An Autopsy of the Wisconsin Uprising

An Autopsy of the Wisconsin Uprising

Mhou

“Agitation is carried out amongst a large mass of people to clear a given number of very simple ideas; propaganda, by contrast, concerns a relatively limited stratum of comrades to whom we set out a greater number of complex ideas” (Communist Party of Italy, 1926)

It isn’t necessary to retell the story of the Wisconsin uprising of 2011 to appropriate whatever it can offer us today, over 5 years after it ended. Too often socialist balance sheets of past class struggles retroactively impose what should have been done instead of graverobbing dead class struggles for their valuables: concrete examples drawn from recent experiences in which the socialist movement might have played a real developmental role in labor’s class struggles. Several dynamic moments presented themselves during the course of the month between Governor Walker’s announcement of what became the ‘Budget Repair Bill’-Act 10 on February 11 and the day he signed it into law on March 11, 2011.

Scott Walker as Ronald Reagan

The first of Scott Walker’s mistakes in the roll-out of his planned offensive was that he allowed himself to be trapped into posturing as a latter day Ronald Reagan on the Friday when he made the first public announcement of Act 10 (February 11, 2011). He did not initiate the discussion about the role of the Wisconsin National Guard in any potential contingency plans related to industrial action, but responded in the affirmative to a reporter who introduced the topic at his big press conference, stating that as Governor he had indeed briefed the Wisconsin National Guard on certain contingencies. In interviews later that day, he expanded on this and used a strike by prison guards as an example of a situation where he would mobilize the Wisconsin National Guard as strikebreakers. This obviously brings to mind the famous example of another Republican executive mobilizing the armed forces to scab: Ronald Reagan and the air traffic controllers in 1981. But the termination and blacklisting of Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) strikers and their partial replacement with military controllers was made after their strike had begun and after an ultimatum was issued by the president threatening to fire them if they didn’t return to work. It wasn’t a provocation.

It’s also important to remember the scale:

PATCO strikers who rejected the ultimatum nationwide in 1981: 11,345

Number of non-Federal Wisconsin public workers who belonged to unions in 2010: approximately 150,000

Size of the Wisconsin National Guard: less than 10,000

Unlike the PATCO strikers, who worked a highly skilled trade which had significant crossover with the military, the public sector of a state with 5.5 million residents requires a myriad of occupations to administer every imaginable public service. The logistics of PATCO’ing tens of thousands of workers in diverse occupations over a land mass the size of Wisconsin is laughably impossible; even replacing a few hundred workers in Madison would’ve been very difficult– particularly with the mass demonstrations ongoing. Reagan had a hard enough time replacing 11,345 workers of a single trade with the entire Federal government and its military apparatus at his disposal.

This posturing by Walker on the day he announced his belligerent offensive against Wisconsin public workers tipped his hand: he was provoking a fight, though he couldn’t have coped with significant industrial action in Wisconsin with the tools at his disposal. He would’ve drowned if even isolated strikes had broken out and the process of mass action enveloped a much larger segment of the workforce than just the tens of thousands of demonstrators. This was especially apparent in the public disputes between the police and the Walker administration over the budget repair bill, which was Walker’s second major mistake. In its first incarnation, Act 10 exempted police and fire unions from the evisceration of their collective bargaining rights, but like the rest of the non-Federal public sector workers, vacancies would be left unfilled and new hires would be forced to pay significantly higher health and pension costs.

As it related specifically to the police, Walker’s attacks landed blows on the forces tasked with maintaining order. This opened a breach between rank and file police through their unions and the Walker administration. When the Executive Director of the Wisconsin Professional Police Association–the largest police union in Wisconsin– publicly stated his organization and its members stood with the demonstrators on February 25, 2011, it was in response to rumors that an order was forthcoming to evict the capital building occupiers in Madison and disperse the continual mass demonstrations by force. It suggested that escalation tactics on the part of the organized public workers and their allies would have been met with uneven responses from the state and could have forced the administration to capitulate after realizing the situation was far beyond their capacity to control.

