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Allen Ruff: Democratic party leaders pushed movement away from mass action to an exclusively electoral strategy

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DAVID DOUGHERTY, TRNN: The Wisconsin labor struggle continues as resistance efforts have shifted towards a recall strategy. Petitions were submitted to trigger recall elections later this year for eight Wisconsin state senators, following an ongoing signature-collecting campaign. Three of the targeted senators are Democrats and five are Republicans, though numbers are expected to grow as more petitions targeting an additional eight senators are submitted before the mid-May deadline. Democrats are considering filing a complaint with the state government accountability board over allegations that a Republican signature collector offered to buy a group of women shots of liquor in exchange for their signatures on a petition to recall a Democratic state senator. While the action does not appear to have broken any state laws, it is nevertheless frowned upon as inappropriate conduct in state political processes. Meanwhile, Wisconsin Supreme Court candidate JoAnne Kloppenburg’s request for a state recount of the recent election result has been granted, and the process is set to begin later this week. Kloppenburg had initially declared a slim 204-vote victory over incumbent justice David Prosser, but several days later, Prosser was declared the winner with a more comfortable 7,316-vote lead, after previously uncounted votes were discovered in Waukesha County due to an alleged human error on behalf of county clerk Kathy Nickolaus. Kloppenburg formally requested that the Government Accountability Board launch a special investigation to determine if there were any electoral law violations in Waukesha County specifically involving Nickolaus. The clerk had raised suspicions because of her personal and work-related connections with Prosser and a previous dispute over her insistence on using a personal computer to tally the votes, rather than using the standard state system deployed everywhere else. In spite of a highly organized recall campaign, many are now wondering if the popular rebellion has been demobilized to a degree since reaching its peak in March, when one of several mass demonstrations drew a record-setting 150,000 demonstrators from all over the state. Allen Ruff notes some critical changes that have altered the course and composition of the movement.

ALLEN RUFF, RADIO HOST: Obviously, the movement as such is quite different than it was six weeks ago. There was this spontaneous upsurge, this outpouring that represented every sector of society, except for corporate interests and the fabulously wealthy–students; workers, obviously; university people; public employees, private sector employees; unionized, nonunionized; farm workers. You name it, people came out in mass. So the movement changed, the movement evolved from one of mass outpouring to–now, of course, it’s trickled off. And spontaneous movements are transient. They don’t go on forever. So that could be expected. But we also have to look at the role of various elements, social forces, political forces at play within the movement that sought to contain, constrain, and hold and rein in the movement from very early on.

DOUGHERTY: According to Ruff and other commentators, reluctance among some of the higher levels of union leadership, coupled with Democratic Party politicians, steered the movement away from a grassroots insurrectionary approach.

RUFF: It’s overlooked that the mass movement from below, this rank-and-file insurgency, what’s now being referred to as the Wisconsin upsurge, allowed them the space to operate, and they did not take advantage of it. The whole tenor of the movement shifted when the 14 state senators who left in order to prevent a quorum on this repair bill, when they came back from Illinois. All the speakers at that big rally of nearly 150,000 people that day, all the major speakers, including some movement celebrities such as Jesse Jackson, called for people to get involved in a recall and nothing else–no mass action, no strikes, no civil disobedience, and so on. And, of course, that focus on the electoral route in and of itself dissipates and drains energy from any kind of mass movement. There were Democrats that assisted in bringing people out of the state capitol building, of ending the occupation of the capitol. Many of us saw that as a strategic point, a focus for the demonstrations, a reflection of a kind of social and political power at the base. The unions, of course, the union leadership very fearful of strike actions of certainly any talk, continued talk of or actualization of a general strike. There was a lot of talk about that in the crowds and put forward by various elements on the left. So, again, the reining in, the channeling of the movement took an effect. Many people [incompr.] the recall ventures that are valuable but shouldn’t stand alone. And the campaign around JoAnne Kloppenburg for Supreme Court and the–observed or are concerned about the theft of that election. Lots of folks channeled off into that. On the positive side, a lot of people went through a very rapid educational process. These mass movements which pull people out of their daily routines, away from their jobs, their homes, whatever they do on a day-to-day basis, and bring them into kind of an authentic democratic collectivity spurs people along.

DOUGHERTY: Whatever direction the movement takes, whether it be focused more on direct action or electoral politics, many believe that an irreversible process has been initiated with the Wisconsin labor struggle.

End of Transcript

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Allen Ruff is a U.S. historian and investigative researcher. His primary work centers on opposition to U.S. "grand strategy" and interventions in the Middle East, Central Asia and elsewhere. He hosts a weekly a public affairs program on WORT, 89.9 FM in Madison, Wisconsin and blogs at