The great struggle of the Wisconsin public workers has galvanized union solidarity on a national level not seen since 1981. That was when the AFL-CIO organized the Solidarity Day demonstration of half a million workers in Washington, D.C., after President Ronald Reagan had fired 18,000 air traffic controllers, members of the PATCO union, and banned them from federal employment for life.
But Solidarity Day in 1981 was a one-shot, symbolic action that came and went because the issue was quickly abandoned by the top leadership after the demonstration was over. This time it’s different.
The determined and sustained stand by the Wisconsin unions, students and community supporters against the union-busting, right-wing Gov. Scott Walker and his corporate backers has aroused workers all over the country. It has raised hope that the unending nightmare of attacks on the working class, and the unions in particular, can be stopped. The direct action of occupying the Capitol building in Madison for two weeks has inspired unionists and their sympathizers from all 50 states — and even from other countries — who have rallied to the cause with donations and other expressions of solidarity.
Wisconsin has shown the potential power, not only of a united labor struggle, but of a budding alliance among unions, the community, and students and youth. Such a prospect can turn the nightmare that labor has been facing into a nightmare for the bosses and bankers.
A majority now favor union rights
Indeed, big business is extremely worried about what effect this eruption of union solidarity will have on the general population and has sent its pollsters to find out. All the polling outfits, including the Wall Street Journal/NBC, the right-wing Rasmussen Reports and several others, got the same results. Sympathy for unions is back on the map in the United States, with 60 percent and more favoring the defense of collective bargaining rights and a similar majority in favor of unions.
The Wisconsin struggle has overcome a decades-long campaign of slander against unions and has successfully countered the effects of all the big business propaganda against so-called “overpaid public workers.”
The defense of collective bargaining as a fundamental right in Wisconsin has strong implications for future campaigns against anti-union, “right-to-work” laws in the South and Southwest.
Despite the great progress that has been made and the great potential that this struggle holds, however, strong measures are going to be needed for victory.
Wisconsin’s public employees are facing a hard-right governor who has a hard-right majority in both houses of the Legislature. This is a struggle against the capitalist state, which has capitalist legal authority, judges, financial power and the instruments of force at its disposal to be used against the workers. This is far greater immediate power than any private corporation has at its disposal.
Up against bondholders and bankers
Equally important, the unions are not up against just Gov. Walker, the billionaire Koch brothers, who help to finance the anti-union slander campaign, and the Tea Party.
They are up against the rich bondholders, the bankers who stand behind them and the entire ruling class. These forces are hoping Walker can kill off collective bargaining rights in Wisconsin. Of course, they want it to be done without provoking a great class struggle — they are fearful of such a development. But they are silently behind Walker.
Consider the following item that appeared in the Philadelphia Enquirer online on Feb. 22:
“Of all the Republican proposals for not paying retired teachers and state troopers the pensions promised in more prosperous times, investors prefer Wisconsin-style union-busting over the state-bankruptcy gamble proposed by ex-U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich and ex-Florida Gov. Jeb Bush
“State bankruptcy could let governments break their union contracts and cancel benefits, but it ‘is less desirable to the bondholder, because it creates a higher level of uncertainty that would increase borrowing costs for states and local municipalities,’ says Michael Crow, who manages $3 billion in clients’ bond investments in state and local governments for Glenmede, the Philadelphia trust bank.
“Barring unions from negotiating benefits, as Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker wants to do, is more likely to improve states’ credit.”
Behind the bondholders stand the banks. Banks have guaranteed $53 billion in state and municipal bonds that come due in 2011 alone. Another $24 billion more come due in 2012, and so on.
While the Koch brothers may be cheering Walker on, their view coincides with the view of a large section of finance capital. These are the same financiers who were bailed out to the tune of $10 trillion, who are making record profits, and who are paying politicians like Walker to declare that there is no money, so the unions and the poor have to be sacrificed.
Walker dreams of a ‘PATCO moment’
Gov. Walker told a blogger, whom he mistakenly thought to be one of the Koch brothers, that this was going to be his “PATCO moment.” This must be taken deadly seriously by the entire labor union movement.
Back in 1981, the AFL-CIO leadership was in a state of denial about the seriousness of the firing of the air traffic controllers. But that firing was the opening shot in a 30-year-long anti-labor offensive. The anti-labor offensive unleashed by and supported by the Reagan administration demanded huge concessions on wages, benefits, working conditions and other union rights. The bosses aimed their fire at the industrial unions.
