Fred Klonsky September 17, 2015 (Fred Klonsky Daily posts from a retired public school teacher who is just looking at the data.)
Recently I had the chance to sit down with Milwaukee school board member, Larry Miller, to talk about the lessons he has drawn from the fight against Wisconsin governor Scott Walker.
Tell my readers about yourself.
I taught for 15 years in Milwaukee Public Schools and for 2 years was a principal at a small high school. I ran for the school board of Milwaukee Public Schools and I am now midway in my second 4-year term and serve as vice-president of the board. I am also an editor of Rethinking Schools.
We know about Gov. Walker’s attack on workers, unions and bargaining rights. What are some of the ways it has impacted students in classrooms in Milwaukee?
Walker and the Republican legislature have driven thousands of qualified and dedicated teachers from the profession in Wisconsin. The cuts in funding for public education have been disastrous. Walker cut nearly $1 billion statewide from public education when he first took office. Milwaukee Public Schools lost $80 million with those cuts. Over the past five years, the legislature followed with more cuts to public schools and increased funding to vouchers and private charters. There are presently over 26,000 students receiving private school vouchers in the city of Milwaukee – many of them students at parochial schools who were already enrolled when they began using vouchers.
All of this has meant increased class sizes, reduced resources and expanding stress to the one school system that has the capacity and will to teach all students. For many schools the funding for the arts, physical education, school nurses and librarians is reduced. Our children are suffering.
I was in Madison during the early protest of Walker policies. Some protests had over 150,000 people. What happened to that movement?
The Madison marches in 2011 were in response to Act 10, Walker’s proposed legislation to destroy public sector unions and particularly Wisconsin’s teacher unions, and to demean the teaching profession. He hid his intention to do this when he ran for governor a few months earlier. But the background to that election shows the advantage he’d been given. It was clear in 2009 that the Democratic mayor of Milwaukee, Tom Barrett, was going to run against Walker for governor. So what did Tom Barrett, in alliance with Democratic Gov. Jim Doyle propose?
They attempted to take over Milwaukee Public Schools and replace the elected school board with an appointed superintendent. The Wisconsin legislature at the time was controlled by the Democratic Party.
A grassroots movement in Milwaukee split the Democratic Party and prevented any changes to the governance of Milwaukee Public Schools. So the Democrats entered the first election against Walker divided. The critical Milwaukee electorate had no enthusiasm for the Democratic nominee who had just attempted to take away their right to elect a school board, and who earlier had opposed a highly popular paid sick days initiative.
After Walker won, he introduced Act 10 and the Democratic senators left the state to prevent a quorum in the legislature, the uprising grew, with tens of thousands marching in Madison.
Once the Democratic senators returned, Act 10 was enacted and the movement switched from the streets of Madison to a recall election. Walker was very savvy in focusing on the idea that he was democratically elected and the recall was undemocratic. He ran ads with white workers saying, “I didn’t vote for Gov. Walker but I do not support a recall.” Many voters who opposed his policies bought into this view.
More damaging, the Democrats in the recall ran the same neoliberal, tepid candidate who had divided the electorate going into the first election, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett. Also he had no standing to challenge Walker on failure to create jobs.
Throughout the state, opponents of Walker gathered nearly one million signatures. People signed at doorsteps, at shopping centers, at deer hunting stations, at workplaces; it was truly a mass movement. But once the election happened, the movement did not have a cohesive focus.
Many grassroots organizations used the opportunity to expand their work and strengthen their membership. This included groups like Voces de la Frontera, a Latino workers organization, Wisconsin Jobs Now, pro-public education networks, the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association, and many others throughout the state. They grew their base from the recall activities. But there was no statewide apparatus to follow up for the many others who had spoken out.
Larry, from your point of view, what are some of the things that were done right and what things were done wrong in fighting Walker’s agenda?
It became very clear once Walker was re-elected, with full control of the legislature, that organizing was needed both to elect strong candidates in the future and to carry out day-to-day grassroots resistance. This work is continuing throughout the state.
For example, in Milwaukee a coalition has formed called Schools and Community United, made up of 19 organizations, to fight moves against public education and other forms of privatization. They have played a role in resisting the attempt by the Republican legislature to create a New Orleans style recovery school District in Milwaukee. A grassroots coalition stopped an attempt to prohibit a living wage for contract workers in Milwaukee County.
Last year Walker ran for reelection and won by 138,000 votes. Once again the Democrats put forward a moderate and uninspiring candidate. The Democratic candidate for governor did not inspire the base and was unable to make inroads with new voters, even with Walker’s failings exposed.
An important lesson shown throughout the Wisconsin experience is that the Republicans and the status quo they represent are in no way willing to compromise. All they want is everything.
A fight during the legislative session this year was around a “right to work” bill. We needed a new uprising comparable to the one in 2011. Instead some within the construction trades believed that a compromise could be worked out. Their influence held back the labor movement from going all out to oppose this right-wing anti-labor bill. It passed in full.
Compromise with the tea-party Republicans is not an option.
Walker’s poll numbers are way down and his reelection seems improbable. What would it take to undo the damage he has brought to Wisconsin?
Since the 2014 Walker victory, many previous supporters in Wisconsin have turned against the governor. More people have seen the harm from his attacks on public education and his tax cuts for the wealthy. Damage to the environment and the rights of women, refusal to take funds to boost transportation and expand Medicaid, attempts to undermine government transparency, and failure to deliver job creation have helped undermine support for Walker. So has his bumbling performance on the presidential campaign trail.
But defeating Walker as governor and replacing him with a progressive governor won’t be enough to undo the damage. Gerrymandering by the Republican legislature following the 2010 census will make it very difficult to retake the Assembly and the Senate. That can be done only with strong candidates and real organization. It cannot be accomplished by running to the center or to the right to try and appease conservative voters. A movement that calls for real change that serves the needs of the poor and working class in the tradition of Wisconsin progressivism is the only way to reverse this travesty. This means work on the ground, grassroots organizing, must be the backbone of moving forward.
Wisconsin is overwhelmingly white. It voted strongly for Barack Obama both times he ran. If you add up the number of votes for Democrats and Republicans statewide, there are more citizens voting for Democratic candidates than Republicans. But gerrymandering and the tea-party anti-democratic power grabbing policies keep the right-wing in power.
Future organizing has to be able to win over the majority white counties throughout the state to secure a better future. Groups like Working America that know how to go into these communities and move them in a progressive direction must be invited to return to Wisconsin. We also need to energize voters of color, low-wage workers, women, young people – and that requires candidates who stand for a genuinely progressive agenda.
The alliance of labor, communities and social movements must be the backbone for future success.