The battle for Wisconsin’s future has come to a crossroads–and the movement that has electrified the country with its opposition to Gov. Scott Walker’s anti-labor assault needs to step up the fight to win.
Last week, the capitol building in downtown Madison took on the spirit and feel of Cairo’s Tahrir Square as growing numbers of workers and students, first from Madison and then from around the state and the country, occupied the building and took over the grounds around it.
Their determined spirit–and action–pressured Senate Democrats to boycott a session where Walker and the Republicans were ready to ram through a proposal that would effectively cut state workers’ wages by 5 to 7 percent and cripple public-sector unions by virtually destroying collective bargaining.
This week, though, Republicans are vowing not to make any concessions, and Walker recruited enough police from around the state to push protesters out of sections of the capitol building. Senate Democrats are still boycotting the session, denying Republicans the quorum they need to conduct most business. But the movement against Walker’s anti-union assault needs to regain the initiative.
Walker’s threat to lay off 1,500 state workers if his proposal isn’t passed by Friday is aimed at breaking workers’ resolve. But it’s more obvious than ever what Walker is after–his premeditated intention to destroy organized labor was highlighted in a recorded conversation with a blogger pretending to be union-hating billionaire David Koch.
In the face of this all-out attack on labor, what unions, organizations and individuals do to mobilize right now will help shape the outcome of this fight.
We need to remember what turned the struggle in Wisconsin into a national battle over union rights. When teachers from across Wisconsin called in sick and instead jammed the capitol building, it showed what unions can do when they flex their muscles. Walker and his allies vilified those teachers, but popular support for the union side only grew.
What’s needed now is an action campaign involving union members and supporters across the state to raise the pressure on Walker and his billionaire backers, the Koch brothers.
Labor has shown that it has the strength and solidarity to defeat not only Walker’s attack on collective bargaining rights, but to “kill the whole bill,” as one popular chant has it. That means opposing increased payments for health care and pensions for state workers, cutbacks in Medicaid and BadgerCare (a health care program for kids in low-income families) and reductions in mass transit–all contained in Walker’s so-called budget repair bill that is being used to attack unions and working people.
The occupation of the capitol and the huge protests of the past two weeks were the result of rank-and-file workers, groups of students and others taking action. In particular, public-sector workers, who have been the target of a frenzied slander campaign for their supposedly generous pay and benefits, are demanding what they deserve–dignity and respect, not contempt and smears.
That stand has already transformed U.S. politics in a way that won’t disappear, whatever happens with Walker’s legislation.
In Ohio, Indiana and other states, workers and their unions are organizing with a new confidence and sense of initiative–against similar austerity measures, whether they come from Republican maniacs like Walker or Democrats preaching sympathy for unions, like California’s Jerry Brown, New York’s Andrew Cuomo or Illinois’ Pat Quinn.
Now, however, the corporate-backed propaganda campaign against public-sector workers has suffered a setback. Across the country, most people can look at Wisconsin and see a lot of themselves in the protest–the desire for respect on the job, for an end to the slow whittling away of living standards that has left them scrambling to get by, for a society that cares more about quality of life than about money and power.
Wisconsin is a classic case of a politician going too far and facing an unexpected revolt. In a country where the right-wing Tea Partiers seem to set the agenda and Democrats cave to them over and over, that’s a sign of great hope for future struggles.
Despite the dramatic examples of union power on display in Wisconsin, labor leaders there have repeatedly proclaimed their willingness to accept terrible concessions and abandon the poor to the budget cuts contained in the bill.Marty Biel, executive director of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Council 24, says his union would be willing to accept cuts in pay and benefits–and even accept to a two-year “freeze” in collective bargaining if Walker agrees to return to bargaining in 2013.
Biel’s deal is in keeping with the 30-year trend of major union leaders accepting almost any concession in order to preserve collective bargaining and “partnership” with employers. The United Auto Workers, for example, have agreed to allow the pay of most new hires to be only half of what current workers make.
But what’s the point of preserving collective bargaining if everything is then bargained away? Essentially, Biel is asking union members to take a pay cut in order to keep his own job secure. This is the same bankrupt strategy that led unions to the point where they represent just 11.9 percent of U.S. workers–and just 6.9 percent in the private sector.
In any case, Walker refuses to take “yes” for an answer. The governor’s conversation with the fake David Koch made it clear that employers believe unions are finally weak enough that they can be finished off. Public-sector unions–which represent 36.2 percent of all workers–are therefore in the crosshairs.
