Capitalist Crisis and the Wisconsin Uprising

Originally published in Wisconsin Uprising: Labor Fights Back (2012)

Take on Wisconsin state flag. Design by Mike Konopacki

Throughout February and March of 2011, I couldn’t help but wonder if I were living in a folk tale: in a flash tens of thousands of people rallied at the state capitol in Madison; teachers shut down public schools in a statewide “sick strike”; and union workers physically blocked the Legislature doors. I remember being at work listening to the radio when we all stopped to cheer at the breaking news about the fourteen state senators fleeing the state to halt a vote on the governor’s anti-labor bill.

And for over a month it kept going like that. A prank phone call revealed the governor’s unflinching resolve to break the protests as well as his personal ties with the notorious billionaire Koch Brothers. High school students marched out of class chanting “Thank you teachers” with teachers returning “thank you students!” The South Central Federation of Labor (SCFL), a regional AFL-CIO council, put forward a motion endorsing education about a general strike. Life reached a truly bizarre point when walking on the street you weren’t sure if the guy passing out strike pamphlets was from the Industrial Workers of the World or the labor council. In the face of massive protests, Governor Walker snuck in and out of the capitol through a series of underground heating tunnels, owned by M&I Bank. And after police locked the public out of the building, protesters took to opening windows with screwdrivers to get right back in, smuggling pizza for the remaining hundreds who refused to go.

The social sense of time sped up to an hour-by-hour basis and the limits of the possible seemed to be blown open. But even as workers walking down the street in green AFSCME shirts were cheered and thanked by pedestrians, the reality was that the scope of attacks on working people was the broadest and deepest in recent memory.

While volumes could be written just about the incredible moments that people experienced, taking us outside the confines of alienated routine, I’d like to take up two tasks that I feel are of great importance for understanding the Wisconsin moment. The first is to explore the conditions that created an upsurge of working class anger that, while it may be tame relative to anti-austerity movements in other countries, was profound for working people in the United States. The heightened class consciousness in this moment popularized slogans such as “Blame Wall Street” and “We Won’t Pay For Their Crisis”, so to start I would like to look at how the capitalist crisis that began in 2008 persisted and laid the foundation for Wisconsin.

The second part of this essay looks at how the protests themselves actually progressed, examining the key dynamics at work. I have been surprised in the months since the protests concluded to find that most people don’t know much about what happened and ultimately why the energy and potential the movement had seemed to fizzle just at the moment when it was needed most. Some accounts paint the situation like it could have gone on forever, and they seem to blame workers for missing a strike moment. The account I am offering has a different view — that after the first week’s explosion of activity, the movement had to contend with both the political maneuvers of the Republican government and forces inside the movement, namely the trade union bureaucracy and the Democratic Party, that swept in and frustrated the movement’s potential. But far from just laying blame, I also want to point to the way that history set limitations on the movement despite our best intentions.

From Financial to Public Debt Crisis

After the financial crisis in 2008, many scholars and activists in the United States hoped that a renewed left would emerge as part of a broader fight back. With the notable exception of Republic Doors and Windows in Chicago, this did not happen. So why, nearly three years later, would there be such an upheaval in Wisconsin to confront the state government? I think the answer is in how capital managed its crisis through two waves of austerity.

In 2008, a deeper crisis in the capitalist economy exploded in the form of a financial meltdown. The Great Financial Crisis was then met with the Great Bailout, and the financial system was saved when governments around the world took on “toxic debt” and other liabilities. In essence, the financial crisis was transferred onto the state, taking away private debt but leaving the underlying crisis of over-accumulation in the capitalist economy.[i]

Coinciding with this, US auto companies also demanded state aid to keep them from collapsing, using the opportunity to attack the United Auto Workers (UAW), cutting workers’ wages in half. Instead of pointing out that workers should not pay for capital’s crises, the UAW leadership accepted the concessions. This signaled that trade unions would not fight the coming assault on workers, and in turn sparked a legitimation crisis for trade unions in the eyes of the public. For the two years following the bailouts, working people were disciplined by massive permanent unemployment and foreclosures (a first wave of austerity),[ii] and the public debt crisis that would hit the country state by state was deferred by the federal stimulus.

