state employees in 1966, and amended the law to allow bargaining on wages and benefits as well.28 The laws barred public sector strikes, but couldn’t prevent them. Despite a 1971 law explicitly barring teachers’ strikes, the next
few years saw a wave them, including the 1974 battle in Hortonville
that saw eighty-four teachers fired29 and a long 1976 strike by
Madison Teachers Inc. (MTI).30

The high-water mark of public sector worker struggle in
Wisconsin came in 1977 with a fifty-day wintertime strike by teachers in the industrial town of Racine31 and a fifteen-day successful strike by state employees in 1977, a showdown in which the governor mobilized the National Guard to do the jobs of corrections officers who were walking picket lines.32
Labor relations in the Wisconsin public sector were quieter in the
1980s as the collective bargaining process became institutionalized.

In 1991, the Republican administration of Tommy Thompson initiated
“consensus bargaining” with the Wisconsin State Employees
Union (WSEU), also known as the American Federation of State,
County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Council 24. The
negotiation model explicitly rejected the proposition that labor and
management are adversaries, and instead focused on the discovery of
supposed common interests. Marty Beil, executive director of
Council 24, was an enthusiastic participant. In 1998, the project was bolstered by a grant from the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, which funded labor-management training classes around the states that involved 750 people and culminated in a “graduation” ceremony at the governor’s mansion. When the federal grant expired,
Working Together became formalized, with funding partly provided
by a grant from AFSCME International. “The Wisconsin experience
and the success with the Working Together project should be a
national model,” AFSCME president Gerald McEntee said at the
time.33 For his part, Beil saw labor-management partnership as
extending to the ballot box, and broke with most union leaders to
support Thompson.34

But when the recession of 2001 left the state with a $1 billion
budget shortfall, Thompson’s Republican successor, Scott
McCallum, set aside consensus bargaining for a more confrontational
approach, demanding that workers contribute to health care coverage
for the first time. That didn’t sit well with workers, who had seen
wages eroded by inflation over the previous fifteen years—including a 20 percent decline in the pay of University of Wisconsin (UW) custodians.

In response, Beil of WSEU/AFSCME Council 24 organized a
rally of more than 1,000 state workers in March 2002, perhaps the
largest protest by that union since the 1977 strike. AFSCME president McEntee was among the speakers.35 The final collective bargaining agreement wasn’t reached until May 2003, barely two months before the contract was set to expire. State employees held the line on
health care and won 5.5 pay increases retroactive to 2001—a significant gain, even if insufficient to overcome the losses due to inflation.
Republican legislators approved the deal on the promise that the new Democratic governor, Jim Doyle, would seek employee contributions to health care insurance premiums in the next round of talks.36

AFSCME Council 24 leaders may have hoped that a Democratic
governor would return to the consensus bargaining of the Thompson
years. But Republicans had good reason to trust Doyle to take on
public employee unions. During the Democratic primary race for
governor, Doyle had antagonized labor by promising to eliminate
10,000 state jobs, prompting Council 24 to back his Democratic primary opponent.37

In his two terms, Doyle cut some government jobs, but not total
employment by the state.38 He did, however, keep his promise to
Republicans to impose a portion of health care insurance premiums
on state employees, first requiring non-union employees to pay a
share.39 Next came a three-tier health care plan with premiums initially paid for by the state, but with workers accepting only a token raise.40 In their next contract, Wisconsin state workers had to pay a portion of health care premiums for the first time—an amount that increased in the following agreement. In the 2007–9 contract—which
was extended until Walker canceled it in mid-2011—members of
AFSCME Council 24 in the most common family plan had to pay
nearly $1,000 per year in insurance premiums that just a few years earlier
had been entirely covered by the state. Though this may seem
modest, the impact was significant because of the long-term decline in real wages. Participants in the top-tier health insurance plan had to pay much more.41
Doyle’s shift of health care costs to workers didn’t prevent him
from winning reelection in 2006, once again with labor support. But
by dragging out negotiations with contract extensions and keeping
pay raises to a minimum, the eight-year Doyle administration steadily
shifted the balance of power in labor relations in favor of management.
“In the last ten years, our wages have barely increased, usually only about at the rate of inflation,” said Eric Robson, a twenty-three-year mailroom worker at the University of Wisconsin (UW) and a former president of AFSCME Local 171, which is part of Council 24.
“There haven’t been a lot of formal changes in the work rules. But there has been a constant speedup through attrition, as they split up people’s work when they leave without replacing them. I’ve gotten part of the work of two or three other people.”
At the same time, the union has atrophied, added Robson, who
continues to serve the local as a shop steward. “The union used to
fight for having more money in the state budget, so we could challenge management when they said, ‘We can’t fund this.’ But now bargaining waits until the state budget is done, and then seeing what’s in it. The approach became, ‘The budget is in, how do we make the best of it?’”

