The lessons of Wisconsin’s labor revolt

WITH THE mass labor mobilization in February against anti-union legislation in Wisconsin, the U.S. working class showed a fighting capacity unseen in decades and joined the worldwide resistance to the austerity agenda pushed by governments worldwide. Despite one of the biggest illegal job actions in decades, labor lost this battle as the direct result of union leaders’ refusal to use the strike weapon at the decisive moment.

Nevertheless, the Wisconsin uprising highlighted the extent of working-class radicalization under the impact of prolonged economic crisis and ceaseless attacks on wages, benefits, working conditions, and union rights. The U.S. labor movement, used as a punching bag by Republicans and a passive cash cow by Democrats, was suddenly and undeniably alive and kicking, with a creativity, flair, and militancy that inspired similar protests in neighboring states and solidarity protests across the United States. The mainstream media, which typically parrots the politicians’ attack on “overpaid” public sector workers, was forced to acknowledge that the Wisconsin demonstrations are evidence that the “sleeping giant” of U.S. unions has awakened.

In fact, the Wisconsin protest didn’t come out the blue. The nationwide solidarity for workers under attack recalled the 1997 UPS strike, and the broad array of unions demonstrating in the streets resembled the 1999 protests in Seattle against the World Trade Organization. The sweep and scale of the working-class mobilization brought to mind the enormous May Day immigrant rights protests of 2006, which unions also had to scramble to keep up with.

But there was something qualitatively different about the Wisconsin mobilization. It was a sense that being a worker wasn’t something to be ashamed of, but, rather, a point of pride. While there was of course a range of political views among the workers involved, there was also a basic shared sense that big business and the Republicans had pushed too far—and that there was no choice but to fight. And while Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker won this round, the workers involved will never be the same—and they’re already debating how to win the next time.

In the near term, the momentum remains with the politicians and employers who are intensifying Corporate America’s 35-year war on labor. Walker ultimately pushed through a plan that effectively eliminates meaningful collective bargaining for public sector workers and imposes sharply higher employee contributions to health care and pension funds. The new law, which appeared to clear legal challenges as the ISR went to press, has only encouraged anti-labor forces across the United States. Education Weekreported on March 30 that, “Bills to eliminate or curtail collective bargaining, do away with teacher strikes, or curb union-dues deductions are advancing in more than a dozen state legislatures.”

With this wave of legislation targeting public sector unions, the anti-labor forces have come full circle. Thirty years ago, President Ronald Reagan fired 11,000 striking members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization—PATCO—who were federal employees. That move accelerated the attack on private sector unions, which now represent just 6.9 percent of workers, compared to a 36.2 percent unionization rate in the public sector. With public sector workers now accounting for a majority of union members overall, the attack on their unions is bound to accelerate.

Thus in Ohio, Republican Governor John Kasich pushed through another bill targeting public sector unions that is in some ways more restrictive than its Wisconsin counterpart, as it limits collective bargaining for police and firefighters as well. In Michigan, Governor Rick Snyder signed a bill that allows him to appoint emergency financial managers to oversee local government bodies and tear up union contracts. Big labor protests in those states—modeled on the demonstrations in Wisconsin, but not on the same scale—failed to stop that legislation.

With Walker, Kasich, and Snyder playing the role of bad cop, Democratic governors can pose as a more reasonable alternative, even as they push their own attacks on public sectors. Thus, in California, Governor Jerry Brown used the Republican minority in the state legislature as a bogeyman to pressure state employees’ unions to take concessions beyond the $400 million they accepted last year. “I tell my union friends, you’re going to have to make some changes now, or much more drastic changes later,” Brown said.

In New York, Democratic Andrew Cuomo is demanding $450 million in union concessions or threatens that he will lay off 9,800 state workers—and he’s got the support of a business group that raised $10 million to conduct a political campaign against the unions. In Illinois, the Democratic state legislature is set to pass sweeping education “reform” that guts Chicago teachers’ right to strike and dramatically weakens tenure rights and the seniority-based layoff system.