The relatively light handling of the demonstrators and capital occupiers in Wisconsin (especially compared to the treatment of Occupy protests around the country later that same year) was likely due to the 40 year policy of soft policing known as the ‘Madison Model’ in the state. However, the attacks on the wages and benefits of Wisconsin police and the public opposition of the police unions to Walker and Act 10 could have served the struggle. This soft policing coupled with the public pronouncements of Walker that the police would suffer similar wage, benefit and short staffing attacks as the rest of the state’s public workforce could have been used to agitate for escalation tactics. If the police were publicly opposing Walker and Act 10, if the police were going to take a hit in their wallets too, and despite having tens of thousands of workers in the streets and thousands occupying the capital there had been no outrages and relatively few arrests, agitation could have deflated the fear of escalating the struggle. Escalation would have forced the Walker administration to react (and likely overreact) and demonstrate that in fact his administration was incapable of winning the fight that he started.

Escalating the Struggle

Very few recent episodes of labor’s class struggles have generated such an obvious potential for generalization as have the events in Wisconsin in 2011. The terms and conditions of the struggle–how it presented itself and developed organically–showed how to escalate the struggle through socialist intervention.

On Monday, February 14, 2011, the Wisconsin uprising was launched when members of the Teaching Assistants Association began demonstrating in Madison. Meanwhile, school teachers engaged in spontaneous sick-outs and students walked-out of class to join the protest demonstrations. In that first week the struggle attracted first hundreds, then thousands, then tens of thousands of workers and supporters to the streets of Madison.

On Friday, February 19, 2011, University of Wisconsin medical students and faculty established a medical station in the protests which provided doctor’s notes to demonstrators engaging in unofficial sick-outs. In that first week the spontaneous class struggle itself defined the contours for generalization: unofficial strike action in the form of coordinated (and quickie or intermittent) sick-outs, with fellow workers producing medical excuses to turn in when returning to work from such illegal wildcat activity, and all within the confines of the real-existing class struggle as an internal facet of said struggle.

The published material produced by nominally socialist and revolutionary organizations at the time and in the form of retrospectives and analyses of the Wisconsin uprising, reveals that none of these organizations approached the issue of sick-outs as they had actually occurred and developed. Instead, the ‘critiques’ reverted to the various theoretical hobbyhorses of each particular organization.

Also overlooked in the various critiques of the struggle was that the essence of the Wisconsin uprising was in the practice of spontaneous resistance to the ‘budget repair bill’-Act 10; the victory of the struggle was already defined by its participants as preventing the passage of this legislation.

Workers in the public sector are immediately confronted with the political dimension of labor’s class struggles, whether in state owned businesses like Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) distributors and retail stores, semi-independent and business-like agencies (United States Postal Service) or state managed non-profit service providers like public colleges and universities. They work where the administration of society, the point of production and the provision of socially necessary services converge, where elected officials are directly responsible for both the specific terms, conditions and organization of labor unique to their workplaces and the quality of services demanded by local residents and rendered by the collective public sector.

The Wisconsin uprising began with a sharp attack on the living conditions of all non-Federal public employees: wage cuts combined with the certain and inevitable future deterioration in health insurance coverage and pension plans. Further and continuing assaults on working conditions and wages were guaranteed by the draconian pruning of collective bargaining rights. This attack was not specific to a craft, trade, industry, city or region: approximately 350,000 non-Federal public sector workers across the state all faced an identical attack on their working and living conditions (union and non-union alike). This allowed the struggle to engender identical resistance across such a diverse cross section of the Wisconsin working-class. Such a broad-based movement inevitably attracted private sector workers in the state as well—in particular, unemployed union members from the building trades and factory workers who had and continued to face chiseling and concession-obsessed employers.

Ideology and the Wobblies

It’s important to make two observations prior to criticizing the intervention of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in the Wisconsin struggles of 2011:

1) The IWW experience is valuable as a point of departure for any discussion of practical intervention in the Wisconsin uprising

2) It was a fluke

Due to longstanding theoretical alibis, the contemporary socialist milieu is not structured or equipped for practical intervention in the real-existing class struggle. The echo found in Wisconsin for the intervention of the IWW was an historic oddity. Their perpetual theoretical hobbyhorse– the general strike tactic at all times and places building up to the apocalyptic revolutionary General Strike– happened to be the correct slogan in that particular struggle, in the state capital city where they already had an established General Membership Branch; and in a region of the country where they had several more established membership centers within reasonable driving distance.

The first significant intervention by IWW members was the introduction of the general strike resolution and an oppose-the-cuts resolution at the February 21 meeting of the local central labor council by ‘dual carders’ (members of both the IWW and an AFL-CIO union). Both resolutions were passed by the workers’ delegates. This initiated agitation around the general strike tactic as both a slogan and a means to resist Governor Walker’s attacks.

