More on Madison - Insurgent Notes

More on Madison - Insurgent Notes

The following letter synthesizes two e-mails from a comrade, AS, about some disagreements with Loren Goldner’s article on Madison in IN No. 3

I don’t think I was criticizing what you wrote that sharply. I do remember mentioning that one of the first groups out there was the Latino “Immigrant Workers Union” which is a coalition to draw attention to things that affect Latinos in the Madison. In Milwaukee the mood was much different than in Madison. From what I heard from the Milwaukee people, I know the feeling there was much more hopeless generally than in Madison; ‘hopeless’ was the word I heard them use repeatedly. The crisis hit Milwaukee workers really hard. Workers in Madison exist largely in the state and the insurance business and have sources of state-capitalist investment that are more steady than Milwaukee, which needs heavy industry. For me, growing up as a worker in Madison, I could bounce around working at small workshops around the city and never once get my foot in the door at a bigger, better-paid blue collar workplace. For all Milwaukee workers, the deindustrialization has been brutal. Workers at Harley-Davidson in Milwaukee were forced to accept a 50% cut in starting pay just to keep the company from leaving the state. Milwaukee has been a laboratory of this austerity and public education demolition for decades now. The feeling I got from the Milwaukee people was one of despair.

Strange thing is that there is almost no contact with leftists in Milwaukee and Madison at all, even among white leftists, It is as if Milwaukee is on the other side of the continent and not an hour and half away by bus. There were a few contingents that did come from Milwaukee to the protests in Madison, and a few protests in Milwaukee itself, but even there African-Americans were less present than Latinos who were much more active. Your criticisms aren’t much different from mine on the whole. There were contingents of people from the various “First Nations” bands who came to Madison as well. The City of Milwaukee maybe has 500,000 people, maybe a third of them are African-American, I don’t know. It is reaching a point where the Latinos will be equaling them in numbers. The ethnic makeup of people here is heavily German, Scandinavians live further north mostly.

The most positive thing in the protests was the open microphone in the capitol rotunda in Madison where there was an open forum that the DP folks couldn’t control. For a lot of workers this was the first time they ever got to speak in front of other workers and listen to other workers speaking publicly. The most active left group by far was the IWW and they have benefited from this. Their General Strike poster was the most popular poster. Still their activity raises questions in my mind of the nature of the left, even the IWW, in tailing initiatives that are run by the DP/Union nexus of bourgeois power. Even when they have the numbers to undertake their own initiatives, they still tail the “progs”. There was no attempt to raise awareness of state tax increases on the poorest workers, or to link the austerity measures to the constant austerity and repression faced by racial minorities. The Latino presence at the protests also raises questions because they seem obligated, or constrained, as immigrants, to show their patriotism by carrying US flags around to all the protests.

Due to a stretch of unemployment, I took a half-time job late last summer working at the office of AFSCME Local 2412. So, I became the office manager for a union local. In an office of one, I “manage” myself. I saw the whole thing unfold from the defeat of the last contract, to the Walker austerity bill. I was present at the union local meeting where we heard from the higher ups in AFSCME Council 24 that there would be no strike, which was decided and declared from the start. I even sent out the rally notices to the state workers on campus. Now AFSCME Local 2412, and my office neighbors, Local 171, represent respectively the clerical and blue collar sectors of the UW Madison campus. 2412 is the big union on campus and was right at the center of much of these protests. I was fielding calls from the press trying to get information out of me.

This all was strange for me. I had once been a member of Local 171. I had helped animate the Group Internationaliste Ouvrier in Montreal, I helped create Internationalist Notes. I took up left communism after being repeatedly called an ultra-leftist by mainline lefties back in the eighties. Needless to say I’m not that keen on the DP, or the unions. At the same time I feel obligated to participate and be present, which is doubly difficult without funds or propaganda to distribute. A struggle takes on a different tone altogether when it is your friends and family that are there protesting the wage cuts and austerity measures.