The purpose of the stimulus was not to create new jobs or public relief, but to patch up state budgets with federal funding and give tax breaks to businesses to right the capitalist economy. As a result, a second crisis was looming and getting deeper as states had greater demand for social services and relief due to joblessness at the same time that state revenue was decreasing with less taxable income (fewer sales and less employment, as well as a string of tax cuts beginning with Bush)[iii]. Ultimately, the stimulus money dried up in November 2010, just in time for the mid-term elections and the next round of state budget proposals. The second wave of austerity would come in the form of budget cuts and state restructuring in 2011.

Wisconsin in 2010: Contract Crisis and the GOP Victory

Two major political events, both informed by the general crisis, set up the Wisconsin uprising. The obvious one was the midterm election, in which Republican majorities were won in the state assembly and senate, as well as Scott Walker’s gubernatorial victory over Democrat Tom Barrett (the difference between the two was cut or cut more). This did not so much represent a shift to the right among working people, but a frustration with Democrats who, while in power, oversaw huge transfers of income and wealth from bottom to top as they let workers become immiserated. Republicans ran on a platform of job creation while scapegoating public employees (who were somewhat cushioned from the crisis with stimulus money, while others were left to feel the full weight of the recession). With no other option, voters either stayed home or voted to remove the party in power, which was largely responsible for the preceding two years.

The second, less stated event was a contract crisis for Wisconsin state workers in 2010. In the summer of 2010, public employee unions submitted their contracts to the state legislature for renewal. Despite large concessions from public sector unions, the Democrat-controlled state legislature stalled the approval process month after month, until finally voting them down on the very last day of the session in December. State workers were then left in the lurch, anxious and vulnerable. An even more hostile party was coming into power with contracts were set to expire three months down the road, on March 13th, 2011.

The Wisconsin Winter

Walker came into office ready to hit the ground running, but he had a problem. Much of the Republican election campaign was based on the premise that Wisconsin was broke, when in reality the state had a $121.4 million surplus[iv]. So both to reward his political supporters and to manufacture the crisis that he said had been there all along, Walker and the Republican government wasted no time, paying over $140 million dollars to special interest groups in January through tax deductions, credits and reclassifications[v]. They could then say that there was actually a budget crisis (keeping quiet that they themselves created it), and move forward with measures to “correct” it.

On Friday, February 11th 2011, Walker announced the introduction of his now infamous “Budget Repair Bill”, which would effectively eliminate collective bargaining rights for all public employees except police and firefighters, to be voted on in the senate and assembly the following Thursday. To add insult to injury (or maybe injury to insult?), Walker announced that he would lay off thousands of state workers if the legislature did not adopt his bill, and furthermore that he was placing the National Guard on standby. The rapidity of the proposal, plus the heavy-handed threats Walker enraged people in Wisconsin.

The First Week

No one expected that protests would erupt as they did. In the first few days, some local progressives demonstrated at the Governor’s Mansion and unions prepared for a lobby day. The Teaching Assistant Association (TAA), an AFT local of graduate students at the University of Wisconsin, called a rally on Monday, February 14th at the capitol to deliver valentine’s to legislators, imploring them not to make cuts to the university, and then set aside time for their members to meet with representatives. Similarly, AFSCME state councils and the Wisconsin AFL-CIO planned for two identical rallies on Tuesday and Wednesday (with the same set of speakers repeating their speeches both days) in order to gather public workers to lobby their representatives to save collective bargaining for public employees.

But as labor officials prepared to give their rehearsed speeches, things blew up when firefighters showed up in their helmets with signs that read, “Firefighters for Labor,” signaling their opposition to the bill despite being exempted from its union-busting provisions. Almost simultaneously, hundreds of high school students walking out from class arrived at the protests, calling out support for their teachers and brandishing their own signs calling out Walker.

People gathered on the square (four streets form a square around the capitol with the building in the center), and made their way into the capitol to get out from the cold, lobby their legislators and sign up to give testimony to the Joint Finance Committee, whose members were taking public comment on the bill before voting on it. As the list of people grew longer, thousands of people, many of whom were not union members, waited inside the building for their turn to speak and be heard about what it would mean to lose collective bargaining rights. Testimonies continued, and members of the TAA put out a call to get sleeping gear to stay in the capitol and keep testimonies going all night long. Protestors quickly got the sense that such a critical mass had appeared that the testimonies might be used to delay the bill (since the committee was not supposed to vote until the end of public comment).

The level of excitement grew on Tuesday night (February 15th) as a public forum organized by local labor activists took up the question of what kinds of militant activity would be necessary to stop the bill, with newspapers broadcasting hot news about workers discussing the need for strikes. At the same time, Madison Teachers Inc. (MTI), the city’s local teacher union, announced that their members were all calling in sick the next day to be part of the protests, prompting the District Superintendent to close area schools.

