What’s This About Again? I Don’t Recall… The Walker Recall and the Battles for Wisconsin

by Andrew Sernatinger

June 5, 2012

This week people in the United States (and beyond) are rediscovering Wisconsin. After a year of nearly continuous recalls, primaries, campaigning and special elections, June 5th will be the long awaited vote to decide if Scott Walker will remain the governor of Wisconsin for the next two years.

Watching this election brings up a number of complicated questions. What happened to get us to this point? Why is the race so close if the recall campaign was able to gather over a million signatures for Scott Walker? What happened to the unions, and what is this even about anymore?

I will try to explain here what has happened in the last year, focusing mostly on the recalls, the fate of the labor movement, and the questions that emerge. Reporting on the politics here is intended to show how the formal political world objectively affects our social sense; presenting the political situation is intended to explain its logic, not as an endorsement of the parties or the last year’s strategy. I focus on the importance of the trade unions as institutions that will affect the whole class, and the complications that arise in trying to navigate the political world in the absence of a left electoral alternative.

Since You’ve Been Gone: Politics after the Budget Repair Bill

The mass protests in Wisconsin ended after Scott Walker signed Act 10 (“the Budget Repair Bill”) into law on March 12th, 2012. Whatever else may have been possible, trade union officials told their members to go back to work and announced that their main priority would be recalls and elections; others followed suit, and outfits like United Wisconsin mobilized for a strategy to change state politics (with a big P).

The first part of this strategy (from the top) involved trying to halt Act 10 through the judiciary. The key to this was in the spring elections, where a seat on the State Supreme Court would largely decide how the courts would relate to Walker and the Republican legislative majority. Liberal JoAnne Kloppenburg declared a victory in the Supreme Court race, but soon after Waukesha County Clerk Kathy Nickolaus “found” thousands of votes, giving the election to conservative David Prosser. The clear case of voter fraud was not investigated, and soon after Prosser’s Supreme Court overturned an order to suspend Act 10 by Circuit Court Judge Maryann Sumi. Prosser’s election gave the green light to Walker’s austerity agenda from the courts.

The second part was to try and flip the majority in the State Senate. The mid-term elections gave the Assembly a decisive Republican majority, but the Senate was much closer and there existed a possibility to win a Democrat majority through the recalls. After collecting signatures in a number of counties, a recall election was triggered in July 2011, giving two seats to Democrats, but not enough to take a majority in the Senate. As a result, Republicans continued to have full control of the state government and aggressively pushed through spending cuts, rollbacks to rights and protections, privatization plans, voter redistricting and ballot access laws.

The third focus of the electoral strategy was of course was the push towards a recall of Scott Walker, which began in November and culminated in over a million signatures on the governor’s recall petition. We will return to this in a moment.

In the meantime…Public Sector Unions in Decline

On August 25th, Act 10 went into effect, officially ending automatic dues collection and recognition, turning Wisconsin’s public sector into an open shop. Since that time, the Wall Street Journal reported that AFSCME’s membership statewide has just about been cut in half, AFT has lost about a third of their membership, and the Wisconsin Education Association Council laid off a fraction of their staff.

As this was happening, unions contributed millions of dollars and dedicated many staff to the recalls (the total spent on both sides was about $30 million), making way for the criticism that that money could have been better used to train union members and organize to keep the unions together. A case in point was over a strike and lock-out at Manitowoc Crane, when union workers there took action against their private employer attempting to bring Act 10 to the private sector. The Wisconsin AFL-CIO was unprepared to support them, especially with so many of their staff dedicated to the recalls.

A point that was made by the labor left is that this “all-in” strategy with regard to the recalls has neglected union organizing and shied away from militancy that could have created pressure on the administration directly. It is both alarming and strangely predictable that unions would have opted for a political strategy: after the wave of militancy that brought them into being in the 1960’s and 70’s, public sector unions became largely lobbying organizations partnered with the Democratic Party with a very limited culture or experience around mobilization. In the face of this crisis, public sector union officials decided to do what they’ve always done and played politics.

