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Wisconsin: Labour’s last stand

Rahul Mahajan looks at the fightback in Wisconsin

May 15, 2011
9 min read

Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, Libya – Wisconsin. The showdown in Madison, Wisconsin, does not compare with the long-awaited self-liberation of North Africa and the Gulf in terms of sacrifice or level of organisation, but it is the most significant labour struggle in the US in decades – and it may prove to be just as globally important as those more dramatic engagements, because it represents the first real bump in the road for the US right’s new agenda.

Madison emerged as a global flashpoint because its new Republican governor, Scott Walker, introduced what he called a ‘budget repair bill’, supposedly to alleviate a shortfall of $137 million this year and a projected $3.6 billion the year after. These measures are estimated to amount to an effective pay cut of up to 10 per cent. More important, they were non-negotiable. Indeed, Walker declared that as the state is ‘broke’ and has nothing to bargain with, it must therefore ensure that public employees have no bargaining rights.

Collective bargaining for public employees – with the exception of some police and firefighters – is to be limited to wages alone, with no mention of benefits, working conditions, or disciplinary procedures. Even on wages, possible concessions are limited to cost-of-living adjustments, unless a state-wide referendum says otherwise. Even more pernicious, the bill eliminates employer collection of union dues and imposes annual union certification votes, with a majority of all members (not just those voting) required for continued certification.

The measures are intended to destroy public-sector unions in Wisconsin. They are tried and tested – similar measures implemented by Governor Mitch Daniels of Indiana in 2005 led to a 90 per cent reduction in public-sector union membership. Other measures include the elimination of health benefits for ‘limited term employees’ and a sweeping mandate to introduce ‘efficiency’ in the state’s Medicaid programs (the federally funded but state‑administered health insurance for the poor).

The evolution of the protests against Walker’s onslaught is an object lesson in that most endangered of species: American-style democracy. Walker, in the finest tradition of US politics, formally announced the bill on Friday, 11 February, hoping to take advantage of the weekend ‘news hole’ to jackhammer the bill through the legislature before the public knew what was going on. But the public employees’ unions and many others were on the alert, since he had repeatedly telegraphed his radical austerity agenda.

A Valentine’s Day protest previously planned by the Teaching Assistants’ Association of the University of Wisconsin at Madison suddenly mushroomed to 1,000 people. The next day saw the hearings of the joint finance committee, the first body to consider budget bills.

The hearings included public testimony; and although the Republican co-chairmen tried to limit knowledge of this to a few groups of Tea Party activists, the information got out and people from all walks of life and all parts of Wisconsin streamed in, ready to talk about the effects of the budget repair bill on their lives. As 10,000 protesters shook the walls of the Capitol, hour after hour of poignant, eloquent testimony touched everyone who watched. The Republican co-chairs hurried people through their scandalously brief two minutes, often refusing to allow legislators to dialogue with them. In the final 14 hours of testimony, not a single person spoke in favour. When, after 17 hours, the co-chairs abruptly and arbitrarily cut off testimony with hundreds still on the list to be heard, the tension exploded into anger and protest, with chants of ‘Let us speak’ ringing in the halls.

Cutting off testimony was seen as a gross abrogation of the rights of Wisconsin citizens. The Democrats convened an informal hearing that continued round the clock for days. Protesters decided that they had to stay in the building in order to keep testifying, and the Capitol occupation was born. Over the next few days, protest numbers increased to 50,000. Then, the situation was transformed when the entire Democratic delegation of the state Senate left the state, denying the Republicans the quorum needed for budget-related legislation (and putting themselves beyond the reach of state law enforcement, who could have ordered them to go back).

The occupation lasted 17 days, with as few as 100 or as many as 800 sleeping in the Capitol at night. The largest US labour protests in living memory peaked at an estimated 80 to 100,000 participants on 26 February. Although public employees in Wisconsin are not allowed to strike, there were work stoppages. Schoolteachers in Madison walked out for four days in a row, defeating a legal attempt to enjoin them to return. Rural areas in Wisconsin that hadn’t seen a protest since the 1980s saw hundreds or thousands of people protesting against appearances by Walker and packing town hall meetings.