With the formal endorsement of the AFL-CIO affiliated central labor council for the region, the South Central Federation of Labor (SCFL) with its 97 affiliated local unions and 45,000 members, IWW efforts then focused on conducting general strike propaganda and preparation. The popularity of the general strike slogan appears to have caught the IWW off guard, as though the realm of political fantasy had become tangible reality in the daily lives of its rank and file members.

The sum of these factors and confusions culminated in the line taken by the organization in their most significant propaganda piece, the General Strike Pamphlet published a week after the SCFL meeting. A posthumous appraisal of the IWW Wisconsin experience, written by two members who participated in this intervention, estimated that between ten and twenty thousand copies of this pamphlet were distributed. Questions of form and style aside, the content of the pamphlet is riddled with mixed messages, ignores the concrete terms of the struggle and refuses to give any usable practical guidance:

“Essentially, Governor Walker doesn’t think that the protesters represent the rest of the state. He thinks that the majority of Wisconsin agrees with his attempt to strip workers of basic rights. He is wrong. Despite facing opposition from millions, Walker still won’t budge from his position on this issue. It will take something bigger from the unions, and from the working-class as a whole: a general strike.”

What’s important is that a substantial minority of the unionized non-Federal Wisconsin public sector workforce had begun to actively resist the Governor’s initiative to cut their wages, attack their health and pension plans, working conditions and trade unions. This is the target audience for general strike propaganda because these are the people who would plan, organize, direct and carry through a general strike or any other tactic. This statement leaves the impression that it’s a matter of applying enough moral pressure to change Scott Walker’s mind, rather than a matter of resistance to force his administration to back down and compel them to give up their offensive.

“In essence, a general strike is the complete and total shutdown of the economy. A general strike can last for a day, a week, or longer depending on the severity of the crisis, the resolve of the strikers, and the extent of public solidarity”

A general strike is not an act of civil disobedience. There are concrete objectives in the pursuit of which the general strike is merely a tactic once the workers’ practice of resistance/demands develops into higher or more advanced manifestations of concerted and mass action, and then is only a means to an end. It lasts until the resistance is successful or the demands are won, or until the strike is broken or collapses.

“If enough of us act together, we’ll see some serious changes, and quick. That’s the “general” part of a general strike. We’re all divided up by race, religion, gender, and political affiliation. In a general strike, people come together in large numbers across those divisions and unite around our struggles as workers. If enough of us stand together and stop work, Walker’s bill will be defeated – even if it passes! If enough of us are united, WE can decide the outcome”

Trade unions already break down the divisions within the working-class and regroup workers around their common-shared interests as workers. The ‘general’ in general strike demarcates this particular tactic from a traditional strike in that it isn’t specific to a workplace, a trade or industry, but a strike action encompassing more than one trade, industry, etc. in a given place be it a city, region or country. Glossing over the specific definition of a general strike, or what kind of ‘serious changes’ workers can expect if they organize and implement it is a disservice to the whole point of general strike propaganda.

Here we finally arrive at the defining issue, the so-called ‘budget repair bill’, but the author slips defeatism into this belated recognition of the real issue. Wouldn’t the point of a general strike by (first and foremost) unionized non-Federal public workers be to Resist the Cuts by Killing the Billwith an extraordinary demonstration of concerted action, channeling the mass action evident in the sick-outs and mass demonstrations into preserving the workers’ existing living and working conditions?

“The South Central Federation of Labor, a federation of over 97 labor organizations representing 45,000 workers, has endorsed to educate and prepare for a general strike. If your local is part of a different federation or district council, contact their Executive Board and your members and start your preparations for a strike immediately”

Here we come to the first attempt at practical guidance and the first concrete suggestion: and it’s to call your local union rep or officer to ask them to prepare for a [general] strike immediately. General strikes are illegal under the secondary strike/secondary boycott provisions of the amended NLRA and LMRDA, plus Wisconsin public workers do not have the legal “right to strike” under any circumstances. Not to mention that this suggestion runs counter to the stated ideology of the IWW, for whom ‘business unions’ are irredeemable obstacles to a mythical alternative labor movement.

