It Started in Wisconsin

The rise and fall of Wisconsin’s remarkable 2011 uprising holds lessons for a post-Janus world.

Thousands of demonstrators protest outside the Wisconsin State Capitol March 12, 2011 in Madison, Wisconsin. Scott Olson / Getty

This week, the Supreme Court of the United States opened hearings on Janus v. AFSCME, Council 31, a direct challenge to the right of public sector workers to engage in collective bargaining. Close observers of the court expect an anti-union ruling, and for this reason, Jobs with Justice, AFSCME, and others preemptively mobilized thousands of workers across the United States in rallying for union rights.

Labor organizers are preparing for the worst, but what does the worst look like?

Journalists reporting on the implications of the impending Janus decision often note that recent experiences in Wisconsin offer a preview. In this, they’re usually referring to the impacts of anti-union legislation signed into law in Wisconsin in 2011-2012. But we think Wisconsin offers another set of lessons as well: of how a twenty-first century mass uprising by hundreds of thousands — perhaps more than a million — working people came about in one US state, and of where that unprecedented uprising faltered.

Although the Wisconsin Uprising was the early riser in the US protest wave of 2011 that manifested in widespread bank protests, capitol occupations, and eventually, Occupy Wall Street, what happened in Wisconsin remains understudied and generally misunderstood. Many descriptions focus on the six-week occupation of the state capitol building and ignore the mass strikes and other direct actions that took place elsewhere throughout the state; the mobilizations that prefigured the uprising; and the many months of intense struggle that followed the “official” occupation of the Wisconsin capitol (e.g., daily actions at the capitol, a tent city, popular assemblies, and mass demonstrations). More importantly, these descriptions tend to mischaracterize the importance of a few major unions in the uprising and ignore the more critical leadership of other working class and popular organizations, unions, and communities.

Correcting accounts of the Wisconsin Uprising matters not only because of the truly unprecedented scale and militancy of that wave of mobilization, and not only because the uprising was largely defeated, but also because the consequences of that defeat suggest that even the most grim warnings about the potential impact of Janus v. AFSCME may be too rosy. In Wisconsin, the enactment of Act 10 in 2011 (involving annual recertification requirement and other attacks on public sector unions) and of right-to-work legislation in 2012 provide a sense of what might follow nationally from an anti-union ruling in Janus.

Countering Demobilization

Wisconsin has long been a heartland for progressive policy and movements, electing left-wing Republicans, progressives, and socialists to the highest offices and founding or playing seminal roles in the NEA, AFSCME, NOW, USSA, USAS and other major national organizations. Going into 2010, Wisconsin was still one of the highest density union states.

Since 2011, membership in Wisconsin’s labor unions has fallen by more than a third. AFSCME dropped from 62,000 to 28,000 members in the first year following the enactment of Act 10. Public school closings, mass layoffs, and a relative decline in teacher compensation have led to an exodus of experienced teachers from the profession and from the state. A larger section of Wisconsin’s middle class dropped into poverty than in any other state.

While those changes can be reasonably attributed directly to the anti-union legislation of 2011 and 2012, they comprise only part of the harms felt by working people as a result of the larger structural adjustment program implemented in Wisconsin since then. The attacks on collective bargaining and the right to belong to a union were part of a cohesive program of austerity and expropriation that included the closure of public libraries, colleges, and parks, ending food and medical assistance to hundreds of thousands of Wisconsinites living in poverty, opening the state to metal and sand mining, preempting municipal labor and welfare laws, eliminating small brewers and other producers from competition with transnational corporations, and establishing a lasting form of minority rule through the most extreme gerrymandering in the nation. These and other harms meant the consequences of losing the 2011 struggle would prove more significant than “simply” the loss of union power. Furthermore, the breadth and depth of the threat faced by millions of Wisconsinites helps to explain why the Wisconsin Uprising was in actuality a mass strike and not merely a set of “union protests.”

The implication for labor scholars working in the looming shadow of Janus should be evident: A myopic focus on Janus and its meaning for labor unions — developed in isolation from a broader analysis of the struggles of working class and allied organizations, networks, and communities in the broader popular movement — will result in costly and perhaps avoidable mistakes.

What then are relevant lessons from Wisconsin? We share two, drawn from Ben Manski’s ongoing social-movement research, as well as our shared personal experiences and discussions.

First, in considering the possibilities for a post-Janus world, we need to account not only for the state of labor unions as they are today, but more broadly and deeply for the array of popular organizations, networks, communities, resources and activist cultures that have been constructed in the course of struggle over the past several decades. What made the Wisconsin Uprising possible and shaped the actions of its initiators was a history of movement building and organizing undertaken in the course of struggle on various terrains against a structural adjustment program imposed from above.