When the impact of the recession hit the Wisconsin state budget,
Doyle tossed aside consensus bargaining and made harsh demands
on the state employees’ unions. Besides foisting health care costs on state workers for the first time, Doyle cut their pay by 3 percent in 2009 by mandating sixteen unpaid furlough days over the following
two years and instituting state worker contributions to pensions for the first time. Though the amount was relatively small—0.2 percent—the move legitimized Scott Walker’s later demand that
workers pay more into pensions. Overall, state employees averaged
annual pay increases of just 1.21 percent per year under Doyle, well below the rate of inflation and the lowest level of any governor since 1971. “I’ve made deeper cuts than any governor’s ever made and I’ve had to impose tougher cost controls on state employees than anybody’s made,” Doyle declared to reporters in the aftermath of the 2010 elections.42

Doyle’s hard-line stance prevented AFSCME Council 24 from
gaining a contract for more than eighteen months. This would later
give Walker the opportunity to cancel the contract extension in place,
thus enabling him to void bargaining rights for Council 24 as soon as his anti-union law came into effect.

Although Walker didn’t declare his intention to attack public
sector unions until after the 2010 election, his anti-labor record as head of Milwaukee County was well known. But that didn’t provide
much of an edge to his Democratic challenger in the 2010 race,
Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett. That’s because in 2009 Barrett himself
threatened to eliminate up to 1,400 union jobs and impose twenty
unpaid furlough days unless the unions agreed to concessions. The
final deal included a two-year wage freeze and a limit of four unpaid furlough days in exchange for no layoffs.43
Despite Barrett’s attack on labor, most unions endorsed him in
his race against Walker, with the exception of Milwaukee’s firefighters’
union, which backed the Republican candidate. But the
enthusiasm for Barrett’s candidacy from rank-and-file union members
was limited: some 37 percent of voters from union households
voted for Walker.44
“State Workers Haven’t Had to Sacrifice”
When Scott Walker formally unveiled his budget repair bill on
February 11, 2011, Wisconsin public sector union leaders saw a
mortal threat to their organizations. The bill restricted collective bargaining
to wages, which would be limited in any case to the rate of
inflation. It also prohibited the automatic deduction of union dues
from workers’ paychecks, known as dues checkoff, potentially crippling labor financially. The unions would also be forced to recertify annually as the union’s bargaining agent, an onerous and expensive requirement for the union staff. But Walker was able to justify it as a
budget measure because of its impact on the paycheck of public
employees, who would be required to pay 5.8 percent of their pay to
their pensions while covering at least 12.6 percent of the cost of their health care premiums for new, lower-quality health insurance.45 The result would be a sharp cut in workers’ take-home pay, ranging from
6.8 to 12.9 percent, depending on their insurance plan.46
To state workers already saddled with paying health care premiums
and still suffering the effects of furlough-induced pay cuts, further reductions would be especially painful. But according to a television advertisement by the right-wing Club for Growth, which had strongly backed Walker, this was only appropriate, given that unionized workers in the private sector had also accepted concessions at Harley-Davidson, Mercury Marine, and Sub-Zero. The ad’s narrator concludes: “But state workers haven’t had to sacrifice. They pay next to nothing for their pensions, and a fraction of their health care. It’s
not fair. Call your state legislator and tell them to vote for Governor Walker’s budget repair bill. It’s time state employees paid their fair share, just like the rest of us.”47
Labor leaders sounded their own call to action. Yet they focused
not on economic issues, but exclusively on bargaining rights, eventually offering to swallow Walker’s demands on pensions and health care in exchange for dues checkoff and continued collective bargaining.
But there can be little doubt that the squeeze on paychecks was a powerful
motivator for public sector workers already battered by three
years of economic crisis.

