There’s been a lot of talk today about what Scott Walker’s victory means for progressives. There are a lot of potential takeaways. The Citizens United decision allowed Walker to overwhelmingly outspend his opponent, mostly from out-of-state donors and independent expenditures. Unlike the RNC, national Democrats (and the president) were conspicuously absent during the race, indicating that Obama may be unwilling to take a stand on workers’ rights during an election year. Turnout yesterday was unusually high for Wisconsin, which says a lot about how contentious the election really was. And other Republican governors, who have watched the race closely, may now be planning similar policies in their own states.
All that may spell big trouble for workers across the country. But there’s another lesson we may be forgetting: organized labor’s campaign against Walker was its largest and most significant in decades, and Tuesday’s results are only a small part of that. Historically, elections have been a pretty minor part of most social movements—especially labor. And activists in Wisconsin know this history very well. When the state legislature cut off citizen testimony on Walker’s budget proposal early last year, their response was not a petition or an official complaint, but an occupation. As Allison Kilkenny points out in The Nation,
Alienation from the traditional leftist institutions was the cause of the original occupation of Wisconsin's state capitol, followed by a slew of occupations all across the country, and the world. Burnt by the Republicans and abandoned by the Democrats, protesters turned to nontraditional forms of protest, including camping in public spaces and refusing to leave.
Until the recall campaign officially began several months later, those nontraditional forms of protest made up most of the progressive response to Walker. Citizens sent sarcastic valentines to the governor’s office, closed public schools, and revealed Walker’s baser intentions in other creative ways.
But by far the most significant action was the occupation of Wisconsin’s state capitol, which connected the struggle both to Arab Spring demonstrations, and later to the Occupy movement it helped inspire. There's also its connection with labor history—it was hardly the first time citizens occupied the capitol in Madison. In 1936, more than a hundred WPA workers and their families camped out at the state house to protest low wages and inconsistent pay. That year, sit-down strikes (“occupations” in 2012-speak) erupted in dozens of factories, plants, and workshops across the country. The next year, there were nearly 500.
Then as now, a stalled recovery threatened a double-dip recession, and many Americans wanted to see more action from a divided government in Washington. (This was less than a year after the Supreme Court declared the National Recovery Administration unconstitutional.) Wisconsin even had a leftwing governor from a radical third party, but like many people throughout the country, the WPA workers still chose to work outside the system. Last year we saw a similar (and somewhat smaller) wave of organizing and action in dozens of cities, including Madison, and it’s hard to know exactly where all of that will end up.
The recall in Wisconsin gives us some idea of that, but not a complete picture. The Tea Party is still clearly an important political force, and many ordinary people remain suspicious of the intentions and tactics of organized labor. But the situation is far from black and white. Last night’s numbers make it easy to claim a resounding defeat for organized labor, but the last 16 months seem to show the opposite. It would be a shame, for instance, if the recall vote overshadowed recent labor victories, like when Ohioans voted overwhelmingly to restore collective bargaining last November. And let’s not forget that Dems took the Wisconsin senate yesterday in another recall, which may create some hurdles for Walker’s more conservative planks.
But even more than that, with or without a successful recall, the fight in Wisconsin was a significant step forward for organized labor. Unions have been steadily losing strength for decades, and its mobilization in Wisconsin was pretty unprecedented. Writes John Nichols:
For those who see democracy as a spectator sport with clearly defined seasons that finish on Election Day, the Wisconsin results are just depressing. But for those who recognize the distance Wisconsin… and other states… have come since the Republicans won just about everything in 2010, the recall story is instructive.
Walker’s February 2011 assault on union rights provoked some of the largest mass demonstrations in modern labor history, protests that anticipated the “Occupy” phenomenon with a three-week takeover of the state Capitol and universal slogan “Blame Wall Street Not the Workers,” protests that both drew inspiration from and served to inspire the global kicking up against austerity.
And that kicking up is far from over. As Peter Dreier points out in Common Dreams, Walker spent 88 percent of the money in yesterday’s recall to get 53 percent of the vote. In 2010, when Walker faced the same opponent for the same office, his campaign spending was a small fraction of what it was this year. In Wisconsin, as in many other parts of the world, austerity may require much more convincing than it did two years ago. In spite of the recall results, Wisconsin may represent less an end than a beginning.