The Wisconsin battle has gripped the nation. In a matter of days working people, in both the public and private sectors, along with many unemployed and students, rose up to challenge Walker's attempt to cripple and even destroy trade unions.
If Walker succeeds then, as the attempt to ban public sector strikes in Ohio shows, many similar attacks on workers’ rights will be coming throughout the country. We need to step up the fight against Walker with strike action, student walkouts and mass civil disobedience.
Wisconsin will only be the beginning. Public sector anti-union laws are proposed in 18 states. Twelve states have “right to work” union-busting laws on the table. Politicians in seven other states are discussing their desire to trample prevailing wage laws in the construction industry that give non-union workers union wages and benefits when they work on state projects.
It is not just worker rights but also jobs and services that face an assault by corporate America and the politicians that serve them. They are trying to make working people pay for a crisis created by big banks, speculators and the system of corporate domination. Over $100 billion are planned in cuts from state and local budgets in the next year, and over $300 billion are on the chopping block for the next two years combined. On top of this, there are rumblings from Obama’s appointed deficit commission of gutting Social Security, Medicaid and Medicare.
Sleeping Giant Starts Moving
Michael Moore correctly stated that Governor Walker has “aroused a sleeping giant” of working class anger against corporate America and their politicians. Accumulated anger has built up over many years, particularly since the 2008 financial collapse and subsequent bailout of Wall Street. Before the economic meltdown, workers had seen years of stagnating or declining real wages. This is the backdrop to the massive size and anger of the labor demonstrations in Wisconsin and across the nation.
Labor solidarity rallies for Wisconsin workers throughout the country have been massive in comparison to recent mobilizations. Working people are preparing to move into action nation-wide, but the scale of the fight back largely depends on the outcome of the battle in Wisconsin. The showdown in Wisconsin is part of a wider war being waged against public sector workers, jobs, services and living standards.
In this economic “recovery,” we’ve seen record highs in corporate profits yet continued mass unemployment. While the super-rich get tax breaks and hoard their cash, working people get budget cuts, attacks on our rights and declining living standards. Meanwhile politicians of both parties claim the “the money isn’t there” to pay for education and other services.
Walker’s Provocation and Workers’ Response
Many of the budget shortfalls in Wisconsin were manufactured through $117 million in tax breaks for the super-rich and tax loopholes for the corporations. The attack on collective bargaining is a calculated move by Walker and his billionaire Koch brother backers. They want to break the power of the unions in order to pave the way for a further driving down of wages and services, in an attempt to increase corporate profitability.
Walker and Koch expected their attack on collective bargaining to go through without much fuss, maybe with a demonstration of a few hundred union members. They thought that the union leaders’ willingness to accept concessions showed that working people weren’t up for a fight. Thankfully, they were dead wrong. Instead of passivity, they were met with a colossal, ongoing and inspiring movement of youth and workers, private and public sector, union and non-union.
Thousands go out to protest every day; tens of thousands have appeared at multiple rallies. Students walked out of classes; buildings (including the Capitol) have been occupied; teachers have called in sick to work. Labor and youth rumblings have not just been present in Madison but also in many small towns and continuously in Milwaukee. The creative capacities of working people have been unleashed, and a culture of solidarity has emerged.
Early Days of the Movement
The stunning way this movement erupted and spread is a living lesson on how working people’s consciousness can be transformed almost overnight. Scott Walker announced his “budget repair bill” on Thursday, February 10th. Over the weekend, as the full scale of the attacks became clear, union leaders called for lobbying delegations and protests on Tuesday and Wednesday. More significantly, countless discussions over FFacebook and email lists produced calls for more serious actions.
On Tuesday the 15th, student walkouts occurred across Madison, with over 1,000 leaving East High School, and hundreds walking out of other schools. Onowa Powell, a student at East High, helped put out the call for a walkout just one day before. "I talked to people (the day before the walkout) who had no idea what was going on, and now they're passionate about it," she explained after she and her classmates spent hours chanting in the Capitol rotunda.
They joined a rally of 10,000 at the Capitol that Tuesday, the 15th, with big delegations from both private and public sector unions. When the firefighters marched through, despite their exemption from Walker’s attack on bargaining rights, cheers and tears filled the Capitol.
After the successful youth actions in Madison, Facebook erupted with calls for walkouts, and on Wednesday the 16th, dozens of schools state-wide felt the impact. Most importantly, so many Madison teachers planned to call in sick that union leaders convinced the school district to shut down the schools for the day. Unionized teaching assistants at the University of Wisconsin, who initiated the Capitol occupation Tuesday night, urged TA’s to bring their classes out on “field-trips” to the Capitol Wednesday. Upwards of 30,000 encircled the Capitol, and they initiated an occupation encampment inside the building.
