by Andrew Sernatinger and Tessa Echeverria
June 14, 2012
A year of campaigning and $80 million later the Wisconsin recalls are finally over. News companies all raced to be the first to call the election for Walker before the polls had even closed on Tuesday, June 5th. At first, Wisconsinites watching election coverage in bars and in the streets shrugged off the media as premature. But an hour after the polls had officially closed We Are Wisconsin announced defeat to their packed party at Concourse Hotel in Madison. By 10:30pm, Tom Barrett gave his concession speech.
In a repeat of the 2010 election between the same two candidates, Walker actually
improved his lead over Barrett, winning 53-46, with approximately 2.5 million votes cast,
350,000 more than were cast in 2010. Breaking down the numbers some, 59% of white
people voted for Walker, as did most suburbs and small towns, 38% of union households
(rather than unionists) voted Republican, and support for either candidate was largely
related to the perception of how well this administration was creating new jobs. Most
people had decided who they were going to vote for by April, and many people simply
disagreed with the use of the recall for “political reasons”, choosing then to vote for
Walker. And with the state being so closely split, Walker’s ability to turn out more voters
certainly helped secure a victory.
Over the last week, a number of news sites, commentators, left blogs and radical groups
have written extensively on how and why Walker beat the recall. These all tend to
share criticisms of the recall process (if not strategy), and most have a basic agreement
about the problem of turning movements into election campaigns. Here we can briefly
summarize the important explanations of the recall elections:
First, Reader Supported News reported, “Walker spent 88% of the money to get 53%
of the vote”. Walker was able to begin fundraising in November as part of a loophole
in the recall laws, and coupled with the Citizens United ruling he was able to win a
formidable financial advantage over his opponents. He was then able to keep a constant
bombardment of advertisements across the state.
Beyond just the money, Walker campaigned, as he did in 2010, around job creation.
Under Walker’s administration, Wisconsin has been the only state in the US to actually
have net job loss, but as Forbes columnist Rick Ungar noted Walker simply chose a
different accounting method to skew the data in his favor.
Along with this, UW-Milwaukee professor Jeffrey Sommers suggested that Walker
was able to win on taxes, following the strategy used in California’s Proposition 13—
essentially substituting short-term property tax cuts for wage growth and pitting parts of
the working class against each other. Walker was clear in his messaging on cutting taxes,
while Barrett’s approach to taxation would place increased burden on working people for degraded services. Here we would note the absence of any discussion of progressive or
heavy corporate taxation.
In the course of the year’s campaigning, the messages from the Democrats were weak
and unconvincing. Early on, the Democrats decided to play to the center, to disastrous
results in last summer’s senate races and Walker’s recall both. Messaging chosen on
collective bargaining seemed narrow and reinforced the perception that the public sector
unions were mainly concerned with themselves, rather than using the opportunity to
have larger discussions about workers’ rights and living standards in Wisconsin, as Doug
Henwood rightly noted. Instead, Barrett’s campaign focused on Walker’s divisiveness,
corruption and unwillingness to work across party lines—issues that did not resonate with
the politicized atmosphere.
All said and done, Walker was able to mount a strong, well-funded campaign as against
Barrett who was not able to make any significant inroads and mostly ran a “Vote Walker
Out” campaign. The Democrats were without a compelling vision of their own, deserting
the popular spirit of last winter’s uprising for typical party politics. Lance Selfa’s recent
article at Socialist Worker was then right to point out that this was not simply an issue of
out-of-state money versus “underfinanced people power”, but an issue of actual politics.
Possibilities: Alternatives to the Recall?
After the defeat at the polls, a number of commentators began questioning the recall
strategy after last year’s protests. What else might the movement have done? The
Progressive’s Matt Rothschild wrote a great agitational piece questioning the recall
drive, arguing that the movement could have opted instead for civil disobedience, “blue
flu’s” and a work-to-rule strategy among the public sector unions. “But”, writes
Rothschild, “the call never came.”
What we stumble on to here is one of the classic problems that socialists have faced for
nearly one hundred years: potential exists in a movement but the ability to realize that potential is blocked by ruling-party
politicians, union bureaucrats, and other leaders far removed from genuine democratic
process. So what do you do to work around that? This is exactly what happened in
Wisconsin when organized labor and the Democrats went all in on the recalls, pouring
in millions of dollars with institutional support and organization: the “from below”
course the movement could have taken after in the Wisconsin Uprising had institutional
obstacles in the way. Given a thirty-year relationship between public sector unions
and the Democrats and an enormous financial investment in the recalls (and policy in
general), mounting a good argument was not going to simply change the course.