I saw the left groups descend on Madison, sell a few papers and then leave. I believe that in what I said to RS, I might have been directing some of this at your article. It is a shame I couldn’t have shown you around a bit, as I do know this area very well. I did make an attempt to contact the ICC but I was too late and the militant they sent came, sold a few papers and then left. I was busy working and sending out the bulletins for the protests and wasn’t doing a lot of propaganda distribution, so it was to them as if I was never even there, at least from what they said. They subsequently denounced the whole thing as a DP/Union maneuver. In ideological content we had the same dominant reformist thinking as in the protests of the “indignados” in Spain today, we even had something of a workers assembly going on in the capitol for a time. Yet they denounced the protests here and praised the protests there. The real question wasn’t the ideological content of these protests but their own participation which brings their praise, or condemnation when they do not participate. The left reformism and DP dominance doesn’t change the fact that there were 150,000 workers in the streets and every scrap of poster board in the county had been turned into picket signs such that all the stores in the county ran out of poster board. It was an extraordinary thing to see.

It seemed to me as though east coast militants only noticed when the protests were almost done, and my own efforts at creating small groups of revolutionaries around the mid-west and the south has been a failure by and large but I think what took place here confirms what I’ve tried to tell militants that workers in the mid-west and the south are important and that there wont be a class struggle in the US without them. It is disheartening when a massive protest of workers comes along the revolutionaries weren’t present even in small numbers and the usual cast of left-ish characters took over playing their role as adjunct to the left arm of the ruling class and its Democratic Party. The “left” in Madison consists of the IWW, the ISO and “Socialist Action” (pro-Castro-ex-trots, Minnesota and Wisconsin based largely). Many of the shop stewards and leaders in AFSCME are supporters of “Labor Notes” as well as being loyal Democrats.

Yes, the electoral stuff is what has taken over. The protests were called off. Some activity has remained sporadically across the state in smaller towns and cities. There were demonstrations in Mount Horeb, a town of 7,000 people had a workers demonstration which drew over a thousand at the peak of the demonstrations; this was happening all over. Now all energies are put into these recalls. People believe it will achieve some sort of victory or stability in the face of the fact that more recalls are being attempted at one time than have ever occurred before. As strikes were ruled out by the unions from the start, and the teacher/student sickout/walkout was called off two days into it, it is seen that a strike is impossible by most people. One justification I heard was that since people are no more than 16 lost work hours away from losing everything they have, to talk about a strike is “irresponsible”. I have argued against this the most successful wave of strikes in US history occurred at the end of WWII and usually lasted for less than five days on average during a time when workers were considerably poorer. I have also argued that the strike tactics that are illegal, sympathy strikes etc., are illegal because they work. The recall effort is feverish. I believe that the workers will be disappointed by the results given the past history of recall elections. The electoral stuff really bled the energy out of the movement.

The whole “Wisconsin’s progressive tradition” propaganda is quite strong and lends unwarranted credibility to DP’s bourgeois power structure. They seem to have forgotten that the last governor, Jim Doyle the Democrat, was the one who gave state workers a rolling layoff amounting to almost three work weeks a year amounting to a sizable cut. Basically the Democrats gave them a pay cut without formally cutting anyone’s hourly pay or benefits. For the bourgeoisie this was a clever maneuver but not brutal enough for the other faction of bourgeois politicos. There was absolutely no attention given by the unions to the layoffs that public sector workers will be facing, almost 22,000 people will lose their jobs and they are told to wait until the recall elections. There was no protest over the gutting of tax credits to the poorest workers in the state in both the public and private sectors either.

The university system is now messing with payroll data so that the unions don’t even know who is paying dues or who is even in the workforce now. It was two members of the Democratic Party who shot down the last contract in the state senate and assembly. They just refused to show up for the vote on the new contract that the state workers unions had negotiated knowing full well that the GOP was going to take over in the next session and be out for blood, so the Democratic Party basically allowed this situation to happen. When the state workers’ union boss, Marty Beil, called the two DP state congressmen “whores”, it was evident that the bosses has just stopped playing ball and no longer considered the unions as necessary for assistance in implementing the austerity measures. I’ve never heard a union leader speak that bluntly about a failed contract, ever, so even last November it was clear that something was going to go down this spring. The union leaderships were not ready for politicians who weren’t interested in playing by the established rules of the game.