The Democratic Primary for Governor

The Government Accountability Board (GAB) verified the recall signatures in February, authorizing a recall election for Scott Walker to take place in June. At that point, a race began within the Democratic Party to see who would be the candidate to challenge Scott Walker. The two major candidates in the Democratic Primary ended up being Kathleen Falk, Dane County Executive and labor’s pick, and Tom Barrett, Mayor of Milwaukee who ran against Walker in 2010. As had been the case over the summer, the Democrats relationship to collective bargaining and the repeal of Walker’s austerity cuts were vague or unconvincing, prompting the UW Teaching Assistants’ Association (AFT) not to endorse any candidate in the primary, a show of dissatisfaction with the candidates and a political statement against the assumed relationship between trade unions and the Democratic Party. In the end, unions committed $10 million to Falk, who lost to Barrett as the most electable candidate, despite being a figure of neoliberal reforms and union antagonism in Milwaukee.

Why is the election so close?

This brings us to the present, where just about every poll is seeing the election as a dead heat. Through a loophole in Wisconsin’s recall procedure, Walker has been allowed to begin fundraising for the recall election since November, when the recall petitions began, giving him a considerable financial advantage. The Democratic National Committee has mostly stayed away from the Wisconsin election, leaving the state party to fend for itself while the Republicans have brought in huge national support. Even still, the polls suggest that most voters have already made up their minds, suggesting that in the end whoever can turn out the most voters is going to win. There is of course the fear of more voter fraud, where local people openly discuss the possibility that Walker might just steal the election. In that case, it becomes a matter of challenging the vote count and hoping that Barrett does not just concede.

Part of the question here is, “who’s voting for Walker?” Wasn’t it just a year ago that there was a historic uprising? And a million recall signatures? Somewhat muted in this last year’s news has been the complicated political terrain in Wisconsin. Tensions exist between public and private workers, Madison and the rest of the state, where the right has shifted the blame of the crisis onto public sector workers as the manufacturing sector has declined (or at least the workers have). Walker’s campaign has been consistently about job creation and keeping taxes low, which resonate with a sector of the electorate. The Democrats have enabled this largely by avoiding discussion of jobs and proposing to raise taxes to maintain social programs at an increasingly lower quality. As a result, Barrett’s campaign has messaged mostly on the uncompelling lines of “I’m Not Scott Walker”, since even as Democrats go he tends to be to the right.

This also shows us one of the major issues with the recall: there’s widespread interest in getting rid of Scott Walker (over a million signatures), but the success of the recall is tied to a partisan election. This tends to blur the rejection of Walker with the affirmation of Barrett or other Democrats, who do not represent the spirit of the protests a year ago.

What’s At Stake in the Wisconsin Election?

The Progressive, which has not been afraid to question the Democrats and recall strategy this last year, wrote an essay asking, “What’s At Stake in Wisconsin?”, which outlined a number of important large political and symbolic issues that will be decided to a great extent by the results of the recall election. Whether Walker or Barrett wins, there will still be an austerity agenda that will see struggle in the future, but we should take seriously what is on the horizon: an even more confident right-wing ideologue that will bring in right-to-work legislation, privatize public pensions, sell off public lands and press on reactionary social attacks. There is also the question of what lessons hundreds of thousands of people will take with them after this election—will a Walker victory convince people that nothing can change? Will a Barrett victory demobilize?

While the focus has been on the gubernatorial race, a final senate recall will also be on this ballot, opening the possibility of a Democratic majority there.

Where do we go from here?

This election will bring up a number of issues Wisconsinites will have to consider in moving forward. First, on the elections themselves, the sheer money-power, fraud and access problems suggest the need for some democratic reforms. It should also bring up a radical question: when this many people clearly say that the government’s actions are unacceptable and they’re unable to do anything about it, how democratic can the state really be? Wisconsin’s progressive past and traditions, in large part influenced by German socialist immigrants, starts to make some interesting comparisons. It will be particularly difficult to challenge for partisan office in a Citizens United world with decimated workers’ organizations, but some experimentation with electoral activity should be considered.

Second, no matter whether or not Act 10 is repealed and unions have their rights restored, at this point the damage is done. Chances are that the public sector will continue to operate in an open shop environment, which says that if they want to have recognition and power as unions, they will need to change the way they work to become solidarity and struggle based unions.

Lastly, it has not been sufficiently covered in this piece but there is excellent organizing in the state around various issues that affect workers in different ways: housing, unemployment, transportation, etc. Wisconsin’s left activists began a very interesting experiment in developing militant, grassroots coalitions of groups to fight with common cause. These formations have great promise and have in them the potential to build great social solidarities.

Andrew Sernatinger is an activist and Solidarity member in Madison, Wisconsin.