As the Club for Growth made clear, Walker’s economic aims were
simply an adaptation of the Wisconsin private sector anti-union
agenda in the public sector. Though much has been made of Walker’s
ties to the notoriously anti-labor Koch brothers, who control a major energy conglomerate, the governor’s aim to cut workers’ benefits
reflects the consensus of big capital in the United States. It was also part of a wider bipartisan campaign in many states to squeeze public sector workers: Walker and his Republican counterparts in Ohio and Michigan captured attention in their attempt to roll back public sector union rights, but their economic objectives were shared by
Democratic governors in California, New York, Illinois, and elsewhere, along with Democratic mayors.48

The threat to union rights and the cut in union pay spurred a labor
protest of some 20,000 on February 15, far beyond the expectation of union leaders. Labor demonstrations were perhaps more common in
Madison than in most state capitals, thanks in part to the activist traditions
of the local labor council, the South Central Federation of Labor
(SCFL), and the state AFL-CIO leadership. But this protest reached
far beyond the usual networks of Madison-area trade unionists.
Mike Imbrogno, a food service worker at UW and a shop steward
and executive board member of AFSCME Local 171, described the
scene that day: “The mood was angry, but also optimistic—almost
jubilant. More than one person said to me, ‘The whole country is
looking at us now. If this happens here, it will go everywhere else.’”49
The protest set for the following day, February 16, was bigger still.

The transformation from union protest to worker uprising began that
day with the sickout by Madison schoolteachers. It soon spread, compelling
the Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC)
leaders to call for spreading the action statewide. Suddenly industrial action, all but abandoned by union leadership in recent years, became central to a key labor struggle, turning a small-state political conflict
into a national test of labor’s resolve in a widening battle over the rights, wages, and benefits of public sector workers. The occupation of the capitol building, initially a short-term union tactic to prevent the
Wisconsin state senate from voting on the legislation, was the key to sustaining the struggle. The blockade of state senator Chris Larson’s office that day, for example, helped him exit the capitol and take his place among the fourteen senators who crossed state lines.

Over the next several hours, the capitol became the “people’s house” in more
than name—a 24-hour center for political debate, strategy discussions,
and refreshment for protesters seeking a break from the winter
cold.50 After years of setbacks and defeats in apparent isolation from one another, Wisconsin workers, both union and unorganized, discovered they were not alone. Problems that had seemed like a personal burden—difficulties making ends meet, the lack of secure employ-ment—were now seen as social and political issues shared by workers of all backgrounds.

The anger and frustration dammed up over years
had been released, and transformed into hope based on the inspiration of a common struggle. The result was the emergence of networks spanning several organizations that pushed to both broaden the movement to challenge Walker’s entire budget agenda and to escalate the struggle beyond protests to include job actions.
Not About the Money?
At first, the novelty and excitement of a mass labor upsurge eclipsed any debate over the objectives of the struggle. After the February 17 sit-in that led to the full-scale occupation of the capitol, the protest settled
into a routine: weekday noontime protests rallies by the
Wisconsin AFL-CIO and evening protests anchored by a range of leftwing and progressive organizations such as Wisconsin Wave. Among the most popular labor speakers was Mahlon Mitchell, a Madison firefighter who had just taken office as the first African American president
of the Professional Fire Fighters of Wisconsin (PFFW). The previous
leadership had been forced to resign as the result of scandal surrounding union expense accounts.51
The firefighters’ leader cut a very different figure from his predecessor.
“Our house is burning down, ladies and gentlemen,” Mitchell
said to a crowd of more than 20,000 at the February 16 rally on the
capitol steps. “And we’re here to lead the charge. We’re going to go in first. And if that house burns down, we will be right here beside you to help you rebuild that house,” he concluded as cheers nearly drowned out his speech.52

Mitchell’s speech borrowed the words of Joe Conway Jr., president
of the PFFW’s Madison affiliate, Local 311 of the International
Association of Fire Fighters. Conway had used that image in an email
to PFFW union locals across the state, announcing that an emergency
meeting of his local voted unanimously to donate $20,000 to organizing
resistance. Conway was a voice of authority in the union: he had
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taken the lead in cleaning up the PFFW’s scandal, and his backing
secured Mitchell’s ascension to the PFFW’s presidency.
In a press release, Conway explained why firefighters would be on
the front line of the struggle, despite their exemption from the law:
“It is unsettling that the governor has chosen to carve out protective services
and treat them different from every other employee in public
service. We are no different than the teachers, public works
employees, office staff and municipal workers; we provide a service to
our community, support the local economy and provide for our families just like all public workers.”

