The Internationalist  
February 2011  

Break with the Democrats – We Need a Class-Struggle Workers Party

Report from Madison
Wisconsin: Epicenter of the
Battle Over Workers’ Rights


Upwards of 50,000 people came to the state Capitol in Madison on the evening of February 18 for a
rally featuring Rev. Jesse Jackson protesting against the governor’s union-busting bill.
(Photo: M.P. King/Wisconsin State Journal)

MADISON, Wisconsin, February 19 – As tens of thousands of trade-unionists and supporters filled the streets and jammed into the state Capitol for the third day in a row, this Midwestern state has become the focus in a nationwide battle over workers’ rights. “The whole world is watching – or at least the whole country,” said a radio newscaster. This was shown, she noted, by the presence of Richard Trumka, head of the national AFL-CIO labor federation, at a noon rally and of Rev. Jesse Jackson who highlighted a huge rally at 5 p.m. A union speaker there said of Governor Scott Walker’s attempt to eliminate collective sector workers’ rights to collective bargaining, “Governor, we’re aren’t going to give it to you, and you can’t take it from us.”

The numbers are impressive: speakers at the evening rally said there were 50,000 present. Judging by an overhead photo in the Wisconsin State Journal and our experience in the slush on the ground, it could well have been much larger. The crowd stood shoulder to shoulder, surrounding the Capitol on two sides. Thousands more were inside the building holding a separate rally. Earlier in the day over 8,000 union supporters swarmed the building, vociferously chanting non-stop for hours, while contingents from different unions marched around the square outside. A young boy with a bullhorn shouted, “What’s disgusting? Union-busting!” Demonstrators chanted with him as they passed. The entire downtown area was filled with protesters carrying hand-made signs. Altogether, on the order of 75,000 people came out Friday to demonstrate their opposition to the bill aimed at destroying the state’s public sector unions.

This was the largest turnout yet in a week of labor protests. Swelling from a handful on Monday to several hundred Tuesday, thousands on Wednesday and tens of thousands Thursday, the crowd Friday broke all records for the state. And they vow to continue every day. Today, Saturday, Tea Party right-wingers have called for a rally at the Capitol for noon, hoping to get a few hundred, maybe 1,000 to support union-bashing Governor Walker. But labor protesters plan to show up at 10:30 a.m. with far more to block them. Radio announcers are saying things are heating up (the temperature outside is a frigid 18°) and warning of the threat of “violence.” Meanwhile, the state Capitol is still occupied ’round the clock by several thousand union supporters, including many students, with only a handful of police in evidence.

Yet even with this massive show of support, the leaders of the labor movement are already offering concessions, begging for a “bipartisan solution” to the state’s manufactured “fiscal crisis.” They are seeking to amend the bill, not bury it. May Bell, head of the Wisconsin Education Association, the state’s largest teachers union, told the evening rally that “We will make the financial sacrifices in Governor Walker’s budget, but we will not give up collective bargaining rights.” Those cuts are massive, including demanding that public sector workers take an 8 percent cut in take-home pay to cover sharp reductions of employer payments to the pension and health care funds. By capitulating on the economic issues, the union tops are only encouraging the labor haters.

The turnout demonstrated the labor movement’s will to fight. But politically the protests were thoroughly dominated by Democratic Party liberalism. One protester’s sign read, “WI Dems Hold Strong.” A young woman had written: “I ♥ Wisconsin Democrats.” The rally MC said of the 14 Senate Democrats who left the state in order to prevent the Republican majority from ramming the law through the legislature, “What a great bunch of guys we have here, don’t we?” Another dominant theme was patriotism, with many signs going after Walker for attacking “the American way.” Speakers had the crowd sing the national anthem, and “God Bless America.” Later, Democrat Jesse Jackson led the crowd in singing “We Shall Overcome.”

