US workers: the Wisconsin Uprising | Via: Chris White Online

I want to understand the American workers’ mass revolt against the extreme right-wing Republican anti-union attack. I was in San Francisco in 2011 and listened to union leaders’ enthusiasm that workers were fighting back all over the US. I talked more about this last month in the US.

Why did this revolt happen and why it is important? This is so that workers and union leaders in Australia can more clearly debate strategies against the anti-union offensives by Liberal state governments – and soon the CLP government in the NT and then by PM Abbott. Lessons about the right-wing assault on public sector unions in particular and the further slashing of the public sector jobs and services is critical.

One ‘must read’ book that explains this resurgence is “Wisconsin Uprising Labor Fights Back
edited by Michael D Yates (Monthly Review Press) 2010. I post the Introduction to give readers some ideas.

“In early 2011, the nation was stunned to watch Wisconsin’s state capitol in Madison come under sudden and unexpected occupation by union members and their allies. The protests to defend collective bargaining rights were militant and practically unheard of in this era of declining union power.

Nearly forty years of neoliberalism and the most severe economic crisis since the Great Depression have battered the labor movement, and workers have been largely complacent in the face of stagnant wages, slashed benefits and services, widening unemployment, and growing inequality.That is, until now.

Under pressure from a union-busting governor and his supporters in the legislature, and inspired by the massive uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, workers in Wisconsin shook the nation with their colossal display of solidarity and outrage.

Their struggle is still ongoing, but there are lessons to be learned from the Wisconsin revolt.

This timely book brings together some of the best labor journalists and scholars in the United States, many of whom were on the ground at the time, to examine the causes and impact of events, and suggest how the labor movement might proceed in this new era of union militancy.” Review promos now.

… it brings into sharp focus the challenges that working people faced as they rose up to take on Scott Walker’s reactionary assault. A probing analysis of the role of organized labor and the Democratic Party rounds out this indispensable volume.
—Matthew Rothschild, editor, The Progressive

…a vital examination of a pivotal moment when workers decided the billionaires shouldn’t be the only ones fighting a class war.
—Mischa Gaus, editor, Labor Notes

Now I post from the Foreword to “Wisconsin Uprising: Labor Fights Back” by Michael D. Yates.

I agree the essays in Wisconsin Uprising are outstanding.

“The accounts of the events in Madison in the winter and early spring of 2011 are 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.

First, as one who was there much of the time and who participated as one of the throng, not as a leader, there was most definitely something special happening, and everyone present knew it. For much of my adult life the actual prospects for social change seemed slender…

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.

I had experienced this in a handful of political campaigns in my life, but absolutely nothing came close to what was happening on the streets of Madison.

It reminded me why the right to assemble is a core democratic liberty—inscribed in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution—and probably the one liberty those in power fear the most.

Second, the Wisconsin revolt confirmed that the United States in the second decade of the twenty-first century is not a reactionary country.

The demands and signs were overwhelmingly progressive and far to the left of what most political and labor leaders would countenance.

I did not see a scintilla of immigrant-bashing or racism. The signs and chants reflecting progressive positions on unions, taxation, social services, and military spending would never be found in the corporate news media.

The cynical claim that the American people are a bunch of shop-till-you-drop airheads incapable of critical thought was purged from my system. It made me remember that people are far more complex and beautiful.

When the events in Madison began, they seemed the natural and proper course, both to me and to the other participants. No one felt like what we were doing was a flight of fancy, or something people in other states could never do…

Something that connected to the great uprisings across the planet, in Egypt and Tunisia and Greece and Spain?

Then Occupy Wall Street began in September and the Occupy movement spread like wildfire across the nation.

That put all those concerns to rest. Wisconsin was no longer an isolated skirmish. It was the first chapter in the current phase of popular and democratic struggles that will define this nation going forward.

Third, the Wisconsin revolt provided yet another case study in how atrocious and anti-democratic the corporate news media system is…
Political players who do not correspond to the range of legitimate debate (that is, the range countenanced by capital) simply disappear from the official record.

