Gut Check in Madison: Is Labor Ready to Fight for its Life?
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and his right Republican allies in the Wisconsin legislature might be a bunch of plutocratic, Koch-funded thugs but you’ve got to hand it to them – they’ve got guts. So what if the strategic departure of fourteen Democratic state senators from Wisconsin was followed by an historic popular and labor uprising in and around the Madison Capital Rotunda, bringing hundreds of thousands of union members and supporters from one day to the next to protest Walker’s move to “reverse half-a-century’s middle-class progress in the state by erasing collective bargaining rights for public employees” (the New York Times editors today [Friday, March 11]) in the disingenuous name of “budget repair”? So what if it is obvious to any serious observer that Walker and the Wisconsin Republicans’ effort to undermine public unions – a longstanding goal of the Republican Party and many of its big business backers (e.g. Koch Industries) – has nothing to do with fixing a state budget crisis that Walker has trumped up and fed with tax breaks for the wealthy and corporate Few? And so what if numerous recent public opinion polls (USA Today, Wall Street Journal, New York Times) show that the preponderant majority of Americans support collective bargaining rights for public (and private sector) workers? So what if most of the nation’s citizens reject Walker’s war (and that of other governors and legislators) on public sector workers – a war that amounts to the largest assault on organized labor’s economic and political power in recent American history?
“This is Our Moment”
Walker couldn’t care less. He’s a fiercely dedicated right-capitalist ideologue carried away with the sense of his mission to inflict lasting and historic damage on organized labor and the Democrats. One of many hard-right Republicans elected with Tea Party support at the state level in November of 2010, Walker has made little effort to hide his militantly regressive, pro-business agenda in early 2011. He quickly hung a sign on the doorknob of his office that read “Wisconsin is open for business.” He rejected $810 million in federal money that Wisconsin was getting to build a high-speed train line between Madison and Milwaukee. He turned the state’s Department of Commerce into a “public-private hybrid” in which workers had to re-apply for their jobs. He joined with other Republicans to grant $117 million in tax breaks to businesses and others – this even as he planned major cuts in social spending and an assault on the supposedly exorbitant pension and medical benefit levels enjoyed by public workers in the state.1
Labor suspicions that the Tea Party backers the billionaire right wing Koch brothers were a major force behind the proposed Wisconsin legislation were validated when the liberal, New York-based blogger Ian Murphy placed a call to Walker in which Murphy posed as David Koch. Murphy (as Koch) and Walker spoke for 20 minutes — a conversation in which the governor described several potential ways to pressure Democrats to return to the Statehouse and revealed that he and his allies had considered secretly planting people in pro-union protest crowds to stir up trouble. Walker likened his stand to that taken by President Ronald Reagan when Reagan fired the nation's air-traffic controllers during a labor dispute in 1981. “That was the first crack in the Berlin Wall and led to the fall of the Soviets,” Walker claimed. Walker said he expected the anti-union movement to spread across the country and that he had spoken with the governors of Ohio and Nevada. The blogger pretending to be Koch agreed, telling Walker, "You're the first domino." Walker responded affirmatively, saying "Yep, this is our moment.” When Walker said he was willing to negotiate with Democratic senators, Murphy told him to “bring a baseball bat.” Walker laughed and responded that he had “a slugger with my name on it.” At the end of the call, the blogger posing as Koch said, "I'll tell you what Scott, once you crush these bastards, I'll fly you out to Cali and really show you a good time." Walker replied that “that would be outstanding," adding that the standoff is "all about getting our freedoms back" The prank caller said "Absolutely. And you know, we have a little bit of vested interest as well.”2
Revealing a personal relationship with at least one of the Koch brothers, Walker’s conversation with the prankster Ian Murphy was consistent with earlier comments from the brash new Tea Party governor. Six days into the protests, Walker told Fox News that he was “not fazed” and predicted that Wisconsin would trail-blaze “conservative” policy for other states by weakening unions, much like it did with so-called welfare reform (the abolition of poor families’ entitlement to public family cash assistance) and the advance of school privatization vouchers in the 1990s. As the Times reported six days in, “Mr. Walker, 43, the son of a Baptist preacher, is an Eagle Scout….His political heroes: Tommy Thompson, this state’s former governor, and Ronald Reagan....'He didn’t flinch,’ Mr. Walker said of Reagan. ‘Obviously, I take a lot of inspiration from that.’”3
And now the arch-authoritarian, super-plutocratic, Reagan-inspired union-buster in Madison has made his latest bold move. It was just a matter of time until he and his Republican allies broke out their labor-smashing collective bargaining measure from their larger “budget repair” bill as a separate piece of legislation, permitting them to assault union rights without the presence of the 14 Democratic state senators. So what if doing so exposes the fact that union-busting was the real goal in and of itself, independent of Walker’s claim that the killing of public sector workers’ bargaining rights was necessary to fix the budget? A messianic labor-smasher’s got to what a messianic labor smasher’s got to do: the historical mission inherited from Ronald Reagan and Tommy Thompson cannot be deterred!
