The passage of right-wing Gov. Scott Walker’s union-busting bill should not be the end of the story in Wisconsin. It should be the beginning of a new phase of escalated struggle by the unions, the community and students to overturn this illegal denial of workers’ rights.
Walker and the right-wing Republican state legislative group are outright tools of the banks, the bondholders and corporations that are rolling in money and still putting their profits before union rights and people’s needs.
There are many grounds on which to base a mass fightback to overturn this bill: It is illegal under international law; it was passed illegally; it denies fundamental rights of unions and all workers, and it attacks communities and students.
There are many ways to fight back and time to prepare. But the most important and decisive ways to fight back involve the collective united action of the unions in alliance with communities and students and youth. It will take direct action to stop “business as usual” until the law is repealed —whether by some kind of general strike, mass direct action or another form of struggle. The politicians and their corporate backers must be made to pay a high enough price that they will withdraw this reactionary, anti-worker, anti-people law.
Collective bargaining is a civil right and a workers’ right. Without collective bargaining rights, a union is defenseless and will soon perish. The states in the South, where collective bargaining rights are denied, have the lowest union density in the country and are also the poorest.
Collective bargaining rights ultimately boil down to the right to food, housing, medical care, education and a decent retirement — that is, the right to live a decent life. No right-wing legislator, acting on behalf of millionaires and billionaires, has the right to deny union rights.
The great outpouring of unions and workers all over the state and coming from other states, as well as strong student support for over four weeks, has electrified union members, communities and students all over the country. This has created very favorable conditions in which to launch a further struggle to overturn the law.
Walker has said he wants his “PATCO moment.” When Ronald Reagan crushed the 18,000-member Professional Air Traffic Controllers Association in 1981 by firing all of them and barring them from federal employment for life, that union and its cause were little known to the public. Breaking the union at that time evoked no mass support or resistance.
The opposite is true today. The Wisconsin public employee unions have ignited a firestorm of union support that has spread to every city and town in the state and across the country, from coast to coast. The unions can count on widespread support and solidarity if they decide on a general strike or some other form of fightback.
There are many forms of a general strike. In 1934, in classic, full-scale municipal general strikes, the longshore workers won the right to organize in San Francisco, the Teamsters won the right to organize in Minneapolis, and the Auto-Lite workers won the right to organize in Toledo, Ohio.
The Wisconsin’s South Central Federation of Labor has given out information about a state-wide rolling general strike in Ontario from 1995 to 1998. It provides a recent model that lays out in detail the necessary preparations for and execution of this type of strike. During that period there were 11 “Days of Action,” which ultimately pushed back the Ontario government’s proposed anti-labor, austerity program.
Whatever actions are decided on going forward, the most important aspect is that the workers and the broader masses supporting them stay mobilized in one way or another. A general strike, even a one-day strike or a series of short strikes, takes the greatest preparation. But as long as the unions, the communities and the students stay engaged and work toward the closest unity and organization, taking the necessary time to plan their campaigns, they can win.
In the meantime, demonstrations around the state and the country can lay the groundwork for a much bigger struggle.
Right now all public service workers are under attack. They have suffered a setback in Ohio, where anti-union legislation has passed the state Senate, but this can be reversed through struggle. There are battles coming up in Indiana and Michigan. Dozens of state governments are waiting to see the outcome in Wisconsin. The bankers are rooting for Walker. Right-wing politicians are sharpening their legislative knives, hoping to cut the throats of the public worker unions.
Wisconsin is where unions and their supporters have made the strongest challenge. Union rights have been under attack in the U.S. for 30 years. But because Walker has made such a vicious attack, Wisconsin is both the flashpoint of the struggle andthe place where the workers are the strongest.
When Walker tried to mobilize popular support for his program, only a few hundred Tea Party types showed up for a day or two. They soon disappeared under the pressure of the tens of thousands of pro-union demonstrators who showed up day after day, week after week.
Walker has a right-wing legislative majority, but he and his cause are overwhelmingly in the minority among the active masses of the population. And in a real struggle, this is what counts.
Legality and class struggle
As a moment of decision on struggle approaches, there are many who will point out the great legal difficulties that public employees face regarding strikes and mass action. It is important to note, though, that it was once illegal for public employees to form a union at all. Only strikes and struggles overturned the laws barring public employees from organizing in the first place.
The legal right to form a union was once denied to all workers. But the struggle, mass action, sit-down strikes, general strikes and industrial strikes won those rights on the ground. The laws then changed based on what the workers were able to wrest from the bosses or the government.
Union-busting bill illegal under int’l law
Walker took office under false pretenses. He hid his plans from the people: to break the unions, take away Wisconsin’s low-income health insurance known as BadgerCare and make draconian cuts in services. He hid his connection with the infamous right-wing billionaires — the Koch brothers — and with the banks. He and his corporate backers carried out a sneak attack, a secret conspiracy behind the backs of the people of Wisconsin. Walker’s election was a virtual anti-union coup d’état.
Walker’s law itself is illegal. Not just because of the way it was railroaded through by a tiny group of right-wing Republicans. Not just because the police denied thousands entrance to the Capitol. Not just because the people were denied the right of assembly and the right to hearings. And not just because the legislature had no right to split the bill on the false grounds that the union-busting part was “non-fiscal.”
It is illegal because the right to collective bargaining is regarded all over the world, and under international law, as a fundamental human right. The right to collective bargaining is denied only under the most authoritarian and reactionary regimes — and in the racist, anti-labor states of the U.S. South and Southwest.
In 2005 the United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers of America Local 150 and the North Carolina Public Service Union filed a complaint with the International Labor Organization against their right-to-work state for denying collective bargaining rights to public employees. The suit was joined by the Public Service International, a world-wide federation representing more than 20 million public sector workers in 160 countries. (Huffington Post, March 15)
In 2007 the ILO issued a ruling calling on the U.S. government to “promote the establishment of a collective bargaining framework in the public sector in North Carolina” and called specifically for the repeal of North Carolina General Statute #95-98, the law denying collective bargaining rights to public employees.
More generally, under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted in 1948 by the United Nations, the right to collective bargaining is part of the right to freedom of association and the right to organize trade unions (articles 20 and 23). The U.S. has signed and ratified this declaration.
Thus the state of North Carolina and all the so-called right-to-work states are in violation of international law and of human rights. What Walker and the bankers want is to make Wisconsin as anti-union as North Carolina. If denial of collective bargaining is illegal under international law in North Carolina, then it is illegal in Wisconsin. Workers and unions have every right to insist on their rights under universally recognized international law.
Wisconsin unions can enforce their rights
Now the time has come to compel Walker and the millionaires and billionaires behind him to step back from union-busting. The unions and the workers can take advantage of their favorable position of popular support. The unions can become the defenders, not just of their own rights, but of the rights of the communities and the poor who will suffer under Walker’s vicious bill, and also of the students and youth who will suffer from cutbacks in education.
The stage is set for a massive fightback. It is time to overturn the bill and turn the situation around for public workers and all workers in this country in their struggle against the capitalist bosses and their governments and politicians.