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March 2011, Week 3

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Tue, 15 Mar 2011 21:45:34 -0400
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Recall, Reform, Rebuild 

By Stephanie Luce
March 15, 2011
Submitted to portside by the author

I spent the last few days in Madison, returning to the city
where I lived for many years in the 90s. I hadn't been back
there in almost 10 years, and I wasn't sure what to expect.

The major event was the rally on Saturday, March 12. This
started off with a tractor-cade around the Capitol Square at
10 am. Dozens of tractors came from around the state in
protest of Governor Walker's proposed cuts and attacks on
democracy. The streets were lined all the way around the
square with throngs of supporters cheering on the drivers.
There was even a line of people dressed as cows, with letters
on their stomachs spelling out SOLIDARITY.

After the tractorcade, other groups began coming in. There
was a feeder march of artists, a group of Students for a
Democratic Society cheering for free education, a
firefighters march, and even a long line of taxi cabs honking
out "this is what democracy looks like." All groups converged
around the Capitol building for a 3 pm rally. The 14
Democratic senators returned to the state and came to the
rally to loud cheers.

There are wildly differing estimates about the size of the
rally, depending on who you talk to. Some Madisonians said
they were almost getting so used to big crowds that they
could no longer tell if this one was large or not. But almost
everyone I spoke to seemed transformed by the last few weeks,
saying it was like nothing they have ever experienced.

The rally was incredibly moving for many reasons. First, the
passion that people brought with them was palpable. The signs
were mostly homemade and incredibly creative. I can't even
begin to list all the beautiful and funny slogans I saw - not
to mention intensive artwork and thoughtful expressions. The
range of topics was broad - some emphasized labor rights,
others focused on thanking the Democrats, others focused
their anger on Walker. Many were long messages about war,
inequality, democracy, and justice. There were supporters
from many parts of the country.

The second part that stood out was that in many other
contexts, many of the people at the rally might be the kind
of person you would expect to see at a Tea Party rally. The
people in attendance were mostly white, and many of them
older people. If you could judge by looks alone, you could
say this was the white working and middle class. And by lots
of polls from the last two years, as well as the November
2010 voting results, you might guess that this was a fairly
conservative group. And yet people seemed thirsty for justice
and fairness. I was with a group calling for "No Cuts/No
Concessions Campaign" we held signs that said "Blame Wall
Street," and "Tax Corporations," and we had a wildly
enthusiastic response. People came up and asked for our signs
- many even traded in the one they were carrying for one of
ours. And when we chanted, "How to fix the deficit? Tax, tax,
tax the rich" - people joined in eagerly and happily.
Wisconsin gives us hope that rightwing populism can really
have a left counterpart.

But perhaps the most moving part of my time there was not the
rally itself, but all the times that were not the official
rally. Because what is happening right now in Madison is that
people are just constantly out, walking around the Capitol,
protesting. They sometimes walk alone, some walk in groups,
some come as a family, many are elderly people walking slowly
around. Most people have their own signs and wear buttons and
stickers, and some bang a drum or play an instrument, but
some people just walk. Much of the past few days was pleasant
weather for Wisconsin standards, but in the dark or when the
wind picked up, it dropped to the 20s and below - and yet
people kept walking. They didn't seem to have a specific
target or goal other than to express their anger and to not
be silenced.

When you walk around town you can find signs in many shop
windows, supporting the protestors and speaking against
Walker. In random sections of town you might hear a passing
car beep out, "this is what democracy looks like."

And don't forget - this isn't just going in Madison. There
continue to be protests in other parts of the state. High
school students have done walkouts in Milwaukee, Eau Claire,
Sheboygan. On Sunday thousands protested in Green Bay at an
event where Walker spoke. Protests have occurred in the home
towns of the Republican senators and at Republican events for
the past several weeks.

For part of Sunday I participated in the St. Patrick's Day
parade around the Capitol square. Most of the floats were
what you would expect - Irish musicians, local businesses,
and people throwing out candy.  We were the last float, a
truck sponsored by the National Nurses' Union and driven by a
firefighter. In the back of the truck were more firefighters,
an Irish singer, and two men dressed as the Koch brothers
holding a Scott Walker puppet. Around the truck were a ragtag
group of marchers from the IWW, Wisconsin Network for Peace
and Justice, some ISO members, immigrant rights workers,
teachers, and the head of the Dane County Building Trades
riding a scooter. A family showed up with a father carrying
the sign, "60% Irish, 100% Union," daughter: "30% Irish, 100%
union," and mother's sign: "0% Irish, 100% union." We carried
the same "Blame Wall Street" signs and marched with No
Cuts/No Concessions flyers. The parade route was lined with
families dressed in green with children eager for candy. When
we came up many people were eager for our signs, and we
passed out dozens and dozens as people cheered us on. People
in the crowd had their own homemade signs, denouncing Walker.