Taken from Insurgent Notes website (Originally posted August 2, 2011)

Posted By

Juan Conatz
Aug 6 2011 05:28


Attached files


Aug 6 2011 18:37

I think this is a good contribution about the struggle, and also I think makes some good points about clumsy/rigid analysis that the Internationalism article about it (the one here, about the struggle in Madison: In Madison and Elsewhere, Defense of the Unions Prepares the Workers’ Defeat) had. Specifically I think the desire to delineate the struggle to defend collective bargaining and the union's dues checkoff from the actual struggle in the defense of the power and position of the working class may have been written in a way that underestimated the efforts of both the Wisconsin working class and the IWW. But in no way was the article meant to have

denounced the whole thing as a DP/Union maneuver


There also may have been an underestimation of something said on another thread:

EdmontonWobbly wrote:
the reversion to bad strategy is often because the good strategy has gaping holes in it. The bad strategy is complete and stable because it is easier.

In that article, the criticism of the general strike slogan is followed by a very vague idea about the development of a mass strike dynamic, but the basic idea of self-organization and not indefinite timetables and combining demands, is I think a good one, but of course the working class probably does not have the confidence to do something like that in the US at the moment. So what do we propose concretely? And what do we see our role as in getting to a point where the working class has the confidence and strength to do things like that successfully, and the willingness to try, despite how much easier it is to repeat the failed rituals that we all know and are comfortable with being disappointed by?

I wish I could have been in Madison to have seen more of it. This is a good contribution though, I think, to understanding it and what revolutionaries could have done differently, better, etc.


S. Artesian
Aug 8 2011 14:18

I still don't understand what the disagreements are.

Aug 9 2011 21:59
S. Artesian wrote:
I still don't understand what the disagreements are.

about general strike vs. mass strike, or something else?

Aug 9 2011 22:30
Loren Goldner wrote:
The following day, I talked for a couple of hours with a highly knowledgeable Madison academic associated with the Working Families Party.

I wish I had seen this during the earlier polemic, which is germane right now because the electoral recall of the 6 Republican Senators is happening today -- and Goldner's primary informant for his various accounts of events in Wisconsin was Joel Rogers, leader of the Working Families Party.

Rogers calls a general strike 'real dangerous.'

Isthmus wrote:
UW-Madison labor scholar Joel Rogers believes that opponents of Gov. Scott Walker's anti-union budget bill need to avoid a general strike and turn instead toward recall efforts to anticipate the upcoming redistricting.

"I'm all for going to these demonstrations," says Rogers, lauded by Newsweek as one of "100 Americans most likely to affect U.S. politics and culture in the 21st century." "But you've got to get at least three [Republican senators] out" through recalls. That would shift the balance in the state Senate from a 19-14 Republican edge to a 17-16 Democratic one.

Rogers, the director of the UW-affiliated Center on Wisconsin Strategy (COWS), says the recalls will affect state government's "next big thing": redistricting, based on new census data.

"You can recover from this bad law," Rogers argues. "You can get another governor. But reapportionment is going to be 10 years. That's going to tremendously change the terms and the rules of the game."[...]

link to the complete article from March 17, 2011:

Joseph Kay
Aug 9 2011 23:41
soyonstout wrote:
S. Artesian wrote:
I still don't understand what the disagreements are.

about general strike vs. mass strike, or something else?

Well that's a non-starter, since Luxemburg's source for the 'anarchist general strike' is a polemic by... Friedrich Engels.

S. Artesian
Aug 10 2011 03:35

Where in the piece which is composed from email Loren received are there disagreements with Goldner's analysis. Hell, I disagree with his analysis, strenuously, so I know what a disagreement looks like. As hard as I try, I can't find anything in the article that counts as a disagreement

Aug 10 2011 04:55
Joseph Kay wrote:
soyonstout wrote:
S. Artesian wrote:
I still don't understand what the disagreements are.

about general strike vs. mass strike, or something else?

Well that's a non-starter, since Luxemburg's source for the 'anarchist general strike' is a polemic by... Friedrich Engels.