Every development seemed to encourage another in kind, and the Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC), a Wisconsin state National Education Association (NEA) affiliate, then announced that they would follow MTI’s lead and “sick-out” on Thursday and Friday. I remember watching television on that Wednesday night and seeing a ticker at the bottom of the screen announcing school closures as if there had been some kind of weather emergency, realizing that in fact they were announcements for schools closed by teacher absences.

All this grew and built upon itself at an astonishing rate. While the first few days had the air of appeals to institutions of power, by Thursday confidence had grown and demands had become more assertive. Workers inside the capitol posted their handmade signs with blue masking tape (a building code for “do not remove”) and filled the building with unison calls of “We Are Wisconsin” and “Union!” On the capitol square, union workers sang out “Recall Walker” to the tune of Queen’s “We Will Rock You,” and signs depicted epic battles from movies and television shows in place of an indigenous memory of struggle.

On Thursday morning, as the state senate was supposed to meet to vote on the bill, WEAC teachers marched into the capitol intending to get arrested in a symbolic show of protest. With such a mass inside the capitol, they instead took to directing students, ironworkers, and whomever else they could find to pack themselves in front of the senate chambers, elevators, staircases and any other place where policymakers might come through to hear the bill. Realizing that they were in a moment of serious political crisis that could make or break their careers, fourteen state senators used the delay to exit the capitol and flee the state, breaking quorum and preventing a vote on financial legislation. Senate Republicans in a rage demanded, to no avail, that the State Patrol pursue them and force them back to the session.

Struggle for the Movement

Notably absent in that first week were trade union officials and the Democratic Party. The former had expected that this would be a routine lobby and demonstration to air a grievance and that people would march right back home; the latter continued to search for compromises, even telling crowds of workers inside the capitol to quiet down so that they could work out some amendments. In their absence, an extraordinary movement exploded onto the stage and pushed harder than anyone expected.

But by Friday, things began to change when major institutional players showed up to take ownership of the spontaneous rebellion. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka gave a rousing speech calling the budget crisis a fraud but began to shift the discourse from that of working class people to an attack on the middle class. Jesse Jackson spoke about the “Superbowl of Workers’ Rights” in light of the recent Packer victory shortly after taking protesting high school students back to class.

The weekend cooled down some when the Legislature announced that it would recess until Tuesday, February 22nd, but here I think the movement from below started to come into conflict with the conservative institutions above. On Monday the 21st, despite Trumka acknowledging the false deficit, AFSCME Council 24 Executive Director Marty Biel and WEAC President Mary Bell announced that they would offer even greater contract concessions if collective bargaining provisions were removed from the Budget Repair Bill. Bell also ordered her teachers back to work, leaving MTI teachers alone in their “sick strike” on Monday and Tuesday until they too went back to work. Similarly, Democratic Senators and Assembly representatives assured the media that they were looking for a compromise to end what appeared to be a political stalemate (where the bill could not pass so long as the fourteen Senators were absent). And, of course, both groups began to direct their constituents into preparation for Senate recalls, a demand that was first put forward by the movement but then used to dismantle street protests.

Despite these powerful measures taken to end the protests, I think there are three reasons why they continued. The first was that Republicans simply refused to compromise; instead they drew up measures to fine the missing Senators and looked to the courts to rule that their presence was not necessary for quorum after a session had started (which did not pan out). More revealing was a prank phone call on February 23rd between Scott Walker and a radio host pretending to be billionaire David Koch, in which Walker candidly said that he would never cave and that he would crush the protests in the end. Republicans made a Democratic Party compromise impossible.

The second important development was that even as union officials tried to end major confrontations, calling home striking teachers and directing their members to phone banks for more lobbying, local trade union activists prepared and won a motion calling for education around a general strike at the South Central Federation of Labor (SCFL), an AFL-CIO central labor council. The media again took up the story and misrepresented (to the movement’s benefit) the motion as calling for a general strike, and the international AFL-CIO broadcast the news through its channels as well. The effect was to renew much of the enthusiasm among protesters, display a weapon that workers had at their disposal (which suddenly seemed possible) and to put pressure on the trade union leadership to move in a more militant direction.