What I saw in the parade and throughout the whole three days
was a tremendous sense of community. It is not that there are
not disagreements, because certainly people do not all agree
on what to do next. Some are die-hard Democrats who think the
main focus is the upcoming elections and the recall votes.
Others hate the Democrats as much as they hate the
Republicans, and think workers can?t trust either.

There are also some degree of divisions around race and
ethnicity, which is not surprising in general but
particularly in a overwhelmingly white state. The crowds at
the protests are overwhelmingly white, but not completely
white. On Saturday night I attended a meeting hosted by the
IWW, about planning for a general strike. A panelist from
MEChA said she had been at the Capitol and felt out of place.
Another speaker from a Friday night event said,"Don't just
call me when you want a person of color on your panels, but
call me when you want to talk strategy." A few people said
that occupying the Capitol takes a certain amount of
privilege to begin with because people of color and people
without documentation have a different relationship to the
police.

But despite differences, it seems that people are discussing
some of these issues and creating spaces in which to have
further dialogue. It is hard to know for sure what is going
on from the outside, and I think even many people in Madison
feel it is not so easy to fully grasp the dynamics and
dimensions of this quickly developing and changing movement.
But the overwhelming feeling I had was that people are all
sensing and hoping that we are on the brink of something
different - a bigger, more inclusive fightback. An opening
when middle class white people might see their interests more
in line with those who have already been marginalized and
exploited, rather than with those in power. There was as real
feeling of solidarity, in a deep sense of the word.

There also still seems a sense of awe. Who could have ever
predicted such a tremendous outcry to Walker's bill? Who
could have predicted statements of solidarity from such a
broad range of people in Wisconsin and around the world? And
then of course, everyone was caught off guard when the
Republicans split the bill and passed part of the
legislation. It seems that people on the ground are still in
a bit of shock from the past three weeks. They moved from
protest to occupation to outrage, and now it is time to take
stock and plan a longer-run strategy.

What now?

A lot of attention is now shifting to the recall campaigns:
primarily, eight Republican Senators that people think could
be possible to get rid of based on the voting habits of their
Districts. People also want to recall Walker, but this can't
happen until he is in office for a year.

The recall effort makes sense for many reasons. Public sector
workers can "change their boss" by voting. The recall is a
way to express outrage for the maneuvers of the Senate body.
It seems clear that Republicans will not compromise on
anything, so all upcoming legislation will be blocked if some
of these senators can not be replaced.

However, focusing on an electoral strategy alone is likely
death to the movement. First, it will take a long time and
people will lose momentum. Second, it leaves out many
activists who live in Madison or Milwaukee, or other cities
with Democratic senators. Third, the best case scenario is
that all eight Republicans get replaced with Democrats. But
many Democrats have supported the same kinds of austerity
programs that Republicans are pushing. Other Democrats have
gone along with reducing the rights of unions (and Democratic
governors reside over some states that do not even allow
collective bargaining rights at all). What good is a recall
without changing the politics? To do that, activists need to
maintain their ability to mobilize and organize and hold
politicians accountable.

In addition, activists need to develop their own program or
agenda to reform the state. There are a lot of good ideas for
fixing the deficit, and politicians running for office should
be required to endorse the reforms necessary to restructure
the tax system as well as spending priorities. There are many
better ways to plan a state budget, and this movement should
perhaps develop some ideas of their own about what they want
to see. Jim Cavanaugh, president of the South Central
Federation of Labor noted that this might be time for people
to think hard about what they want from government. Is it
just plowing streets and building roads? Or is it that and
more?

Ideally, protestors can coalesce around a platform of demands
and use that to make decisions about endorsements. If the
recall petitions are successful, there will be new candidates
stepping up, and they should commit to the platform.
Otherwise, they should not get the support of the coalition.
We do not need to keep throwing money and time after
candidates that do not support working class reforms.

A second wing of the strategy is a corporate type campaign
against some of Walker's major donors, such as M&I Bank and
Kwik Trip convenience stores. This will involve actions like
the one last Thursday in which firefighters and teachers and
police withdrew almost $200,000 from M&I Bank in a day. This
might also be a useful strategy, but this also doesn't seem
enough. The strategy relies on researchers and lawyers, and
is likely to be driven from the top-down. Will this strategy
let the rank-and-file union members and grassroots community
groups feel empowered? Will many voices get to participate in
strategy?

A third element is the legal strategy. Lawyers are already
challenging the way in which the Republicans split and passed
the Budget Repair Bill. Legal strategies are important, but
even more demobilizing for activists.