Crappy media coverage matters. It did incalculable damage. Political journalism effectively forgot the protests ever took place and returned to its conventional wisdom.

Fourth, the political crisis in the United States today is not merely that corporations and billionaires own the government and have turned elections into a sick joke, or that the news media accept this state of affairs as a given, and woe be it for a journalist to question the status quo without appearing ideological and “unprofessional.”

The crisis is that public opinion is no further to the right on major issues than it was in the 1970s, and in some cases is moving to the left.

But the political system has moved sharply to the far right over the past thirty-five years, such that the range of legitimate debate in Washington and in state capitals is the range countenanced by capital, and the system has very little to say to the majority of the people in the nation.

The gap between the concerns of the masses and the solutions countenanced by the corporate-run political system are wider than at any point in generations. It is the defining political story of our times.

At 65 or 70 percent, the United States moves decidedly to the left. If nothing else, this should provide a tremendous measure of optimism for progressives. We have the numbers on our side! Now we need a party to represent our interests.

Fifth, the Wisconsin revolt brought home the political dilemma that labor and progressives have faced for decades: whether to work through the Democratic Party and attempt to get some support for progressive policies by making it possible for Democrats to win elections or throw support to a third party that is explicitly on the left and avoid the pitfalls of the two-party system. Both routes have well-known pitfalls.

The Democratic Party has delivered next to nothing to labor for decades, except the knowledge that Democrats are not Republicans. Labor and progressives have been triangulated…

Both options, it is now obvious, are dead-end streets, and the Wisconsin revolt only crystallized the point.

AFL-CIO president Richard Trumka
, on the heels of the Madison protests, stated that labor would scale back its support for Democrats in 2012.

“For too long, we’ve been left after Election Day holding a canceled check, waving it about—‘Remember us? Remember us? Remember us?’—asking someone to pay a little attention to us,” he recalled in an interview, sharing, among other things, his frustration with the failure of the Obama administration and Democrats in Congress to pass the Employee Free Choice Act and other needed labor law reforms.

“Well, I don’t know about you, but I’ve had a snootful of that shit!”

But what to do?

An emerging consensus connecting activists across labor and the entire progressive community is that labor and progressives need to develop an independent body, unattached to the Democrats, which will only support candidates who are on board with a progressive platform…including issues like universal single-payer health care, sharp cuts in the military, guaranteed employment at a living wage, green jobs and conversion to a green economy, massive infrastructure spending, trade unions for all workers who wish them, expansion of public education, free higher education, and expansion of Social Security.

We are very close to the point where there will have to be a demand for the nationalization of the big banks. It is, effectively, a left-Keynesian, social democratic platform that unites liberals, progressives, and socialists. The plan would be to cut down corporate power while working in a capitalist system. For some in the coalition, the reforms will stand to make capitalism work more efficiently and productively and in a more humane manner, a super-charged New Deal, if you will. For some, the social democracies of Scandinavia provide a model of what can be squeezed out of a capitalist system with sufficient political organizing.

This leads to my final point: although left-liberals and socialists will join forces to battle effectively for a progressive platform, we have to understand that the political crisis of our times is at its core an economic crisis. Political activists, like generals, routinely fight the last war, and the notion of battling for progressive reforms within capitalism has become de rigueur on the left. There is little doubt that progressives have exacted significant reforms within a capitalist system, and it has seemed throughout the neoliberal era that capitalism, for better or for worse, is here to stay.

But we need to be prepared for the possibility that this is not your grandfather’s capitalism, and the sorts of reforms that high-growth rates made possible are unlikely going forward…The downward pressure on wages is staggering. The attacks on necessary social services are unprecedented.

To keep itself alive, capitalism is eating our future…

It should not surprise us. Marx, of course, zeroed in on capitalism’s contradictions and understood that at some point in time…capitalism’s disadvantages would far outnumber its advantages, and the system would be replaced.