In Michigan, Detroit Mayor Dave Bing, a Democrat, is demanding a new round of concessions from city employees. Robert Bobb, the emergency financial manager for the Detroit Public Schools, declared April 15 that he “fully intend(s) to use the authority that was granted” by Governor Snyder’s new law in order to cut jobs and compensation of Detroit teachers. And it was none other than President Barack Obama who signaled open season on teachers unions by requiring states to pass anti-union legislation to qualify for $4.3 billion in the federal Race to the Top education fund and, more recently, by announcing a two-year wage freeze for all federal employees.

It was this political climate that emboldened Scott Walker to try and destroy public sector unions in the state where they first won formal collective bargaining rights. While much is made—rightly—of Walker’s connections to the billionaire industrialist brothers Charles and David Koch, the fact is that the Wisconsin governor is simply the sharp end of a very long sword that’s being used to attack organized labor in general and public sector unions in particular. But in Wisconsin, Walker provoked a rebellion that caught everyone by surprise—even those who initiated the resistance.

The struggle—anchored by a four-day statewide teachers sickout, a dramatic occupation of the state Capitol, and a series of mass protests—had the potential to win. Even in defeat, the Wisconsin rebellion highlighted the potential not only to revive U.S. unions, but also to put organized labor at the forefront of the struggle to defend all workers against relentless attempts to slash their standard of living. Solidarity was the watchword, not just between different sections of unions that rarely stand together, but between union and nonunion workers, too. The self-organization, creativity, and dynamism on display during the three-week mobilization were in sharp contrast to the choreographed rallies and constricted “messaging” typical of the “mobilization model” used by many unions. This time, rank and file union members led the way. Their leaders had to run to catch up.

The transition from protest to mass movement came February 17, when teachers from around the state swarmed into the Capitol and took up positions outside the Senate chamber, alongside large delegations of high school and college students. Thousands more teachers jammed the three balconies beneath the Rotunda, and, after a noontime rally, delegations of workers streamed in, with firefighters in the lead. Meanwhile, activists were blockading Democratic state senator’s offices to prevent law enforcement from physically forcing them to be present in the Senate to provide a roll call.

Since activists were unsure whether the Democrats had made it out of the building, they moved to tighten their blockade of the Senate chamber. The students blocking access had as their ally a large man in a Steelworkers jacket, who blockaded an elevator near the door. All the while, constant chants from the crowd—“This is what democracy looks like!” “People power,” “Union power”—meant that people trying to converse had to shout themselves. There were no organized speakers that day. Instead, the crowd improvised communication through signs, banners and cheers.

The loudest roar came, like the previous day, when members of the Wisconsin Professional Fire Fighters Association marched through the rotunda. Another big hit was a sign carried by a bearded man in his 20s that read: “I Went to Iraq but I Came Home to Egypt.” There were many other signs with the same theme, such as “Walker, Pharaoh of the Midwest,” and depictions of Walker alongside ousted dictator Hosni Mubarak.

In the days that followed, the Capitol turned into a liberated zone, both an organizing center and a symbol of popular defiance to Walker’s highhanded methods. Building trade union members delivered bratwurst, students staffed information tables, and organized areas for sleeping, study and children’s play. And of course, the constant meetings and debate brought people out of relative isolation and into a heady new mix of union members, community activists, social issue campaigners and more. And on the days of all but the last of the massive Saturday rallies of 100,000 and more, workers from around Wisconsin, the Midwest and across the United States were able enter the Capitol to get out of the cold and into the center of debate, while tens of thousands more marched in the streets around the building in a kind of giant picket line.

Thus workers in Wisconsin captured the imagination—and won the support—of workers around the United States and internationally. From the delegations of union members from as far away as Los Angeles to the workers in Cairo who bought Ian’s Pizza for delivery to protesters, it was clear that Madison was seen internationally as a key test of labor’s resolve in the face of anti-worker attacks and part of an international rebellion against overreaching leaders. And the workers in Wisconsin saw themselves that way, too.

