Public Employee “Union Busting” in Wisconsin and Elsewhere: The Ideological Decay of the U.S. Bourgeoisie Deepens

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At the time of writing, the situation in Wisconsin has calmed considerably from the turmoil we described at the end of February in "Wisconsin Public Employees: Defense of the Unions Leads to Defeat"[1]. Although Republican/Tea Party Governor Scott Walker was able to use questionable parliamentarian maneuvers to ram his “union busting” bill through the state legislature, there has been no general strike as the unions promised and protests at the state Capitol building have steadily dwindled. Although the national union apparatus treated us to a “day of action” in major cities across the country, the focus of events in Wisconsin has shifted to the shady world of bourgeois legalism, as the unions—along with their Democratic and “progressive” allies—engage in a court room battle to prevent enforcement of the Republicans’ multi-faceted bill to attack public employee unions. Meanwhile, Democratic political operatives have launched an electoral campaign to recall Republican legislators who voted for the bill.

Although America’s new imperialist adventure in Libya and the earthquake and nuclear catastrophe in Japan have overtaken the events in Wisconsin as the “hot” news stories of the day, a steady media campaign continues around the theme of “union busting” in the United States. The right-wing media—spearheaded by the demagogues at Fox News and talk radio—continue to spew toxic venom against public employees and their unions, describing them as public enemy number one in the fight to control spending and get budget deficits under control. Meanwhile, left-wing media—primarily through the mouthpiece of the MSNBC network and the pages of The Nation and Mother Jones magazines—keeps up a steady message railing against the unabashed cruelty of the Republican/Tea Party crowd, who they say seek to destroy the unions as part of a broader attack on the American “middle class.” According to the left-wing narrative, the unions remain the last best hope for working Americans, in a time of growing inequality, to make the economy work for everyone.

The unions and the “progressive” left have attempted to seize upon the momentum of the Wisconsin protests to build a movement against other Tea Party/Republican governors’ efforts to enact similar bills in their states. Protests have taken place in Indiana and Ohio, while a movement builds in Michigan to oppose even more draconian measures that would allow the state to take over entire town governments, appointing local officials at whim. The specter has been raised that state officials could even appoint corporations to run town governments as part of these “emergency fiscal measures”!

What is the working-class to make of the lessons of the Wisconsin events?

Are the unions indeed the last best hope for working people to salvage some kind of standard of living in an age of a growing income gap and increasing plutocracy? If the unions are indeed weapons of the ruling class to hijack the class struggle—as the ICC claims—why have parts of the U.S. bourgeoisie acted so aggressively to destroy them? What is the nature of the “union busting” politics that has exploded in the U.S. since the November 2010 elections? What do the Wisconsin events tell us about the nature and depth of the U.S. bourgeoisie’s political crisis?

We cannot exhaustively answer all of these questions in this article. However, we believe it is important to attempt to draw the essential lessons for the working class from critical moments in the class struggle and the political life of the bourgeoisie. The events in Wisconsin fit both criteria; thus, it is vitally important that revolutionaries put forward their analyses of these events so they can be debated and refined in the vigorous confrontation of ideas that the advancement of revolutionary theory requires. This article is an attempt to contribute to that process, particularly on the meaning of the lust for “union busting” that has developed among certain factions of the U.S. bourgeoisie.

From Internationalism’s perspective, we believe that the orgy of union busting undertaken by Republican/Tea Party governors does not fit with the overall strategic plans of the main factions of the U.S. national bourgeoisie in a period of sharpening class confrontations. In our view, the union-busting aspect of the bill proposed by Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin, and similar efforts in other states, is a potential mistake for the ruling class that—if enacted—could serve to deprive it of a vital tool in its efforts to derail the working-class’ struggle, drown it in the false alternative of unionism and prevent the proletariat from engaging in direct confrontation with the bourgeois state.

It is therefore vitally important to distinguish between two key aspects of legislation proposed by Republican/Tea Party state governors since November 2010:

1.      The efforts to enact austerity measures against the working class’ living and working conditions, which is a central need for the U.S. bourgeoisie faced with the economic crisis.

2.      An ideologically driven quest to smash the unions, “starve the state” and sell-off public functions to corporate cronies, which threatens to further destabilize American state capitalism.

