Wisconsin: School for labor’s fightback
Published Mar 5, 2011 9:52 AM
Editor’s note: The writer is a municipal worker, longtime union
activist and past president of United Auto Workers Local 2334 in Detroit. He
was in Madison, Wis., Feb. 19-21, with a solidarity delegation from Detroit and
The struggle now unfolding in Wisconsin will go down in history as the beginning
of the long delayed fightback of the U.S. working class. Union and progressive
activists have been scanning the horizon for decades, really since the
“Reagan revolution,” for signs of a labor resurgence against
concessions, unemployment and union busting. Not a few have given in to
demoralization, convinced that the working class of this country would not be
able to rise to its feet. It has taken only a few days for the workers and
students of Wisconsin to prove them wrong.
History has repeatedly shown that repression breeds resistance and that many
important fights arose from the working class defending itself. In Wisconsin
the cocky Gov. Scott Walker, egged on by his Tea Party cronies, went way beyond
demands for concessions from public workers to propose ending any real
collective bargaining rights for these 175,000 workers.
It may be that Walker overreached himself in his right-wing enthusiasm. It is
more likely that the Wall Street corporate bosses and bankers, to whom
Wisconsin and other states and municipalities are beholden to the tune of
billions upon billions of dollars in loans, gave orders for this new phase of
the attack on workers and their organizations. It is certainly no coincidence
that bills with almost identical language are being introduced and discussed in
other states at the same time.
Now tens of thousands of workers are in motion. They are meeting, discussing,
marching, rallying and striking in unprecedented numbers to defend their
collective bargaining rights. Special notice must be taken of the students,
both in colleges and high schools, who took the advanced position of seizing,
occupying and holding the state Capitol building in Madison. Their energy and
enthusiasm are impressive. Their commitment to the struggle for union rights
and against cuts to education has fired up the student movement across the
It can be said, with no exaggeration, that the United States has not seen
anything like this mobilization since the 1930s or 1940s. Certainly there have
been strikes, large and often bitter. There have been mass marches, like
Solidarity Day that labor called in 1981 against PATCO union busting. But they
are nothing in scope and depth like the developments in Wisconsin.
One can find many things missing in the Wisconsin struggle. The students lack
organization and experience. The union leaders also have little experience to
lean on to counter this plan to destroy the unions wholesale. This is
inevitable after such a long hiatus in open class warfare. It is only in the
struggle that this experience will be gained. New organizations and greater
consciousness will emerge as the struggle continues.
‘Necessary cutbacks’ or general strike?
More attention must be paid to exposing the lie that “cutbacks are
necessary.” It needs to be pointed out that there is plenty of money to
cover the big deficits in municipal, state and the federal budgets. The profits
of the corporations and banks are at a record high — tax them. Interest
to the banks is draining the public treasuries — put a freeze on debt
service payments. The Pentagon budget and imperialist wars abroad add up to
over a trillion dollars a year — slash it. Not a penny has to come from
the workers or from critical social service programs.
The Feb. 21 resolution by the Wisconsin South Central Federation of Labor
— representing about 45,000 workers in six counties — for a general
strike represents a new stage in the struggle. Even during the vicious
union-busting attack on the Detroit newspaper strikers in 1995, the
Metro-Detroit AFL-CIO central labor council rejected a motion from the floor to
have all local unions “vote to authorize a general strike if the council
decides it necessary.” The reason given at the time was that “it
has never happened in U.S. history.” The fact is that U.S. labor history
records many general strikes, like those in Seattle in 1919 and San Francisco
in 1934. But union leaders in an era of relative labor peace often shrink from
the thought of all-out class warfare.
A general strike would require education and preparation. It would be foolish
to think that a mass across-the-board walkout would happen or succeed by just
issuing the call. The Wisconsin resolution specified that education begin in
all locals on the function of and preparation for a general strike. Serious and
careful work in every local union must now begin.
The public, especially the students, must be informed and organized, too. The
unions must have a plan — and let the public know — for emergency
services. And union leaders and members must be ready for the inevitable attack
from the government. Some of the media are already giving dire warnings against
a general strike, citing the hated Taft-Hartley Act. It will be incumbent upon
national union leaders to gather support and prepare action to show solidarity
with the Wisconsin workers in the face of certain government retaliation.
Whatever the outcome of the battle of Wisconsin, the labor movement will never
be the same. The growing resentment against all the many attacks on workers,
the cutbacks in social services, the racism and oppression permeating society
are making a massive fightback necessary and inevitable throughout the United
States. Wisconsin workers and students have shown the way.
Articles copyright 1995-2012 Workers World.
Verbatim copying and distribution of this entire article is permitted in any medium without royalty provided this notice is preserved.
Workers World, 55 W. 17 St., NY, NY 10011
Email: [email protected]
Subscribe [email protected]
Support independent news DONATE