Heartbreak in the Heartland: Voices from Wisconsin

With so much energy and effort by thousands of workers, activists, students, and young people going into the Wisconsin Uprising, why did this movement fail to achieve its prime political goal? Several participants reflect and look to the work ahead. Photo: Sue Ruggles.

Tom Barrett got 154,000 more votes against Scott Walker yesterday than in 2010, but it wasn’t enough, because Walker got 202,000 more votes than last time around. In 2010, he beat Barrett 52-47 percent, by 125,000 votes. This time, he beat Barrett 53-46 percent, by 173,000 votes.

We're sharing some immediate reactions to the defeat in Wisconsin. Please join in and add your comments below.

What Happened in Wisconsin, and Why?

by David Nack

Why did Scott Walker comfortably defeat the recall by better than 53 to 46 percent? With so much energy and effort by thousands of workers, activists, students, and young people going into the Wisconsin Uprising, why did this movement fail to achieve its prime immediate political goal? How did Walker persuade 38 percent of members of union households to vote for him?

Walker’s huge sums of money, most of it raised outside Wisconsin, was a factor; he outspent Tom Barrett by 7 to 1 or better. The governor flooded the state with commercials arguing that Wisconsin had gained 23,000 jobs while he was in office, flatly contradicting the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, which showed a job loss greater than that for 2011. Other Walker commercials contrasted this claim with job losses in Milwaukee under Barrett.

Walker’s ideological framework, simultaneously populist in tone and demagogic, was that public sector workers were the “haves” and those in the private sector were the “have nots.” Obviously, some private sector workers, battered by job losses and pay and benefit cuts, were open to this appeal.

For the most part Barrett did not directly counter this image of greedy public sector workers. Instead he focused on the ongoing investigation of Walker’s operation when he was a county executive. But many Wisconsinites dismissed that investigation, in which some of Walker’s former staff pled guilty to doing political work on county time, as “just politics.”

Neither Barrett nor the Democrats nor organized labor emphasized the dispute that began the Wisconsin Uprising: the evisceration of collective bargaining rights for public sector workers. The argument that worker rights are human rights was muted, and used mainly in labor circles, but the majority of voters knew that the Democrats, and even labor leaders, were reticent to make this case to the general public.

If the case for defending unions had been made more strongly, could that have convinced a good chunk of the 38 percent of union household members who went for Walker? If half of just those voters had pulled the lever for Barrett, the result would have swung the other way.

Barrett didn’t even run on a progressive platform. Little or nothing was said about raising state revenues by taxing the wealthy and corporations, or the need to invest in education, social services, and infrastructure. Despite high unemployment, there was little or no talk of the need to create jobs, by either the Democrats or the unions.

Driven by concern that arguing too strongly for these policies might cost the votes of some political independents and moderates, Barrett and his supporters may have bypassed their most persuasive arguments. They provided plenty of reasons to oppose Walker, but few reasons why voters should support them.

For decades Democratic politicians have been running further rightward and declining to provide a different vision, fearing to turn off “moderates.” Wouldn’t a different strategy, where we counterposed our vision to the Walkers’ and the Kochs’, at least be worth trying? The Wisconsin recall gave us no chance to find out.

David Nack is a member of United Faculty and Academic Staff in Madison.

The Recall that Wasn’t

by Mark Serafinn



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The birthplace of the public sector unions, a blue state that voted Obama to a double-digit win in 2008—the outcome in Wisconsin couldn’t have been more critical for the labor movement.

Luckily the Democratic National Committee saw the potential disaster and mobilized all of its resources to win this election for labor, one of its main supporters. President Obama suspended his own campaign fundraising and instead concentrated on the Wisconsin battle, raising millions to battle the $18 million Scott Walker pulled in from conservative groups like the Koch brothers. The president sent his ground operation to Wisconsin to knock on every door and make sure every Democrat made it to the polls as they did in 2008.

It was a great sight as Air Force One landed in Madison with the president and first lady, who threw their support behind the candidates fighting for labor’s cause. President Obama’s speeches in Madison, Milwaukee, Green Bay, and La Crosse were the tipping point and by June 5 the election was secured.