Thus, union leaders were pushed into militant tactics–crucially, the call by the Wisconsin Education Association Council last week for its 98,000 members to skip work for two days and come to Madison to protest. But since that wasn’t enough to push Walker to negotiate, union members–from top officials to the rank and file–are discussing how to ratchet up the pressure with even more militant tactics.
Delegates to the Madison-area South Central Federation of Labor (SCFL) weighed in on that debate by voting to endorse a general strike in the event that Walker signs the union-busting bill into law. The SCFL also voted to oppose any concessions and to stand with workers and the poor also targeted in the bill. That’s also the position of the Madison-based Kill the Whole Bill Coalition, a group of union activists and supporters.
Rose Ann DeMoro, executive director of National Nurses United and the California Nurses Association wrote in the Huffington Post that it’s time to draw the line on concession everywhere. “Working people did not create the recession or the budgetary crisis facing federal, state and local governments, and there can be no more concessions, period,” DeMoro wrote.
The challenge now is for public-sector union members in Wisconsin to show their unity and power in the workplace. This can be done in a number of ways–from wearing union T-shirts and buttons, holding meetings during breaks and lunch periods, and organizing informational pickets before work.
If there are to be further job actions–or more decisive measures–they will be all the more effective if union members take the organization and initiative they have shown in Madison back to their cities and towns around the state. That’s the only kind of pressure that politicians like Walker will ever understand.
At the same time, rank-and-file members should tell union officials that workers won’t accept any concessions–at meetings, through petitions and leaflets, and with signs and banners on protests. After the greatest show of union strength and solidarity in decades, it would be a crime to waste it on a deal that lets workers’ pay be cut.
Scott Walker and the Wisconsin Republicans went furthest the fastest, but other Midwest states are taking aim at public-sector workers, too.
In Ohio, Republican lawmakers have proposed Senate Bill 5, which would prohibit collective bargaining, including on the question of wages, for 42,000 state workers and nearly 20,000 employees of the state’s university and college systems. Thousands of unionists and their supporters mobilized on Tuesday to the capital of Columbus to show their opposition.
In Indiana, Republicans have a whole collection of anti-union bills they want to push through. But Gov. Mitch Daniels called on his fellow party members not to pursue an anti-union “right-to-work” proposal, on the grounds that the legislation–and no doubt the protests it would inevitably spur–would interfere with “other priorities.” Democratic lawmakers took a page out of the Wisconsin playbook and left the state to block the legislation from coming to a vote–union members say the Democrats should stay away until all the anti-union bills are pulled.
And if you thought the Midwest was the only place such legislation was being considered, think again. In Providence, R.I., the school board will vote on a resolution Thursday that would empower administrators to fire every single teacher in the district as of the last day of the school year. “This is beyond insane,” Providence Teachers Union President Steve Smith told a reporter.
Accompanying the legislative union-busting is an intense and ongoing propaganda campaign–directed by the ideologues of Corporate America and disseminated through their media–against public-sector workers and their unions.
The ideological offensive has a simple message: Public-sector workers are overpaid and underworked, and they live the high life long into their golden years of retirement, thanks to the dictatorial power of their unions. “[T]he public sector is a haven of security and stability, where people have jobs for life and performance measurements are rare,” wrote billionaire publisher and real estate mogul Mort Zuckerman.
It’s a mass of myths, distortions and outright lies. For example, the commonly repeated claim that state and local government workers get paid much better than private-sector workers turns out to be wrong once the statistics are adjusted for the fact that public-sector workers tend to be older and better-educated. A Center for Economic Policy Research study found that when state and local government employees are matched against private-sector workers of the same age and educational levels, the public workers earn less.
The pensions of public-sector workers are another hot-button issue. Of course, given that defined-benefit pensions have gone the way of the dodo bird for so many, it’s understandable that people would wish they could have even the modest source of retirement income that government workers with pensions do.
But it’s another myth that public workers’ pensions are stealing from the rest of us by producing the state budget crises that have caused cuts in social programs and increases in taxes, mostly regressive ones that hit working people hardest.
If anyone deserves blame for the pension crisis in states across the country, it’s the speculators on Wall Street who caused the 2008-09 financial meltdown. Around 60 percent of the assets of state employees’ pension funds are invested in corporate stocks, according to Robert Pollin and Jeffrey Thompson writing in the Nation. Because of the crash, the total value of those funds dropped by nearly $900 billion between mid-2007 and mid-2009.