“Labor law is set up in the United States to discourage unions from standing together. Your union’s officials will be afraid of possible legal ramifications. They will also be afraid that no other unions will endorse the call or actually carry out the strike. Your union may have contractual agreements that union officers are worried about. Be prepared for these objections. Remind everyone that if the labor movement does not take a stand to stop Scott Walker today, there may not be a labor movement tomorrow. There are risks to building a general strike, but the much bigger risk is that Walker will accomplish his anti-union agenda”

Labor law is set up to restrain and atrophy trade unionism, and this is accomplished through the ‘legal ramifications’ of high fines, injunctions, etc. as one side and legal protections, tax exemption, etc. as the other. But this begins from the premise that a general strike by unionized non-Federal public workers in Wisconsin must take place through the official AFL-CIO machinery in the sense that each local union meets, a resolution is made to endorse and prepare (and carry out) a strike, ratified by a majority vote and implemented; most likely granting the authority to run the strike through a general strike committee organized by the central labor council with mandated representatives selected from each participating local. This is the historic template of the general strike in the US after the birth of permanent trade unions and after the largely spontaneous general strikes of 1835 and 1877.

On the other hand, the movement in Wisconsin defined its own potential terms for a general strike. Sick-outs are a strike tactic which emerged largely in the post-war unionized public sector, a semi-legal quasi-strike, and the initial sick-out by Wisconsin teachers was a contributing spark for the mass movement against the Walker regime’s anti-labor offensive. Other than the brief mention at the beginning of the pamphlet that these sick-outs had occurred, they are not mentioned again—nor are the specific terms of resistance which animated the whole months-long episode. Instead there is more sentimentality (“if the labor movement does not take a stand to stop Scott Walker today, there may not be a labor movement tomorrow”) that doesn’t explicitly define the struggle as a struggle to resist wage cuts, deterioration of health care, pensions, working conditions and resist governmental union busting which promises future cuts and deterioration to working and living conditions.

“Help educate your fellow workers by sharing this pamphlet and the news. Form an education and preparation committee to help organize your local”

The next specific practical recommendation is to proselytize, which is absolutely correct. If propaganda “concerns a relatively limited stratum of comrades to whom we set out a greater number of complex ideas” as the Italian communists put it, then the task of this limited stratum is to then communicate with and influence a wider segment of the working-class. In this case, the layer of trade unionists, radical workers and shop stewards targeted by a propaganda pamphlet concerning a general strike would return to their workplaces and talk to their immediate co-workers who double as fellow bargaining unit members (regardless of whether they are union members or agency fee payers). But the follow up suggestion assumes that there are enough constituents of this ‘limited stratum’ to form education and preparation committees in the dozens if not hundreds of local public sector unions across Wisconsin, let alone what the concrete tasks of these committees are or how they centralize and coordinate their efforts, to what end, etc.

“If your shop decides not to go out, you can still strike “on the job”, that is, slow down or halt production through clumsiness, ignorance, or “work-to-rule”: following the rules so carefully that nothing gets done”

Work-to-rule (not to mention sabotage!) is a totally different tactic from a general strike, and this recommendation is hard to swallow by workers even when it may technically be warranted and they have a union to organize and support it—especially when disciplinary actions are taken by the employer or if everyone just gets locked-out (see the A.E. Staley workers in the ‘90s and the dubious benefits of work-to-rule). So it’s a confusing, unnecessary and ultimately harmful statement, especially when you consider the kind of jobs performed by the intended audiences for the pamphlet: research assistants at the University of Wisconsin-School of Medicine and Public Health, technicians at the water and sewage treatment plants, public school nurses, etc.

“The first step is to get as many workers to commit to the strike as possible”

When the dynamic of mass action begins, labor’s class struggles become a “process and synthesis of action” (Louis Fraina). If ideological unity were the only necessity, there would be no labor movement. Material unity must follow in the course of the real-existing class struggle. Florence Reece’s famous labor ballad “Which Side Are You On?” implies this element: that the course of labor’s class struggles is a selection. They’ll come around or they won’t in response to concrete events, regardless of their verbal commitments to an (as yet) abstract concept– which is also why a strong majority of American workers desire to unionize but only a small minority ever do it, or why the IWW itself developed its own peculiar vocabulary for non-union and anti-union workers, i.e. ‘Scissorbills’.