2 responses to “What’s This About Again? I Don’t Recall… The Walker Recall and the Battles for Wisconsin”

  1. Bill Perdue  Avatar
    Bill Perdue

    Wisconsin is another in a long string of hard lessons for working people demonstrating that:

    (1) Democrats are just as much our enemies as Republicans – both bust unions, impose austerity, refuse to give us socialized medicine, want to slash Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid, approve trillions in gifts for the banksters and a pittance for unemployment relief, homelessness and food stamp programs. The big difference seems to be that Republicans don’t bother lying and that lying is all Democrats do. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SA9KC8SMu3o

    (2) That elections in a banana republic like the US are essentially rigged by the vast wealth of the .01% who own both parties and who’ve passes enough anti-democratic laws, beginning with the Electoral College, to keep workers parties and the left off the ballot.

    (3) That change – real, fundamental, change – doesn’t come from elections but from mass movements and from mass actions, in particular general strikes. In the spring of 2011, shortly after Walker escalated his attack on union the South Central Federation of Labor (SCFL-Wisconsin) voted to support a general strike if the legislation was passed and signed. It took the combined efforts of the AFL-CIO leadership and Democrat scabs to block the strike and instead they proposed the electoral farce whose results we see today.

    The goal for unions and the union left and our allies in the occupy movements has to be to continue to press for the unleashing of the AFL-CIOs Labor Party and other independent political action groups, to use elections for the only thing they’re good for, education and organizing, and to promote and plan for general strikes as a step on the road to our ultimate goal, the creation of a government exclusively of, by and for working people.

    Bill Perdue, Railroad Workers United, TCU/IAM, AFL-CIO rtd

  2. Andrew Avatar


    First, maybe I didn’t place enough emphasis, but I did say that for people the recall and the movement were blurred. The various left groups in Madison and Wisconsin generally have been pointing out for the last year that this was going to be a major problem, that the movement was being reigned in by the Democrats and labor officials, that it was ultimately not going to work because they would play to the center and no one gives a shit about that.

    The problem isn’t about what is true or not, because you are right that the Dems and Republicans both were putting out an austerity agenda, but where power lies. Most people also saw themselves as voting “Against Walker” and not “For Barrett”–selecting Barrett was a ‘pragmatic view’ of who had the best chance of unseating Walker.

    In terms of power, was not a strong enough pole that was independent of the recall that had a strategy that was sensible. It is also true that the rules of elections are made so that it’s incredibly difficult to “win”, but most working people regard them as legitimate in some sense, and they have considerable sway (“hegemony”); materially, that policy directly affects the public sector unions, cuts to services and civil rights, so of course they’ll see the value in them. If you pretend that what happens at the level of big-P Politics doesn’t matter, well then I think your movement strategy is going to fall short. I’ll probably write something on this soon, but the “not just recall” Left (or whatever you want to call it) did not have a way to challenge on the electoral or labor fronts, and when you look at the incredible deployment of resources labor put into these elections I think you’ll agree that it wasn’t something that you could just make a good argument about and people would hit the streets again.

    Also, it has been really amazing the way that people nationally took to the idea of a general strike in Wisconsin. It was very effective propaganda–TOO effective, because it was never going to happen. If you look at the organization of public sector unions in Wisconsin, their history and the number of militants, you’d see that this was really a point of agitation that worked very well to push people on tactical possibilities. But the idea was not going to spontaneously organize. This was a motion made at a Fed that has no power to actually enact strikes, it was to push the idea. The reality was that a general strike was not going to happen. People in Wisconsin knew that, its the rest of the country that didn’t understand. Now it is possible that other kinds of labor actions could have happened, and that I agree with, but again it’s a problem of how would you enact it–we know that bureaucrats have no interest in such things, even “when the knife is at the throat” as someone said to me. That’s something the left needs to take up.

    So, yes, the recall that was necessarily tied to the Democrats and the move away from labor action were bad and they shouldn’t have happened. The question is and was, what are you going to do in these conditions? I do not think it is wise to dismiss the election and say “the Dems lost, not us”, because to thousands of people the movement and the election became linked, and people’s assessments are measuring the strength of the movement by the results of the election. I’d say a task of the radical left is to point out that this is not the case, that the movement is and must be independent even if you see how there’s overlap objectively, and point out exactly what went wrong with the Democrats–how that is a reason for political independence that you’re talking about.