Alas, but a dream. The inaction by the Democrats and Obama has set the labor movement back 50 years, not just in Wisconsin but all across the country as Republicans will seek to copy the Walker playbook. This disaster could have been avoided.

Mark Serafinn is a retired Teamster and former president of IBT Local 722.

What We’re Learning

by Mike Amato

Since 100,000 workers and students occupied the state Capitol last year, I've thrown myself into working with my union and the We Are Wisconsin coalition against Scott Walker's agenda of austerity, oppression, and environmental devastation. Despite last night's stinging loss, I would do it again.

What have we learned from the experience? People will make tremendous sacrifices for a cause they believe in. I helped coordinate canvassing and phonebanking out of the Madison Labor Temple. Young and old, union and non-union, people came in every day to do whatever they could to help. Thousands volunteered, often for two shifts in a row.

I've learned that we need to talk with everyone. I've heard growing concern that we are overly reliant on increasingly sophisticated models of likely voters and voting tendencies, with the result that our door-knocks and phone calls are only reaching a narrow slice of the electorate. There are two sides to this problem—unlikely voters and unfriendly voters. We've long heard about the need to organize unlikely voters, particularly the urban poor, both for electoral necessity and as a matter of justice. Wisconsin's unions have made considerable investments in the last year doing just that.

But we also need to reach out to unfriendly voters and bring them to our side. One of the lists we were calling last week was union members who hunt. Walker had recently hired a "deer czar" with a record in Texas of selling off public hunting lands to be turned into private, fee-based game farms, which dramatically raised the cost of hunting for many Texans. Those calls were some of the most successful we made. Privatization of public resources and jobs has been a Walker hallmark, and we were able to mobilize voters who would have stayed home, and even converted some Walker supporters to Tom Barrett.

Unions suffered a disappointment in the primary. While Kathleen Falk was a clear pro-labor candidate, she was considered too progressive for the rest of Wisconsin. At least that was the story I heard over and over from the hundreds of Democratic and independent voters whose doors I knocked on during the primary, who told me they were voting for Barrett. They liked Falk, but they thought other voters would be more likely to vote for Barrett.

We'll never know how a Falk/Walker election might have turned out, but it would have been a very different campaign. Collective bargaining rights would have been front and center. That might have turned the disturbingly high number of union members who voted for Walker against him. Falk would also have communicated to the non-union public that unions are really about democracy and voice, not bilking taxpayers and protecting lazy teachers. That was a huge missed opportunity.

Mike Amato is chair of the Teaching Assistants’ Association (AFT) political education committee.


dma (not verified) | 06/11/12

1. About two-thirds of voters were really tired of recall politics.
It's hard for those of us who are very engaged or even obsessed w/ the recall and fighting back against the attack, but many people are simply "not political" though politically moderate, vote for Obama, etc. I met many of them doing doors and they were just sick of the recall- especially in areas that had senate recalls. They are not engaged in the issues and saw it as divisive. I heard many times, "I'm not voting for Walker, I'm voting against the recalls." These voters accounted for a few points in Walkers favor.
2. Ads to smear Barrett.
Walker spent ten million bucks in attempt to rehabilitate his image as a nasty fuck. It was worth a few points. He went from an approval rating of about 45% to over 50%. But he also had to take down Barrett who unless you have ideological blinders on, is apparently A Very Nice Guy. Because he's so Nice, Walker decided that the campaign had to run against Milwaukee City. That's a big easy target. Crime, unemployment and in the end, even dead children. It drove tens of thousands of voters against Barrett. We forget that there are many people who not only watch TV constantly; they actually form their opinions based on what they see.
3. The GOP is getting better at campaigns
The GOP has learned alot from Dems in the last ten years and they are as good and in some areas better than we are in turning out voters. Most of their ground troops are Christians who are doing it as part of God's work and that's a very big motivator.
4. Shooting ourselves
We started off the campaign w/ a huge mis-step when labor poured $4 million down the rat hole in support of Falk. Anyone outside of the small group of decision-makers who only talk to each other would have known there was not a chance that she could win a primary let alone a general election. They knew that she was viewed very unfavorably by her electorate in Dane County, by union members and apparently by most state voters as well. This was a vanity power play where WeAC and AFSCME leaders were going to show Barrett how tough they are. Boy that really worked!
5. Bad calendar
Walker had more than a year to campaign and unlimited money. We had one about one month and a few million. Those are limitations that are hard to overcome.