The content of the pamphlet is eclectic, vague, based on the defective and inherited ideology of the IWW, a Bakuninist and ideological conception of the general strike as an end in itself rather than simply a tactic, and offers no usable practical information and guidance based on concrete, existing conditions. The posthumous appraisal of the IWW’s Wisconsin experience drafted by two members makes many of the same mistakes. This text, “The General Strike That Didn’t Happen: A Report on the Activity of the IWW in Wisconsin,” does inadvertently highlight some of the important issues that were missing from the pamphlet and associated IWW intervention. Going further than the pamphlet, the appraisal recognized the significance of the sick-outs:

“. . . teachers in Madison and several other school districts held effective sick-outs – in other words unofficial strikes – that were supported by student walkouts and lasted for several days”

But still the appraisal doesn’t make the connection that the real-existing class struggle had placed this tactic on the agenda at that moment, instructing any organized intervention on the terms of extending the struggle. Five days after the teacher sick-outs began, the real-existing class struggle again fleshed out the specific terms of the struggle with the mechanism to provide doctor’s notes to public workers engaging in sick-outs, all within the boundaries of the struggle. This also could have been expanded, presenting an opportunity for the interveners to organize the logistics of assisting sick-outs such as transportation to walk-in clinics for doctor’s notes, raising funds for the specific purpose of paying for workers’ co-pay costs to gather doctor’s notes, helping workers understand their collective bargaining agreements (union members) or civil service protections/agency policies (non-union public workers) so they could fight any disciplinary action taken for engaging in sick-outs, etc.

“Yet despite the criticisms of the AFL-CIO and Democratic party machinery, who accused the SCFL delegates of acting too hastily by calling for a general strike outside of their authority, the SCFL delegates knew that they did not have the authority to call for a general strike. What they did was nothing more, though nothing less, than to endorse and, in a limited way, prepare for a general strike”

This is far more misleading than the version contained in the IWW pamphlet. Central labor councils have been the vehicle for the general strike tactic in the US since 1886. The history of the general strikes of 1919, 1934 and 1946 is a history of the relation of local unions, unofficial or ad hoc labor organizations, the layer of trade unionists and radical workers and central labor councils. However, this assumes that a traditional general strike through the official AFL-CIO machinery was the best or even most realistic option.

But the worst element of the post-Wisconsin appraisal is the following:

“From mid-February to mid-March, the idea of a general strike was ever-present, such that nearly everyone in Wisconsin had to form an opinion on whether it would be feasible, successful, or justified. Even in many other parts of the country, from New York to California, the notion of a general strike became a legitimate topic for debate outside of the leftist milieu.

It is very doubtful whether this would have happened without the activity of the IWW. . .

A general strike was probably not on the cards in Wisconsin

This is the most telling aspect of the IWW intervention in the Wisconsin uprising: their commitment to the popular exposure of a wide audience to the concept of the general strike as though that is a victory in itself. Ideological unity is meaningless if material unity doesn’t follow. If the general strike is an ideological fetish and conceived as an end in itself, intervention which promotes discussion about it among a wider audience would be a victory; but when viewed as just a tactic utilized by organized and organizing labor in specific circumstances, talking about a general strike has as much value as a discussion over any other tactic that isn’t acted upon regardless of how many people are talking about it. It’s true that the kind of general strike described in the IWW General Strike pamphlet and in this posthumous appraisal probably wasn’t a possibility. But the situation as it developed with the forces operating in the struggle at the time suggests that a type of general strike was possible, and that a victory for the organized workers was equally possible. Nothing was predetermined. Walker, his administration, his cuts and Act 10 could have been defeated.

And such was the content and character of the only significant intervention made during the Wisconsin uprising.

Doctrine and the Mass Strike

Theoretical alibis serve as the justification for the abdication of the socialist movement from organized intervention in the class struggle. The absence of intervention by socialist minorities can be just as detrimental to the development of labor’s class struggles as misguided or botched attempts.

For most of the organizations and groups with such theoretical alibis to justify non-intervention, there is a shared position that trade unions are organs of the capitalist state, not the working-class: and this informs a political policy of non-intervention. In discussion pieces authored by a member of the Internationalist Perspective group beginning just 9 days after the mass demonstrations in Madison swelled (for the second time) to 100,000 workers in the streets, the entire episode was treated as a spectacle orchestrated by the public sector unions to, “defend –not the standard of living of the workers—but the legal right of the unions to speak for them and to play a predominant role in the management and control of the collective worker”, an a prior position on the “necessary role” that the unions play in the real subsumption of labor, of which they are a “vital component”. This role, that the “unions in this epoch are an integral part of the apparatus — ideological, political and economic — of capital,” and, “explosions of class struggle immediately face the unions as their class enemy, and. . . it is just that perspective that revolutionaries must bring to any struggle.” Effective intervention by socialist minorities in the class struggle requires an understanding of, “categories such as ‘the real domination of capital,’ the collective worker, an analysis of the changes in the composition of the working class, etc.”