On the evening of Thursday, March 10, 2011, the Wisconsin legislature passed a stand-alone bill that cut out bargaining rights for most government employees in the state. Hundreds of protestors crashed into the Capitol chanting “shame” and “General Strike.” More than two weeks ago, the Madison-based 97-union South Central Labor Federation (representing 45,000 public and private sector union members in southern and central Wisconsin)passed a resolution in support of exploring the possibility of launching a General Strike if and when “Walker signs his ‘budget repair bill.’” The federation appointed a coordinating committee is to contact European unions with experience conducting general strikes.4 A recent on-the-ground report from the left labor journalist Lee Sustar gives the following account from the Capitol last night from Mike Imbrogno, an executive board member of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 171 at the University of Wisconsin: “People keep asking, ‘When are we going on strike?’ There is the broad mix of workers here who have been out for the last three weeks: boilermakers, AFSCME members, teachers, firefighters, graduate employees of the UW Teaching Assistants' Association, lots of building trades people” – many more than ready for some serious direct action. 5
The Cautious Electoral Road v.Direct Action
Walker’s got guts. What about labor? The governor and his cronies have just rammed through legislation (possibly in illegal fashion) that promises to cripple public sector unions financially while destroying their bargaining power. As the left labor analyst Lee Sustar notes on Socialistworker.org, it’s “Do or Die” time for organized labor in Wisconsin, the upper Midwest, and, by extension, the rest of the nation. Once (during the mid-1950s) as high as 35 percent, American union density (the percentage of employed workers enrolled in unions) is down to 11.9 percent and half of the nation’s union members are in the public sector (private sector union density is 6 percent). The corporate and financial elites and its many tools in the political class (in a country where politics continues all too commonly to be little more than “the shadow vast on society by big business”) wants that number to fall by at least half in the next decade. Will union leadership step up to the plate and meet the challenge to defend both working people and its own relevance and position, in accord with majority progressive opinion?