These actions inspired others around the country – and the world. The Republican governor of Michigan was forced to say he would negotiate with public-sector unions rather than coerce them. The Indiana legislature (at the urging of Governor Daniels) dropped a ‘right-to-work’ bill that would have wrecked private-sector unions. Protesters tried to occupy the Ohio statehouse. And people from around the world, including Egypt, ordered pizzas to keep the Capitol residents fed around the clock.

A very broad constellation of social forces was brought to bear. In general, ‘social movement unionism’ is a weak or non-existent force in US politics; with some notable exceptions, unions are notoriously insular and focused on their own immediate concerns. The Wisconsin labour struggle, however, has been a delicate balance of several moving parts. The occupation was maintained primarily by a coalition between the Teaching Assistants’ Association, local community and student grassroots activists, and many previously inactive community members. The big protests were spearheaded by larger unions with public sector members: the Wisconsin Educational Association Council, the American Federation of Teachers-Wisconsin, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, and the Service Employees’ International Union. Police and firefighters, even those not covered in the bill, have demonstrated in solidarity with their fellow public employees, as have numerous private-sector unions, such as the Steel Workers. A contingent of 150 dockers even flew in from southern California to sleep in the Capitol.

As I write, the 24-hour occupation of the Capitol is over, but activists maintain a presence in the building in the day and on the grounds at night. There is serious talk about a general strike if the governor starts to implement the threatened layoffs of at least 1,500 state employees; the last one was the Twin Cities (Minnesota) strike of 1934.

The budget repair bill is not the brainchild of Scott Walker, a long-time colourless Republican functionary turned radical Tea Partier. It is part of a pre-programmed national offensive by the new right. The fundamental components are being repeated in Ohio (where it just passed the senate), Indiana (withdrawn), Florida, Tennessee and numerous other states, with lesser versions in California and New York, proposed by Democratic governors.

The first component might be called neoliberal austerity, although it is perhaps more straightforward to term it ‘austerity for thee but not for me’. Most of these plans involve tax cuts for corporations and the rich, and sacrifice for public workers, who will lose rights and compensation, and for the broader public, who will suffer a severe loss in government services such as healthcare, police protection and education – while this struggle was going on, Detroit, Michigan, made the decision to close half of its public schools. This offensive is also supported by divide-and-rule policies. Republican politicians repeatedly refer to public employees as parasites and enemies of the people; Walker calls public employees the ‘haves’ and private-sector employees the ‘have-nots’, as if it is school teachers and government clerks who exploit private sector workers.

The second component is the deliberate assault on public-sector unions. The argument from right-wing think tanks like the Heritage Foundation is that they differ fundamentally from private-sector unions, in that they do not haggle over the distribution of honestly derived profit but rather over the ill-gotten spoils of taxation and other government revenue collection. Furthermore, and more fundamentally, private-sector employees have no leverage or control over their employers, while public-sector unions, which spend some small part of their membership dues on political campaigns, can help choose their bosses (elected politicians) and exert leverage on them. Since private-sector workers have no democratic representation in the workplace and the fundamental elements of their lives are totally subject to the whims of the market, ‘fairness’ requires that the same be true of public employees.

Perhaps more to the point than these spurious arguments is the fact that private-sector unionism now stands at just over 7 per cent in the US. Last year, according to the Federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, unionised public-sector employees outnumbered unionised private-sector employees for the first time, even though the private sector is much larger. Public unions remain because they have not been subject to 30 years of constant union-busting, with the result that union penetration in the public sector is still at about 35 per cent. Now, with the ideal firmly entrenched in popular ideology that everything must be run like a corporation, it is only natural that government gets into the business of union-busting too. Public sector unions are also the largest organised source of reliable political money on the liberal side – with the recent Supreme Court Citizens United ruling freeing corporations to engage in political spending without limit, it is again only natural to try to destroy the resources of the other side.

In a way, this fight is the last stand of organised labour in America. Yes, it will go on in some form, but the question of whether it plays a political role in the country, whether or not it continues to provide a bulwark, however weak, against untrammelled corporate rule, will be determined in the next months. And this fight is not just for organised labour – it is for everyone who would be harmed by the dark new order arising in Wisconsin.

Rahul Mahajan is a teaching assistant who has been involved in organising the Wisconsin protests

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