In our view, the first aspect of enacting austerity is a clear necessity for the bourgeoisie faced with an economic and fiscal crisis of historic proportions; however the second aspect of “union-busting” and the pursuit of other right-wing tropes are ideologically driven, short-sighted policies that risk going too far and negatively impacting the ability of the ruling class ability to manage the class struggle. For us, the vigorous attempts to enact these types of laws by certain sectors of the U.S. bourgeoisie reflect a growing tendency towards the decomposition of the U.S. political apparatus, complicating its ability to act in a strategic manner to address the economic crisis and manage the class struggle in the interests of the national capital as a whole. This decomposition is reflected in the increasing difficulty the U.S. bourgeoisie faces in controlling its electoral process; evident in the outcome of the 2010 mid-term elections, which brought Governor Walker and fellow-travelers to office.[2]

In order to understand the depths to which the ideological decomposition of the U.S. bourgeoisie has reached in terms of the recent attacks against the union bureaucracy, we should briefly review the historical role of the unions in the U.S. since their definitive incorporation into the bourgeois state during the New Deal of the 1930s. We will then examine whether the recent attack on the unions fulfill some kind of economic logic for the bourgeoisie, as some in the proletarian political milieu have argued, and then conclude by attempting to situate the nature of today’s union busting crusade in the overall political life of the U.S. ruling class.

The Role of the Unions in the Political Life of the U.S. Bourgeoisie

It was during the Franklin Roosevelt administration of the 1930s that the union bureaucracy became fully integrated into the American state apparatus and assumed the mantra of the bourgeoisie’s trusted tool for ensuring labor peace, deflecting struggles and helping to manage the industrial economy. During the 1930s, this was accomplished by the direct encouragement that trade union leaders associated with the new Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) received from the American state to organize the unskilled mass proletariat. Internationalism has written extensively about the politics surrounding the formation of the CIO, in particular in our article The Formation of the CIO: Triumph of the Bourgeoisie.[3] Interested readers can refer to that article for more details about this period. We will not repeat our entire analysis here, except to emphasize the role that the CIO played for the capitalist state in controlling labor discontent in the run-up to the Second World War, enforcing a no-strike pledge during the war, and enforcing industrial speed-up and labor militarization.

We should remark here that all factions of the American bourgeoisie did not accept the unionization of the unskilled mass proletariat at the time. On the contrary, FDR faced intense political challenge from some recalcitrant industrialists who felt the unions would put a crimp in their profits, and right-wing demagogues who viewed the Roosevelt administration’s pro-union New Deal as an incipient form of “Bolshevism.” Nevertheless, it is important to emphasize that at this time the American state was able to impose the unionization of the mass of unskilled workers through the CIO over the objections of recalcitrant bourgeois factions. The American state recognized that it was in the overall interests of the national capital to ensure the smooth running of industry in its drive to develop a permanent war economy in the preparation for the brewing military confrontation with Germany and Japan. The unions would play a critical role in this process. 

The role of both the AFL and CIO in mobilizing the American working-class for the imperialist slaughter of the Second World War—including the vigorous enforcement of the unconditional no-strike pledge—proved the perspicacity of the American state’s unionization polices under the Roosevelt administration. This period saw the passage of such landmark legislation as the Wagner Act—making collective bargaining a fundamental feature of the permanent war economy—and the establishment of the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB); both of which would become important pillars of the post-war New Deal order for over three decades.

In the period following the war, the unions became one of the most important lynchpins of the New Deal order, which would last until the end of the 1970s. Although a post-war strike wave would lead to the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act in 1947—making it more difficult for unions to organize collective bargaining units, banning the closed shop, prohibiting various types of strikes and allowing conservative inclined states to pass their infamous “right to work to laws,” this did not seriously erode the position of the unions within the post-war order. Throughout the next three decades the unions were important players in American domestic politics, with the ability to make or break presidential campaigns through their close integration with the Democratic Party apparatus. [4]

