Wisconsin: School for labor’s fightback

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 Chicago.

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 U.S.

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.

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