Why M1GS?: lessons from Wisconsin

A piece from a union staffer in Wisconsin who saw the movement go from the potential of a general strike to just a recall, and how we should remember this in Occupy's efforts for a May 1st general strike.

Submitted by Juan Conatz on March 4, 2012

A year ago, the original 21st century “Occupy” occurred in the United States - at the State Capitol in Madison, Wisconsin. Scott Walker, Tea Party, Koch-funded governor sought to eliminate collective bargaining of public workers. The unions erupted, thousands stormed the building and did not leave for two weeks. Even the Democrats in the state legislature fought this one as all of them fled Wisconsin to prevent a quorum for the vote. This constant protest materialized at the heels of the Egyptian Revolution to oust Mubarak. “We are Egypt” was the cry from the streets.

I arrived in Madison in early March on the Union dollar. The physical all day occupation was over, but a presence of resistance continued to exist within and outside the building. Hundreds were still gathered, singing, chanting, speaking. Outside hundreds marched around the Capitol. The spirit was alive; people were angry, the air was electric with hope and despair.

A little over a week later, Governor Walker decided it was time to by-pass the problem of quorum by removing the financial part of the bill which would allow it to pass without the Democrats. Clearly the contention was never about how to balance the budget in Wisconsin - it was how to demolish even the glimmer of a labor movement in the United States. Us, union organizers, were holed up in offices for most of our two week stay. We were asked to make phone calls in an attempt to build a database of all the union members since the bill could possibly bar the Union’s access to the workers at the workplaces. It was surreal, the week before the bill passed, the Union took the talent of organizers and used it for routine phonebanking. We were all perplexed and talked about need for a more radical approach. Yet the message from the Unions was recall. Recall those damn Republicans - they are the ones fucking shit up; look at the Democrats, they are on our side - they risk their lives by evading the vote. During the day, liberal reformism flowed in our dialogue; at night, pockets of resistance sprung up in darkly lit bars. We talked about the General Strike. We talked about the thousands in the streets and how to continue to mobilize the working class, how to build a better world, how capitalism was to blame. It was a beautiful time; though the dialogue of radical action was couched in a reactionary setting, it inspired us all.

The night Walker decided to sign the bill into law without the Democrats, we were called into a special emergency meeting from the upstairs rooms. The mood was grim, lips were set in thin lines, eyebrows were burrowed. We were told to go to the Capitol immediately - the bill was about to be signed. I and two of my comrades rushed into our car and sped through Madison. Hundreds followed us and spilled into the Capitol, defying the guards that surrounded the building. The bill was signed, while we shouted “Shame” outside the closed doors. Chants of the General Strike sprung up as well, but the Union members around us looked hesitant and stayed quiet, while others raised their fists in the air and professed their will to shut the system down.

I stayed that night at the Capitol. The mood was resigned, yet energetic. The fight was not over; this was only the beginning. Through most of the night, the Capitol was filled. Rumors of dispersal circulated, but the police forces did nothing. On the ground floor in the middle, people collected to speak-out, to sing, to chant, to dance. The music, the sounds never stopped; I fell asleep to them on the cold marble floor of the Capitol in a communal sleeping bag.

In the days that followed, calls for a General Strike continued. There were hesitations, but the narrative lived. It was in the propaganda, it was in the writing on the walls. Saturday promised to be a day of mass action. Over 100,000 were expected in Madison; a mass tractorade was planned; the air was ripe with people on the streets. People that had never taken the streets, that had never participated in any mass movement gathered in droves around the Capitol. Saturday had the potential to be the beginning of something amazing. Cold saturated the clear air, snow thinly covered the ground, and voices reverberated in angry chants. How dare Governor Walker do this? How dare Governor Walker take away our hard-fought rights?

At least 150,000 showed up that Saturday. Revolt, defiance, frustration coated the spirit of the people. It dissipated throughout the day as the Union bosses took the energy, took the anger, and directed it straight to the ballot box. “We must recall the Republicans, we must recall Walker!” the Union bosses bellowed from their podiums. The General Strike was not mentioned; the idea of the General Strike crawled through the underground tunnels of radicals in Madison, but the reformist Unions dominated the dialogue. As the day proceeded, it got colder and my mood dipped. I had seen this one too many times - the working class did not know their own power and the Unions refused to facilitate that power, rather wanted to ensure the status quo. To the ballot boxes is the rallying cry of the Union; to the streets…. who cries for that?

A year later, we are preparing for May 1st, 2012: the General Strike. The first May Day, the first International Workers’ Day since the Occupy movement emerged. M1GS is now a rallying cry. To the streets is the call of a decentralized, inspired, radicalized group of people. As May 1st approaches, so does November 6th, and we must keep that in mind. We must keep our focus on the streets, not on the ballot boxes. Something beautiful could have happened in Madison. Instead the people of Wisconsin continue to wait to recall Governor Walker.

We need to learn from this. We need to stand up against not only the forces on the Right, but also the ones on the supposed Left. Unions, as organizations of workers, have accomplished a lot, but in this time rife with revolution we need to ensure that they do not disempower our call for a General Strike. The Unions are reformist institutions, theorists like Gramsci have written extensively on this; they can be a great asset to the revolution but they can also be one of its greatest threats. The ruling elite, the Koch brothers, the Waltons, the Dick Cheneys of the world would like nothing better than for Occupy to fit into the liberal narrative of representative democracy. We need to ensure that we don’t slip into that narrative. We need to take the streets. We need to disrupt the status quo. It can’t be business as usual on May 1st, and it can’t be business as usual on May 2nd, or 3rd… and especially not on November 6th. M1GS… expect us.

Originally posted: February 27, 2012 at Resist, Occupy, Produce