Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s reputation is secure. He is known the length and breadth of the country as an anti-labor maniac who will go to any length–legal or not, moral or not, democratic or not–to break the unions of teachers, nurses and health-care workers, social workers and more.
Walker and his fellow Republicans thought they could get away with anything when they took office with majorities in both houses of the legislature. But they weren’t counting on the immediate and furious response when Walker called a special session of the legislature and proposed a “budget repair bill” that went for every point on the right-wing wish list, from slashing spending for health care programs for the poor to virtually eliminating collective bargaining for public-sector unions.
The occupation of the state Capitol spurred by a sick-out by Madison teachers that spread across the state pressured Senate Democrats to flee, denying the Republicans the quorum they needed to ram their legislation through. Days of protest followed, while Walker and his supporters in the media complained about union “thugs” who were preventing them from getting their way.
Then, without warning this week, Walker dropped the bomb. Republicans in the Senate separated the anti-union provisions and other measures that weren’t specifically about financial matters, allowing them to hold a vote without the quorum requirement.
The Republicans were able to hold a vote under the Senate’s rules. But the supposed justification for taking away union rights from government workers–that this was necessary to close a shortfall in the state budget–was ripped away. Walker and the Republicans were revealed for what they are: Nothing more than union-busters, acting in the service of their corporate patrons.
The bill sailed through the Senate on Wednesday night, and the Assembly the next day, leaving the massive and vibrant movement that rose up against Walker with a challenge–step up the fight, or give up having lost on all counts.
For the union movement, this is a do-or-die moment. If you talk to any veteran union activist long enough, they’ll tell you: We should have never let President Ronald Reagan get away with firing 11,000 striking air traffic controllers and obliterating their union PATCO. Labor failed to rally to PATCO’s defense–and soon enough, other unions found themselves in the crosshairs.
Thirty years later, we’re in a similar crisis with the Wisconsin legislation championed by Walker, which will destroy any meaningful power for public-sector unions. But as was the case with the PATCO defeat, top union leaders are strenuously trying to avoid what has become an inescapable, high-stakes clash between capital and labor.
The unions will be at the front of a huge demonstration planned for this Saturday, March 12, outside the Capitol. But labor officials have turned their eyes to an electoral strategy to recall Republican state senators–in the hope that, months from now, enough Democrats will become senators to reverse the anti-union law.
The Republican senators should be recalled–and Walker, too. But the reason that unionists and people concerned with justice around the country look to Wisconsin with hope isn’t because of recall elections–but because of the massive mobilization that stopped Walker and Co. in their tracks and electrified the country with its spirit, its inventiveness and its determination. That’s where the power lies to turn back this attack, not at the polls.
Union officials are demobilizing and disarming this movement at the very moment that workers need to step up the fight or lose decades of gains by organized labor. If top union officials are unable or unwilling to face up to this task, then a new leadership must step forward–one composed of rank and file activists and local union leaders unafraid to buck their higher-ups.
How we got here
What explains the paralysis of the labor leadership? The sudden emergence of a dramatic and inspirational mass workers’ movement should have been enough to give even the most cautious labor leader some backbone.
After Walker announced his anti-union proposals in a “budget repair bill” proposed February 11, the first in a series of big labor protests in Madison began four days later and kicked into high gear when teachers called in sick on February 17 in order to lead a sit-in in the Capitol. Next, their parent union, the Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC), called for similar action on a statewide scale.
That show of workers’ power is what inspired tens of thousands of workers to come to the Capitol on a daily basis and sustain the occupation of the building.
But from the beginning, labor leaders were willing to concede on important issues. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Council 24 Executive Director Marty Beil and WEAC President Mary Bell both announced that they would accept the higher costs of health care and pensions that Walker demanded, thereby legitimizing the idea that the governor’s attack was motivated by a desire to fix the budget deficit.
Nor did labor leaders consistently stand with the other working people targeted in the bill, including recipients of Medicaid and BadgerCare, a health care program for low-income people. Not surprisingly, many union members grumbled that their leaders were willing to sign off on pay cuts that affect the rank and file as long as they could keep collective bargaining–and automatic deduction of union dues–maintaining the pay and job security of full-time union officials.
Such a narrow, defensive strategy was totally unjustified, all the more so given the outpouring of solidarity and activity among union members. Even so, the continued refusal of the 14 Democratic state senators to attend a Senate session and a massive 100,000-plus rally on February 26 highlighted the shift in public opinion against Walker and in favor of the unions.
But in the following days, the unions demobilized, withdrawing material support for the occupation of the Capitol and shifting their emphasis toward plans for the recall elections. That provided an opening for the Republicans to act. Dropping the fiction that the union-busting provisions had anything to do with budget issues, Republican state senators carried out their sneak attack March 9.
What we’re up against
The strategy of union leaders and the Democratic Party is to recall eight Republican state senators–and, a year from now, Walker himself.
That same strategy is being promoted nationally by AFL-CIO President Rich Trumka. “Tell your state or local lawmakers to keep attacks on collective bargaining out of your backyard–and that politicians who ignore the will of the people will pay the price at the ballot box,” Trumka wrote.
But this will redirect the dynamic mass mobilization that’s emerged in Wisconsin into a conventional electoral battle that will drag on for months and years–while hundreds of thousands of public-sector workers could see their unions broken and their wages and pensions shredded in the immediate future.
That’s certainly what Walker has in mind in Wisconsin. The first target is AFSCME Council 24, which represents state workers, and must therefore deal directly with the governor. Walker has said that he will cancel that union’s contract extension on March 13, thereby freeing him to immediately impose the harsh terms of the new law.