On the other end of the spectrum of activity is the idea of a
general strike. Many people watching Wisconsin are aware that
the South Central Federation of Labor (SCFL) passed a
resolution in favor of educating around a general strike, and
the head of the Madison firefighters was on record in widely
circulated video saying he supported the idea. But despite
wide enthusiasm for the general strike idea in many sectors
in Madison and around the country, others have raised
concerns. Could we pull it off? Who would do it? If public
sector workers strike will it anger and alienate the public
(such as parents)? Will it actually move the governor, or
will it play right into his hands to privatize public sector
work? And for unions that have not been effective
communicating and strategizing with their rank-and-file
members for a long time, how do they even begin to build for
something this large?

What people need is more options that are between the recall
effort alone, and a general strike. These can be like the
"Ontario Days of Action," that are smaller activities, but
targeted, and could build. They could include direct action
on the corporate donors in ways that allow the creativity of
the time to flourish. It might involve targeting particular
sectors or key locations. Most importantly, the actions need
to tie together labor issues with social services, attacks on
bargaining with cuts in programs. The movement can not let
itself be broken, and partners can not take deals for
themselves and jump ship.

This will require that unions and community groups together
rebuild their own organizations and social movements. The
kind of fights that the Wisconsin working class faces are
happening in every state. This includes attacks on unions,
immigrants, poor people, people of color, women, and
students. Stopping the right-wing attack will take a lot more
than just a fight in Wisconsin. We need to rebuild the best
of the labor movement, the best of the civil rights movement,
the best of the student movement, the best of the women?s
movement, and so on.

Moving forward

I'm not sure what to think about the next steps, and the next
few months in Wisconsin. Over three days I went from
incredible optimism to deep despair and back again. There
seems to be a real leadership vacuum and lack of strategy.
There isn't a good system of communication between rank-and-
file members and their leaders, between organizations, and
between different parts of the state. There is a lot of fear
out there, and much of that for good reason. Fear of losing
your job. Fear of losing even more of your paycheck. Fear of
losing public support. Fear of betrayal by the union
leadership or the Democrats. Fear that sectarian leftists, or
that rightwing or government plants will destroy real
organizing efforts.

And yet the depth of passion is undeniable. It is intense and
it will not go away. People have seen a vision for fightback
and a vision of an alternative.

I think our old models of organizing have much to offer but
we need to learn from new models as well. This includes
creative ways of holding large-scale and democratic meetings
? perhaps how is done in Latin American. It includes new
thinking about moving employers when you are in the public
sector. We have to learn how to allow for local creativity
yet build a national, and perhaps international movement of
those fighting similar, and sometimes the same, adversaries.
We need to find ways to better integrate the public and
private sector workforces so that they see their own fights
as intertwined. We have to understand that care workers and
the people they serve have many shared interests, and we have
to build our movements in that way. A teacher's working
conditions are a student?s learning conditions, and vice
versa. Patients' lives are at stake when nurses are
overworked or understaffed. Teachers cannot teach and nurses
cannot heal when the people they serve are living in poverty
and do not have adequate food or housing.

The coming week will be a time for activists to switch gears
- from the occupation and outrage, to transitioning to a
longer haul fight. Strategy meetings are beginning to draw
out common objectives. Many people know they need to keep up
the momentum and cannot rely on the recall alone. There is a
healthy dose of skepticism towards official leaders and
outsiders. In the coming week, activists will need to tighten
their research on targets, develop structures for
communication and setting goals, continue with direct action,
and organize.

In the short-term, there are a number of planning meetings
set up for the week, including larger formal ones called by
the We are Wisconsin, labor-backed coalition, as well as
smaller ones of various organizations trying to move forward.
Rallies and marches are still planned all over the state. In
two weeks, Labor Notes will host a Troublemaker's School in
Madison. People are planning for the April 4th national day
of action. April 5th is an election for a State Supreme Court
position.

The calls for "recall" will be loud, and national forces are
already putting lots of resources and effort into these
campaigns, including television ads and robo-calls. But the
beauty of the Wisconsin fightback highlights the ways in
which relying on old methods was not enough. No doubt
Democrats and labor unions bought lots of ads for the
November election and still lost big. This time around, union
leaders need to talk with (not "at") their members. Workers
need to keep talking with co-workers; neighbors with
neighbors. Luckily, some of those structures are in place
from many years of organizing in Wisconsin and the hard work
of unrelenting activists. That, combined with new energy from
hundreds of thousands of people, can really show us what
democracy could look like.

[Stephanie Luce is Associate Professor of Labor Studies at
the Murphy Institute for Worker Education and Labor Studies.
She earned both her Ph.D. in Sociology and her Master’s
degree in Industrial Relations from the University of
Wisconsin at Madison and has authored three books and dozens
of articles and research reports on living-wage campaigns and
on the impact of globalization on jobs and workers.  She has
served on the staff of a Congressional Committee on
Agricultural workers; worked for the Department of Labor;
directed research projects for U.S. unions; and participated
in a wide range of other scholarship useful to activists,
community-based organizations, and the labor movement. She
serves on the editorial boards of New Labor
Forum and Labor Studies Journal.]

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