Lastly, enough time had elapsed to investigate the budget and what was actually in the Budget Repair Bill. Local newspapers, blogs and magazines published details of the January tax breaks Walker had issued and which had created the crisis as well as cuts the bill would make to Badgercare (state low-income and emergency health plan), to transportation, environmental services and civil rights programs among others. The University of Wisconsin School of Law hosted a packed to overflowing teach-in at a gymnasium, explaining just what the bill would do. Perhaps more important, UW professor Bill Cronon explained on his blog that this bill and the other nearly identical bills introduced in Ohio, Michigan, Florida and Tennessee were all written by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), which pointed to a larger political project. Consciousness about the bill then moved from a trade union issue to a greater, if implicit, class issue, and community groups refused to accept a compromise that would benefit trade unionists while leaving others vulnerable.

While all these elements managed to keep the struggle afloat, they could not produce labor actions out of unions that had been steeped in business unionism for so long. Still in a stalemate, a kind of “war of maneuver” began between the Walker camp and the movement. By February 24th, Walker announced that if unions did not back down and allow the bill to pass, he would issue layoffs to thousands of public employees. The UW Hospital then began investigating doctors who issued sick notes to sick-striking teachers in order to pressure them to withdraw support from the protests, and the Madison Schools Superintendent took MTI to court for an illegal strike (which he lost).

On the workers’ side, activists began picking targets to disrupt in the absence of job actions. In that second week of protests, firefighters and community activists picketed outside M&I Bank and rallied at meetings of the Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce and outside the Koch Brothers Lobbying Office. Disability activists from ADAPT occupied the downtown office of the Republican Party and students organized solidarity letters to counteract pressure at the hospital. Actions like these continued into March, but were not able to sustain themselves and take hold of the movement, eventually losing out to recall petitioning and phone banking sponsored by unions and the Democratic Party.

The Capitol Contest

As all this went on, the capitol remained the home base for protesters. Inside the building, thousands of people came in to see what newspapers started to call “the workers’ cathedral,” with posters and decorated pizza boxes along every wall, chanting and dancing in the central rotunda and hallways up five floors filled with sleeping protesters with pillows and blankets. Early on the basic needs of that many people demanded organization, so a “communication station” arose as a central site to for information and updates about the legislation and the protests. As people realized that they would be there long-term, anarchist collectives began to staff food and medical tables and organized a childcare space.

Strategically, packing the capitol was a basic defense against the Legislature continuing business and moving the bill through. But in the absence of any offensive push by labor, the capitol occupation could not go on forever, and plans were being made to get people out.

Soon after firefighters arrived in the first week, a number of off-duty police officers joined the protests, carrying signs that read, “Cops for Labor.” The majority of the movement was quick to identify with what they believed were friendly “labor cops”, and in turn deferred to police in uniform, who they now believed were “on our side.” The Capitol Police inside the building used the image of “labor cops” to their advantage, identifying people inside on whom they could depend to support a gradual push to clear out a floor of the building each night. This eventually led to an order by the Capitol Police on February 27th to vacate the building. The TAA, which had kept an office inside the capitol, agreed to leave the building without incident, and police then began ushering protesters outside. For those who questioned the evacuation, Democratic Assemblyman Brett Hulsey and other Democratic Legislators made a number of speeches imploring people to leave the building to allow the real business to begin, until only about one hundred protesters remained.

Police then locked the capitol on the orders of the Department of Administration (DOA), removing this central meeting ground and site of grassroots networking. In response, a number of AFSCME locals filed a lawsuit stating that the DOA’s order violated the Wisconsin constitution, and union workers flocked to hearings for four days at the beginning of March hoping for a judicial order to reopen the building. Instead, the court ruled that the DOA could take security measures and limit entry, and allowed the building to stay closed another week.

With the capitol locked down and no labor actions in sight, the only obstacle that remained to passing the bill was the absence of the fourteen senators, still holding out in Illinois. But despite this, Republicans finally decided to split off eight pages of their 144-page bill to reclassify it as nonfinancial legislation, bypassing the higher quorum that had halted the process, and pass it on the evening of Wednesday, March 8th. A furious crowd made their way into the building, opening the side doors to let in over 7,000 protesters who celebrated their momentary return. By the morning, the protesters trickled out, and Walker signed the bill the next day.

Making Some Sense of This

Rosa Luxemburg noted that events that seem spontaneous actually come out of a set of historic conditions, even if we are not aware of them at the time. This suggests that we have to start by seeing the Wisconsin moment as a continuation of the capitalist crisis of 2008. Wisconsin happened when it did because a set of policies delayed the effects of the capitalist crisis for state governments until November 2010. When stimulus money finally dried up, an austerity program had already been drawn up with language written up by groups like ALEC and various chambers of commerce.