It would be a mistake to overstate the Egypt-Wisconsin parallels, of course. The anti-democratic excesses of a right-wing hack like Walker, even when bolstered by superrich capitalists like the Koch brothers, obviously can’t be compared to a 30-year U.S. backed dictatorship where all unions are state controlled. But it would be a much bigger error to ignore the connections between the struggles. Both were the result of accumulated grievances over many years, and a product of an intensifying class struggle internationally in the wake of the world economic crisis. And certainly the two-week occupation of the Capitol took Cairo’s Tahrir Square as a reference point. As in Egypt, protesters used the space that they had appropriated to debate how to take the movement forward. In this way, they attempted to overcome the lack of basic organization that had existed prior to the struggle. Suddenly, firefighters, teachers, students, highway workers, ironworkers, steelworkers, retail clerks—were discussing and strategizing as activists in a common movement, not just members of individual unions.

But perhaps the most memorable—and important—thing was the conversations and debates—whether one-on-one in an impromptu gathering on the street or as part of an hours-long strategy discussion about what to do next to maintain the occupation of the Capitol or how to organize a general strike. Suddenly, problems that had seemed to be individual burdens to bear—lousy pay, a lack of job security, rising health care costs—were seen in class terms. Conversations that began from countless starting points moved toward the same conclusion: The bosses and the politicians on their payroll are to blame for our problems, and we have to stand our ground and fight back—together.

The spark that lit the Wisconsin rebellion was industrial action. After members of Madison Teachers Inc. had a sickout February 17 and turned out en masse at the Capitol, leaders of their parent union, the 98,000-member Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC) called upon its entire membership to skip work and come to the Capitol. Tens of thousands more union members managed to come on a regular basis, some also calling in sick or using vacation days. The building trades unions, whose members are being hammered by prolonged mass unemployment in the construction industry, were strongly represented from the outset.

The teachers’ sickout and blockade of the Senate chambers was an implicit but unmistakable confrontation between workers’ collective power and the norms of electoral politics—that is, in Marxist terms, bourgeois democracy. But union leaders, still devoted to partnership with employers and committed to safe political solutions to their problems rather than risky industrial conflicts, predictably recoiled from that battle. By Tuesday, February 22, almost all teachers were back at work, and the balance of forces immediately shifted in Walker’s favor. By the following Monday, the occupation of the Capitol was over when, according to the top police official in the building, the unions had agreed to drop their support for the action. For their part, the Democrats spared no effort to disorganize and demoralize those committed to the occupation. On February 27, Democratic staffers and their supporters took control of the open mic to call for leaving the building, and Wisconsin Rep. Brett Hulsey called for activists to follow him out the door. Hulsey’s efforts fizzled when socialists, student activists, and firefighters’ union leaders convinced a large contingent to stay for the night.

From the beginning, the union leaders’ aims were as narrow as possible: the preservation of collective bargaining rights and the automatic deduction of union dues from workers’ paychecks. Union officials who addressed the crowd rarely made explicit commitments to fight the other atrocities included alongside anti-union legislation in Walker’s so-called “budget repair bill.” These attacks included severe cuts in Medicaid and BadgerCare, the state health program for low-income people, and the privatization of the University of Wisconsin’s flagship Madison campus.

Union leaders didn’t even challenge Walker’s claim that the state budget deficit required workers to take concessions. “We are prepared to implement the financial concessions proposed to help bring our state’s budget into balance, but we will not be denied our God-given right to join a real union,” said Marty Beil, executive director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Council 24, the umbrella organization for workers employed by the state of Wisconsin. “It’s not about the money,” he said, adding, “We will not—I repeat, we will not—be denied our rights to collectively bargain.”

