Report from Saturday's mass rally in Madison, Wisconsin, by Josh Lucker from the Campaign for a Mass Party of Labor.
The estimates I’ve seen for the rally put the number at somewhere over 100,000, with some estimates as high as 150,000 (in a city of 230,000!). The mood in Madison was incredible. It is very moving to see the once dormant mass of the population, including all sectors (nurses, teachers, firefighters, etc.) all out on the streets, many for the first time in their entire lives, trying with fresh breath to find their voice. With this freshness comes a touch of political naivety and immaturity, which I’ll go into later.
We arrived at the Capitol on Saturday morning with our materials to set up our table promptly at 9 am, and there were already several thousand people present, marching what was essentially a giant picket line around the capitol building.
Saturday began with the farmers coming out with their tractors. It was really incredible to see this traditionally conservative layer plaster their tractors with slogans like: “The revolution can begin with agriculture” and “Walker woke a sleeping giant: Walker’s bill = war on the workers.”
Our table was on the rear-side of the Capitol, away from the main rally, away from the main speeches (people are less likely to stop at a table while they are intently listening to speakers), and as a result, our table received considerable traffic and the placement allowed for more discussion with people at the table.
The wind and the cold were complicating factors, which required us to put away our larger pamphlet and book display and even rubber band the books (!) shut to keep them from blowing away, but interest in the table and particularly the Campaign for a Mass Party of Labor flyer was high. We handed out hundreds of CMPL flyers and collected dozens of signatures and email addresses for the campaign.
Role of the Democrats
As for the political content of the rally, the contradictions in the movement in Madison, and its shortcomings, namely the lack of a class struggle leadership, was on full display. The initial rallies at the capitol against the proposed law were not called by the official union leaderships and the union leaders have since been trying to play catch-up with the movement. The initial spontaneity of the movement left a political vacuum of sorts, which as always, must eventually be filled. The radicalism of the protest movement pushed the labor leadership quite far to the left, producing the SCFL resolution endorsing the idea of a statewide general strike and other similar declarations. However, in a number of ways, despite what on the surface were exciting events and an electrifying mood, the rally on Saturday was an attempt, which appears to have been successful, at least for now, to reassert control and “reason” on the movement by both the Democratic Party and the labor leadership.
The question of a recall versus a general strike is one that is posed to the movement in Wisconsin directly, and which divides the movement sharply. Of course, a recall and a general strike are not, in principle, counterposed to each other. There is no reason why because one is engaged in a recall effort, one cannot also call and prepare for a general strike, as a means of exerting further pressure on the state and perhaps exacting the repeal of the bill. However, for the Democrats, the general strike is not an option. The general strike is not simply a political tool for the repeal of reactionary legislation; it concretely poses the question of “who runs society,” which is not a question that the Democratic Party, the capitalists’ “good cop” wants asked.
Instead, they would prefer to channel the masses' rage and anger into the “safe” and “legal” channels of the recall campaigns, which will take at least nine months, and then to the 2012 election campaigns, where of course, all loyal workers are to hold their noses and vote for the lesser of the two evils to come save the day from the big bad Republicans. Never mind that none of the Democrats have thus far stated that they would repeal Walker’s bill. And in the meantime, what are Wisconsin public sector workers, now without the basic rights to collectively bargain, supposed to do? Collect signatures and then sit on their hands while their rights erode further?
The most likely result of a successful recall is a Democratic win in the next election, although it is possible that if decisive action is not taken to defeat the bill soon, the mood could shift towards discouragement which would tend towards abstention in the next election. In this case, the Republicans may yet win again in Wisconsin.
For the Democrats, this may turn out to be a blessing in disguise, as what the Democrats fear most is coming to power on a wave of mass upsurge and expectations for real change. If the Democrats are pushed into office on this basis, Wisconsin's workers will expect not only the repeal of the Republicans’ anti-union legislation, but having discovered their own power, will surely press for more, which is something that the Democrats are unwilling to provide. Or more accurately, given the crisis of the system, they are unable to provide any meaningful reforms. Their main aim is to maintain the stability of the prevailing economic and political system.
Regardless of how things play out, the stage is being set for larger explosions in the future.
The Need for Leadership
Ultimately, the only way to meaningfully turn back the bill in a timely manner is for the unions to organize a real general strike of all public and private employees throughout the state. Many workers almost instinctively understand this. However, the mood existing and the manifestation of this mood into something concrete are not one and the same thing. Currently, there exists a painful vacuum of bold and militant leadership in the city.
At the closing rally at 3 pm, this hijacking of the movement by the Democrats was consummated in the speeches by the so-called “Fabulous 14,” the Democratic senators who left the state for Illinois, ostensibly to prevent the passage of the bill. They gave speeches about the need to engage in the recall effort, to keep your heads up, look at your numbers, etc., with absolutely no mention of what actions could be taken outside of the long, drawn out legal process to deal with the situation. The call for a general strike, courageously passed weeks ago by the SCFL under pressure from below, has effectively been replaced under the noses of many of the workers by the Democrats and many of the union leaders.
