The recall election in Wisconsin was won by organized Big Money. Lots will be said by many pundits about various aspects of the election, but the most important issue is how Big Money or the 1 percent were able to shape the electoral environment. Looking at that question exposes how capitalist democracy operates.
It also helps to answer the question being asked by many—why do people vote against their own interests?
In his victory speech, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker said he wanted to first of all thank God for his abundant gifts. This was not only an appeal to the religious right-wing but also an attempt to give praise to the billionaires whose gifts brought him the election victory.
On Jan. 18, 2011, Walker told billionaire Diane Hendricks that his strategy was to go after collective bargaining rights for public employees first and then get a Right to Work for Less law, in a strategy which he explicitly described as divide and conquer. She gave him over $500,000 during just a three month period in 2012. Hendricks’ ABC Supply Inc., the nation’s largest wholesale distributor of roofing, windows and siding paid no state income taxes in 2010.
Just a few weeks later, on Feb. 23, 2011, Walker told someone who he believed to be billionaire David Koch that he had a bat in his office which could be used to achieve his goal of union busting.
Although pay for teachers had been capped since 1993 and public sector unions were not on the offensive, the goal of Walker and his backers in 2011 was to eliminate these unions. Unions for public employees are the last sources of significant power for organized labor as well as for the interests of unorganized workers.
Tens of millions of dollars were pumped into Walker’s campaign to win the recall election. Much of it came from the super wealthy outside of Wisconsin. This money created the slick right-wing Madison Avenue ads that inundated every household.
The rich put their money into this fight because they saw it as part of their class war against the workers. This was a referendum on slashing workers’ rights, especially public workers. It was played out in Wisconsin but finance capital saw that it would have national ramifications.
Role of the Democratic Party
The recall effort itself was the result of the efforts of hundreds of thousands of workers who gathered one million signatures to recall Walker. When they filed those petitions on Jan. 17, it was crystal clear that they wanted this election to be about basic labor rights—the right to bargain, the right to have a contract and the right to have union recognition including long established union security clauses providing for dues.
The Democratic Party took over the message and shifted it to a blander mixture with a focus on corruption. The national Democratic Party essentially ran away from the Wisconsin battle in a way that once again shows that they have no interest in supporting labor’s cause. President Obama did not come to the state to support the fight for basic rights. His absence served as another example from a long list of unfulfilled campaign promises—that he would walk on union picket lines after he became president and that he would fight to get labor laws passed with fairer terms for union elections—the Employee Free Choice Act—and more.
Role of labor
The ranks of labor were pushing for a battle in the electoral arena. Public unions put significant money and organizational resources into the fight. These unions included the teachers unions, firefighters, AFSCME (state city and county workers), SEIU and others.
However, two locals in Milwaukee—police and fire unions—endorsed Walker in the recall, while no statewide unions did. It is important to remember that Walker exempted these unions from any of the negative effects of his anti-collective bargaining law. Firefighters, of course, are workers that all of labor should support, and this local union betrayal was especially odious because an African American firefighter and union leader was a candidate for lieutenant governor.
While Walker is most known for his initial attack against the public sector unions, the construction trades also joined the recall effort in a more significant way than in almost any other previous fight. The statewide Operating Engineers Local 139, with about 9,000 members, previously had endorsed Scott Walker for governor in 2010 on the promise that he would not support Right to Work legislation while delivering a larger budget for bridges and infrastructure. Walker’s flip on that overcame reservations about the Democratic candidate who, as a Mayor of Milwaukee, bargained hard against them on major contracts.
Union leaders had come together as a coalition and chosen Democratic Party politician Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk as their candidate in the recall primary. The time limits imposed by the state’s election process required quick action, but the union leaders’ lack of involvement among the hundreds of thousands of activists who had put the recall on the ballot was a signal of things of things to come. Falk was defeated in the recall primary by Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett (who had previously been defeated by Walker in 2010).
No thought was given to having a truly independent candidate with a real program addressing workers’ needs. Eventually, the labor leaders deferred to the regular Democratic Party pundits and confined the campaign to a shifting message that did not resonate with people.
Support for labor from the most oppressed communities
Organizations and leaders in the African American and Latino communities—some of the most oppressed sectors of the population—campaigned hard to get rid of Scott Walker. Early reports reveal that record numbers were mobilized to vote.
SEIU had organizers working in poor communities for some time to help mobilize action and exert power on a number of issues.