lycophidion (not verified) | 06/09/12

The key question to activists is what impetus the recall campaign gives the labor and broader social movement. Contrary to what some have asserted, however, the recall effort, itself, cannot be separated from what was intended to replace Walker, because it is of a piece, a single electoral strategy pegged to the Democratic Party that goes back to the Madison occupation.

Keeping in mind that the recall effort was counter-posed to a strategy of continuing grass-roots mobilization (whether or not it culminated in a general strike) from the beginning -- and not by rank and file activists, but by the union leaders, liberals and the Democrats -- the response to that question suggests itself.

Forces politically beholden to the Democrats opted for the recall not simply because the Democrats are a party of the billionaires, but specifically because their class interest dictates that they utterly reject a politics of mass mobilization and collective empowerment in favor of a politics of electoral and parliamentary cretinism.

That is, particularly beginning with Roosevelt's New Deal, through the period of post-war capitalist hegemony through the Democratic Party, the latter has consistently sought to capture social movements (representing themselves as the latter's political expression), defang them (in the name of "realism" or "responsibility"), turn their participants into an atomized and passively dependent "electorate" (which is far more important to the political elites than for whom the electorate votes) and refocus the political center of gravity on the politicians, who become the protagonists on the electoral stage, playing for the electoral audience. This process has been repeated with every social movement since the founding of the CIO, but also during the trajectory of each electoral campaign, with Obama's being the most recent example -- until now.

Were this focus not of paramount importance for the Dems, why else would their Wisconsin legislators have absented themselves from the state at the height of the movement, instead of placing themselves (or at least some? even one?) squarely in its ranks, if not leadership? This counter-position of worldviews was almost symbolically stark.

And this electoral/parliamentary cretinism is exactly why the recall effort is more damaging to the labor movement (as opposed simply to the union leaders) than Scott Walker. Unless, of course, one either buys the argument that the Dems are "the party of working people" or parts from a purely (capitalist) legalistic/legislative framework. Would a Barrett victory have propelled the labor movement forward? Would it have given workers more leverage? The argument can be made -- with far more justification -- that Walker has done more to galvanize the Wisconsin workers movement than Barrett, the recall or the Dems ever would. It would have been just as likely -- more so, based on historic precedent -- that a recall and Barrett victory would simply have been followed by calls by liberal pundits and labor misleaders to trust in the Democratic politicians to "do the right thing" and avoid upsetting the apple cart, thus further demobilizing social movement.

It's important to underline that the issue here is NOT the stance of individual politicians, whether Democrats or Republicans, liberals or conservatives. Bourgeois ideology conflates the roles of individual politicians and their parties. This conflation often takes the form of such statements as "Obama promised this" or "Barrett promised that." The "parameters of acceptable discourse" for Democratic Party politicians can vary according to the context and (electoral) season, like a chameleon; their actions in office cannot. Barrett "promised"? Far better to look at his do-nothing record as Milwaukee mayor. Hopefully, "radicals" can see past campaign promises to the triangulation Democrats have become adept at. Hopefully, they can discern the role even "progressives" (like Kucinich) are assigned in the Democratic Party as instruments in these triangulation and electoral 'cretinist' games. Barrett played such a role.

And then we have Barrett, himself, who is not the point of this tirade, but merits some discussion in context. True, he said in his debate with Walker, "I am concerned about those [collective bargaining] rights" (as an aside, it is worth pointing to the legalistic trap that the NLA and its collective bargaining institution represent). But, what is one to make of Barrett's, heartfelt concern in light of his assertion that he was not the first choice of the unions and that "the real test of leadership is whether you can say no to your friends"? Triangulation. Moreover, Barrett's budget proposals differ little from Walker's austerity budget, except to add police and firefighters to the list of those affected. He has made mouthings about job creation, but has offered no plan to achieve this.