But it was not only Marx or socialists who understood that capitalism as a system had a necessary historical expiration date attached to it. John Stuart Mill and John Maynard Keynes—classical liberals of the first order, and staunch proponents of capitalism in their times—both anticipated that eventually capitalism would run its course and need to be replaced by a different economic system, one better suited to the needs of humanity. In such a world it would be necessary, as Keynes said, to break with the alienated moral code, in which “fair is foul and foul is fair,” that governs the present society of greed and exploitation, dedicated above all to the accumulation of capital.4 If that moment is at last before us, it is imperative we put our minds to work on what comes next as we organize to get there.

Wisconsin in 2011 and in 2012 the Occupy movement. We can see now, for the first time in decades, a truly radical potential to U.S. society today.

If this country does have a future, it began on those frozen snowy days on the streets of Madison in February 2011, and it spread across Wisconsin, and across the nation, to the point where hundreds of thousands, and then millions, of previously quiet Americans rose up.”

Now a summary from the first chapter by Connor Donegan:
“Disciplining Labor, Dismantling Democracy: Rebellion and Control in Wisconsin”.

Connor Donegan, discussing Walker’s Budget Repair Bill, detailed the extent of the Governor’s assault:

“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. Thought the last item was removed before signing, the rest remained intact: 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…an equally monumental offensive on public education is pushing its way into law….that will defund public schools while establishing a parallel system of private schools, funded by the state(31).”

Teachers and students met to respond to the millions taken out of public schools with drastic consequences for students, the use of vouchers and Charter schools taking away elected public school boards.

As well new laws to take away voting rights of poor citizens and their health and welfare services removed. Then the downward pressure on public sector wages and conditions and taking away union collective bargaining rights.”

Connor Donegan then gives an account of the Wisconsin uprising that is most exciting reading. Some 300 teachers and students first attended the public sessions of the Budget Repair Bill and then decided to stay. With the beginnings of the occupation of the capitol building (same as our parliaments) they called on others to attend and they did in their thousands.

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. Then the Wisconsin Education Association called out for sick days teachers and the closing of schools (35), 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. This worked, for awhile.

From left groups joining the 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 strike, union leaders backed down arguing for a movement to collect signatures for an electoral recall of Republican Senators.

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 went to press in the end despite forcing Governor Walker to another election, it is now history that he was returned defeating the Democrats. After the measures became law, public sector unions offered concessions on wages and conditions in return for their existence, but Walker refused winning the day getting both.

”Subjecting public sector workers to such conditions is a central component of the ruling class’s strategy to manage capitalism’s crisis.” (42).

This is the same world-wide with “austerity measures” on working people while the rich and corporations do not bear the burden, and the high unemployment has the labour market disciplining workers further.

Connor ends citing Rosa Luxemburg:

“ The organization does not supply the troops for the struggle, but the struggle, in an ever growing degree, supplies recruits for the organization.” This is only the beginning.’

This Wisconsin rebellion may mark a changing tide as seen all over the world. Is it happening in Australia?

Buy the book. Get your library to order it.

I will review the next chapters later.

Table of Contents
Foreword, Robert W. McChesney
Editor’s Introduction: “Something is in the Air”, Michael D. Yates


“Disciplining Labor, Dismantling Democracy: Rebellion and Control in Wisconsin”, Connor Donegan

“Capitalist Crisis and the Wisconsin Uprising”, Andrew Sernatinger

“Who Were the Leaders of the Wisconsin Uprising?” Lee Sustar

“A New American Workers’ Movement Has Begun”, Dan La Botz

“The Wisconsin Uprising”, Frank Emspak


“Back to the Future: Union Survival Strategies in Open Shop America”, Rand Wilson and Steve Early

“In the Wake of Wisconsin, What Next?” Jane Slaughter and Mark Brenner

“What Can We Learn from Wisconsin?” Stephanie Luce


“Potholes and Roadblocks on “The Roads Not Taken,” Elly Leary

“The Assault on Public Services: Will Unions Lament the Attacks or Fight Back”, Michael Hurley and Sam Gindin

“Marching Away from the Cold War”, David Bacon

“No, No, No, the People Have the Power,” Dave Zirin

“Fighting Wage Cuts in Upstate New York Teaches Chemical Workers the Value of Mobilization”, Jon Flanders

“Beyond Wisconsin: Seeking New Priorities as Labor Challenges War”, Michael Zweig

“Building Communities of Solidarity from Madison to Bend”, Fernando Gapasin

“Class Warfare in Longview, Washington: “No Wisconsin Here,” Michael D. Yates


Michael D. Yates is a writer, editor, and labor educator. He is Associate Editor of Monthly Review and Editorial Director of Monthly Review Press. Read his other books “Why Unions Matter” and “The ABCs of the Economic Crisis” (with Fred Magdoff), among other titles.