An article in the April-June 2011 issue of Internationalism, organ of the International Communist Current in the United States, discussed the events in Madison in a similar way: the unions in Wisconsin “have only mobilized to the extent they have in order to maintain their position as trusted partners with the state in implementing the cuts necessary for the health of US capitalism”, while their members fight on the side of the capitalists “when teachers and public sector workers, legitimately threatened by legislation that directly attacks their salaries, healthcare and pensions, fight for the defense of the unions rather the defense of their own living standards and those of their class brothers and sisters, they move from fighting for their own class interests to being foot soldiers in a faction fight between different parts of the ruling class.”

Regarding the emerging slogan of the general strike, they say “the US has not witnessed a general strike in years, making the slogan’s appearance in Wisconsin surprising at best and mystifying at worst. . . In contrast to the ‘general strike’ slogan, for the workers to defend themselves they need to develop a dynamic similar to what Rosa Luxemburg called the ‘mass strike’.” Again, the specific situation developing in Wisconsin is characterized as a spectacle orchestrated by the public sector unions, and the terms of socialist intervention must be outside and against the trade unions since, as the article says, the unions “belong to the class enemy, and real class struggle will be waged against them just as it will be waged against the bosses and the state”. The role of the trade unions in the Wisconsin uprising are transformed into evidence of their conception of trade unionism through two specific moments in the struggle: the public statements of the state leaders of the teachers’ and municipal workers’ unions which represented their willingness to give up concessions to maintain the collective bargaining regime, and the role of the AFL-CIO and state union leaders in diverting the struggle from the mass demonstrations into the recall campaign against Republican legislators and Governor Walker.

The Internationalist Communist Tendency had a similar perspective, writing that, “The regional union federation, the South Central Labor Federation unions have formally given the okay to the possibility of a general strike with their 97 member unions, while the union leaders attempt to contain the desire of workers to go on strike with peaceful protests. . . Now the mood is one of anger, and talk of a general strike. The union leaders don’t want this, but votes will come up in the union locals and there could be a mass strike anyway. A mass strike is the only response left for workers in the state.”

What is missing from these left communist analyses is the recognition that the AFL-CIO central labor council, the South Central Federation of Labor, endorsed the two general strike resolutions based solely on the intervention of an ostensibly revolutionary organization: the Industrial Workers of the World. It wasn’t a decision which originated within the trade unions and among union memberships in isolation, but from an active, organized intervention. The permanent demonstrations were not called by the trade unions but were sanctioned after they had developed mass action dynamics; and for their part, the workers recognized that the attack on collective bargaining rights was an attack on their future living and working conditions– for both union/non-union and public/private sectors.

They weren’t simply resisting the immediate wage cuts contained in Act 10, but inevitable future deteriorations as well. After Walker and the Republican state legislators emerged victorious after passing the ‘budget repair bill’-Act 10 and surviving both the recall campaign and legal challenges to the law, a right-to-work law was implemented and the state civil service protections were eviscerated– the provocative offensive against unionized public workers was formally extended to include all of Wisconsin’s active workers, which when coupled with the massive cuts to public programs meant a total offensive against the entire working-class including children, students, the disabled, pensioners and the unemployed.

Comparing the IWW and left communist perspectives of the Wisconsin uprising reveals similar problems. Both had preconceived, ideological visions of how the class struggle ought to present itself: a formal general strike or the completely informal mass strike, neither of which was evident in Wisconsin. Rather than begin from the facts of the class struggle as they really presented themselves, the common response for both the left communists and IWW was to double down on the existing ideological and theoretical frameworks in spite of events.

“The greatest result of IWW intervention in SCFL and its affiliated locals occurred in the two AFSCME locals at the University of Wisconsin, which decided to jointly form their own Education Committee modeled on that of SCFL, and to hold joint membership meetings. One IWW member, in particular, was a long time member and militant of one of these locals, and was able to act as a voice for militancy, forming in effect an informal group with other militants with whom he had already built relationships. This group represented a polar opposite to the policies of AFSCME leadership, and proposed that the UW workers take the lead in action that would ignite the rest of the state. For a time it seemed that these two locals might form the militant kernel of possible action

. . .

