Monday, April 25, 2011

Wisconsin Labor Leaders Dropping the Ball

Sadly, but not all that surprisingly, Wisconsin labor leaders are really dropping the ball on the mass movement that developed to protest Scott Walker's union busting bill. Matthew Rothschild has a compelling and depressing piece on this:

But then, just as the crowds were swelling, all of a sudden the labor leadership seemed to lose interest in mass action.

It may be that the labor leadership in Wisconsin, which didn’t know quite what to do with all those people in the streets, has now missed its main chance.

“You’ve got to make hay when sun shines, and we soon will be paying the price for not making hay. We blinked,” says Bill Franks, a senior steward for AFT-Wisconsin. “It was a lost opportunity. We had to shut this motherfucker down.” (AFT-Wisconsin was formerly the American Federation of Teachers of Wisconsin, but it has broadened its membership to include other professionals).

Franks believes that when organized labor had 100,000 people marching in the streets, it should have called for some direct action and possibly a general strike. “You can’t put 100,000 people in jail,” he says. “When you have those numbers, the math is all of a sudden on your side.”

Franks says the labor leadership didn’t grasp the power that the outpouring represented. “At the moment when we had some general strike potential,” he says, “the bureaucrats of labor backed off and effectively got in lockstep with the Democratic Party.”

Recall efforts are fine and good, but massing 100,000 people in the streets really scares those in power and emboldens the citizenry.

Why didn’t the state AFL-CIO call for a mass protest the moment that Waukesha County clerk Kathy Nickolaus all of a sudden found 14,000 missing votes in the state supreme court race to throw it to David Prosser, whom she used to work for? Pro-labor and pro-Kloppenburg people were outraged and ready to express that outrage, but the leadership provided them with no outlet.

Why didn’t the state AFL-CIO call for a mass protest when Sarah Palin came to town?

And what plans does the state AFL-CIO have in store if the Republicans try to pull a fast one and intimidate those doing the recall efforts, or out-lawyer the Democratic challengers?

Or, God forbid, when Walker’s anti-union bill finally is allowed to be implemented either by the state supreme court or after a legislative do-over?

I’m afraid the labor leadership in Wisconsin is underestimating the power there is in numbers.

All very true. I remain upset that after the bill passed, the AFL-CIO did not call for a strike. Like Barack Obama after the 2008 election, you had a huge number of motivated and inspired people ready to take the next step and retake the government. And like Obama's response, you have the big liberal institutions, now uncomfortable with mass movements tearing it down in exchange for incremental change and legal challenges. Of course, legal challenges are hardly incongruous with mass protests.But once you blow that momentum, how do you get people back on the streets again? This is what Obama is about to find out in his re-election campaign and this is what the Wisconsin AFL-CIO faces.

What's particularly outrageous is that of all movements, labor should know the power of mass movements. After all, that's what built their movement. But this was so long ago now that it is beyond anyone's personal memory. Replacing mass-action protests is institutional conservatism. That this institutional conservatism has helped lead to labor's decline over the last 40 years has not woken up AFL-CIO leaders blows the mind.

I previously stated that the Wisconsin fight is one of the biggest fights in U.S. labor history since World War II. I absolutely continue to believe that. And by dismantling one of the biggest protest movements of the last two decades, the Wisconsin AFL-CIO is doing all the can to lose the long-term war, even if they win the short-term battle in the courts.