Battle for Wisconsin, Part Three: War of Attrition

Posted February 20, 2011

One thing this week has become infamous for is the spread of rumors, and Friday night ended with a scare that a fleet of Tea Party buses were on their way to counter-protest with Sarah Palin at the head. WEAC members passed out flyers Friday afternoon briefing demonstrators on what to expect and how to conduct themselves, but apart from overworked activists and a few union bureaucrats, the crowd seemed unbothered by the right wing threat. Of course when a little more than a thousand tea party activists got to the capitol (sans Palin), most people seemed to think their presence was laughable and carried on without incident.

That said, the weekend might be likened to digging in the trenches with both sides waging a war of attrition. Friday the Assembly adjourned until Tuesday, and into today the fourteen state senators remain in exile somewhere in Rockford. For those who haven’t followed this, there are Republican majorities in both the Assembly and the Senate, and the actions of the fourteen senators broke quorum so that the bill can’t advance in the Senate until they return. In the Assembly there aren’t enough Democrats to pull a similar stunt, so actions were taken Thursday to try and physically stop them from meeting with sit-ins, though those were initially routed. So where we’re left is regrouping, trying to hold what we have and biding our time. There isn’t an imminent vote, so demonstrations this weekend are somewhat more relaxed, though militant activists are meeting with their fellows to develop whatever course of action they feel appropriate; we’re desperately searching for someone to take a step forward and lead the way. The one tension is that at any given moment senators may return to Wisconsin, allowing them to call a vote. So for now the union bureaucrats and Democratic Party are trying to soften up the crowd so that they can cut a deal for some concessions, at which point they’ll call back the exiled senators to wrap it up.

Since the frontal attack is on organized labor, the focus has been almost exclusively on collective bargaining rights, with lesser emphasis on dues check and yearly recertification and next to nothing on the serious attacks on working people that comes in the form of cuts to Badger Care (state health program) and restricting access to state services for immigrants. In the last few days, union heads have rolled out their concessions without regard to the uncompromising demands of the membership, giving up much of the ground gained by the movement–why concede more benefits when we know that this deficit is a fraud? What we expect is that the union leadership is willing to sell out unorganized workers and screw their own members to secure dues check and drop the yearly recertification, and that they probably won’t fight too hard for rights to bargain over benefits. Hypothetically, that’s a win-win for the Labor Democrats and the Legislature alike–the bureaucracy gets its dues, the Democrats continue getting contributions from organized labor and Walker and the Legislature see the rest of the bill pass, dealing a massive blow to the working class by pushing through most of the bill while dividing us. Oh, and then the unions don’t have to spend any more money being here if this wraps up with a quick deal.

Of course, this isn’t just going to come out of nowhere. The scene inside the capitol has consistently been more creative and independent than the rallies outside, so today police have been closing down stairwells and hallways, stationing a mix of state troopers, department of natural resources officers and other non-conventional law enforcement since so many police are out in support of the crowd. As that’s happening, union staffers are seeking out grassroots activists and giving them grunt tasks like phone banking and passing out bratwursts to snatch them away from their independent activity. Madison Teachers Inc is going back to work Tuesday, and SEIU has charted a plane from California to send a team of staff organizers to take over here and control the rank and file. All this is to say that left to themselves, the rank and file won’t consent to the concessions the internationals are making, so they’re systematically undermining the grassroots activity and replacing it with officially sanctioned actions. Symbolically, we’re seeing more professionally printed signs relative to the creative hand drawn signs that have been the standard this week.

On the other hand, the idea of a strike is one that a lot of workers here seem to think is necessary but they don’t want to go out on a limb if the senators return first and trigger a vote, which is the rumor going around now–that they’ll be back tomorrow morning. A lot is touch and go right now, but every day more people show up and locals are scrambling to find housing for all of the people coming from out of state to support us since they know that what happens in Wisconsin is going to happen across the US.