During the period of the post-war boom, the American unions became a more or less accepted facet of economic and social life; an almost equal partner with industry in ensuring the growth and strength of the American economy within the system of military Keynesianism. On foreign policy matters, once the Stalinists were largely eliminated from the unions, the AFL-CIO (merged in 1955) would play an important role in supporting the American state’s cold war strategy, in particular in advocating for “free trade unions” in Stalinist countries. In 1979, the number of U.S. workers in unions would peak at 21 million (although union density peaked much earlier in 1954 at 28 percent).[5]

However, it was in the 1970s that the place of the union bureaucracy within the American ruling class and the role of unions in the economy and society in general was called into serious question for the first time since the formation of the CIO four decades before. The economic shocks of this decade, including the Arab oil embargo, the collapse of the Bretton-Woods system and the development of “stagflation,” changed the calculus for important factions of the American ruling class. Many economists blamed the economic woes on the excessive wages paid to workers. Economists talked about a “wage squeeze” causing runaway inflation to endanger the economy. Austerity was in the offing.

Broad economic and social forces corresponding to the return of the capitalist crisis moved against the American union bureaucracy in the 1970s and 1980s. Insurgent bourgeois factions—rallying around the presidency of Ronald Reagan—began to question whether the union apparatus was just too costly in an era marked by economic crisis. This tendency came to a head in 1981 when Regan responded to a strike by federal air traffic controllers by firing the strikers and jailing their union leaders.

Since the ascendancy of Reaganism, the importance of the union apparatus in the management of the national economy has steadily declined. From a high of over one-quarter of the labor force in unions in the 1950s, union density has slipped to just 11 percent of all workers and just 7 percent of private sector workers today.[6] Nevertheless, despite declining membership, the unions have remained an important force in the political life of the American bourgeoisie, as well as an important bulwark in diffusing the class struggle—above all, among public sector workers who are today among the most combative sectors of the working class.

From the Los Angeles grocery workers strike in 2003-2004 to the New York City transit strike of 2005, the bourgeoisie has skillfully deployed its union apparatus to derail the working class’ struggle whenever possible. Moreover, on the national, state and local levels the unions remain a potent force in bourgeois politics, funneling campaign cash to mostly Democratic candidates, funding initiative campaigns, pressuring state governments towards particular policies, funding policy think tanks and political strategy research efforts, etc. The nation’s largest union, the Services Employees International Union (SEIU)—despite recent internal conflicts—remains a potent player in politics at all levels. Former SEIU president Andy Stern even sat on President Obama’s commission tasked with balancing the federal budget.

We can see from this brief history that the unions—despite their recent troubles—remain an important component of the American state apparatus and a key faction of the American bourgeoisie. In addition to their special role as the shop floor police of the working class, the unions constitute a key link in the reproduction of the Democratic Party at all levels and therefore an important mechanism in the maintenance of a credible two-party electoral mystification.

Why then have certain factions of the bourgeoisie turned so violently against the unions in a way that not even Reagan himself contemplated? In order to answer this question, we must first consider whether or not the move to bust the unions—in particular the public employee unions—fulfills some kind of economic “need” for the bourgeoisie faced with the economic crisis. If this were the case, the “union busting” politics we have seen of late could conform to some kind of economic functionalist logic, and therefore be quite rational. We will consider this question in the next section.

Is There an Economic Logic to Public Employee “Union Busting” Today?

So what is behind the drive today, primarily by Republican/Tea Party state governments to enact draconian legislation that poses a real existential threat to public employee unions? Is there some kind of economic logic that is being fulfilled here?

According to the Internationalist Communist Tendency (ICT), Governor Walker’s efforts to destroy the public employee unions are part of a broader campaign by the capitalist state to “lower labor costs as much as possible.” The ICT writes, (emphasis added) “Collective bargaining agreements with state employees, in Wisconsin, were put in place primarily to avoid strikes and keep the government functioning. The 1971 state law allowing for it was put in place in the wake of the massive nationwide strike of US postal workers in that year. Technically, the tradeoff for not being allowed the same right to go on strike as workers in the private sector was a collective bargaining process. These state labor peace treaties have now become an obstacle for the capitalist class in power as they attempt to lower labor costs as much as possible.”[7]

The ICT’s view seems to be that the public employee unions constitute a barrier for the state in carrying through the process of the “recomposition” of the American working class on the state’s own labor force. This process of recomposition is marked by the elimination of relatively well paying, permanent, benefit providing, union secured jobs and their replacement by lower paying, deskilled, casualized, service industry jobs. In this view then, in order to reduce the wage bill of public sector employees as much as possible, it is necessary for the state to erode the power of the unions, as they constitute an “extra cost” to the industry concerned—in this case the state itself—and the economy as a whole. Seen this way, the actions of Governor Walker and other Republican/Tea Party Governors are perfectly rational—even if clumsily executed—policies, which seek to fulfill an economic need of the bourgeoisie.