By the evening of Wednesday, February 16, with the vote scheduled for the next day, it was clear that teachers and students across the state were following the lead of Madison. Attempting to catch up to their membership, at the last minute union officials encouraged a statewide teacher sick-out for the next morning, Thursday. Workers in other industries, public and private, followed the teachers’ lead. The demonstration Thursday, February 17th, saw over 50,000 participate. At least 30 K-12 school districts were shut down Thursday and Friday, alongside numerous university classrooms.
The actions on Thursday, February 17, were characterized by mass defiance of anti-union laws through strike actions and human blockades of legislative chambers in order to prevent a vote. That day, the movement in Wisconsin took on some insurrectionary features widely compared to events in Egypt. It was in this context that the fourteen Democratic Senators, facing huge pressure from below, made the decision to flee the state, giving the movement a temporary victory and allowing time for a continued escalation.
The early days of the movement developed from below with youth providing the spark. The teacher sick out was only acknowledged by union leaders after thousands of teachers were already prepared to take this step. We can’t wait for union leaders or the Democrats to call for strike action or student walkouts. We need to organize now, from below, to urgently pave the way for decisive escalation to defeat Walker!
Instead of backing down to the pressure, Walker waged a counter-offensive with his March 1st speech that was timed to coincide with a clearing out of protesters occupying the Capitol. After taking away a symbolic nerve center of the movement, Walker announced a further $1.5 billion in cuts to education, local budgets and other services. He also implied further cuts in Democratic constituencies if their Senators didn’t return home.
Protesters cannot just last “one day longer” than Walker. The rich have time on their side; they are prepared to wait us out. We need to escalate the struggle now into a growing powerful movement to keep the present energy going. Without seeing a clear way to defeat this bill, people will start to step back due to economic and work pressure.
If we show that we are prepared to take bold action to win, then more will rally to our cause. Working people have the power to shut this state down, and doing so would leave Walker and the Koch brothers shaking in their boots with fear.
The movement in Egypt didn’t just outlast Mubarak. The youth and workers there went on the offensive in the last two days before the ousting of the dictator. Workers went on strike in the Suez Canal, textile factories were shut down, steel production came to a halt and the masses threatened to march on the Presidential palace. That is what forced Mubarak to step down. We need a similar escalation in Wisconsin to win!
Blame Wall Street! No Concessions!
As a starting point we need a one-day public sector general strike to show our power and build organization from below. This can be a launching pad to a broader strategy to kill the whole bill, not only the attacks on union rights but also on public services.
Rallying support beyond public sector workers will be crucial. But unless the unions fight to defend every public service and every job; unless labor puts forward a clear “no concessions,” position, the divide and conquer tactics of the corporate politicians will gain traction. The Tea Party is trying to portray this fight as a struggle for union leaders to hold onto dues money and for the Democratic Party to keep a funding base.
Exposing the Tea Party lies, we have to show that this struggle is about defending and extending public services and living standards for all. The movement needs to clearly point to the wealth of the rich and big business and demand that this money be used to pay for needed social services and jobs. The wealth of this country’s 400 billionaires, if used for the public good, could fund a massive public works program to provide jobs for the unemployed, health care for all, education from kindergarten through doctorates, and much more.
Hundreds of disabled people came to the Capitol to show support for public sector workers and to defend their services. Should we abandon these folks by accepting cuts? No. We should show solidarity by fighting to defend and extend public services through increased funding. Instead of money being directed towards Wall Street bailouts, corporate tax loopholes, wars abroad, and tax breaks for the rich, we can demand jobs and services. Unfortunately, the Democrats and the union leaders, before the fight even began, accepted increased worker contributions to pensions and health benefits and would amount on average to a 7% pay cut for public sector workers in Wisconsin
Public sector workers shouldn’t be apologetic about having decent jobs. We are winning over public opinion. A recent New York Times / CBS poll states, “Sixty-one percent of those polled — including just over half of Republicans — said they thought the salaries and benefits of most public employees were either ‘about right’ or ‘too low’ for the work they do." People are with us in the fight against concessions and for good jobs! The unions' current strength in the public sector should be a base from which to go out and help to organize the unorganized in the private sector. This would enable a struggle to be waged there for increased living standards.
Some union leaders have emerged with a much-needed fighting approach. National Nurses United (NNU), a collection of more radical unions led by the California Nurses’ Association, has brilliantly put forward the slogan “No Concessions! Blame Wall Street!” On March 3rd, NNU led a lively, combative rally of thousands in Madison against all cuts and for taxes on the richest Americans to close budget gaps. Working people already pay too many taxes, and the unions should not call for tax increases on working class homeowners.
In order to bring the struggle forward, there has to be a concerted drive within the unions to completely reverse the leadership's position of making monumental concessions in order to maintain bargaining rights. By agreeing to concessions right at the outset of the battle, the union leaders have weakened the fight. If any of the existing union leaderships are not happy with fighting to defeat the whole of Walker's attack, then they should stand aside to be replaced by leaders willing to take up the challenge.
Opposition to all cuts has to be an important part of a strategy that also focuses on action. Big Saturday protests and an ongoing presence in Madison will not be enough to win. The movement needs to have a thorough discussion to adopt a new fighting strategy before our numbers dwindle. We need to harness all the energy of revolt into actions that can achieve victory.
