Saturday, February 19, 2011

Wisconsin and the American Labor Movement's Future

I haven't written a whole lot on the protests in Wisconsin because there are so many people on the ground doing great work. I most especially recommend Mike Elk's work at ThinkProgress (here's his latest). His Twitter feed is also first rate and has kept me informed on the latest updates, not to mention news on the American labor movement more broadly.

I've been thinking about where the Wisconsin protests fit into American labor history. I have a few points I want to make on this topic, but in general, I think it is one of the most important moments for American labor since World War II, I am confident of beating back Gov. Walker's bill to end collective bargaining for state workers, and I am not particularly optimistic about the long-term effects of the movement.

Now to talk about each of these three points.

1. Where does the Wisconsin movement fit into recent American labor history? I've come up with a list of what I think are the most important moments in American labor history since 1945. In chronological order:

1. The passage of the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947, cracking down on union activism.
2. The merger of the AFL and CIO in 1955, bringing American labor under one umbrella
3. The implementation of the Border Industrialization Program, 1965, which encouraged U.S. companies to build factories on the Mexican side of the U.S.-Mexico border. 
4. The Delano grape strike and the success of the United Farm Workers in publicizing the plight of Mexican-American farmworkers, mid 1960s-mid 1970s
5. The murder of Joseph Yablonski on the orders of United  Mine Workers president Tony Boyle in 1970 after Yablonski ran for UMWA president on a reform ticket.
6. The firing of the air traffic controllers by Ronald Reagan after they went on strike, 1981
7. The creation of the North American Free Trade Agreement, 1994
8. The attempt by Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker to end collective bargaining rights for public employees, 2011

One might quibble with this list I suppose--maybe including another strike or two, maybe taking out the Yablonski murder. But I think it's a pretty good list. And this means that we are seeing the most important event in American labor history in almost 20 years and one of the 8 most important in the last 65 years.

Of the 7 previous events, only 1 has been a true win for workers (the UFW). Most were extremely negative. Even the AFL-CIO merger was at best neutral and I'd argue a net loss because it was the final nail in the coffin of the CIO being a progressive model of American unionism.

Not surprisingly, the trajectory of labor in America has been down, down, down.

Possibly, that changes now.

2. Walker may simply not care about getting reelected. Or even about getting recalled after he's served a year of his term. He hasn't shown the slightest sign of flinching. So far, Republicans have held strong in support of Walker's draconian bill. This is quite different from Ohio where enough Republican state legislators are fleeing from Gov. John Kasich's similar bill to make it quite unlikely it passes. Note: I will be at the big rally in Columbus on Tuesday and will be tweeting from there.

Eventually, even if these protests (today reaching up to 60,000 people!) don't faze Walker, they are going to faze his supporters who could be recalled or have to face very angry voters in less than 2 years.

So I don't think the bill as it stands will pass. The unions have already said they are willing to compromise on the financial portions of the bill and that what brought them to the streets were its union-busting measures. I think Wisconsin public sector unions still have collective bargaining going forward.

3. I am hopeful but not incredibly optimistic about the long-term implications of this movement. The stakes are huge. Everyone knows this. If Walker wins, we can expect public employees to lose their collective bargaining rights in nearly every state immediately, or as soon as Republicans take power in the state, whichever comes first. If the unions win, Republican efforts to destroy public sector unions take a blow.

But I worry that this blow to right-wing intentions will only be temporary. Walker is a blowhard and an idiot. I doubt the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is real happy with him right now, even though they want the unions gone. Rather than do what business and Republicans have done for the last 40 years--slowly repeal worker rights without getting workers so mad they will take to the streets in a mass movement--Walker has given up the game.

What will turn the American labor movement around is the unions building on Madison to retake America for working people. That takes organization, resources, and a lot of people power. We've had it in the past. We haven't had it for a long time.

That the unions are so willing to compromise on the financial side of Walker's bill worries me--rather than argue for higher taxes on corporations and the rich, they are willing to see their rights be slowly eroded. That's the win as it stands now. To still get screwed on pensions and health care. That's hardly a win. That's a loss versus a catastrophic humiliating defeat.

One lesson from Egypt or any other protest movement is that once you've built momentum and people power, you have a whole lot more leverage to change the rules of the game. At this point, I think the unions need to be demanding more than just survival. It's time to start talking about who needs to pay for budget deficits and who is at fault for creating them.

Moreover, if the win here is sheer survival, Walker is going to be back next year with the budget and Republicans in Wisconsin and around the nation will continue their slow repeal of worker rights. So that's not a long-term win at all now.

This very moment is the time to start reversing the national rhetoric about budgets, taxes, and working people. Now is when things have to change. This is the movement! We may never see this opportunity again. Progressives need to build off this union struggle for change around the nation. If it doesn't happen now, when does it happen? When are progressives going to have more people mobilized than we do right now? When are people going to more conscious of how capital and the Republican Party want to destroy them than at this very moment? It could be a very, very long time before we have this another opportunity like this to retake America.

Unfortunately, I am skeptical whether union leaders, union members, non-unionized workers, students, and other progressives organizations are ready and willing to capitalize on the Wisconsin movement to create larger-scale social and economic change.

I plead with you to prove me wrong.