The Barren Marriage Between Labor and the Democracy: On the Recall Elections in Wisconsin

They ain’t called the ‘graveyard of social movements’ for nothing. A year and a half after the largest, most spontaneous, and most energetic mobilization of U.S. organized labor in decades, the Democrats and their hapless allies in the union leadership managed to fully divert all that energy and all that dynamism into a resounding and demoralizing defeat. Contrary to ridiculously inaccurate early estimates, the electoral contest between current governor and knight of reaction, Scott Walker, and his insipid Democratic challenger, Tom Barrett, was not even close, with most putting Walker at %53 of the final vote, and Barrett at %46. The flip side of this coin, of course, is that it will inevitably be spun as a major symbolic victory for the Right, who will indeed probably see Walker’s victory as an open invitation to freely pursue their union-busting agenda: having won in Wisconsin, where can’t they win?

For anyone who had the fortune to experience the solidarity and the palpable radicalism in the air in Madison last winter, the election, as a coda to that amazing moment, can only be taken as a bitter disappointment. For many, I suspect, the results of the recall will have only confirmed what had long seemed probable: namely that the inhabitants of the rural Wisconsin hinterlands, unemployed, indebted, yet conservative, will vote for the same guy they voted for in 2010, which will tip the scales in Walker’s favor despite the extraordinary amounts of human time and energy poured into the recall campaign over the past year. What reason have such people to vote against the person they originally voted for, especially given the fact that his opponent, Barrett, did not even attempt to progressively re-frame the austerity/budget debate in a way that might substantially influence public opinion? If the Democrats are just as willing as Republicans to denounce the trade unions as just another “special interest,” in order to then lose important elections by a huge margin, then what the hell is organized labor doing funnelling their already-scarce monetary and human resources into their campaign coffers? Is electing this mope, who can’t even bring himself to mount a principled defense of labor, what hundreds of thousands of progressive supporters rallied for last winter and spring?

It’s an old story on the American left: the Democratic party kills collective power and systematically betrays the unions, or what’s left of them, anyway. Scores of talented and dedicated organizers who worked tirelessly over the last 1.5 years will doubtless be struck with a feeling of futility, and then, of a certain exhaustion. This is understandable after something like this, but is all the more distressing given the inevitable response from the forces of reaction, which assuredly will come swiftly. They may wait until after November, but you can be certain that the neoliberals are taking this as a blank check for savage union-busting, having successfully seized the beachhead in Wisconsin. Once again, “democratic institutions” collude with organized power in the quashing of economic justice, deluded centrist liberals will continue to delude themselves, and the lesson for the U.S. left remains the same: independent organization, divorced from the Democrats, is the only credible path for any meaningful social change today.

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