More later on this book…

Last, I wrote the following for the magazine Australian Options in 2011.

“The Republican and corporate assault on workers’ rights and the mass resistance is hot news.

US workers are standing up for their rights against the rich. In 2007, 400 of the wealthiest people in the US owned $1.5 trillion of wealth, which is more than the “bottom” 90%.

Can the unions out organise the T-Party?

Is the sleeping giant the US working class arising? I encourage the reader to follow this class struggle.

In February 2011, hundreds of thousands of workers in Wisconsin rallied against Republican attacks taking away collective bargaining for public sector workers. The breadth and depth of community resistance is very significant.

“Fight Like an Egyptian!” sums up the spirit.

This Wisconsin story is one example. On February 11th T-Party Republican Governor Walker introduced legislation to crush unions and take away rights and cut pensions and health benefits 8%. The privatisation of public sector work escalated.

Protest began with teachers and students who went into their Parliament House to watch and later decided to stay overnight. By the 17th 30,000 had joined, surrounding and occupying – debating the issues and singing in opposition.

Then by February 26th 100,000 protested, the largest rallies since the 1960s. Photos and videos of the tremendous enthusiasm are on-line.

The Governor threatened the National Guard.

A veterans group said the military is ‘not a personal intimidation force to be mobilised against political protests’.

He backed off, but ordered the police to remove the protesters. The police turned up and supported the protesters – as did fire fighters, farmers, private sector unionists and community groups. At the same time as the Egyptian protests signs compared Walker with Mubarak. An Egyptian man in a news report held a sign that said: “We’re supporting Wisconsin.”

The pizza shop feeding the protesters became famous when they put on the Internet a special solidarity price to donate to the occupiers. They were swamped from all over the world. Cairo protesters said they were standing up for democracy and that’s what US protests said.

The Republican spin is that the financial debt crisis is the public sector workers’ fault. But the debt was because of tax-cutting to companies and the rich.

This Republican attack is to destroy unions so that corporations have total say over what happens at work and in society.

The billionaire Koch brothers (pronounced Coke) oil funds the T-party. The Koch brothers own polluting companies and fund the climate deniers. They want lower corporate taxes. Already giant corporates Exxon and GE pay little tax.

Tea Partiers and anti-union politicians are trying to take advantage of a capitalist crisis sparked by Wall Street and use it as an opportunity to attack unions.

Opposition to the Kochs sees active blogs, boycotting products, protesting at their meetings. Their Wisconsin T-party rally flopped.

Public sector workers, teachers and nurses and fire-fighters and university academics and others are respected and supported.

The protests turned around public opinion in favour of unions. Now some Republicans are critical of Walker, as he has stirred this working class giant.

The Wisconsin Democrats left the state so no quorum could be formed to stop the legislation. Walker tried to have them arrested but could not.

The laws were rammed through despite mass opposition. A judge declared the laws unlawful on a technicality, so court appeals are on.

In Wisconsin, citizens who find their elected officials lied can get enough signatures for a re-call election. Workers in Wisconsin and other states are getting more involved in elections in an effort to unite working-class voters:

Recall campaigns are organized against eight Wisconsin State Senators who backed Gov. Walker’s anti-union bill.

I visited the San Francisco ILWU International Longshore and Warehouse Union. “From now on, no one who works for a living can afford to support any politician who won’t pledge to support union members,” said ILWU President Bob McEllrath. “I don’t give a damn about what party they’re from, I just want to know if they’ve got the guts to stand-up for unions and working class instead of selling out.”

