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Wisconsin lessons for Labour

By Chris White - posted Thursday, 11 October 2012

In February 2011, at the same time as millions rose up in Tunisia and Egypt, the workers' uprising in Wisconsin inspired the US labor movement with the occupation by unionists of the state capitol in Madison and with 150,000 militantly protesting.

I agree with editor Michael D. Yates. 'These 16 essays are outstanding…the best I have seen in writing, with context, detail, and analysis…the connections of the Wisconsin revolt to the existential questions facing the labor movement are handled with a clarity, intelligence, perspective, and urgency that is exactly appropriate to the task. This book is a fundamental historical document in its own right and will stand the test of time. … The writers, high quality US labor journalists and scholars, on the ground at the time, examine the causes and impact of the revolt, and debate lessons to be learned by union leaders and left activists on how the labor movement might proceed in this new era of union militancy.'

In Part One, 'On the Ground in Madison' five chapters record the excitement. Michael D. Yates:


First, as one who was there much of the time…there was most definitely something special happening, and everyone present knew it….The Wisconsin protests reaffirmed what many Americans had forgotten or never knew: that when people come together in solidarity directed toward social justice they are capable of great sacrifice and unrivaled joy.When there is a sense of solidarity, of hope, of dynamism, everything changes. The feeling this engenders, this bonding, is like breathing fresh air for the first time.

Workers responded to the ruthless ruling class assault by 'Tea Party' rightwing Republican Governor Walker destroying collective bargaining rights and public sector services.

Connor Donegan in'Disciplining Labor, Dismantling Democracy: Rebellion and Control in Wisconsin' describes Walker's Budget 'Repair' Bill:

It was a monstrosity designed to destroy public sector unions, expand executive power over all government agencies, and slash health and social services by $50 million while restricting eligibility, raising fees, and excluding undocumented workers. He also aimed to privatize public utilities in no-bid sales.

…the entire public sector will be 'right to work', the state will no longer deduct union dues from paychecks, contracts will expire if union representatives fail to receive support from a majority of members in annual elections, employees' contributions to pensions will increase to half the actuarial costs, and collective bargaining will be limited to wages. Certain university and health care workers will have no right to organize whatsoever. The legislation promised to land a deadly blow to all of Wisconsin's public sector unions, on top of an immediate drop in take-home pay totaling roughly $1 billion each year.

Walker defunded public schools while establishing a parallel system of private schools, funded by the state.

Connor Donegan begins with the occupation of the Madison capitol building with some 300 teachers and students attending the public sessions of the Budget 'Repair' Bill, and then calling on others to attend.

On February 15th 2011, 700 students marching in the snow for miles to join an already huge number of 10,000 protesters, with teachers already organizing rallies, and the Wisconsin Education Association calling out for sick days teachers and the closing of schools, and then this infecting others with urgency and militancy. When the Senate was to vote those occupying organized blockades of doors and stairways and the Democrats left the Chamber and the State to try to ensure there was no quorum to vote and the police were powerless. Left groups demands of 'Tax the Rich' and 'No Concessions' became popular. But Governor Walker tactically changed so that a quorum was not needed and the Bill was ready to pass.


Despite calls for a general strike, union leaders backed down. Despite the following days seeing 150,000 rallying, the scene was set for the mass movement to follow the Democrats down the electoral path… while many new solidarity actions and groups and large May Day rallies followed, the efforts were on the raising of signatures for successful recalls but ended in by-elections that disappointingly fell short by one of ending the Republicans' Senate majority. After this book was published, the recall result saw Walker later defeat his Democrat opponent.

Lee Sustar in 'Who Were the Leaders of the Wisconsin Uprising?'gives a detailed recounting of actions of rank and file unionists, from every sector of organized labor public and private. Lee argues the recent Wisconsin history of resistance in the private sector helps explains why workers acted in solidarity.

'The Lessons of Wisconsin' are summarized:

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This is a review of "Wisconsin Uprising Labor Fights Back"edited by Michael D Yates (Monthly Review Press)

Further information is on Chris' blog

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About the Author

Chris White, a union blogger, was formerly the Secretary of the United Trades and Labor Council of SA.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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