However, during the period of the capitol reoccupation, when the general strike talk was the highest and it seemed that if even one workplace went out, it might snowball, preliminary steps to set up flying squads were sketched out” (‘The General Strike that Didn’t Happen: A Report on the Activity of the IWW in Wisconsin’)

The question of strategy was never approached by the left communists because their theoretical frameworks don’t provide a basis for approaching strategy in the contemporary class struggle, and was outlined but not examined by the IWW in the quote above.

For the Wisconsin uprising, the main forces of the struggle were the unionized non-Federal public sector workers, non-union non-Federal public sector workers and the participants in the mass demonstrations. The reserves for the Wisconsin uprising were the union and non-union private sector and Federal workers in Wisconsin and various strata that expressed their support or participated in the demonstrations and other manifestations (the unemployed, students, farmers, etc.).

Through their intervention in the movement developing in Madison and dual carding members active in local public sector unions, the Wobblies had forces and reserves of their own. Members of the IWW had cultivated legitimacy among their co-workers in their workplaces prior to the outbreak of mass action in February 2011 and had achieved a relatively large membership base in the geographic area around Wisconsin. The IWW had a developed organization with an infrastructure capable of formulating slogans, generating content to produce leaflets, posters and pamphlets and the resources to print and distribute them.

In this situation, as articulated in the post-Wisconsin appraisal by two IWW organizers quoted above, this question of strategy then becomes one of tactics as the dynamic of mass action develops. As the IWW organizers note, the prevailing atmosphere was one of a hot shop across the boundaries of particular workplaces and occupations. Indeed, it looks as though one workplace going out could have escalated the mass action evident in the early teacher sick-outs, student walk-outs and the perpetual mass demonstrations into a kind of general strike (likely taking on mass strike characteristics).

It was in that moment that a correct analysis of the situation, that the belligerent and provocative attacks by Walker and the Republican-led Wisconsin government were really a blustering bluff and that the teacher sick-outs elaborated the terms of generalization, coupled with an organized intervention and existing organizational infrastructure, could have allowed the socialist movement to put its thumb on the scale and escalate the episode into a higher phase of class struggle.

Rather than engage in escalation tactics using the forces (dual carders in the local public sector unions, Wisconsin IWW members, IWW organizers on stipends in Wisconsin) and reserves (Midwestern IWW members, IWW cooperatives and shops, IWW web presence, IWW treasury) at its disposal, for example in organizing sickouts in the University of Wisconsin shops where it had strong roots; instead of agitating around the sickout as the form of struggle best suited to that moment in the struggle, its members on the scene instead focused on largely passive proselytizing activities and tail-ending the Trotskyists, union dissidents and student activist milieus.

Lessons of the Wisconsin Uprising

The most important lesson of the Wisconsin uprising is that the class struggle is not a place. It is happening everywhere and everyone has their own personal relationship to it. Building a socialist practice from these direct and immediate connections to the class struggle is a necessity of the present environment in which the tendency toward the disorganization of the working-class as a consequence of social atomization continues to accelerate.

Episodes of mass action, particularly in the advanced capitalist countries, are rare; but they may develop anywhere—even a region of the United States and a sector regarded as a durable model of labor peace. An organized group of as few as two dozen within a large geographic area can have an exaggerated influence on the course of a struggle affecting hundreds of thousands of workers and perceived by millions more. The IWW is given so much critical attention in this article for the sole reason that it alone was the only nominally revolutionary organization which participated in the Wisconsin uprising (other than the debris of contemporary Trotskyism).

Removing ideological and theoretical barriers from an analysis of the Wisconsin uprising exposes a dynamic situation in which the conditions for victory were favorable—even if such a victory and even the struggle itself could not have resulted in a proletarian revolution. It reveals the painful absence of the political party of the working-class and the tangible consequences of a socialist movement which has abdicated from the class struggle.

There have been since and will undoubtedly be more episodes like that which shook Wisconsin in 2011 because the conditions which generate mass action continue to exist. We can’t predict when and where it will break out, but we can prepare by organizing the methods, networks and infrastructure capable of becoming an independent force in the class struggle in all of its manifestations.

Please direct all comments to this Red Marx thread

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