Democrat Barrett’s concession speech
When Barrett took the podium to announce that he had lost the race, he stressed that now is the time to “work together” with Walker. This is typical “good form” for a Democratic Party leader but poison for labor. Now is not the time to work with union busters; now is the time to organize even more diligently against them.
He talked about “democracy”—but not workers democracy. He called on people to stay engaged with city and state politics.
Why did some workers vote for Walker?
Without a doubt some people are wondering: What were they thinking! Why did they vote for Walker?
The Walker campaign focused on taxes and make-believe figures on job creation. Their message was that greedy public sector workers and their unions were costing the taxpayers exorbitant amounts for high wages and lavish pensions that others don’t have.
Walker constantly refers to “union bosses” and his allies frequently refer to “union thugs” or “union goons”. These terms turn reality on its head. If he were speaking the truth, he would be talking about the captains of finance who are his bosses and who are financing and directing his actions.
When Walker’s Wisconsin budget bill was passed, it increased spending in FY 2013 on prisons while imposing $792 million in aid cuts to school districts, $250 million in cuts to the university system and $71.6 million in cuts to technical colleges. In addition, nearly $500 million was cut from Medicaid programs, eliminating necessary important components of health care. At the same time, these financial bosses have gotten Walker and the legislature to approve $1.6 billion in corporate tax breaks over the next 10 years. Profits have increased—but not jobs.
That is their program, and they sell it by vilifying labor. In areas reached mostly by right-wing radio and governed by right-wing elites from the pulpit to the County Board, the Big Lie works. It is a Big Lie that has been in development since the 1940s and especially since the 1960s. As corporations move production overseas, the ruling class spins the story in a way to blame unions here for “pricing themselves out of the market.” They spin the story to divide workers in the United States from workers abroad.
In 2012 so far, General Electric has moved its medical equipment division headquarters from Waukesha, Wisconsin to Shanghai, China. The Thermo-Fisher Corporation is planning to move nearly 1,100 jobs from Wisconsin to Mexico.
In the race for maximum profits at any cost and the race to shove workers down to the lowest level of rights and pay on a world scale, they have refined the Big Lie technique and used it on a mass scale.
The truth about public services such education, health care, child welfare and transportation is never told. These services are rights that were won through struggle—and which would never be provided by private companies that only care about profit.
The truth about public workers is never told—that their pay is modest, that most do not qualify for social security and their only pension is what the union has been able to win in a contract or through legislation.
Instead of a message that public workers have rights that everyone should have, the story is that if anyone has a wage, a right or a pension that others do not have, then we should take it away from them. And at the same time ignore the vast wealth of the CEOs. Ignore the vast profits made by the banks and the holders of state and local government bonds who get their interest payments first from every state budget while programs for the people get cut.
The principal blame for the election result in Wisconsin is not with the workers of Wisconsin but with the rich who spin this message and who control the levers of power in that state and around the country.
The road not taken: This is what democracy could have looked like
In March of last year, when Walker threw down the gauntlet and signed the “Budget Bill” killing many collective bargaining rights, labor leaders opted to move the struggle from the streets into the electoral arena.
Many experienced labor activists, including some leaders in the Madison area, know that workers have greater power in the streets because of the way money controls elections. On Feb. 22, 2011, the 97 unions of the South Central Federation of Labor of Wisconsin, representing 45,000 workers, unanimously passed a resolution calling for the preparation for a general strike.
A general strike would have electrified workers everywhere. It could have begun as a one day strike in Wisconsin cities with the greatest union strength and then expanded in terms of both days and areas covered. Millions of workers across the country who were upset with cutbacks, layoffs, privatization and more would have been inspired to take action.
Shutting down the state would have been a quicker and more definite blow to Walker and could have resulted in a defeat for Walker as compared to the defeat for labor experienced in the recall election.
General strikes are feared by the ruling class. In reference to a Philadelphia teachers strike—Jan. 8 to Feb. 28, 1973—William Usery, director of the Federal Mediation Service, said that “We came within an eyelash this year of having a test of the effectiveness of the general strike as a weapon in the United States—a weapon that has at times paralyzed the economies of France and Italy.” He went on to say that if labor had engaged in the general strike that many had called for—and if they had won—then “there would have been enormous pressures to do it again—and again—and again.”
That is the fear of the ruling class. If workers exercise their power, there could be no stopping them. No rights would be out of reach.
The Democratic Party is doing all it can to orient people to the November presidential election and away from struggle. Almost without exception labor leaders are focused on that election.
Rank-and-file members can learn a lot from this experience in Wisconsin. Labor’s hope lies not in the electoral arena but in solidarity and action on the job and in the community.