While we do not contest that a process similar to what is described here has been underway in the American economy in general since the 1970s (de-industrialization, financialization, the increasing insecurity of the working-class, etc.) it is difficult to see the logic that requires the utter destruction of the unions.[8] On the contrary, it would seem to us that in a situation that demands the ruling class impose austerity on the proletariat, it would prove vital for it to maintain a functioning union bureaucracy in order to deflect and neutralize any response from the working class. This would seem to be all the more important when it comes to public employees, who have repeatedly been on the front lines of the class struggle in recent times.

Moreover, it is difficult to see the economic logic in Governor Walkers’ union busting bill, when the unions themselves agreed to the austerity measures and were only moved to launch a campaign against the bill when it became clear Governor Walker was serious about his threat to put the unions themselves out of business. As the ICT comrades themselves write, “The Democrats and their union apparatus were perfectly willing to throw workers under the bus and maintain a shred of collective bargaining, just enough to keep funding their election coffers and keep turning out the vote for them during election campaigns. What has not been debated is the austerity budget that the unions accepted from the beginning of the current struggle, if only they were allowed to retain the structure of collective bargaining of labor contracts with state employees.”

The ICT comrades appear to believe that the processes of the “Wal-Martization” of the economy knows no bounds and is now asserting itself against the state’s own labor force through an attempt to deskill, marginalize and casualize it. This idea would seem to us to be problematic. Public employees today are among the most educated sector of the workforce; their labor constitutes a vital moment in the reproduction of the state apparatus itself. While it is certainly true that some of the broader trends affecting the American working-class in general have begun to be applied to public employees—in particular public school teachers; it is difficult to see an economic necessity for the ruling class in destroying the public employee union apparatus itself. On the contrary, the increasing importance of public employees on the front-line of the class struggle would seem to demand a strengthening—rather than an attempt to eliminate—their union apparatus, so that the unions can play their historic role of derailing their struggles. It is not for nothing that public employees are among the only sectors of the working-class where union density has actually grown over the last several decades!

We think that in order to understand the recent wave of union busting legislation we must go beyond economic functionalism. We must look at the effects of capitalist social decomposition on the political life of the bourgeoisie itself.

Political Decomposition, “Union Busting” and the Strategy of the Bourgeoisie

As we wrote in our analysis of the 2010 mid-term elections, the preferred political strategy of the main factions bourgeoisie at this time would most likely be to maneuver the Republican party into power, so that it can begin to enact the needed austerity measures against the working-class, while the Democratic Party and the unions play the card of the “left in opposition.” However, we pointed out how the forces of decomposition have already impacted the political life of the bourgeoisie to such an extent as to significantly complicate the implementation of this strategy. The increasingly ideological nature of the Republican Party—spurred on by the Tea Party insurgency—makes it more and more difficult for the GOP to function as a credible party of bourgeois government. This analysis seems to be born out on the state level by the incredibly shortsighted and clumsy actions of Governor Walker and his ilk.

We think we must see the union busting laws pursued by Republican governors since the mid-term elections in this light. One of the most important outcomes of the election was the victory of Republican/Tea Party governors across the industrial Mid-West, generally accompanied by Republican majorities in the state legislatures. True to their campaign words, most of these governors have wasted no time in attempting to implement extreme right-wing programs including the draconian union busting laws. These governors have shown little political flexibility, embarking on a sweeping program of right-wing initiatives that have even left many of the people who voted for them stunned.