That includes a ban on collective bargaining over anything other than wages, which will be limited to the rate of inflation anyway; a ban on the automatic deduction of union dues; mandatory annual elections for unions to maintain their status as bargaining units; and a 5 to 7 percent cut in pay as workers are forced to pay 12.6 percent of their health insurance premiums and 5.7 percent of their pension costs.
If the governor is able to impose these terms without an active and immediate response from Council 24, the union will have to struggle for financial survival, let alone provide effective on-the-job representation when the boss has the right to ignore them.
And now that Walker has gotten his way in Wisconsin, it’s open season on public-sector unions across the U.S. Copycat legislation in Ohio, Indiana and other states is just the beginning. Public-sector unions, which cover 36.2 percent of the eligible workforce, are the last stronghold of the U.S. labor movement. If Republican governors and their billionaire backers have their way, that number will soon be closer to the 6.9 percent of private sector workers who are members of unions.
The Republican-led anti-union onslaught has made the Democrats look good–in particular, the Wisconsin state senators who fled the state rather than enable the passage of union-busting legislation. But it was Walker’s Democratic predecessor, Jim Doyle, who cut the pay of state workers in 2009 by mandating 15 unpaid furlough days over the following two years. Doyle’s hard-line stance prevented AFSCME from gaining a contract for more than 18 months, which gave Walker the opportunity to cancel the contract extensions in place
And on a national level, the Democrats are just as intent as Republicans on extracting concessions from public sector workers. Leading the charge are California Gov. Jerry Brown and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who are taking aim at public-sector workers’ compensation, especially pensions. President Barack Obama himself endorsed this bipartisan austerity drive by seeking a three-year pay free freeze for federal employees.
If these Democratic anti-union policies seem moderate, it’s only by comparison–because Walker and his counterparts in Ohio, Indian and Michigan are so hell-bent on breaking union power.
But the attack on unions goes far beyond the bipartisan austerity drive. In the wake of the recession, employers and politicians have sought to shift the cost of the crisis onto working people through deep and permanent cuts in their standard of living. Union leaders have mostly obliged in order to retain their status as “partners” with employers, no matter what the cost to the rank and file.
WEAC’s Bell and AFSCME’s Beil apparently hoped for a similar outcome in Wisconsin. By selling concessions to the membership, they hoped to retain their privileges as “partners” with state and local governments. But Walker and the faction of capital he represents no longer have any use for unions–period. They have concluded that unions are too weak to fight back–and can be destroyed once and for all.
What we can do
Labor has joined with a range of organizations to call for massive rally March 12. But will this event be used as means to gear up for job actions and struggle, or simply turn into an election rally to recall eight state Senate Republicans?
After all, mass labor rallies didn’t rattle Ronald Reagan, who ignored the 250,000 union members and supporters who attended the Solidarity Day mach on Washington in 1981. And the near-constant protests by union members for three weeks in Madison haven’t deterred Walker, who enjoys the full backing of big business.
In fact, the stakes in Wisconsin are even higher than the PATCO struggle. Similar measures in other states will soon follow, and private employers will escalate their own demands for concessions, too. If ever there was a moment for labor leaders to issue an all-out call to action, this is it.
But top union leaders haven’t stepped up–and there’s no sign they will. Tellingly, Madison Teachers Inc., the union whose sick-in helped spread the struggle, opted to go to work as usual following the passage of the anti-union bill as the union rushed to conclude a contract agreement before the bill becomes law.
An exception to the silence from labor was Joe Conway, president of Madison Local 311 of the International Association of Fire Fighters. Asked after the bill’s passage if he supported the call for a general strike, he said, “I’m in total agreement. We should start walking out tomorrow and the next day, and see how long they can last.”
Conway was giving voice to a widespread sentiment among angry union members who chanted “general strike!” during the protest on the evening of March 9, when the state Senate passed the anti-union bill. The idea of a general strike has, in fact, been debated since Walker announced his legislative program. The South Central Federation of Labor, the Madison-area labor council, voted to endorse a general strike if one was called and launched an education effort among its affiliates.
But given the low level of strike activity in the last decade, and the overall decline of he labor movement over the past 30 years, there is a gap between the widely felt need for mass action and the organization needed to bring it about. Simply calling for a general strike–no matter how enthusiastically it is received–is unlikely to get very far.
Moreover, the rush by WEAC and AFSCME to conclude separate and largely concessionary contract agreements in advance of Walker’s anti-union legislation passing has weakened the solidarity that gave rise to the movement. In that context, pursuing recall elections can seem like the only realistic course of action for labor–even though it will allow Walker’s destruction of entire unions to go unchallenged.
The key task for labor activists, then, is to find ways to build union activity in the workplaces that can both put pressure on management while drawing upon the size and energy of the new workers’ movement. This can mean, for example, organizing pickets before work or noontime marches to other unionized workplaces. An active, organized and fighting rank and file can compel management to bargain with their union on key issues, despite Walker’s laws.
At the same time, unions can consolidate the links between their brothers and sisters that emerged during the movement by joining in struggle together. For example, the Teaching Assistants’ Association at the University of Wisconsin has assigned a strike committee to prepare for any necessary action, and has pledged support for any action by other unions. In so doing, they are preparing the ground for the kind of solidarity action that can resist the implementation of Walkers’ laws and begin to roll them back.
Thousands of union militants didn’t wait for directions from labor leaders when they mobilized to protest or carried out job actions. They simply did it–and they created new activist networks, such as the Madison-based Kill the Whole Bill Coalition and the no cuts/no concessions campaign initiated by National Nurses United. These efforts are modest in size, but are nevertheless crucial in taking the movement forward.
The pace and scale of the next phase of resistance to Walker’s laws is impossible to predict. But the potential to organize is clear–and the need to do so is urgent.
This article was originally published on SocialistWorker.org.