6 responses to “Battle for Wisconsin, Part Three: War of Attrition”

  1. Chai Avatar

    Good analysis and perspective. this got me thinking about the Egyptian labor struggle and the split that led to a new, independent trade union coalition there just before Mubarak’s fall. This kind of sellout (that you describe in Madison) has been routine in the US labor movement, but could the context here change the outcome and possibly lead to more democratic and militant unions led by rank and filers? Could it lead to real alternatives to the AFL-CIO (as opposed to fake ones, like Change to Win)?

  2. Jon Duveen Avatar
    Jon Duveen

    As secretary of the Cambridgeshire branch of the National Union of Teachers (NUT) in Engalnd and Wales can I send our support and solidarity to the teachers and workers in Wisconsin USA fighting against the effects of the neoliberal agenda of cuts, redundancies and reductions in service. We in England face the same attacks although no-one is yet talking about ending collective bargaining but I’m sure it will come soon.
    Dave from Cambridgeshire Against the Cuts, of which Cambridgeshire NUT is a part, has already given you a sense of what is happening here. Hopefully someone from the teachers union can keep us informed of what is happening along with some photos if possible and we will circulate the information around the NUT in England and Wales.
    Hopefully Wisconsin Fever will break out, in its most virulent form, over here soon

  3. Andrew Avatar

    I’m kind of wondering about that myself. MTI teachers and their families were canvassing a recall on Thursday and early Friday, and it seemed to be going pretty well but I haven’t seen much of it since.

    The Democrats have been trying to eclipse them with a 2012 electoral agenda instead, and they’re making ex-US Senator Russ Feingold their go-to; “Russ for Gov”. Honestly, I think it scares Democrats just as much as Republicans to have teachers petitioning a recall, so there’s been no support from international unions for the recall initiative.

    Unfortunately, some left groups have been taking a kind of abstentionist perspective here. “It would take over a year to recall Walker,” and “We should focus on a (general) strike.” I actually think that’s an unfortunate direction for the left to take; recalling Walker probably won’t stop these kinds of things from going through, but it would be an immense symbol of people’s power over the state–especially if this thing does pass.

  4. Dianne Avatar

    Just wanted to alert folks that in Michigan the legislature is considering expanding the use of Emergency Financial Managers being appointed to towns, cities, and schools that are in financial trouble — and given the austerity of the federal budget these municipalities, like the states, are going to be in deficit mode. The previous governor appointed managers to four cities and one school district to help them out of their deficit. These EFMs, of course, make huge salaries and usually appoint consultants, who also earn fat salaries. In the case of Robert Bobb, the EFM for the Detroit Public Schools, he has outsourced jobs, overseen the expansion of charter schools, closed down schools and signed contracts for building new public schools — but the deficit is still growing! He also attempted to take over the academic program, but for now his wings have been clipped.

    The Michigan legislature is considering EMF bills that would give the managers “super powers” to transfer property, void contracts, including collective bargaining agreements, and even dissolve a municipal government. This is just another device to use against both public sector workers and the community!

    The AFL-CIO has called for a Lobby Day next week, but unfortunately the teachers, who are off on a break next week, are not being mobilized to go to Lansing.

  5. michael rubin Avatar
    michael rubin

    At an earlier point in the struggle, I heard something about trying to recall legislators and/or the governor. I s this being pursued? I think it would give these people something else to think about.

  6. Anonymous Avatar

    Well I heard Fitzgerald say that there was no talking until the 14 showed up and there is no compromise. First let me say I do not and did not support Walker and I support the workers. BUT I do remember a time when the workers union negotiators took the same line and forced the state to grant some very special concessions under the binding arbitration rules. It all boils down to greed and that I am sorry to say will not go away soon. The pendulum is winging to the right and I am afraid it may go WAY far to the right and that is going to hurt most of us badly. Not only will the workers of Wisconsin suffer but so will all residents because the dictators in the capital are also going to dump the enviromental rules to promote business and so the health of the state will suffer. Only the rich. that can affort special water treatment and live in locations where the air is clean, will be safe.