Barret's role and the role of the recall was to sink the Occupy movement, at least in Wisconsin. Thank heaven it failed. Now, hopefully, Wisconsin's working class residents will turn back to movement building.

Bill Perdue | 06/07/12

Wisconsin is another in a long string of hard lessons for working people demonstrating that:

(1) Democrats are just as much our enemies as Republicans - both bust unions, impose austerity, refuse to give us socialized medicine, want to slash Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid, approve trillions in gifts for the banksters and a pittance for unemployment relief, homelessness and food stamp programs. The big difference seems to be that Republicans don't bother lying and that lying is all Democrats do. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SA9KC8SMu3o

(2) That elections in a banana republic like the US are essentially rigged by the vast wealth of the .01% who own both parties and who've passes enough anti-democratic laws, beginning with the Electoral College, to keep workers parties and the left off the ballot.

(3) That change - real, fundamental, change - doesn't come from elections but from mass movements and from mass actions, in particular general strikes. In the spring of 2011, shortly after Walker escalated his attack on union the South Central Federation of Labor (SCFL-Wisconsin) voted to support a general strike if the legislation was passed and signed. It took the combined efforts of the AFL-CIO leadership and Democrat scabs to block the strike and instead they proposed the electoral farce whose results we see today.

The goal for unions and the union left and our allies in the occupy movements has to be to continue to press for the unleashing of the AFL-CIOs Labor Party and other independent political action groups, to use elections for the only thing they're good for, education and organizing, and to promote and plan for general strikes as a step on the road to our ultimate goal, the creation of a government exclusively of, by and for working people.

Bill Perdue, Railroad Workers United, TCU/IAM

robin (not verified) | 06/06/12

"How did Walker persuade 38 percent of members of union households to vote for him?"
Well he was able to really spin the mining thing. Mining is going to create so many jobs supposedly. That was one thing and for that some unions definitely supported him. Secondly there is property taxes. We pay higher property taxes on our house in Madison than our relatives on a much larger and far higher value property in California. Because of property taxes, farmers and many others will go along with cuts to public services. What is the solution to property taxes? We have to find it. A great amount of sales is avoiding sales taxes by going through the internet. Sales tax can't take over.

Smithb12 | 06/06/12

Nack is right that Barrett never talked about taxing the rich to fund needed services. I don't recall Falk talking this way either. The Democratic candidates were all retreads, trodding a well-worn path, offering nothing new. The grassroots had energy, but they could not influence the platform of the candidates. The party is willing to use us for the repetitive tasks of campaigning, but unwilling to let our priorities influence theirs, even when it brings the Dems to the brink of losing. Why are our priorities, those of working people, a special interest even in this election?

To be honest, though, some of the blame lies with the bulk of Wisconsinites, especially those who are politically active. We have allowed the public dialogue in Wisconsin to skirt around major issues, to focus on the mechanics of elections for the last 12 months. We have shied away from engagement with big ideas. We have not talked about fundamental changes, like limits to the free market system. Talk like this gets shut down or shelved very quickly. Within the unions too, censorship and self-censorship is a big problem. Letting discontent run freely for a while would produce some creative ferment that could land us and our unions in a stronger place.

Serafinn suggests better voter turnout would have made the difference. Maybe so, but the voter turnout was quite high as it was. This was particularly remarkable for an election in June. That's what makes this result immune to easy explanations. It's not a "misunderstanding" by voters. They voted in large numbers for Walker.

An election is a single episode in a continuous sweep of history. Our history and present is that large sectors of our communities are abandoned. Without employment prospects, with declining schools for their children, and little hope of increasing fortunes, more than one-third of our population is poor or near-poor. We have long ago accepted this as "normal," writing off these people. I assume these folks have little interest in voting, as do young people with their extremely low employment figures. Can any election easily undo this legacy? Every election there's a "shakedown" for people's votes, but it's exploitative if nothing changes for large groups of the disadvantaged.