In response, a number of activist coalitions were organized in Madison after the Uprising
to try to influence and lead politics in an alternative to the recalls. This was a particularly
difficult task with an unclear strategy, but there was an effort outside the recalls to
maintain an independent movement and to take up militant tactics apart from the electoral arena.
Wisconsin Wave, a coalition begun by the Green Party, initiated campaigns that
focused on the business interests behind Walker such as Wisconsin Manufacturers
and Commerce, organizing rallies, media exposure and some civil disobedience,
going on later to organize a Peoples’ Assembly to assert popular democratic demands
independently. Wisconsin Resists targeted M&I Bank as the recipient of federal bailouts
who simultaneously foreclosed on private homes while giving major financial support
to Walker. Another important formation, the Solidarity Roundtable, brought together
a number of left, activist and union groups to protest the Wisconsin Biennial Budget,
attempting to shut down the Capitol in the process. Months later, a trade unionist
who advocated for an organizing orientation rather than simply just recalls mounted a
campaign for president of the South Central Federation of Labor, seeing the potential in
These coalitions organized at the grassroots level were able to maintain a degree of
militancy and provide acting alternatives to the electoral route. But given the complexity
of the situation the coalitions had a hard time articulating a strategy, responding instead
to the flurry of austerity attacks as they came for the rest of the year. More still, without support (specifically
from organized labor as the key actor) these coalitions were not able to grow to a
statewide scale to compete with and ultimately challenge the rightward pull of the recalls.
This Changes Things.
Where does a Walker victory leave us? In terms of policy it’ll certainly be more of
the same. Both Walker and Barrett were committed to capitalist austerity, making
workers pay for the crisis. Jason Richwine of the Heritage Foundation wrote a defense of
Walker’s plan to privatize the pension system, and Right to Work advocates in Minnesota
have been praising Walker’s victory, signaling that Walker’s program is coming to a
state near you. So nothing really new there. In the state Senate, Democrats have finally
won a majority after three rounds of recall elections beginning last summer, allowing the
potential to block some legislation. Keeping in mind that state contracts were voted down
in 2010 by a Democrat-controlled legislature, having a bloc vote against Republican
legislature is hardly a guarantee.
What’s really worth thinking about is how this will shift the balance of political power
in Wisconsin. For thirty years, the Democratic Party of Wisconsin has had a very close
relationship with public sector unions, based off of bargaining between the state and the
unions, where hypothetically the Democrats were the political advocates of the public
sector. Since the implementation of Act 10, public sector unions have seen a precipitous
decline in membership, choosing to invest in the recall rather than maintaining union
locals. Unions seem to have artificially extended themselves through the recall process,
betting on restoration of bargaining rights, which will clearly not be happening.
This affects the Democratic Party not because the party will lose union money for
campaigns, which is relatively small compared to corporate funding, but because the union political infrastructure will not be able to continue as their base disappears. During
elections in general and this recall in particular, unions put their members to work in
Get Out The Vote (GOTV) drives while lending staff for campaigning. Importantly, this
had a kind of hegemonic relationship between union and party, and with the decline of
public sector union support the Democratic Party will not have the same reach as it did
previously. More to the point, problematic as we know it to be, the absence of union
sway on the Democratic Party opens the Democrats up to even more blatant capitalist
influence for resources needed to win elections (not just money, but vote drivers), and
we can expect the party to shift even further to the right. In such a situation the dynamic
between the capitalist parties, and the impact that has upon ordinary people, is likely to
Are there opportunities here? There is increasing need to respond to the crisis, and
Walker’s attacks in many ways point to what a left will have to take up: new (and old!
) forms of worker organization, demands for the protection and extension of public
services, engagement with Walker’s strategies including demands for a just tax system,
development of independent politics as the Democrats move further to the right and
experimentation with militant tactics, especially as the contracts binding public sector
unions disappear. The future is what we make of it.
Andrew Sernatinger and Tessa Echeverria are members of Solidarity in Madison, Wisconsin.