The mass protests in Wisconsin during the winter of 2011 were halfway to Occupy Wall Street, a bridge between the old and the new. Wisconsin still represented the old in that it had the backbone support of organized labor. AFSCME, teacher unions, and other public sector unions were the main organizers of the protests. Like labor protests of old, Wisconsin involved specific and clearly defined labor issues, namely, opposition to the effort by a rabidly right-wing Republic governor, Scott Walker, to eliminate all collective bargaining rights for public sector workers. The dispute could also be characterized in partisan terms. Democratic state senators gave the protests enormous support by leaving the state and preventing, temporarily, a vote on Walker’s dastardly “reforms.” Following the protests, Democratic recall efforts have succeeded in removing two Republican state senators and may lead to Walker’s ouster as well. Organizationally too, the Wisconsin protests were traditional, employing old-style rallies at the state capitol in Madison rather than the pathbreaking approach of “order through anarchy” that is the hallmark of OWS. Because of the traditional, labor vs. management, Democrat vs. Republican aspects of the Wisconsin protests, its essence was grasped by traditional liberals in the media. In particular, MSNBC’s Ed Schultz was impressive and inspiring in covering the events in Wisconsin, in contrast to his completely off the mark, partisan analysis of OWS.
What was new about the Wisconsin protests was their mass character and explicit class basis. This was clearly a movement of the 99% (though the catch phrase had not yet been invented) against the oligarchs, most specifically the Koch brothers who, as a clandestinely taped conversation showed, pulled Walker’s political strings. The protests may have been over specific and limited issues, but there was a taste of revolution in the air (albeit sober and middle class, as is the character of Wisconsin), a convergence of sentiment with contemporaneous popular uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, and elsewhere.
Wisconsin was probably the last opportunity for the Democratic party to take the side of those resisting the slide to plutocracy. The Wisconsin Democrats rose to the challenge. Obama’s national Democrats did not, essentially ignoring the protests. Obama’s chief of staff William Daley insisted that the Democratic National Committee curtail its planned support of the mass rallies in lieu of his chosen, corporatist strategy of “winning the future” (with GE’s Jeffrey Immelt in charge). The aftermath of Wisconsin has been a bifurcation of the Democrats. The Wisconsin Democratic party, through its progressive agenda of standing up for workers rights and pressing for recalls of reactionary elected officials, is now pursuing a diametrically opposite agenda from its plutocrat-controlled national counterpart. Given the enormous corporate money behind Obama and the national Democrats, it is unlikely that the Wisconsin approach will prevail on a national party level, although it has had resonance in other Midwestern states such as Ohio (where Democrats support the effort for a ballot overturn of Governor Kasich’s anti-collective bargaining Senate Bill 5) and to a limited extent, Illinois (where a minority of progressive Democrats have been resisting the efforts of their own party leaders to cut public sector employees’ jobs, salaries, collective bargaining rights, and pension and health benefits). Most likely, the Wisconsin Democrats will become what Minnsota’s Democratic-Farmer-Labor (DFL) coalition was for many years, but alas is no longer, a more progressive local chapter residing uneasily within the Democratic umbrella.
Despite the admirable actions of Wisconsin Democrats, the salient point is that the national party abandoned the Wisconsin protesters who were the core of their base. For those seeking a better world, there was now no choice other than to transcend the bounds of partisan discourse. This OWS has done.