But it is not that “things have to get worse before they get better”. We should broadly see this eruption of working class anger as sparked by the combination of the unusually aggressive attack by Governor Walker, which was perceived as a political abuse of power, and a failing of the usual venting mechanisms. Both opened up the space for this movement to come together. Not only did the trade union bureaucrats and the Democrats underestimate how working people would react, but when they tried to regain control they found themselves blocked by the Republicans who were not playing the usual game of “one hand washes the other.” When their command of groups that are normally meant to stop struggle before it gets started failed, masses of people creatively turned conditions of necessity into spectacular plays of resistance, transforming our ideas of what might be possible.

As the struggle progressed, it became clear that while working people were fighting Walker and the Legislature they would also have to confront the trade union bureaucracy and the Democratic Party in a complicated way. Union officials made greater concessions instead of pressing demands on Walker for creating a fake crisis and did not contest the bill’s swift passage, though many had hoped for contingency job actions. Democrats similarly channeled energy into more acceptable electoral activity and played a part in clearing out the capitol and demobilizing angry students.

Still though, while its certainly true that both parties played troublesome roles, they also held a certain amount of power that working people simply were not organized to exert independently. Mass rallies did not happen on their own. They needed the infrastructure that unions provided, and similarly the only reason that the bill was halted for so long was because fourteen senators fled the state, giving them a certain amount of control of the situation. Living questions confronted activists at every turn as to how they might assert independent politics while acknowledging the real balance of power within the movement.

So why was the movement defeated? I think this is more than anything an issue of historic capacity. After decades of neoliberal attacks and business union demobilization, there was a serious lack of working class organization, historic memory and collective experience. Most people who showed up in February and March had never been to a protest in their lives, and fewer had been part of a strike. If there had been another strike of any kind, it would have been miraculous, but I think a general strike was solely a point of agitation[vi]. In the immediate moment, there were not standing networks of rank and file unionists who could agitate to make it more likely that their unions did what was needed and help navigate a militant course for the movement. Nor were there channels for community members and unorganized workers to meet and develop their own plans.


There has been a basic consensus across the spectrum of ruling parties that the road ahead is going to be austerity for the vast majority of people in order to manage the continuing crisis of capitalism. The experience of the last three years suggests that there is no win-win solution for workers and capital as capital rolls back decades of rights and protections to open new avenues for profit.

Wisconsin then is one part of a global struggle. In the past two years we have seen major mobilizations in Greece, France, the United Kingdom, Tunisia, Egypt, Algeria, Yemen, Wisconsin and into Spain, with more sure to follow. Despite setbacks and defeats, each struggle informs the next in kind, and statements of solidarity are sent from place to place in an understanding of common struggle. If we learn something from these places, its that a radically democratic, “from below” orientation is not just a good idea or something that we would like to see, but critically necessary for the success in the battles to come. There is no simple move or strategy to take us out of this situation, but clearly we will have to prepare ourselves for patient, committed organizing and movement building.

[i] This essay isn’t really the place to chart the particulars of the crisis, but suffice to say that just about all the schools of thought on the Marxist left agree that there was a deeper crisis underneath the bank meltdowns. See David McNally, Global Slump: The Economics and Politics of Crisis and Resistance (Oakland, CA: PM Press, 2010); Robert Brenner, The Economics of Global Turbulence (New York: Verso, 2006) and John Bellamy Foster and Fred Magdoff’s The Great Financial Crisis: Causes and Consequences (New York: Monthly Review, 2009).

[ii] Rasmus, Jack. “The Unfolding Epic Recession,” Against the Current 147 (July-August 2010).

[iii] I want to point out here that there is nothing natural about the state’s crisis. It was seemingly real insofar as state budgets are largely dependent on the private economy, but in actuality it was largely artificial due to the state’s own policies that took on bank debt and accepted budget cuts as opposed to taxing the country’s vast wealth.

[iv]Editorial, “Walker gins up ‘crisis’ to reward cronies,” The Cap Times, February 16th, 2011.

[v] One Wisconsin Now, “Walker Concocts ‘Scoop and Toss’ Borrowing Scheme to Pay for $140 Million in Special Interest Spending,” February 11th, 2011.

[vi] It should also give us pause that through the struggles in France and Greece, mass strikes that did materialize were not capable of repelling austerity measures.

Socialist and labor activist in Wisconsin.

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