Conway was a low-key but constant presence at every labor rally
and among the handful of leaders pressing to widen the demands and
take bolder action. Son of an activist in the 1969 Madison firefighters’
strike, Conway had studied labor history at UW and dedicated his life to the union, passing up an opportunity to become the city’s fire chief and remaining a full-time firefighter even as serving as local union president. When the legislature passed Walker’s anti-union bill March 9, Conway called for a general strike.53 Weeks later, Conway told a
group of graduate employee union activists at the University of
Chicago that he had disagreed with the union’s sole focus on bargaining rights while neglecting concessions, citing the plight of a janitor who makes just $25,000 per year.54
Conway’s views were in a minority among top Wisconsin union
leaders. Even after the passage of the anti-labor bill, Mitchell was
opposed to any industrial action by firefighters.55 And although the SCFL, Madison’s labor council, had earlier passed a resolution in support of a general strike, Wisconsin AFL-CIO president Phil Neuenfeldt said, “We don’t have the authority to call that.”56 As Madison-based journalist and editor Matt Rothschild observed,

“Many senior labor leaders in Wisconsin were reluctant to call the mass protests in the first
place and pooh-poohed the importance of continuing with them. . . .
Just as the crowds were swelling, all of a sudden the labor leadership
seemed to lose interest in mass action. It may be that the labor leadership in Wisconsin, which didn’t know quite what to do with all those people in the streets, has now missed its main chance.”57
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After acclimating to retreat and defeat over the last thirty years, it
isn’t surprising that Wisconsin labor leaders were opposed to taking the risk of calling a general strike or even a campaign of job actions to assert
the relevance of the unions after the legislation passed.

Yet from the beginning, most Wisconsin public sector labor leaders showed more interest in preserving their union apparatus than defending the interests of rank-and-file members. They accepted at the outset Walker’s case
that major cuts in public sector health care and pensions were necessary
to balance Wisconsin’s budget deficit, and confined their demands to the preservation of collective bargaining and dues checkoff.

Thus union leaders were mostly silent on the other anti-worker provisions of the
bill—such as severe cuts in Medicaid and BadgerCare, the state health program for low-income people, and the privatization of the University of Wisconsin’s flagship Madison campus.

The key issue, according to Marty Beil, still executive director of
the 22,000-member AFSCME Council 24, was the preservation of
collective bargaining. “It’s not about the money,” was AFSCME’s
slogan. “We are prepared to implement the financial concessions proposed
to help bring our state’s budget into balance, but we will not be
denied our God-given right to join a real union,” Beil said. “We will not—I repeat we will not—be denied our rights to collectively bargain.”
In fact, AFSCME Council 24 offered to take not only economic
concessions, but also floated the idea of a two-year “freeze” on
collective bargaining—as long as the unions could continue to collect dues through payroll deductions.
In short, the union leaders were prepared to see members take
what would amount to at least a 6 to 12 percent pay cut and be without
effective representation for two years in exchange for the flow of dues that cover union officials’ own pay and benefits. Beil and other Wisconsin public sector union leaders saw Walker’s attack on dues checkoff as a threat directed mainly at their own livelihoods—and they
pushed workers to accept concessions in a bid to protect their own
positions and incomes.

The unions’ willingness to retreat did not go unchallenged. But
from the beginning of the mobilization, a layer of rank-and-file union members, organizers, and activists, as well as a new crop of militants,
began organizing to push for a strategy based on the widest possible
working-class solidarity and a commitment to escalating the struggle.

Out of this effort came the Kill the Whole Bill Coalition, which
brought together activists like the socialist Sam Jordan, rank-and-file members of AFSCME locals of state and city workers, and graduate employees, members of the TAA at the University of Wisconsin.