Forward to Victory: Urgently Prepare for Strike Action
In order to prepare for strikes, committees need to be set up by rank-and-file workers in every school, factory, construction site, store and office. No matter how small these committees start, there needs to be an organized, coordinated campaign for decisive action to beat back Walker. Contracts expire shortly for some unions, but we cannot just complacently wait and leave those unions isolated should they decide to go on strike.
We need to adopt a new fighting strategy immediately. However, if bold action hasn’t been taken beforehand, and if Walker brings this bill to the floor for a vote, we need to prepare now to target that day for wildcat strikes, sickouts, walkouts, mass demonstrations and colossal civil disobedience. This “Day of Rage,” if necessary, should be actively spread throughout the state and culminate with mass meetings to discuss an audacious strategy going forward.
To be effective, we need to be as prepared as possible for the actions needed to defeat Walker. Tens of thousands of workers want strike action, but many are waiting for their union leaders to announce the decisive day. Without pressure from below, it is unlikely that union leaders trained in defeat and compromise will organize strikes. We need to help that pressure from below get organized and expressed. All unions need emergency meetings to discuss strategy. The South Central Federation of Labor’s call for a general strike should be announced and discussed at every meeting along with a petition for strike action circulated by Socialist Alternative, which has already been signed by hundreds of workers.
From these emergency union meetings to discuss a way forward, delegates should be elected to an all-union meeting to prepare for strikes. Democracy from below will be crucial to the success of this movement. Rallies and student walkouts could be planned in every town and city for community members to show support for the strikes. If we show that we can win, then larger numbers will rally to our defense.
Many strike actions are illegal, and we should look at clever ways to avoid being victimized for this action while still organizing the broadest possible shut down. We also have to recognize that the labor movement and the civil rights movement were built through illegal action, from the sit-down strikes of the 1930s to Martin Luther King’s last struggle to support sanitation workers in Memphis. The labor movement has a saying: “It is better to break the law than to break the poor.”
While the law may not be on our side, working people have a tremendous amount of potential power. We clean all the floors, teach all the kids, make all the products, provide services, distribute all the goods, etc. We have the power to shut the state down!
A one-day strike in Wisconsin can be a turning point towards a broader mobilization and radicalization of workers and youth. A one-day strike would be equivalent to a warning shot, not only to Walker but also to the billionaires behind him and all major politicians. Strike committees could increase mass democratic participation in the unions and community groups, something that will be necessary nationally in battles to stop layoffs and cuts.
We need to begin preparations for bold strikes, sick outs, walkouts and civil disobedience now. If Walker dares pass this bill, we need to demonstrate our power and anger in a Day of Rage to shut down Wisconsin.
Broader Strategy against Corporate Domination
As Egypt shows, the struggle will need to continue even after Walker’s (our Mubarak) proposals are defeated or if he was recalled. We are up against more than just Walker and the Koch brothers. Corporate America, and the politicians of both parties that they dominate and control, wants to lay off workers and slash the public sector.
It isn’t just the Republicans that are funded by big business. They also pay off the Democrats. For example, Goldman Sachs and other Wall Street executives gave millions to Obama’s campaign. Obama has frozen federal workers’ wages, given bailouts to bankers, cut vital services from the needy, given tax breaks to the wealthy and accelerated Bush’s attack on teachers and their unions. Obama, while criticizing the attack on bargaining rights, has generally supported cutbacks.
While the fourteen Democrat state senators have played an important role in blocking Walker, at least so far, the Democratic Party as a whole is not a reliable ally. On the contrary, local Democrats throughout the country are carrying out school closures while giving tax breaks to corporations and the super-rich. The fourteen themselves are not opposed to the cuts and seem to be paving the way for a return, enabling the subsequent passing of the bill. Any battle to defend the public sector will necessitate running independent working class candidates against the cuts. This could be a step towards what is really needed: a new political party that represents working people, the poor and young people - a party that takes no donations from corporations and is run democratically by the ordinary people involved in it.
While we would support any movement to recall Republicans, this prospect is many months away, and we can’t direct our energy away from action in the streets, workplaces and campuses. The politicians only listen to us when we show our collective strength and our determination to fight back. If we could recall the most right-wing politicians, then we would need to replace them with independent labor candidates against all cuts and concessions.
The labor movement in this country and around the world was built by people who saw capitalism as the root cause of poverty, joblessness and discrimination. This was especially true of Wisconsin where many of the pioneers of unions were also committed to challenging capitalism. Today, the capitalist system can’t guarantee the maintenance of living standards, let alone improvement.
The present budget crisis flows from a deep structural crisis of capitalism, triggered by the collapsing housing market bubble and the financial collapse. This system only cares about super-profits, not human need. That is why we need to also fight to build support for democratic socialist ideas, not only as a vision for a future society but also as a guide to the kind of mass action needed to win this battle in Wisconsin.