Organised money defeated organised labour. That is the Democratic Party’s take on its humbling defeat in a recall election (6 June) called against incumbent Wisconsin Republican governor Scott Walker. That and the ever familiar lament that workers no longer seem capable of voting in solidarity with embattled public sector workers and their unions.
38% of households with union members voted for the incumbent, as did a majority of non-college graduates. Walker carried the 10 poorest counties in the state by a 13% margin. The Wisconsin results paralleled voter-approved public sector pension cuts in San Diego, an initiative of that city’s Democratic mayor, and San Jose.
Mass labour protests in Wisconsin ended in March 2012, when Scott Walker signed Act 10 (“the Budget Repair Bill), turning Wisconsin’s public sector into an open shop. Then trade union leaders told their members to go back to work and shifted their focus to recalls and elections. Support groups such as United Wisconsin followed suit, thereby initiating a two-pronged strategy: to reclaim the Wisconsin Supreme Court in the hope that the bill might be declared unconstitutional, and to reclaim the state senate and remove the sitting governor.
In the campaign Republicans outspent the Democrats seven to one. Two-thirds of their money was raised from out of state business donors who sought to turn this election into a test case for public sector union busting.
But the Democrats’ candidate, Tom Barrett, did not mount a robust case for union rights. As mayor of Milwaukee he was not above invoking Walker’s Act 10 collective bargaining restrictions to increase pension and health care contributions from city workers.
Barrett was not the first choice of the labor bureaucracy. That was a candidate seen by the Democratic establishment as being too progressive for the state, despite her refusal to commit to a firm stance against budget cuts and concessionary contract negotiations with public workers.
The Democrats were reluctantly pushed from below into a confrontation, by a labour bureaucracy more comfortable with doorbell ringing and manning phone banks than with the unpredictable prospects of mass street mobilisation that could easily escape their control. Pollsters, consultants, advertising campaigns and Democratic functionaries came to eclipse labour’s influence. The extent of the Obama commitment could be measured by a single tweet.
In the event the Republicans captured the critical Wisconsin Supreme Court post in April 2011. In August, the GOP managed to retain four out of six senate recall seats. Even that senate majority is too little too late. There is no legislative session planned before January 2013, that is, after the November elections, when Democrats may lose the majority due to Republican gerrymandering.
In the US, incumbent governors campaign on the records of economic growth and job generation that their “policies” purportedly engender. But state governments have a very limited arsenal at their disposal. Their success crucially depends on their ability to woo business from other states by offers of more generous subsidies, tax rebates, and every other imaginable means of financial inducement.
Capital adroitly plays state against state in a competition for the most business friendly playing field. Republicans offer capital a union-free environment; while Democrats reassure business that their traditional “friends of labor” reputation can be harvested to deliver labour docility.
Most state budgets must, by law, be in balance. While socialists and progressives favour taxes on investment property over labour, the entire dynamic of state politics militates decisively against this. Working people are steamrolled by a budgetary process that picks their pockets at every turn.
It should have been obvious that the local electoral arena is extraordinarily toxic to labour solidarity. The system is rotten ripe with possibility for an alliance between business elites and private sector workers against the public sector.
And the Democrats did nothing to rewrite the playbook. Locally Barrett said little or nothing about raising state revenues by taxing the wealthy or corporations. Nationally Obama, following in the footsteps of Bush, cemented the predicate for this top-down Republican alliance.
He could have stimulated the economy and indirectly recapitalised the banks from the bottom up by bailing out state and local governments and by placing imperilled pension funds, public and private, on the Fed’s balance sheets. He could have expanded aggregate demand by an immediate moratorium on all federal payroll taxes. He could have devised a program of wide-scale mortgage relief. He could have spurred investment in new energy, infrastructure and education initiatives. He could have revived New Deal public works style projects.
But Obama chose, instead, to continue the Bush bailout of bank shareholders and Wall Street investment firms. He chose in effect to oversee a series of state and local budgetary crises that will be financed in no small part by asset stripping the public sphere. The structures of the casino economy remain fundamentally unaltered, the economy one bubble away from a plunge down the abyss.
In this every-man-for-himself political context, why not go with the party that has an authentic claim to that message? If the Democrats cannot make government work for “us”, why not keep it as small as possible?
In February 2011, thousands of university teaching assistants and striking public school teachers in Madison sparked an occupation of the capital after Walker unveiled plans to strip public-sector workers of collective bargaining rights and eliminate billions of dollars from education, health care, poverty and children’s programs.
The protest sparked the imagination of tens of thousands — not only in Wisconsin, but nationally, foreshadowing the Occupy movement — precisely because it was a mass democratic uprising against the entrenched forces of austerity.
Power was in the streets and the spirit of social resistance and fightback was palpable, electrifying and contagious. Talk of general strikes, sick-outs and rolling walkouts heated the atmosphere. This was the only arena where concessions could have been extracted.
The political arena is entirely stacked against labour and its allies. It is a democracy-proof bubble of elite consensus, swaddled by an ever-obliging corporate media. Only through the credible threat of crippling civil disobedience could the movement have emboldened private sector workers and other layers of society to act in their own interests and to align their struggles with those of public workers. It is primarily through struggle and confrontation that movements cultivate an awareness of their own power and begin to break the spirit of servility that keeps its rank and file chained to a system that betrays and oppresses them.
The Democrats, as is their wont, swarmed to the front, offering to defuse the situation by negotiating givebacks in return for the maintenance of public sector collective bargaining rights. A grateful union bureaucracy seized this opening. The American trade union movement has reduced labour to the level of special pleaders, of lobbyists often indistinguishable in the public eye from any number of other special interest groups.
The more labour supports the Democrats, the more labour is treated by them with scorn and contempt. The less it supports them, the less it accommodates the status quo, the more it is respected and feared. Where labour’s loyalty is taken for granted, the capitalist parties close ranks to the right. Where labour resists, Democratic politicians find their dedication to bipartisanship to be suddenly conflicted.
Labour’s response will, unfortunately, be to double down on Obama, as if endlessly pressing the reset button will change the outcome. The Democrats, in turn, will double down on corporate fundraising, leaving union concerns and social justice behind.
It is not organised money that defeated organised labor in Wisconsin. It was a long-festering, self-inflicted wound called the Democratic Party.