AFSCME Council 24 offered to take not only economic concessions, but also floated the idea of a two-year “freeze” on collective bargaining—as long as the unions could continue to collect dues through payroll deductions. In short, union leaders were prepared to see members take what will amount to a 7 percent pay cut and be without effective representation for two years in exchange for the flow of dues that cover union officials’ own pay and benefits. Instead of standing their ground and insisting that the budget shortfall could be easily made up by rescinding the tax cuts Walker had pushed through for the state’s wealthy, the union’s not very inspiring proposal was that labor fight to maintain collective bargaining in order to bargain everything away.

While offering economic surrender, the unions tried to raise the political pressure on Walker by pouring resources into mass protests while 14 Democratic state senators fled the state to block action on budgetary issues. But Walker was unfazed by protest, and union leaders, who had dropped all calls for protests after a mass rally February 26, seemed paralyzed. It was left to the Madison area building trades unions to call a protest for the following Saturday as top officials groped for a strategy. Finally, the union officials announced a plan: labor would organize for the recall of eight Republican senators to deprive Walker from control of the state legislature. A mass rally was set for March 12 to mark the end of the protest phase and the beginning of the recall effort. It wasn’t necessary to counterpose the recall campaign to escalating action. But the union leaders consciously and systematically did exactly that.

In any case, just two days before the final labor rally, Walker’s allies in the state Senate rammed through the anti-union legislation by detaching it from budget, thereby eliminating the requirement of a quorum for the vote. The question was posed point blank: Would the massive March 12 rally, estimated at 150,000, be a springboard for labor action that could stop the bill, such as a general strike? Or would it remain the electoral rally that union leaders wanted?

For union officials, further industrial struggle was out of the question. As it became clear that Walker would move to push through the anti-union legislation, AFSCME and WEAC, the teachers’ union, began pushing members to ratify contracts with local governments and school boards as quickly as possible. To entice management into making these agreements, the unions agreed to virtually all of Walker’s economic demands. But by extending contracts, the union leaders were able to delay the effect of the new anti-union laws—and keep the dues money flowing.

Yet these terrible contracts are only a stay of execution for a couple of years unless Walker himself is recalled (which could happen in 2012) and the law is overturned—a long shot at best. Nevertheless, union leaders were unwilling to take the one action that had the possibility of winning—public sector strikes, which are illegal under state law. Their caution flows the conservative nature of the trade union bureaucracy: The union officialdom functions as a mediating layer between workers and employers.

In the United States, the union bureaucracy is particularly conservative, preferring to cling to the illusion of a labor-management “partnership” it established in the boom years of the 1950s and 1960s. That arrangement always favored the bosses. But employers abandoned partnership more than 30 years ago in favor of a one-sided class war—one that has been escalating in a bid to destroy public sector unions, one of the remaining redoubts of union strength. Unfortunately, union leaders from the United Auto Workers to AFSCME prefer to preside over decline and maintain control over weak and shrunken unions rather than take the risky confrontation necessary stop the employers’ attacks and rebuild the labor movement.

Was there an alternative? Certainly groups of activists pushed for more militant action—extending the occupation of the Capitol, other protests, job actions, and more. The idea of a general strike, usually discussed by labor history professors and socialists, was discussed from day one of the struggle. The difficulty was that the low level of politics and organization in the unions prior to the movement made it difficult for militants who favored such a strategy even to find one another, let alone organize themselves to challenge the strategy of union leaders. And given the dearth of strikes over the past several years, it’s not surprising that an electoral strategy seems a more realistic strategy to many.

But the operative word here is “seem.” The trial run for the electoral approach was the April 5 election for a State Supreme Court justice in which a liberal Democrat challenged a Republican incumbent. Last-minute electronic ballot-box stuffing in a Republican county seems to have maintained the seat for the Republicans. But even if the vote was stolen, the question remains: How, given the scale of the sustained labor protests, could the unions’ candidate lose in a statewide election?