The current offensive has taken aim at teachers and public workers in general.
During the anti-labor offensive of the last 30 years, the top union officialdom left every local union to face the combined forces of big capital on its own. Valiant struggles against concessions were carried out by the copper miners at Phelps Dodge in 1983, the Hormel meat packers in UFCW Local P-9 in 1985, the paper workers at International Paper in 1987, the UAW strike at Caterpillar in 1993, the rubber workers at Bridgestone/Firestone in 1995, the Detroit newspaper strike of 1995-1997 and many more.
All these strikes were carried out against the centralized forces of corporate capital, backed by the banks and the capitalist state. Its judges issued anti-union injunctions upon request, and the police and National Guard escorted in armies of scabs to break the strikes.
Without the mobilization of the labor movement in alliance with the community, the heroism of the rank-and-file workers and local union leaders was insufficient to overcome the demands for concessions.
Combined forces needed to bring victory
It is not just Walker who is looking for a “PATCO moment.” It is the ruling class as a whole.
Under these conditions, the burden of overcoming the Walker regime and his ruling-class backers should not be left on the shoulders of the Wisconsin workers alone. Nor should the public workers of Ohio — who have just suffered a setback — or the public workers of Indiana, Michigan and all the other states coming under attack be left to fight isolated battles.
This offensive against public workers is clearly orchestrated by the central powers of the capitalist class. They are in control of the media, the state, and all the levers of power and influence needed to carry out this vicious campaign.
The national leadership of the AFL-CIO, of Change to Win and all independent unions must unite to support this struggle, and not just symbolically.
Nor should the labor movement rely solo on the 14 Wisconsin Democratic state senators. These senators, under the pressure of the struggle, took a bold move — bold for politicians — and left the state to deny the Republicans a quorum. It was a progressive act for which they have been vilified by the right wing, fined, threatened with arrest, had privileges removed, etc.
Their act gave the workers valuable time to mobilize mass support and strengthen the struggle at the Capitol. But they are legislators, and they can only legislate what the workers are able to win on the ground. The fate of this struggle cannot rely on whether or not the Republicans can get a quorum. It is up to the working class to carry out the actual struggle to force Walker and the ruling class to back off.
The union leadership correctly made collective bargaining their fundamental priority. But they gave in to the psychological and political pressure of big business. Instead of saying “Tax the rich” and showing that public employees are underpaid compared to the private sector, they unnecessarily made concessions on health care and pensions without any struggle. But these concessions could also be reversed in the course of the struggle.
Idea of a general strike
The question of a general strike has been raised by the Wisconsin South Central Labor Federation. Just raising it, if only as a threat, is an advance for the union movement. Even a short general strike of a limited duration, from one to a few days, is a major undertaking and could energize the whole working class. A full-fledged general strike is a most serious matter in the struggle between the classes. It would require great logistical, strategic and tactical preparation. It involves organizing transportation, the supply of food, emergency medical services, services to the poor, education and other questions of social and economic organization. It means building up support in the community in advance through mass propaganda and organization. It would require educating the workers. Above all it would require the greatest unity among the unions and with the general population. If a general strike were to be carried out, the workers would have to be prepared to confront the fury of the ruling class. To successfully carry out a general strike in Wisconsin would certainly require the support of the entire labor movement, along with the support of the community.
The AFL-CIO has called for a mobilization in Madison on March 12. This is a step in the right direction. It raises another option of a Solidarity-style massive demonstration, with hundreds of thousands occupying the state capital until the legislation is dropped. Such a mobilization could set the stage for a general strike. It could also reverse the layoffs announced by Walker.
Such a demonstration would send a message not only to Walker in Wisconsin but also to Gov. John Kasich in Ohio, Gov. Mitch Daniels in Indiana, Gov. Rick Snyder in Michigan and to the entire ruling class that they will face a fierce class struggle if they try to impose these onerous concessions on the workers.
Any such mass mobilization would have to raise the question of jobs in a major way. This would send a signal to the millions of unemployed, especially those in the Black, Latino/a and Native communities, which suffer from extremely high unemployment, that the unions are on their side. This is crucial to building not just union solidarity but class solidarity within the working class as a whole.
These are the types of measures necessary to deny Walker, the Koch brothers, the bankers and the bosses their “PATCO moment” and to revive the class struggle on a scale needed to push the economic crisis back onto the backs of the millionaires and billionaires, where it belongs.