The coalition issued a statement outlining its argument: “Walker’s
bold and shameless attack on labor has woken a sleeping giant. Our
struggles and ever-growing mass rallies over the past week have captured
the imagination of workers in this country and across the world.
To walk away from this battle with only our bargaining rights intact would be a hollow victory. It’s here in Madison that we can take a
stand for labor and turn the tide of the last four decades in our favor.”59
The coalition made an appeal based not just on Walker’s immediate
attack but the experience of defeats like Harley-Davidson and
Mercury Marine and the suffering that would be caused by cuts in
public health care.

Among the participants in the Kill the Whole Bill Coalition (later
renamed Wisconsin Resists) was J. Eric Cobb, who had recently taken
office as executive director of the Building Trades Council of South
Central Wisconsin. Cobb was among those at the February 21
meeting of SCFL arguing in favor of endorsing a general strike.
Cobb and his allies found a receptive audience among SCFL delegates.
“There was virtually no debate on whether we should endorse
a general strike—only how to prepare for one,” wrote Robin Gee, a
delegate from American Federation of Teachers Local 3872. “No one
argued for accepting concessions. We have already made concessions
for many years, and we’ve gotten to the point where we’ve got nothing left to give.”60

Cobb successfully mobilized building trades union members to
the demonstrations, workers who, as in the rest of the country, are generally considered to be among the most conservative sections of the labor movement. And when most union officials looked toward a concessions-
based compromise with Walker, Cobb pushed building trades workers to embrace what he calls “the revolution.” He wasn’t
surprised at the objections he encountered from the labor hierarchy.
“The AFL-CIO isn’t going to lead” such struggles, Cobb told a
meeting of Chicago labor activists weeks later. The key, he argued, was organizing the rank and file.61

The Kill the Whole Bill Coalition found an ally in National Nurses
United (NNU). Two NNU organizers, Jan Rodolfo and Pilar Schiavo,
came to the scene to offer support despite the lack of members of their
union in the Madison area. As the struggle unfolded, NNU Executive
Director Rose Ann DeMoro published a statement opposing any further
concessions. She wrote:

Working people did not create the recession or the budgetary crisis
facing federal, state and local governments, and there can be no more concessions, period. It should be apparent that the right wants to scapegoat workers and their unions, and is trying to exploit the economic crisis for an all-out assault on unions, public employees, and all working people in a campaign that is funded by right-wing, corporate
billionaires like the Koch brothers.62
DeMoro’s article and demands became the basis for a leaflet along
with “Blame Wall Street” signs during the mass protest of February
26. While the no-concessions contingent was small, its demands and
literature were popular. An effort to organize on a “no concessions”
platform was put forward the following day at the SCFL building. The speakers included Rodolfo, Cobb, SCFL president Jim Cavanaugh,
MTI executive director John Matthews, journalist John Nichols, and
Jesse Sharkey, vice president of the Chicago Teachers Union. Among
the crowd of nearly a hundred activists were a number of rank-and-file
members who were frustrated at the lack of direction from union
leaders about what to do beyond turning out for demonstrations.
Sharkey explained how the rights of union teachers were under
attack in Illinois as well—but by Democrats—in an attempt to solve the economic crisis on workers’ backs. “There is a consensus among the political class in this country that public sector workers have too
much, and we have to have less, and we have to give up the living standards that we have and work harder so that the system can run better.
Both parties don’t want to look at the four and half trillion in debt that was moved from the private books onto the public books.” He added:

“To say that we want to save our rights but that we are willing to sell out our dignity is a demand that makes no sense to me. I would rather
not be the vice president of the Chicago Teachers Union and teach in the classroom rather than sell that injustice as something progressive.”

Cobb criticized union leaders for trying to trade workers’ income
in exchange for maintaining collective bargaining. “It really disappointed
me when I heard that some of these larger [union] bosses—
and I may be putting my head on the chopping block here a little bit—made these concessions without talking to the negotiating committee,”
he said. “In my opinion that’s a horrible mistake. I want to see
this power pushed down to the membership. And I want the membership
to step up.”
He added: “These economic concessions [offered to Walker], they
are not going to cut it. I know too many people that work in these
offices, who work as nurses, work as teachers, that, if they were to take these hits that he’s asking for, it would absolutely devastate them.”

