From Socialist Voice, March 2011

The Wisconsin effect: Union power rediscovered


Only four months ago the consensus among the political establishment was that of a right-wing resurgence in American politics, typified by the “Tea Party” movement. Workers were bracing themselves for further attacks, while Corporate America returned to prosperity.
     Four months later the picture could not be more different. Suddenly, state capitals are swarming with protesters, and workers are taking action to stop the ideological assault on their union rights.
     After decades of decline in the private sector, the relatively greater but dwindling strength of unions in the public sector has long been a target of the right. Under the pretext of solving budget crises throughout the country, politicians—including members of the Democratic Party—have accelerated the agenda of austerity, calling for a kind of “shared sacrifice” from which the wealthy are exempt.
     The beleaguered labour movement has been on the defensive for decades. Its numbers and its power have diminished dramatically as business gained the upper hand.
     In Wisconsin, however, the anti-union “budget repair” bill, sponsored by the governor, Scott Walker, which threatened to strip public workers of their collective bargaining rights, has touched a nerve. It appears that the waning labour movement has arisen from its slumber.
     From the start, Walker’s union-bashing bill was more than just the usual attack on public-sector union pensions and benefits—workers have been losing ground on these issues for years. The governor’s budget bill was replete with punishing austerity measures and posed a threat to the very existence of unions in Wisconsin and beyond.
     Thankfully, his anti-worker crusade backfired profoundly.
     The attempt to divide and conquer workers by pitting private-sector workers against the supposedly lavish income and conditions of public-sector workers has failed. A study by the Economic Policy Institute last September exposed the myth of the overpaid public employee, finding that public-sector workers actually earn less on average than their private-sector counterparts when education and experience are taken into account.
     The images of tens of thousands of workers and their supporters—including teachers, students, and firefighters—who took part in the occupation of the state legislature building in Madison for more than two weeks have reignited the morale and militancy of the labour movement. Even beyond labour, the scenes from Wisconsin have shown ordinary people the power they possess when they are organised and take bold action. Many who visited Madison in the first two weeks of the struggle commented on the breathtaking spirit of solidarity among the protesters, the efficient operation of self-organised demonstrators, and the display of democracy come to life.
     Who could have predicted in those days of Tea Party triumphalism in November that unions and labour solidarity would soon come to dominate the national discourse?
     Having suffered low popularity in opinion polls for years, the labour movement has gained sympathy throughout the country because of Wisconsin. According to a recent survey, 42 per cent of American people side with the unions, compared with 31 per cent who side with the governor. And when it comes to stripping public employees of their collective bargaining rights, 64 per cent are opposed.
     “We’ve never seen the incredible solidarity that we’re seeing now,” said the president of the AFL-CIO (the national union federation), Richard Trumka. And this solidarity has been more than just an American phenomenon: statements of solidarity and support have come from as far away as Egypt, where for the past decade workers have been staging strikes in important industries that opened the way for the revolution that ousted the US-backed dictator last month.
     The fourteen Democratic state senators who stalled Walker’s bill by leaving the state, thus making a quorum impossible, prompted many media pundits to see the fight in Wisconsin as one between Republicans and Democrats. It was a rude wake-up call, but Democrats are finally remembering their base and have chosen to stand on the side of workers this time—at least so goes the liberal analysis. But in reality the Democratic Party—particularly at the national level—has marched shoulder to shoulder with Republicans in putting the onus on public-sector workers for reining in deficits.
     The fight in Wisconsin was thrust into the national spotlight in part because tens of thousands of teachers rang in sick for up to four days, bringing out the critical mass of protesters that made the legislature building feel like Tahrir Square.
     In the labour movement, most leaders have been in step with the Democratic Party in arguing that their members need to make more concessions to deal with the real fiscal crisis facing states and towns around the country.
     But if union leaders are having a hard time members that there simply isn’t enough money and that concessions and cuts need to be made, it’s because working people see corporations recording some of the largest profits in history, while the top 1 per cent of households, which are now worth more than $19 trillion, continue to enjoy tax breaks.
     In Wisconsin many Democrats and labour leaders are eager to advise union members on the necessity of accepting further cuts in benefits and pensions, but they are prepared to fight hard when it comes to eliminating collective bargaining and the automatic deduction of union dues that would directly affect their own pay cheques and campaign coffers. So while the “Wisconsin 14” who fled the state are understandably viewed as heroes, there are some undeniable economic and political calculations for self-preservation that motivate them, beyond pure principles of solidarity.
     But rank-and-file workers have seen in the last few weeks the power they have with the strength of unions at their side. Unions are the most formidable organisations on the side of workers that have any hope of beating back the naked class offensive being waged by politicians and bosses like Walker and the billionaire Koch Brothers (paymasters of the Tea Party).
     Wisconsin has become a proving-ground for the full-scale assault now under way; but the battle lines have extended to other states, and the spirit of fighting back has reverberated as well. Protests have halted (for now) similar anti-union efforts in Indiana; and though the gauntlet has already nearly fallen in Ohio with the imminent passing of a similar bill, the attempt there to strip public workers of collective bargaining rights just barely made it through the State Senate, thanks to Republican defections that were undoubtedly influenced in part by the surge of mass protests there.
     After more than two weeks of being occupied by protesters, the nerve centre for the union fight-back, the state legislature building in Madison, was illegally closed off to most of the public. But after Republicans forced the split anti-union bill through the Senate this week, protesters retook the building. That the stakes could not be higher is crystal-clear to the protesters, who rapidly responded to developments by descending on the building in their thousands.
     If unions are to seize on this moment, the movement will need to work out not only how to defeat Walker and his like but also how to translate this new vibrancy of struggle from a defensive front into an offensive one. For the movement to take advantage of this moment, protests need to be coupled with job actions. That, of course, will entail an arduous struggle by rank-and-file workers, who will need to go up against not only the anti-union forces but also at times against their own leaderships, which will try to put the brakes on more militant actions.
     Whatever the outcome in Madison, however, there is a strong sense that the long-awaited period of American labour’s resurgence has finally come.

■ Adapted from Counterpunch (www.counterpunch.org).

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