Battle for Wisconsin #12: Sneak Attack

Posted March 12, 2011

Wednesday morning we were all preparing for a compromise. The media blew up with stories that Scott Walker was willing to keep collective bargaining in place in exchange for the return of the fourteen Democrats and the passage of the rest of the bill, and activists on the ground scrambled looking for ways to strengthen their coalition and resist a compromise that could remove organized labor from the fight in order to conquer the rest of the working class.

The odd thing was that Wednesday evening, instead of continuing what appeared to be a very effective strategy to move forward on the austerity and disperse the movement, Republicans split the bill and moved to ramrod it through the Legislature that night; the bill has stalled out for as long as it has because they don’t have quorum to pass it as financial legislation, so they’ve split the bill to have a non-financial union-busting bill that they can pass with the numbers they have now. The Senate passed the union-busting split bill Wednesday night with no debate and with only 8 pages missing from over 140 total pages.

The response by protesters was furious: I must have gotten at least four phone calls and a dozen text messages saying “GET TO THE CAPITOL”–every network had been tapped. A group managed to get into the building and unlocked doors to let the rest of the crowd flood in, and thousands packed the capitol for another night reminiscent of the first week. Early Thursday morning most of the crowd left the capitol, but as the Assembly prepared to go into session mid-morning a number of activists organized in affinity groups linked arms and prepared to block the Assembly Chambers. Once again, Capitol Police asked the group to leave politely, saying that once they leave the capitol doors will be unlocked. While some left voluntarily a few dozen activists refused to comply and remained seated. At around 11am the State Patrol was ordered to drag out deadweight activists one by one as cameras flashed away. (For more on the dynamic inside, see Brenda Konkel’s blog.)

Outside, I took the bus to the capitol about 10am. Most of the other passengers had buttons or signs at their feet and at the MLK stop half the bus dismounted and quick-stepped up the block to the capitol rally. Cars have started honking to the tune of “This is what democracy looks like”, often in call and response, so even though the numbers around the building seemed to be in the ballpark of only 12,000, cars and workers around the city were clearly paying attention and trying to be a part of the protest however they could. Close to 10:30, students from Madison’s East and West High school walked out and got to the capitol from opposite sides of town; West marched up State Street, East up East Washington. As they were cheered on by the crowd, they packed the stairs outside the East Washington entrance and after about fifteen minutes Jesse Jackson said a few words I couldn’t hear and led them away from the building a second time. (Where they went I couldn’t say, though its possible he took them back to school like he did the first week.) After clearing the crowd inside, the Assembly passed the bill Thursday afternoon while Firefighters took out hundreds of thousands of their dollars from M&I Bank, forcing it close for the day.

Friday, Walker signed the bill. Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk filed for an emergency order to prevent the law from being published, but was refused by Judge Amy Smith, and so the law goes into effect March 25th. Walker also backed off of some of the layoff notices in an attempt to ease the situation. Of course the damage is done and a wave of retirements has already ensued as older workers scramble to keep their hard earned pensions.

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I’m left trying to understand, “what the hell just happened?” Why such a violent shift from one tactic to another? I really can’t tell if this is a case of one hand washing the other, or if it exemplifies conflict among the ruling class. In favor of a conflict thesis, a number of business publications have been quite upset with Walker’s heavy handed tactics and have been trying to backpedal so that they don’t lose the whole enchilada, but Walker and the far-rightists know just how important a victory is for them in Wisconsin and may have rammed it through in spite of the Democrats to have their way. The New York Times Business Page printed an article suggesting that its not the pay that’s “bankrupting” states, but its inefficient provisions in union contracts:

“The solution today is not to cut both the pay and the benefits of public workers, as would happen if workers in Wisconsin, Ohio and elsewhere lost their right to bargain.The solution is to get rid of the deferred benefits that make no sense — the wasteful health plans, the pensions that start at age 55 and still let retirees draw a full salary elsewhere, the definitions of disability that treat herniated discs as incurable…A more efficient government is one that does not need quite so many employees to do the same work. Layoffs are not always necessary, either. Attrition can reduce a payroll fairly quickly, as has happened in Indiana. ” What’s more, they suggest that the problem with government is that they “face no competition”, setting itself up for arguments for increased privatization.

Another example is the Forbes article, “Gov. Walker Has Lost the War”. There they talk about the danger of the bill uniting the working class in opposition: “While Governor Walker may yet succeed in getting his budget repair bill through the legislative process and accomplish his goal of reducing collective bargaining to a shell of its former self, the larger battle appears to already be lost…He will also have prompted the nation’s unions to work together for a common objective– a feat that would have seemed impossible just one month ago…The damage has already been done.” And back in January, there was the Economist article that started this all, which also argues in favor of productivity as the way to handle the problem, rather than “banning unions outright”.

But its still not clear if that is the dominant logic. My partner Kate pointed out that the Republicans have spent all of their political capital already and are set to be recalled, even if they’ll just be replaced by Democrats. They themselves have nothing to lose by doing this because they’re probably already on their way out. And we should all know by now that its harder to undo something than to stop it in the first place, so probably we can expect that this will do its damage and if Democrats retake the legislature they’ll likely leave behind many portions of the bill. I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but we shouldn’t take lighly Mike Tate’s recent comment in the New York Times, “From a policy perspective, this is terrible. But from a political perspective, he could not have handed us a bigger gift.” Democrats still do stand to benefit from this, even as the working class reels. (And now the fourteen Senators are on their way back.)

The Legislature doesn’t have any sessions until April 5th, so there’s nothing to block at the capitol and the last few days’ violent interruption notwithstanding we have to figure out what now. I don’t think anyone could have predicted Wednesday night’s split and rush, but I think we continue the transition into a new fight…


One response to “Battle for Wisconsin #12: Sneak Attack”

  1. Anonymous Avatar

    Hi comrades,

    Just found this blog about the Wisconsin struggles – incredibly useful, thanks. Will check back for updates.

    Andrew, would it be possible to interview you, perhaps via email, for the UK socialist newspaper Solidarity (published by the group Workers’ Liberty)?

    Sacha Ismail (London)