Rodolfo, summing up the discussion, criticized “Democrats and
those who represent workers [and] get up publicly and say, essentially we’re willing to concede pensions, we’re willing to concede pay.” She added, “We run the risk in Wisconsin of deep concessions [being defined as] a victory as long as we hold on to a little bit.”

Besides NNU and Kill the Whole Bill Coalition, other activists
opposed to concessions and favoring militant action pressed ahead
with similar efforts. The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a
well-established part of the Madison labor left, hosted a community
meeting on a general strike that drew about one hundred activists.
Activist and attorney Ben Manski, who was nearly elected to the
Wisconsin assembly on the Green Party ticket in the 2010 elections,
worked with the group Wisconsin Wave to bring together progressive
labor unions, community organizations, environmental justice groups, and others into an alliance that could challenge the range of Walker’s
agenda. Religious groups and immigrant rights organizations made
similar attempts. Individual union activist sought to build rank-andfile networks in their union to better coordinate action and organize in the workplace.

Compared to the mass protests mobilized by the big unions, such
efforts could appear paltry. But then the big union operations—
AFSCME, WEAC, and the state AFL-CIO—literally pulled the plug
on mass protests after February 26 and turned their backs on the occupation
of the capitol. It fell to a thin layer of activists to try to sustain
the mobilization, starting with the improvised budget protest March 1 discussed at the outset of this chapter. On March 3, the Kill the Whole
Bill Coalition and the NNU organized a New Orleans jazz funeral
march of several thousand to the capitol steps. Eric Cobb was emcee, and several speakers spoke against concessions and argued for the
continuation of the struggle.
Among the organizers of the rally was Sam Jordan, an African
American longtime organizer and labor activist in Madison who
helped found Kill the Whole Bill Coalition. “We organized this rally
just to show that there is a union voice out there that says it is about the money” as well as union rights, she said.
Still, the leading figures in labor were silent. With no mass
Saturday labor protest scheduled, Manski worked through Wisconsin
Wave and its allies to organize a demonstration on three days’ notice.
By then, the pattern of weekend worker mobilizations to Madison was
well established, so the Wave activists could be confident of an audience
of at least thousands of people—and they had filmmaker Michael
Moore as a featured speaker.

Labor leaders, realizing that they had left
a vacuum to be filled by others, also made a last-minute call for their own action, building on a rally called by the International
Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. But union officials were determined that the protest remain “on message” and refused an offer by Wave to collaborate. The unions rejected Moore as a speaker, apparently
out of fear that he would call a general strike.63
It was apparent that the protests would continue, with or without
the blessing of top union officials in WEAC, AFSCME, an
Wisconsin AFL-CIO. So after May 5, union leaders stepped on the
accelerator again, providing money and resources to mobilize
another 100,000-strong demonstration for March 12. Forced to contend
with the fact that Walker wouldn’t compromise, and that
Wisconsin senate Democrats couldn’t stay out of state indefinitely,
the unions directed the protest movement’s energies almost exclusively into recall elections.
But before throwing their weight into the recall campaign, the
unions sought to postpone the effects of Walker’s law as long as possible
by extending union contracts. They did so by offering local governments
and school districts essentially the same economic concessions
that Walker had demanded.
For their part, Madison Teachers Inc., which sparked a four-day
job action by teachers statewide with a sickout February 17,
responded to the passage of Walker’s bill by narrowly ratifying a twoyear contract that also included practically all of the economic concessions
demanded by Walker. They were under heavy pressure to do so
by WEAC, which pushed local teachers unions around the state to
extend contracts and delay the impact of Walker’s bill by locking in contracts—and dues income.

The argument for making concessions was that it preserved the
union for a few years until Democrats could retake control of the state government. Yet it wasn’t at all clear that elected officials would take a
pro-labor stand. For example, Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz, a
Democrat who had publicly supported the protests against Walker,
didn’t hesitate to take advantage of Walker’s law by extracting major concessions from AFSCME Local 60, which represents Madison city workers. The deal increases health insurance premiums and implements
a 50 percent contribution to retirement benefits in January
2012, and rolls back a pay raise at the end of 2011 from 3 percent to
2 percent. The result: $2.8 million more for the city’s budget at
workers’ expense. The deal, said Cielsewicz, “proves again, [and] I
want to underscore this, that collective bargaining works.”64
Moreover, the recall campaign didn’t become a referendum on
labor and workers’ rights that union leaders had promised. Instead,
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the issue of collective bargaining rights in the recall elections was sidelined by Republicans and Democrats alike.65