And that’s not to even talk about the political leaders who have increasingly delayed payments into pension funds in order to cover short-term deficits–leaving a bigger and bigger gap as the years roll on.
So the problem isn’t that the pension benefits are overly generous–the average annual pension payment to state workers lags behind the average manufacturing wage–but that politicians and their financial “advisers” have been, one way or another, robbing pension funds for years.
Meanwhile, the most basic measures to raise state and local revenue by taxing corporations and the wealthy are completely absent from the political discussion.
Wisconsin is a case in point. The state is expected to run a $137 million deficit this year, according to an analysis by the Politifact watchdog group. Walker’s proposal to make state employees pay 12.6 percent of their health insurance and 5.7 percent toward their pensions would raise only $30 million. And, as unionists have pointed out each day in Madison, the attack on collective bargaining rights won’t do anything about the deficit.
On the other hand, Walker made it his first order of business upon taking office to push through two corporate tax breaks and a conservative health care initiative that would reduce state revenues by $117.2 million–almost the size of the expected deficit.
Of course, any lie, if repeated enough times without anyone challenging it, can gain a wider hearing. But it’s telling that the all-out propaganda war against public-sector workers still hasn’t turned around public opinion. Thus, a USA Today/Gallup poll published this week found that nearly two-thirds of people oppose taking away collective bargaining rights for public unions, and a majority opposes cutting “pay or benefits for state workers.”Struggles like the fight in Wisconsin can make those pro-labor majorities even greater. The uprising against Scott Walker has given a face to the people who are regularly denounced as greedy and selfish, and the cause of everything going wrong in the economy.
Madison is showing that the “villains” of this union-busting campaign are teachers, nurses and other health-care workers, social workers, custodians, construction workers and more. Walker and friends have taken on a sleeping giant–together, state and local governments are the largest single employer in the country.
The struggle in Wisconsin and other states is proving once again a lesson from the history of our movement–taking action leads to solidarity, commitment and confidence.
What a stark contrast U.S. politics seems today in the wake of Wisconsin–compared to the period after the November elections and the triumph of the Republicans. The media was filled with claims then that voters had confirmed the U.S. was a conservative country at heart, and Republicans had a mandate to carry through their policies.
But as SocialistWorker.org wrote in early January:
[A]s the Republicans press ahead with their assault, more and more people will come to see that their “populism” is a fraud–and the minority on the left who already recognize this will become more determined to organize a fight. Rebuilding the left can come in the struggles to challenge the right and its vicious program.
That challenge came faster than anyone could have guessed in Wisconsin–thanks in large part to the inspiration of the wave of revolutions sweeping Northern Africa and the Middle East half a world away.
Now the Republicans have a fight on their hands–and the one-sided class war of recent years has become two-sided. There’s no guarantee that our side will win in Wisconsin or the other struggles ahead, but we do know that we won’t go down without a fight any longer.
When Newt Gingrich and the Republicans won control of Congress in 1994 with their so-called “Republican Revolution,” they were as arrogant and infuriating as Scott Walker is today–and they got their comeuppance faster than anyone would have guessed as public opinion turned against them.
One of the first signs of the backlash against the Republicans came in March 1994, when 400 unionists from a dozen unions took over Gingrich’s offices in Marietta, Ga., for nearly an hour. “We ain’t waiting two years for another election,” said Stewart Acuff, president of the Atlanta Labor Council, told reporters. “If you’re determined to rip our guts out, you’re going to have a fight on your hands.”
Something similar has happened in Wisconsin. Only this time, it was tens of thousands of unionists, students and others who took over the state capitol building, and for a lot longer than an hour.
Workers in Wisconsin took the first steps. Now it’s up to people around the country to raise their sights and start organizing the struggles that will challenge the politicians’ anti-worker, pro-corporate agenda–and bring the spirit of Madison to cities across the U.S.
What You Can Do
Wisconsin activists have suggestions for people who would like to support the struggle, but can’t get to Madison:
— Send a donation via PayPal to firstname.lastname@example.org. The money will go to supplies for banners and other materials we need and don’t have any money for.
— If you have connections with a group that should be offering solidarity, but isn’t yet, please contact them. From statements of solidarity (paper or video) to rallies to money, we want it. Think broad: the bill kicks undocumented children off BadgerCare (health care); it threatens domestic partnerships, won through non-wages collective bargaining; it will destroy public transit in Madison (which is an environmental issue, as well as a class issue).
— For information about further activism and updates on the situation in Madison, visit International Socialist Organization Madison Web site.
This article was originally published on SocialistWorker.org.