AFL-CIO leader Richard Trumka (speaking with bullhorn) in the Wisconsin state Capitol Rotunda, February 18. (Internationalist photo)

At the noon rally, Trumka was received by thunderous cheers, which a reporter compared to the roar of hundreds of motorcycle engines – a vivid image in this state where Harley Davidson cycles are manufactured in several plants organized by the Machinists and Steelworkers. But instead of talking about the threat to the working class, the AFL-CIO chief kept repeating the Democratic Party weasel words about an attack on the “middle class.” Trumka said that this is a “coordinated effort by the Republican Party to destroy the labor movement in this country.” But, interestingly, he ended up saying that “30 years is enough,” going back to the election of Ronald Reagan but also implicitly including among those who have carried out the anti-labor agenda Bill Clinton – the Democrat Trumka and other labor misleaders helped put in the White House. Across the country, liberal Democratic governors from New York’s Andrew Cuomo to California’s Jerry Brown are joining with Republicans like Walker in waging war on unions.

Jackson got the crowd going by starting out saying, “You are winning the Superbowl of workers rights,” recalling the Green Bay Packers’ victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers in the football bowl two weekends ago. He stressed that this was “the first battle of a long fight,” but insisted that “Whenever we fight, we win. When we fought in Selma, we won. When we fought in Birmingham, we won. When we fight in Egypt, we win, and in Wisconsin we’re fighting and winning.” He also argued that “we have a good president,” and “by fighting, we can make good presidents great.” Jackson repeated his mantra of “keep hope alive.” But this battle is not about “fortifying our faith,” as the reverend kept repeating, it’s about mobilizing power to beat a vicious union-busting assault. In fact, many of the gains of the Civil Rights movement have been reversed in recent years, and in Egypt the army just took over – hardly a “win” for “democracy.”

As for Democratic president Barack Obama, he just joined with the Republicans in Congress to renew a whopping $700 billion tax giveaway to the rich. While imposing an across-the-board pay freeze on government workers, Obama bailed out the Wall Street banks to the tune of three trillion dollars. And while talking of improving education, Obama has been in the forefront of the assault on teachers unions, pushing such things as “merit pay,” charter schools, linking pay to student test scores, shutting down schools and firing the entire staff (in Rhode Island and Kansas City). Meanwhile, this president who was elected by people who thought they were voting for a “peace candidate” is continuing U.S. imperialist wars, laying waste to Afghanistan, attacking Pakistan and continuing to occupy Iraq for the indefinite future.

While the union tops tried to package their message in star-spangled patriotism, the sentiment of the crowd was more one of determination. Inside the Capitol, the leadership was in the hands of students and youth. Even there, however, while defense of labor rights drew thunderous support, the emphasis was on democracy. “This is what democracy looks like,” they chanted over and over, taking up the slogan from the 1999 Seattle protests against the World Trade Organization. A handful of leftists, mostly of social-democratic denominations (ISO, SWP, WSWS), had literature tables which only aroused sparse interest. In short, this was an outpouring of union support, but Rush Limbaugh to the contrary, politically it was hardly radical –so far. Yet this battle is far from over, and that could change.

Teachers are at the heart of the protests. One frequent sign read, “If you can read this, thank a teacher.” Friday was the third day in a row that Madison city schools had to shut down entirely because so many teachers called in sick. In the metropolitan area at least a dozen school districts cancelled classes because of the sick-out and the picture was the same throughout most of southeastern Wisconsin. Signs for the Madison Teachers Inc., the local teachers union, were everywhere and crowds loudly chanted “MTI, MTI.” Under the bill, teachers would lose the right to collective bargaining over working conditions, grievances, and anything other than basic wages, and those could not increase more than the consumer price index. Wisconsin teachers start at $34,000 a year, hardly a king’s ransom in today’s economy.