Could labor have won in Madison? If you shake off the defeatism of
the last decades, step back, and look at the dynamics and potential of
the struggle, the answer is clearly yes. A month-long mobilization
showed that despite the retreats and atrophy of the unions in what had
been long considered a “labor state,” there was a rebirth of activism
and debate over politics and industrial strategy that involved tens of
thousands of Wisconsin workers, and thousands more who came to
Madison in solidarity delegations from around the country. The idea
of a general strike, usually confined to the pages of labor history books
and discussions by socialist and anarchist militants, was suddenly a practical concern, with the SCFL carrying out education and preparation for such an action. The chant of “general strike” was taken up by
the thousands who protested in the capitol March 9 when Walker’s
allies in the legislature suddenly rammed through the collective bargaining bill on its own.66
Ultimately, union members weren’t confident enough in their own
capacity and organization to reject concessions. Furthermore, rankand-
file militants were too small in number and were insufficiently
organized prior to Walker’s attack to be able to turn the struggle back to workplace action when union leaders turned decisively toward the
recall strategy. In the 1970s, such networks of militants existed within
key industries and unions, and drove strike levels to their highest level since the Second World War, often in defiance of union leaders.67 As we have seen, this militancy was central to the establishment and
growth of public sector unions in Wisconsin. But nearly forty years
later, industrial restructuring, a relentless corporate offensive against
unions and a demographic transition had all but eliminated such rankand-
file union organization in corporate America. And the decline in
union strength in the workplace wasn’t unique to the private sector, as
public sector employers mimicked corporate “lean” production techniques in a constant push for greater productivity. The Wisconsin
public sector was not immune from this trend.68
The consequences of this long decline in rank-and-file organization
were clearly seen in Madison. Nearly four decades later, one of the
lessons of the 1970s—that trade union officialdom is more interested
in institutional self-preservation than taking risky actions to defend the
interests of the rank and file—was made clear once more. For that
reason, organizations such as Kill the Whole Bill/Wisconsin Resists
have attempted to rebuild networks of union militants and dissident
union officials who want to revitalize organized labor on the basis of
class-struggle unionism and broader working-class solidarity. Such
developments will be critical to successful outcomes in the struggles
and inevitable clashes generated by the drive to austerity.
Indeed, despite the shrinkage and debilitation of labor in
Wisconsin, rank-and-file union members showed that they still exercise
enormous potential power because of their strategic location at
the point of production. The sickout by teachers in Madison quickly
became a statewide movement carried out by the rank and file and
endorsed by union leaders only after it was already under way.
Without that show of workplace power, it was highly unlikely that allnight
participation in legislative hearings by a few dozen activists
could have morphed into the occupation of the capitol, winning the
active support of private sector workers who were still reeling from the harsh concessions their unions had accepted.
Without the occupation of the capitol, the Wisconsin labor
struggle also would not have become a broad popular movement that
attracted non-union workers, students, and even small business
owners. And if the capitol hadn’t been turned into a round-the-clock
meeting and organizing center, labor would not have been able to sustain
the political pressure to keep the fourteen Democratic state senators
out of Illinois. The sustained occupation made repeated mass
protests possible, making Madison into a mecca for union militants
around the nation. Wisconsin thus became a touchstone for workers
who were searching for both inspiration and strategies for their own
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similar struggles, whether against Republican copycat legislation in
Ohio, Indiana, and Michigan or against less draconian but still severe attacks on public sector workers by Democratic governors in New York, Illinois, California, and Connecticut.
At the time of writing, some seven months after the last mass labor
protest in Madison, it’s too soon to draw any definitive conclusions
about Madison’s immediate impact on labor struggles. However, it
was evident that the Wisconsin struggle opened the way to the outpouring
of labor support for Occupy Wall Street and Occupy struggles
around the U.S., an alliance with great promise for the renewal of
a wider working-class resistance to austerity and economic inequality.
After a thirty-year anti-union offensive by corporate America and its
public sector counterparts, there is at last a two-sided class war.


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