There are reasons to wonder. In December of 2008, a group of militant trade unionists and workers struck a strong populist chord that reverberated across the nation when they staged a successful six-day workplace occupation to secure vacation and severance pay at Chicago’s Republic Door and Windows plant last December. Despite “vast publicity and the stunning victory produced by the workers,” U.S. labor leaders made no move to replicate the occupation tactic in other settings where it would have been well applied, choosing as usual a “cautious, Beltway-focused approach” that “sh[ies] away from visible local mobilizations” and “prefers to concentrate instead on high-level lobbying in Washington” (Roger Bybee). 6
In April of 2009, United Steelworkers of America president Leo Gerard gave a revealingly myopic response when New York Times reporter Steven Greenhouse asked him why American workers seemed less willing than their European counterparts to engage in workplace occupations and mass demonstrations. By Greenhouse’s account, Gerard “said there were smarter things to do than demonstrating against layoffs — for instance, pushing Congress and the states to make sure the stimulus plan creates the maximum number of jobs” in the United States.7 “I actually believe that Americans believe in their political system more than workers do in other parts of the world,” Mr. Gerard told Greenhouse. “He said,” Greenhouse reported, “large labor demonstrations are often warranted in Canada and European countries to pressure parliamentary leaders. Demonstrations are less needed in the United States, he said, because often all that is needed is some expert lobbying in Washington to line up the support of a half-dozen senators.” 8 The labor bureaucrat Gerard’s self-serving explanation for U.S. labor quiescence was shamefully seconded by liberal Stanford historian David Kennedy. Kennedy “saw another reason that today’s young workers and young people were protesting less than in decades past.” He told Greenhouse that “this generation [has]… found more effective ways to change the world. It’s signed up for political campaigns, and it’s not waiting for things to get so desperate that they feel forced to take to the streets.”9
Really? The impressive potency of American trade unionism’s “smarter” and “more effective” preference for “expert lobbying” over direct action was certainly seen with the corporate-managed democracy’s rapid dismissal of labor’s cherished EFCA. That already-“dead” bill – on which presidential candidate Barack Obama ran (along with his disingenuous promise to revise NAFTA) before union rallies (even as his chief economic advisor Austan Goolsbee assured conservative Canadian officials that Obama’s “NAFTA-bashing” was just harmless “campaign rhetoric” spit out for clueless proletarians) – would have been more effectively advanced with a wave of workplace occupations and marches. That’s how workers won the National Labor Relations Act (once a powerful vehicle for union representation and collective bargaining) during the 1930s. As progressive labor journalist Roger Bybee noted, “the turmoil created by labor activism” during the Depression decade “forced [Franklin Delano] Roosevelt to argue the need for labor rights and the creation of a social safety to head off even more explosive confrontations between workers and authorities.” I was reminded by Gerard and Kennedy’s arguments of the late radical historian Alan Dawley’s evocative notion that the U.S. “ballot box” is “the coffin of class consciousness.”11
“Do or Die in Wisconsin”
Nearly two year later, the situation in Madison and other state capitols has become “so desperate” that public sector unions have “fe[lt] forced to take to the streets” to fight hard right, Tea Party-approved governors and legislators elected r) governors elected in the wake of the great progressive de-mobilization/demoralization enforced by the corporate Democrats and the moribund “progressive movement.” It has been inspiring to witness their people-moving institutional capacity in defensive reaction again the maximalist anti-labor of the worst, most reactionary policymakers in the country. Unlike the Obama-obsessed Tea Partiers, the union and pro-labor crowds in and around the Capitol Rotunda have seemed uninterested in the question of who sits atop the national media-politics extravaganza. They have been focused, laser-like on the real and relevant policy issues at hand and above all on basic labor, human, and civil rights and social justice within and beyond the workplace. With tens of thousands of them circling the Capitol and thousands occupying the structure itself, they seem to have been channeling the wisdom of the late great radical American historian Howard Zinn in 2009: “There's hardly anything more important that people can learn than the fact that the really critical thing isn't who is sitting in the White House, but who is sitting in—in the streets, in the cafeterias, in the halls of government, in the factories. Who is protesting, who is occupying offices and demonstrating—those are the things that determine what happens. It is becoming clearer and clearer to many, after the first year of Obama’s presidency, that it is going to require independent action from below to achieve real change.”