Some of this struggle involved labor unions, as in strikes in Clintonville, Jefferson, Kenosha, Madison, Milwaukee, and across the border in the so-called 1990s “labor war zone” of central Illinois. Much of it took place alongside other popular actors on other terrains, as in resistance to the corporatization of welfare, prisons, agriculture, K-12 and higher education, or in the anti-mining and treaty rights movements, or in Wisconsin’s comparatively high level of engagement in international solidarity and anti-corporate campaigns. From all these, activists produced all the elements of the popular movement that initiated and led the rising up of Wisconsin’s working class: the practices of capitol occupations, sing-alongs, strong union-student-community solidarity around budget battles, and much more, as well as the individuals, networks, and organizations that prepared and then actually led the way.

Thus, if in January of 2011 an otherwise poorly informed researcher had interviewed the leadership of Wisconsin’s three biggest public sector unions — AFSCME, SEIU, and WEAC — about their expectations for the coming months, that scholar would have had no clue that hundreds of thousands of people would soon be assembling on the capitol grounds. But if that same researcher had interviewed activists from smaller unions, student unions, farm organizations, and pro-democracy organizations, the expectation of uprising would have been evident.

This leads to our second lesson. In this period of Janus, federal austerity, hate-mongering, and extreme democratic collapse (national developments that seem to have been prefigured by what happened earlier in Wisconsin and other labor heritage states), identifying, strengthening, and pushing forward the popular actors most prepared for the challenges of the coming period of struggle are not just advisable course of action, they are vitally necessary to the success of the cause of labor. One of the causes of the defeat of Wisconsin was the failure of the actual leadership of the uprising to act successfully as a force capable of countering demobilization — and of overcoming resistance to escalation — on the part of the biggest labor union and Democratic Party bureaucracies.

A New Foe

By actual leadership we mean the student organizations, member-controlled labor unions (MTI, IAFF 311, TAA, and others), and other popular organizations, individual activists, and elected officials that initiated nearly all the major mobilizations and escalations of the 2011, including the occupations, sectoral strikes, recall process, and even the initial action by Democratic state senators in leaving the state to deny quorum to the Republican majority. This actual leadership experienced marginalization in the course of 2011, and this marginalization proved costly and possibly decisive.

As an illustration, in Ben’s interviews with leading figures in the uprising, he found not only that activists from farm, community, racial justice, and student organizations believed themselves to have been progressively marginalized by officials from the largest unions and the Democratic Party, but also that, perhaps shockingly, the presidents and executive leadership of leading unions consistently referred to unions as “them” or “the unions.” These included leaders from the Madison and Milwaukee teachers’ unions, firefighters union, teaching assistants, and various insurgent locals of AFSCME — all of the unions that led the way into the capitol and provided the greatest muscle and militancy in the Wisconsin struggle.

To be clear, those who worked to escalate the Wisconsin Uprising did engage in substantial solidarity and mutual aid through various coalitions such as the Wisconsin Wave and Wisconsin Resists!. Yet our shared analysis finds that this leadership lacked the necessary resources to counter demobilization and more importantly, failed to recognize the changed and still changing logic of the struggle. The Uprisers did the same things they had done before over the past twenty years, only on a much larger scale. They acted as if a mobilization involving direct participation by up to one-in-five Wisconsinites would be bound to succeed; after all, even popular revolutions rarely get those kinds of participation rates. But their movement from below was up against a different kind of foe than in the past: a new movement from above orchestrated by the corporate lobby group Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce and led by Scott Walker. Against a foe engaged in total war, the loss of initiative and agenda-setting to labor and political officials who sought a return to normalcy proved disastrous. Despite moves to escalate via the general strike movement, the organization of popular assemblies, and convenings of local governments to prepare for a parallel counter-government from below, the trajectory of the overall struggle turned elsewhere.

Today there are those who argue that Janus will eventually bring about the conditions for a renovated unionism. Similar things have been said about Wisconsin. And perhaps, in the long run, they may be right. But in the immediate term, if the national experience comes to resemble to what Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, and other labor heritage states have been through of late, we can expect major losses for union power and great harm to working and poor people. Replicating the great successes and avoiding the failures of 2011 require attention to the same central lessons:

First, the real leadership for the coming struggle is to be found in a broad rather than narrow conception of the labor and popular movements that have been built over the past several decades; and

Second, it is vital that the national equivalents of the unions and popular organizations that produced the Wisconsin Uprising take on a nearly messianic sense of mission, a dynamic critical politics, and an active mutual solidarity against demobilization from above.

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Ben Manski is a PhD candidate in sociology at the UC, Santa Barbara, a member of the UC Student Workers Union, UAW 2865, and has been a member of the IWW and other unions since 1990. He was a co-founder of the Wisconsin Wave and founded the Madison-based Liberty Tree Foundation for the Democratic Revolution in 2004. He has a JD from the University of Wisconsin.

Sarah Manski is a PhD student in global studies at the UC, Santa Barbara and a member of UAW 2865. She was a co-founder of the Wisconsin Wave and worked for IFPTE, AFSCME, WINS, and the National Labor Committee in Washington, D.C. and New York City. She has an MS in life science communication from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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