Wisconsin’s lessons for the working class

Published on Pambazuka News, by Horace Campbell, March 17, 2011.

Following protests by thousands of Wisconsin workers and their supporters in response to new legislation that bans collective bargaining by public sector workers, Horace Campbell places the struggles in the state in the wider social and political struggles in the US … //


Wisconsin is one of the many states in the USA that had blossomed in the post-war period when US capitalism expanded and the workers were able to live at a comfortable standard of living. However, since 1970 Wisconsin has become one of the former rustbelt states that suffered the effects of deindustrialisation. As stated above, it inherited two strong traditions of US society, the conservatism of settler colonial ideas and the radicalism of populist working class struggles.  

Senator Joseph McCarthy was the mirror image of this conservative/neo-fascist tradition, while political leaders such as Russell Feingold represented the long anti-war traditions. The working class had built strong communities and strong institutions and the levels of public services were respected all over the country. Wisconsin was also the birthplace of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) and boasted long traditions of committed public employees mobilisation.

In the past 30 years, cities such as Milwaukee, the principal working class center in the state reflected the rising inequalities in the period of de-industrialisation. In the city of Madison the strength of the Public service employees had maintained a level of progressive politics that set Wisconsin aside in the USA. Madison earned the distinction of one of the most livable cities in the USA. This was a statement on the levels of social cohesion that had prevented the kind of hollowing out of major urban areas as was the case in cities such as Cleveland, Ohio; Detroit, Michigan; and Youngstown, Ohio. The alliance between politicians and real estate developers had robbed urban areas of a base for regeneration and this alliance paved the way for the big republican resurgence all over the USA. When the Republicans made their major electoral gains in the Midterm elections in November 2010, the Republican leadership calculated that if they were able to break the power of AFSCME in Wisconsin, it would be possible to attack workers’ rights in every state of the USA.

From Ohio to Indiana and from Pennsylvania to New Jersey, conservative Republican governors strategised to take away collective bargaining rights from workers. In Tennessee, a law that would abolish collective bargaining rights for teachers passed a State Senate committee. The attack on teachers, nurses and other public servants was part of a double-pronged attack on trade unions and also the sectors that blocked the complete destruction of the rights of worker to education and health.

Using shortfalls in the budget as the pretense to attack workers, these governors called for ‘austerity measures’ in order to cut the deficit of the states. Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin was seeking to carve out a national niche for himself and proposed a sweeping measure to cut benefits for public employees in the state and to take away most of their unions’ ability to bargain. Democratic senators fled the state in order to deny the Republicans a quorum and workers began to demonstrate to defend their right to collective bargaining.

In February 2011, while the bill was before the Wisconsin state legislature, public service workers mobilised in one of the most prolonged and consistent demonstration of worker protest in the USA to the point where these demonstrations made international headlines. When the governor attempted to stir up trouble by fomenting violence, sections of the police forces threw their support behind the workers. University students from the University of Wisconsin, especially those organised in the union of teaching assistants threw their energies into the demonstrations. High school students brought a new level of intergenerational energy as there were actions of solidarity from all parts of the country and internationally. The solidarity took many forms with one Pizza owner gaining international notoriety because there were people from all over the world ordering free pizzas in support of the demonstrators in Wisconsin.

However, the boldness of the conservative Republicans could not be deterred by hundreds of thousands of workers demonstrating over three week period. After a three-week struggles where workers occupied the buildings of the Wisconsin State Capitol, Republicans in the state found a procedural way to force Mr Walker’s signature measure through the legislature despite the absence of the Democrats in the state senate. Mr Walker then signed the bill into law on 10 March 2011 over the objections of the unions and the Democrats. Among the items listed in the bill until the night of Wednesday 9 March, were selloffs of state power generation facilities – in no-bid contracts. According to, Michael Hudson:

‘The 37 facilities he wants to sell off that produce heating and cooling at low cost to the state’s universities and prisons. Walker’s budget repair bill would have unloaded them at a low price, presumably to campaign contributors such as Koch Industries – and then stick the bill for producing this power at higher rates to Wisconsin taxpayers in perpetuity.’

We are reliably informed by the New York Times that:

‘Among key provisions of Mr. Walker’s plan: limiting collective bargaining for most state and local government employees to the issue of wages (instead of an array of issues, like health coverage or vacations); requiring government workers to contribute 5.8 percent of their pay to their pensions, much more than now; and requiring state employees to pay at least 12.6 percent of health care premiums (most pay about 6 percent now).’


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