I suppose I meant in connection to the Madison events. I agree that the 'anarchist general strike' that Luxemburg sees as "refuted" in her text is a strawman, and actually probably more associated with ideas current in the SDP, specifically the union leaders at that time. But I also still don't think "general strike" is specific enough, and frequently is used by the business unions to mean a single day (or even afternoon) of action, run by them, segmented by them, and policed by them. In France it is not uncommon and has recently been able to stop government reforms.

"Mass strike" is an incredibly vague idea, and linguistically meaningless to most people, but central to most formulations of it is the idea of a series of conflicts on many fronts, not called by bureaucrats, and controlled by organizations created during, for, and accountable to the struggle itself--that and the idea that it is not an event but a bunch of events. Pushing for this is different than resolving in favor of a general strike and even propagandizing for it, if the kind of general strike is not elaborated as one that is self-organized, etc., I think. Perhaps since we mostly don't have "general strikes" in the states after WWII, the audience will think of the old general strikes like Seattle, etc., but the concept itself leaves a lot of room for the union tops, in my opinion.

I also agree with Artesian that it's unclear what the disagreements were and the preface doesn't make much sense without that context.

Aug 10 2011 06:23
soyonstout wrote:
Perhaps since we mostly don't have "general strikes" in the states after WWII, the audience will think of the old general strikes like Seattle, etc., but the concept itself leaves a lot of room for the union tops, in my opinion.


The year with the most citywide general strikes in U.S. history was after WWII, in 1946. Here are the cities and the sectors that sparked off these near-insurrectionary work stoppages:

1. Machinists in Stamford, CT
2. Transit workers in Lancaster, PA
3. City employees in Houston, TX
4. City employees in Rochester, NY
5. Electrical workers in Pittsburg, PA
6. Department store clerks in Oakland, CA

The 1946 Strike Wave was pretty amazing:

—750,000 steel workers walked out in January in the largest single industry strike in U.S. history

—there were strikes by 300,000 meatpackers, 174,000 electrical workers, longshoremen, maritime workers, truckers, autoworkers, in addition to work stoppages in nearly every sector

—a bituminous coal strike caused national brown-outs in the spring, then soft-coal miners went on strike at same time, as well as railroad engineers and trainmen, bringing national commerce to a standstill

—it was the closest to a national general strike ever—or at least since Great Upheaval Railroad Strike of 1877

—with so many workers wildcatting, Truman threatened to draft strikers into the military; coal miners retort with the famous: "Let's see them mine coal with bayonets"

The numbers:

—4,985 strikes

—4,600,000 workers participate

—116,000,000 "man-days" lost to industrial production

All of these statistics are the all-time record for the U.S.; nearly all these actions were wildcats and union bureaucrats did everything they could to try to contain them, usually in vain.

Taft-Hartley in 1947 was the state's response.

Aug 10 2011 23:55

Hieronymous, I'm sorry--I can't believe I forgot that--I should have said since Taft-Hartley. In fact I remember you making the point somewhere that the reason people don't talk about the '46/'47 strike wave was that it isn't in history books because it was against the unions. I think I guess I made the same mistake and went back the last general strikes that the leftists talk about, which were mostly before that period and mostly also had the character of being largely self-organized. I suppose I was just trying to distinguish that from the classic CGT general strike which is often only partly observed because they call them sometimes without much connection to the membership, etc.

In the end it is partly a semantic issue, because there's nothing stopping the unions from calling for a "mass strike" rather than a "general strike"--I suppose the important thing, which some in and around the Madison struggle were doing, is to explain the importance of self-organization and not allowing the strike to be limited by any part of the bourgeois order, including the union tops & labor laws & "democratic processes" in the union designed to divide workers. I think the reason the luxemburgist concept of "mass strike" was ever introduced was to critique the (in my opinion misguided) strategy of getting endorsements for a general strike, while acknowledging that the IWW and other organizations there probably did a lot more than just that.

Aug 11 2011 05:58
soyonstout wrote:
... the reason people don't talk about the '46/'47 strike wave was that it isn't in history books because it was against the unions.

Yeah, that's pretty much correct.

But there is one excellent history that covers that period, which is George Lipsitz's Rainbow at Midnight: Labor and Culture in the 1940s. He covers all 6 of those general strikes in 1946, as well as the wildcats and working class militancy of the period.

Sorry to derail the thread.