Skip to main content

labor Commemoration of the 2011 Wisconsin Uprising

Wisconsin working people are at a cross roads. If we are to regain workplace rights we will have to show the employer how valuable we are. In the absence of that, even with effective political mobilization, the balance of forces will not change.

housands gather inside Madison Wisconsin's Capitol rotunda to protest Governor Walker's proposed bill.,

The Wisconsin Uprising began on August 3, 1981. On that day president Ronald Reagan fired the 11,000 striking Air Traffic Controllers. The vast majority were never allowed to work again as air traffic controllers. The AFL-CIO was slow to react- in part because the Air Traffic Controllers union had endorsed Ronald Reagan over Jimmy Carter for president. However, starting almost immediately local unions and labor councils began to demand action.

Within about two weeks more and more unions coalesced around the idea of a massive solidarity demonstration to be held in Washington DC on September 19th 1981. My local, IUE local 201 representing workers at General Electric in Lynn MA put up the original money to rent trains from Boston the DC. Thousands participated. The march was a huge success. In a show of support the AFL-CIO rented the then new DC subway system for a day to provide free rides for the marchers.

However, there was almost no on the ground follow up or work actions. There was no strategy to deal with the new reality. There was no coordinated response from other unions in the industry. Direct action opportunities did exist. Access to some of the largest airports such as Boston, Chicago and LaGuardia in New York City depended on relatively long and narrow access roads or in Boston’s case a 4 way intersection. As we demonstrated in Boston, it would have been easy to block the access roads to the airports. For example the car driven by myself and a colleague experienced engine failure just as we got to that intersection. But our efforts and some similar disruptions at other locations remained the exception.

The strike was lost but the corporations saw something. They saw that the labor movement could put on a big demonstration- but little else. The corporations went on the offensive against the private sector unions demanding concessions and proposing contracts that no union could accept. Unions were forced on strike- and lost. Whether it was Greyhound or Hormel, the American labor movement was on the defensive. During most of the next 20years it did not manifest any ability to act in a unified manner to resist concessions or deal effectively with increasing capital mobility. There were exceptions of course- the Teamsters strike against UPS in 1997 and the anti-free trade battle of Seattle in 1999.

By 2010 governors like Scott Walker had been attacking the public sector unions for years. In Wisconsin he and his political allies constantly reminded private sector workers and middle class people who had lost pensions or had none to begin with; who lost medical insurance or had none to begin with that public sector workers were privileged and essentially sponging off of them. To an extent this attempt to split the working class worked. Walker sensing that the public sector unions were politically vulnerable took action.

If you like this article, please sign up for Snapshot, Portside's daily summary.

(One summary e-mail a day, you can change anytime, and Portside is always free.)

When the Democrats lost a key member of the Senate though resignation, leaving the public sector unions especially AFSCME and the AFT with no state contract in force, he announced that everything was off the table. AFSCME dropped its demands for contract improvements and offered to accept the Walker proposals if Walker would sign a contract. Walker refused, pointing out that he had no obligation to do so. But Walker and his allies had another objective- destruction of meaningful collective bargaining in the public sector. He announced the evisceration of collective bargaining known as Act 10. He had been watching the labor movement and bet that AFSCME the AFT and the WEAC would continue to use political mobilization but did not have the internal organizational strength or leadership to mount effective workplace mobilization.

Just like in 1981 there was a huge outpouring of support for public sector workers and their unions. Thousands marched. Initiated by the Teaching Assistants Association the capitol was occupied for several weeks. In spite of the huge crowds and the 24 hour a day occupation of the capitol there was no violence; no vandalism, no rioting. Once again the labor movement and supporters showed that we could mobilize on the street- but were fearful of or unable to mobilize in the work place where it counted.

While thousands were in motion, the state leadership of the public sector unions was meeting across the street from those occupying the capitol. They never met with them. Public sector unions continued to emphasize only the political with AFSCME continually polling to assess public opinion. The Wisconsin Education Association Council did make a successful effort to reach every teacher in the state but it was with a message NOT to engage in any work stoppage but only come to Madison on Saturday. This in spite of the fact that the Madison Teachers Inc. - a WEAC affiliate had figured out a strategy to close the schools. AFT-Wisconsin with thousands of members within walking distance of the capitol never even asked their members to think of taking a long lunch, just as a show of force so that the Republicans would have an idea of the value of state workers. There was not even a union signup sheet.

Instead all official mobilization efforts focused on organizing a recall of the governor which lost. 2011 looked like 1981. A great demonstration. Obvious widespread public support for the workers but as with the Air Traffic Controllers, no strategy except political mobilization combined with a refusal to creatively mobilize at the work site.

One cannot say that victory would have been achieved had there been workplace actions - but it was perfectly clear that without the workplace mobilization the Republicans had no desire to change their minds. By mid-March the Republicans passed their legislation. Collective bargaining in the public sector was gutted. Unions were not outlawed because freedom of association, the first amendment to the Constitution, is still in effect in Wisconsin.

After 10 years what is the situation? In order to remain as a certified bargaining agent each year unions have to be re-certified by wining 50%of all those in the bargaining unit. The subjects covered by collective bargaining are narrowed as is the total amount that can be won in wage increases. There is also no dues check-off. Given these circumstances, many workers simply do not participate. The American Federation of Teachers lost close to 90% of its largest state unit. AFSCME has also experienced significant losses at the state level and considerable losses at the county and city level. Due to stronger units to begin with and a favorable political situation AFSCME has been able to maintain significant levels of organization especially in cities like Madison or Milwaukee.

The single largest number of organized workers was K-12 teachers and support staff most of who were in the Wisconsin Education Association Council. Because they are organized on a school district by school district level many of their locals were able to maintain themselves and so total WEAC membership is a bit more than 50% of the prior membership. There are some positive exceptions such as Madison Teachers Inc. which as close to 90% of its former members. Workers at state hospitals like UW had their rights to collectively bargain eliminated completely thus essentially destroying the nurses’ union at UW Hospital. UW faculty and academic staff which had just won bargaining rights in 2008 were again shorn of those rights.

The Teaching Assistants chose not to certify under the new rules. However even though they have suffered considerable membership erosion they have a significant functioning organization in part because they never abandoned their culture of continuous organizing and membership mobilization. United Faculty and Academic Staff which essentially never had bargaining rights except for 12 month period found itself back where it had been from 1938 until 2008, with a couple of hundred members. In the most basic sense public sector workers found themselves back in the 1960ies- some had collective bargaining rights, but with a very narrow cope, all the locals were under extreme financial pressure and none had the ability to initiate direct action in the work place. 

Finally taking advantage of the weakened labor movement, and in violation of the promises he made to the building trades Governor Walker initiated passage of a right to work law basically weakening even further private sector unions. Wisconsin working people are at a cross roads. If we are to regain rights at the workplace and become organizations that the employers have to meet and confer with, we are going to have to figure out ways to show the employer how valuable we are. In the absence of that and even with an effective purely political mobilization there is little likelihood that the balance of forces will change.

Thanks to the author for submitting this to Portside.