Nurses, members of the SEIU, were there in uniform. One sign said “Walker Is Crippling Wisconsin.” But it was not only public workers affected by the new law. Firefighters were specifically exempted, but as their union explained in a radio interview, “First they went after the private sector unions, now they are starting to go after the public sector. We know that eventually they’re going to go after us, too, because they want to destroy unions.” When a column of Firefighters paraded through the Capitol Rotunda, they were met with thunderous cheers of “Thank you, thank you.” There were also contingents of Iron Workers, Auto Workers, Teamsters, Machinists and other unions. All of Wisconsin labor was out in force on Friday.

And, of course, there was lots of Wisconsin patriotism. Signs included, “Wisconsin Under Martial Law,” “Silencing Workers? Not in Our Wisconsin,” “Walker is a Weasel, Not a Badger” (the Wisconsin symbol). A T-shirt read, “McCarthy Is Back in Wisconsin,” with a likeness of the sinister Cold War witchhunter. (During the period when Joseph McCarthy was the Republican senator from Wisconsin, a wholesale purge of leftists took place at the University of Wisconsin, just blocks away from the Capitol.) Some was on a lighter note: A speaker at the evening rally got a huge response when he said that the Democratic senators “took a look at what the governor’s law would do and made the ultimate sacrifice. They left for Illinois.” And the union leaders kept telling the crow, “I love you people, you are such good people.”

If there is a Wisconsin equivalent of “Minnesota nice,” this must be the “thank  you” state. People chanted it over and over, and virtually every single person who took an Internationalist leaflet repeated it. They may have a nasty governor (dozens of signs accused Walker of being a bully), but the good working people of Wisconsin are nothing if not polite.

Appeals to Wisconsin’s tradition of bourgeois “progressivism.” Right: protesters in front of bust of Robert LaFollette Sr. (Internationalist photo)

Interestingly, people recall the tradition of Robert LaFollette Sr.– a Republican state governor and senator from Wisconsin for decades. A sign taped to a bust of the elder LaFollette in the Capitol Rotunda read, “What Would Bob Do?” When Bob LaFollette ran for president on the Progressive Party ticket in 1924, he carried the state and got a sizable national vote. Although he was a virulent opponent of the Workers (Communist) Party of America, many left-wing unionists who had not broken with capitalism were attracted by bourgeois “progressivism” and ended up supporting Lafollette, after earlier forming a “Farmer Labor Party.” The Russian Revolutionary Leon Trotsky criticized this attempt to form a “two-class” party, insisting on the need for a workers party. After supporting the bourgeois LaFollette, the FLP soon disappeared.

One particularly problematic issue was the presence of a small group of “Cops for Labor” and another group of detectives. Although many labor leaders view cop “unions” as allies with a lot of clout, and some misguided social-democratic leftists think police are “workers in uniform,” the fact is that the police are professional enforcers of bourgeois law and order, whose job is to break strikes and carry out racist repression against the African-American, Latino and immigrant population. They are the backbone of the capitalist state. Labor hater Walker certainly understands this, specifically exempting state police from the anti-union legislation. The Internationalist Group and class-conscious workers say “Cops are not workers – Police out of the labor movement.”

The boisterous and massive outpouring of opposition in Wisconsin to the union-busting bill may have set off a reaction. Right-wingers may have miscalculated by going after labor first in this state, which while it currently has a right-wing electoral majority is sharply divided, with a strong labor movement. Walker clearly didn’t expect this reaction when he decided to ram the anti-union law through the legislature. (He only announced the bill last week.) The Firefighters union leader said Walker “has awakened a sleeping giant.” There has been a tremendous surge in union consciousness as a result of this attack. But this must become class consciousness if it is to defeat the bipartisan capitalist attack on labor and workers rights. Solidarizing with the struggle of Wisconsin unions, Trotskyists underscore the need to mobilize labor’s power, including through a statewide general strike, and to break with the Democrats to build a class-struggle workers party fighting for a workers government.

To contact the Internationalist Group and the League for the Fourth International, send e-mail to: internationalistgroup@msn.com