One of the loudest and most persistent slogans from protesters last night in the Capitol in Madison, beyond “Recall,” was “General strike.” The Capitol Times looks into that possibility:

Representatives of the union that represents blue-collar, technical and safety officers at UW-Madison said the possibility of a general strike has been discussed. “Anything is possible,” said Local 171 steward Carl Aniel.

Aniel said only locals can call a strike, and it would be up to each one to do so individually.
Anne Habel, a steward with AFSCME Local 171, said Wednesday’s action will further inflame the unions, which have staged repeated protests since Walker introduced his budget repair bill in mid-February.

“Every time something happens, people become more militant,” Habel said.

But some labor leaders did not join the call for a general strike. WEAC (the teacher’s union in Wisconsin) Mary Bell said, “I ask Wisconsin’s educators to be at work tomorrow. We will not back down…we will continue this fight.” Leaders with Madison Teachers Inc. also asked teachers to be in the classroom tomorrow.

Part of this is a pose. Most people don’t realize how the federal Taft-Hartley Act makes general strikes extremely difficult. And there are state statutes governing this as well. Reasons for striking are extremely limited. Labor can only endorse the general concept, rather than explicitly calling for a general strike. However, there are two items working in labor’s favor. First, labor contracts for most state employees expire March 13. Really all bets are off after that. Second, while under Wisconsin Statute 111.70(4), public employees are unable to strike during negotiations with an employer, a recent court ruling stipulated that the legislature is not the employer of public workers, and therefore workers could go out on strike against them.

However, there’s a part of the bill passed by the Senate last night that would make a general strike nearly impossible. Thomas Bird of the ASO (Autonomous Solidarity Organization) caught it:

In the Legislative Financial Bureau’s memo on modifications to SB 11, page 16, there is a provision titled “Discharge of State Employees.” It states that under current law, “the Governor may issue an executive order declaring a state of emergency for the state or any portion of the state if he or she determines that an emergency resulting from a disaster or imminent threat of a disaster exists.” Remember that the Wisconsin Republicans have shown a disturbing penchant for complying with existing law in the most limited sense. In the event of a Governor declaring a state of emergency, the new SB 11 would allow an appointing authority to discharge any employee who fails to “(a) report to work for any three days during the state of emergency, (b) participates in a strike, work stoppage, sit- down, stay-in, slowdown, or other concerted activities to interrupt the operations or services of state government.” There is a clear coordination between the language used to vilify those exercising their 1st amendment rights and the language used to activate this provision. The Republicans very clearly are interested in giving Governor Walker the ability to wield unreasonable, unprecedented power.

I don’t see any reason why Scott Walker would not call a state of emergency upon the first attempt of the general strike, and fire all the workers. He worships Reagan for firing the air traffic controllers. The threat of this is probably holding many labor leaders back. As Marty Beil of the Wisconsin State Employees Union said last night, “Tonight, Scott Walker and his cronies in the Senate Republicans turned our proud state of Wisconsin into a banana republic.” That rider is certainly a banana republic kind of move.

So this fight will probably be taken to the ballot box in recall elections. That’s what Mary Bell and Marty Beil discussed last night and what many are discussing this morning. Labor leaders must figure that Democrats would return the favor very quickly and restore bargaining rights if and when they regain control of the Governor’s position and Legislature. However, with all the union-crushing provisions in the bill, they’d better hope they can survive long enough.

I should note that all this does not mean that there won’t be some actions of disobedience occurring today. from the CapTimes:

Outside the Assembly chambers, about 50 protesters were sleeping and planned to remain until the body takes up the Senate’s amended budget-repair bill, scheduled for 11 a.m. Thursday. Police and protesters continued to get along, with no incidents reported and no arrests.

David Dayen

David Dayen