Great but now the question looms: will“unions will push back with the kind of job actions that launched the biggest labor mobilization in decades” or will they --- to quote the radical labor journalist Lee Sustar --– “allow Walker to drive a legislative steamroller over half a century of public-sector unionism in Wisconsin”? Will unions “stand up to the challenge of the greatest attack they've faced since President Ronald Reagan fired 11,000 striking members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization in 198”? Will they move with fire in their bellies in accord with growing rank and file sentiment for significant mass job actions and possibly even a general strike or will they follow the soft advice of six-figure-income liberal, coordinator- class elites like Leo Gerard and David Kennedy by licking their wounds and putting their faith in hopeful future policy corrections through America’s supposedly great political democracy, so pathetically subordinated as it is the combined and interrelated dictatorships of money and empire? Will they move history forward with pro-active gutsiness, showing their capacity to make history from the bottom up and not simply react to the extreme provocations of particularly noxious elites? Reporting from Madison, Sustar notes a telling conflict there between the militant direction many working people want to take and the standard cautious and electoralist-parliamentarian approach favored by labor bureaucrats, who are trying to sound militant by pressing for a voter campaign to recall Scott Walker as they work to dampen the call for decisive, mass, and reasonably rapid direct action from the bottom up:
‘Asked if he supported the call for a general strike, Joe Conway, president of Madison Local 311 of the International Association of Fire Fighters, said, "I'm in total agreement. We should start walking out tomorrow and the next day, and see how long they can last."’
‘...Whether or not the anger of the union rank and file will push union officials into action is unclear. "Right now, what I am seeing from the labor leadership is a lack of response," said J. Eric Cobb, executive director of the Building Trades Council of South Central Wisconsin. Top union leaders have been in a reactive mode, rather than leading, he said.’
‘...In recent days, union leaders have shifted their focus further away from mobilizations, and toward the recall of eight Republicans in the state Senate, as well as the campaign for the Wisconsin state Supreme Court. A mass labor rally scheduled for March 12 was intended to give a boost to that effort.’
“…Labor has already shown it has the power to stop Walker's union-busting. But do union leaders have the will to use it? Following the Senate passage of the union-busting bill, the Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC) called on members to go to work as usual on Thursday.’
‘Certainly, the recall effort is a useful pressure tactic. But in practice, union leaders have counterposed the electoral strategy to further job actions that can put pressure on Walker and his business backers.’12
Not for the first time in American labor history, rank and file workers are faced with the need to pressure not only employers and the capitalist state but also the labor bosses, who are threatened at one and the same time by the actions and power of elites and the needs and militancy of the working class. Let’s hope that labor “leadership” can embrace their existential identity of interests with rank and file militants in this case. Walker and his class warrior comrades across the gubernatorial mansions and state legislative halls of this country seek nothing more than the complete crippling of organized labor. They’re showing a lot of guts in their mad, top-down campaign. Now it’s time for labor “leaders” to show the same from the bottom up, or get out of the way for those with the courage and chutzpah the situation requires. Sure Walker will call a state of emergency and call out the National Guard but let us not forget that (to quote a placard I saw in Madison three Saturdays ago) “union blood runs thicker than tea.”
Left author Paul Street’s latest book (co-authored with Anthony DiMaggio) is Crashing the Tea Party: Mass Media and the Campaign to Remake American Politics (Paradigm, April 2011 advance order at http://www.
1 Monica Davey, “For Wisconsin Governor, Battle Was Long Coming,” New York Times, February 19, 2011.
2 Ryan J. Foley, “On Prank Call, Governor Discusses Strategy,” Associated Press, February 22, 2011.
3 Ryan J. Foley, "Wisconsin Governor Says State Could Lead Nation in Weakening Unions as Protests Enter Day 6," Associated Press (February 20, 2011) at http://www.chicagotribune.
4 Steve Verburg, “Labor Group Calls for General Strike if Budget Bill is Approved,” Wisconsin State Journal, February 23, 2011 at http://host.madison.com/wsj/
5 Lee Sustar, “Do or Die in Wisconsin,” www.socialistworker.org, March 10, 2011.
6 Roger Bybee, “Is U.S. Labor Prepared to Fight?” Z Magazine (June 2009): 35-36.
7 Steven Greenhouse, “In America, Labor Has a Long Fuse,” New York Times, April 5, 2009.
8 Greenhouse, “Labor Has a Long Fuse.”
9 Greenhouse, “Labor Has a Long Fuse.”
10 Bybee, “Is U.S. Labor Prepared?”38
11 Alan Dawley, Class and Community: The Industrial Revolution in Lynn, Massachusetts (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1976).