The answer can be found in the nature of electoral politics itself. At the ballot box, we are expected to make our choices of candidates (limited, of course, in advance by party hacks) as individual citizens. We are bombarded with advertisements and news coverage as individuals, and are expected to make our final decision in the privacy of the ballot box. Finally—and crucially—the unions seek to replace the Republican senators not with independent labor candidates, but with Democrats, members of a party that is also carrying out anti-union attacks. In fact, Walker’s Democratic predecessor as governor, Jim Doyle, boasted that he carried out the largest cuts in state workers’ compensation in the state’s history.

It is collective struggle by workers, not voting, that opens the way to more effective action and still greater involvement by larger numbers of workers. It was the teachers’ sickout that powered the first phase of the Wisconsin protest and inspired hundreds of thousands more to get involved. Walker and his counterparts across the United States have made it clear that even the biggest protests won’t deter their attack on unions. Ultimately, workers’ power lies in their ability to withhold their labor. Unless and until mass protests are combined with a readiness and a willingness to strike, the attack on public sector unions will continue.

For now, in Wisconsin, activists are dividing time between recall efforts and forging the links between groups targeted by Walker. For example, a group of labor and community activists launched the Kill the Whole Bill coalition, since renamed Wisconsin Resists. The impetus for that organization, as well as a “No Concessions” meeting February 27 hosted by National Nurses United, was the widespread sentiment for a broad movement that could unite all working people, union and non-union, targeted by Walker’s bill.

Nationally, however, union leaders are content to use Wisconsin to promote the image of a revived labor movement, rather than taking the kind of action necessary to accomplish that goal. For example, the AFL-CIO day of action April 4—timed to coincide with the anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King—was impressive in the number of protests involved, but most stressed elections rather than the kind of action necessary to stop the union busters. The notable—and impressive—exception was International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 10, which shut down the port of Oakland and surrounding areas that day despite the inevitable employers’ lawsuit filed against them. (A defense committee for the local has since been formed.)

More Wisconsin-style attacks on the public sector are coming—the bipartisan anti-labor crusade will make sure of that. That’s why it’s important that every union activist—indeed, everyone who supports labor, or is interested in organizing their workplace—initiate discussions about the Wisconsin rebellion and prepare for those fights before they happen. That means preparing rank-and-file organizations that are clear about the stakes of these struggles and that are prepared to take the initiative when union leaders are unwilling or unable to do so.

Developing a strategy to stop the attack on public sector unions, whether from Republicans like Walker or Democrats like Brown or Cuomo, means reviving the strike as a weapon. In Wisconsin, the Madison-area South Central Federation of Labor voted to endorse a general strike if other labor bodies called one, and assigned an education committee to prepare for such an eventuality. But top labor officials squelched any official discussion of such action even as Walker dropped the pretense that his anti-labor law had anything to do with the budget and pushed it through without Democratic support.

Union leaders will no doubt deem as unrealistic public sector strikes at the local or state level, let alone general strikes, as unrealistic. But it is they who live in a fantasy world. The blitz against public sector unions and labor in general will not end unless and until labor is powerful enough to stop it. That means taking strike action, despite the injunctions, fines, and strikebreaking that the employers will use to defeat it. If union leaders are unprepared to take the necessary steps to meet that challenge, rank-and-file union members will have to take the initiative themselves. Such a struggle seemed far-fetched not long ago. But the Wisconsin uprising showed that U.S. workers are ready and able to step up the fight. The one-sided class war is over. And our side has the power to win.

 

Issue #96

Spring 2015

Race, surveillance, and empire

Issue contents

Top story

Features

Reviews

  • Expanding the LGBTQ agenda

    Keegan O'Brien reviews Queer (In)justice: The Criminalization of LGBT People in the United States by Joey L. Mogul, Andrea J. Ritchie and Kay Whitlock
  • Subliminal racism repackaged

    Paul Pryse reviews Dog Whistle Politics: How Coded Racial Appeals Reinvented Racism and Wrecked the Middle Class by Ian Haney López
  • Crimes of war

    Bill Roberts reviews Kill Anything That Moves: The Real American War in Vietnam by Nick Turse
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