From the ILWU Dispatcher April 2010 ‘Anti-union forces want to eliminate unions. With more than 93% of private-sector workers now without a union, their work has been successful, and the remaining public-sector unions are more vulnerable.

They hope to use public-sector unions as a “wedge issue” that can generate enough conflict to divide working-class voters. By portraying union members as lazy and overpaid, anti-union forces hope their “divide-and-conquer” strategy will be as effective as gun control, abortion, the teaching of evolution, and other issues that drive working-class voters toward anti-union politicians.’

In the state of Maine, anti-union Republican Governor Paul LePage went off the deep-end by ordering the removal of a 36-foot mural depicting the state’s labor history from the Department of Labor. He removed the names of labor leaders listed in the conference rooms. The governor says the mural and labor names “go against the department’s pro-business goals.” Republicans are trying to ease child labor laws, requiring young employees to work longer for less money.

The peak union body the AFL-CIO coordinated 1000 events – rallies, and teach-ins – on April 4th 2011 the anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination – while he was supporting public sanitation workers who were striking for union recognition.

To show their solidarity, ILWU International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 10 members did not work at the Ports of Oakland and San Francisco on April 4th 2011.
“An Injury to One is an Injury to All”

At the San Francisco ILWU, I learnt of the battle of workers in the desert against the lock-out by the giant Rio-Tinto Corporation. See my posts on how organising works. Buy the film Locked Out
See ILWU website

‘Workers have got to stand together right now. If we don’t step up, everything we’ve fought for can be taken away. The companies aren’t going to give workers anything. It is only because workers come together and collectively fight for improvements in our working conditions that anything has ever been won. This is an emergency we have in Wisconsin and across the U.S. This is an attack on the middle class. We are in the battle of a lifetime.’

“Rally to End Corporate Greed” in San Francisco attracted thousands. On April 8th 2011, 12,000 rallied to “Put People First” in Washington State.

Programmes to “tax the rich” were presented. Unions organise statewide ballot propositions to ‘tax the rich’ to ease budget deficits. In 2010, voters in Oregon passed two measures that raised taxes on corporations and high-income households with support from labor unions.

The film ‘Inside Job’ is popular showing the same rich corporate leaders responsible for the global financial crisis still push their interests.

Paul Krehbiel’s point is accepted. ‘How can there not be enough money in the richest country in the world for needed social services when practically every other industrialized country funds them?

Actually, there’s tons of money. Billions and trillions of dollars.

The problem is that it isn’t in government bank accounts because the giant corporations and the rich have taken it. The sales pitch from the Republicans, their financiers, and their mouthpieces in the corporate media have turned this reality upside-down. There is also tons of US government money being wasted. The biggest waste, financially and in lives, is the over $1 trillion spent on unpopular wars in the Middle East.

During WWII, corporations paid over 40% of all taxes collected by the federal government… Today, in 2011, corporations pay 10% . It’s the same or even lower in state governments.’ See Paul Krehbiel posted on

One programme is from New Priorities that ‘seeks to fund urgently needed jobs and restore vital public services by ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and substantially cutting the core Pentagon budget. The campaign is to “move the money” from military to help struggling communities.’

This serious class fight maybe the end of the unions. Either US unions survive and grow – and membership is spiking up during the protests – or else the corporates finish off US unions.

Various left anti-capitalist groups are organising strongly.

And much more with Occupy.


About Darin Sullivan (1980 Articles)
Former President of the Fire Brigade Employees’ Union (2009-2018) and a professional firefighter with more than 30 years experience. I live and work on the NSW South Coast, Australia. I am a strong advocate for firefighters and emergency service workers with an interest in mental health issues and caring for those around me. I am a former Director on the NSW Fire Brigades Death and Disability Super Fund and work with charities including ‘The Movember Foundation’. As a leader and activist I have long been active in the campaign for action on climate change. I am a Station Commander in the fire and rescue service in NSW and have 30 years experience fighting fires, both rural and urban. I am passionate about highlighting the impact climate change is having on fire preparedness and fire behaviour in Australia, and the risks associated with inaction on climate change. I am also a spokesperson for the Australian Climate Media Centre.
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