However, during these speeches, workers cheered raucously. A friend of mine, a rank and file Teamster from St. Louis inspired by events in Wisconsin, who drove up for the event, said to me during the speeches, “Don’t these people realize that these people are killing their movement!” The fact is that the majority do not -- yet. And it would be foolish to expect them to have drawn all the necessary conclusions at this point. As I said earlier, this was not a typical anti-war rally or even labor rally. For the vast majority of those in attendance, this was the very first time they had ever protested anything. There is clearly a level of political naivety to be expected here. But on the basis of their own experience, it is clear that people's consciousness is changing. Even former Republican voters were present to support the movement, which shows just how quickly people's consciousness can change.
One can see through discussions with people on the street a qualitative difference in the level of consciousness and political awareness of workers in the Wisconsin state capitol and elsewhere. Normal, everyday people, working people, many for the first times in their lives, are discussing politics, are thinking about politics. They are actively looking for answers.
History shows when such a mood exists, the first avenue that workers turn toward is not this or that radical group passing out bombastic flyers or the one who screams their slogans at the highest volume, but rather, to their traditional organizations, in the case of the U.S., where we do not yet have a mass Labor party, to their unions.
The speakers at the closing rally were people that ordinary workers and young people look up to: the union leaders and, to a lesser extent, the Democrats. Naturally, they expect them to be doing what is in their interest: “Surely they know what they are doing, they are our leaders for a reason.” But people are not stupid. The Democrats are trying to pull a fast one on the workers, and for this round of the bout, it appears that they may succeed. But these fresh recruits to the ranks of the class struggle will eventually draw the lessons from these betrayals and round two (and the rest of the match) in Madison, Wisconsin, and ultimately throughout the United States is going to be something to behold. The CMPL has an important role to play in initiating and developing the discussion on what kind of political leadership U.S. workers need and deserve.
The Question of the General Strike
Saturday evening there was a meeting on the general strike, called by the IWW. The question of the general strike is everywhere, discussed in a very serious matter by literally everyone, whether they agree or disagree with it. This in itself shows a qualitative shift in the consciousness of the workers in the state and the city. Aside from the recall angle, many of the Democrats and labor leaders are trying to scare workers with the question of the “legality” of such an action. This is a real concern to many workers, who will not light-mindedly "break the law" unless they know they have solid mass support and a bold leadership that will fight to ensure such actions are successful.
Workers do have their lives and families to consider, and it is therefore irresponsible for some groups to just throw around the phrase “general strike!” as if it is a panacea or some sort of picnic or weekend excursion that we all go on. A general strike must be well-planned, prepared and coordinated. It must be the product of open and democratic discussion by the workers themselves, reaching out to the broader community, and must have near-total participation. However, a well-planned general strike would not be strictly bound by questions of legality. If well-planned, coordinated, and widely participated in, it would be much more difficult for sanctions to be carried out against the workers. After all, the law is a sheet of paper reflecting the balance of forces in society at any given time. In the final analysis, real change in society is brought about by mass action in the factories, workplaces, schools, neighborhoods, barracks, and streets.
Imagine a schoolyard bully. This bully has a rule that you must give him your lunch money every day or he will beat you up. This rule must be obeyed by all the other children, or they must face the consequences. During most normal periods, workers will accept the law as virtually sacrosanct and the role of the state as "neutral arbiter" without much question, much like the victims on the playground will accept the rules laid down by the bully. However, during unique moments, when the rest of the children say "enough is enough!' and collectively refuse to respect the bully's rules, such rules effectively become impossible to enforce. Try as he may, the bully cannot beat up all of the kids on the playground at once, and may even receive a punch or two on the nose himself.
The efforts to derail the energy of the movement into electoral channels must be combated with continued pressure from below for SCFL's to follow through on its resolution to prepare a general strike. A date must be set and preparations begun immediately! This must be combined with spreading the struggle nationally, with the leadership of the AFL-CIO, Change to Win, and the NEA at the forefront of a movement to demand that the federal government release $500 billion in funding to shore up state and local government budgets.
With tremendous pressure mounting already to yet again vote for the "lesser evil" Democrats, the need for a mass Party of Labor takes on even greater urgency, even if it is "fighting against the stream" at first, as many workers will want to get rid of the Republicans at all costs. That being said, despite the overwhelming enthusiasm for the "Fab 14," the CMPL campaign was very well received, with only one leaflet recipient taking the time to argue against the idea in favor of the Democrats. If the union leadership gave a bold lead on this question, such a party could quickly gain mass support.
The next morning we headed to a rally in Hudson, WI, which, while smaller than the rally in Madison, was much larger than expected for a fairly conservative, more rural, farming community in western Wisconsin. I would estimate around or perhaps slightly more than 500 people at the highway overpass bannering, mostly blue collar workers. We handed out the remainder of the CMPL flyers, which were again very well received.
See photos from the weekend here: Ceasar's Cook on Flickr
Source: Socialist Appeal (USA)