Clearly, the most ambitious of these initiatives is the attempt to destroy the public employee unions by limiting their collective bargaining power, hindering their ability to collect dues and requiring them to undergo annual certification votes. It is without question that such policies are designed to wipe the unions out by eliminating their raison d’être in the eyes of the workers they represent, depriving them of operating funds and subjecting them to the perils of regular representation campaigns. Moreover, these measures threaten to deprive the state Democratic Party of needed campaign funds, election organizing and get-out-the-vote efforts, which are generally managed by the union bureaucracy.

For us, this conflict is more than a mere stepping up the faction fighting between Democrats and Republicans. It represents a concerted effort on the part of an insurgent right-wing faction within the Republican party to destroy politics as usual as they implement the most extreme elements of a right-wing program that until recently had been largely limited to the margins of the Republican Party, or at the very least kept in check by the main factions of the bourgeoisie. In fact, far from a mere acceleration of partisan jockeying, the efforts of the new crop of Republican governors reflects an intensification of the ideological breakdown of the American bourgeois political apparatus itself, which threatens not only the unions and their Democratic allies, but the main national factions of the Republican party as well. As many bourgeois commentators have noted, the actions of the Republican governors go so far as to threaten the continuity of the two-party system, which essentially threatens the continuity of the state apparatus itself.

The attempts by the Republican governors to destroy the unions would appear to fly in the face of the strategy of the main factions of the national bourgeoisie who have actually been trying for the last decade and a half to revitalize their struggling unions. From the replacement of Lane Kirkland as head of the AFL-CIO with the insurgent John Sweeny from SEIU in 1995 to the attempt to amend labor law to make it easier to organize workers with the proposal of the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) in 2007, important factions of the national bourgeoisie have been making a concerted effort to bolster its flailing union apparatus in anticipation of the class confrontations to come.[9] The failure to fully implement these efforts—in particular the collapse of EFCA in the early months of the Obama Presidency—reflects the extent to which the political decomposition of the bourgeois political apparatus has prevented the ruling class from implementing a whole series of policies designed to prepare the national capital for the coming period of class struggle in the face of the crisis. Of course, the process of decomposition has also infected the union apparatus itself, as witnessed by the fracturing of the AFL-CIO with the formation of the Change to Win Coalition in 2005. [10]

Thus, it is not surprising that more far-sighted factions of the U.S. national bourgeoisie have seized upon Governor Walkers’ actions in order to attempt to launch a new campaign to revitalize the unions. The talk emanating from certain circles on the left of a new “people’s movement” that will supposedly re-channel the populist anger currently manipulated by the Tea Party seems like more than idle chatter, but a very real attempt to both revitalize the unions as a buffer between the proletariat and the state and steer the working-class’ anger over the crisis in a political avenue more amenable to stable bourgeois politics. Whether or not these efforts will come to fruition, we cannot at this time say.

For the working class, the lessons of this conflict are clear. The unions are on the terrain of the bourgeoisie. Far from the last best chance we have to make the economy work for ordinary people, the unions are really the bourgeoisie’s best hope to derail our struggle for another world. The fact that certain factions of the bourgeoisie have developed a cannibalistic instinct towards the unions should serve as a clear symbol to us workers about the depths that the crisis of capitalist society has reached today.

Henk   3/4/2011


[2]For our analysis of the 2010 mid-term elections, see Mid-Term Election Results Highlight Political Difficulties of U.S. Bourgeoisie in Internationalism #157,

[3]See Internationalism #12 also included in the Internationalism pamphlet Text and Comments from the ICC Conference On Trade Unions and the Role of Revolutionaries (Oct. 1980).

[4] The weight of unions in American society was so strong during this period that one poll taken in 1973 found that Americans believed George Meany—then head of the AFL-CIO—to be the third most influential man in the country, right behind President Nixon and Supreme Court Chief Justice Earl Warren. Cited in Christopher Hedges. Death of the Liberal Class (New York: Nation Books) 2010. pg. 175.

[5] Mayer, Gerald, "Union Membership Trends in the United States" (2004). Federal Publications. Paper 174.

[7] International Communist Tendency. An Update on Events in Wisconsin.

[8] We would concede however that the nature of the period following the collapse of the New Deal order in the late 1970s has been under theorized by revolutionaries and more development on the meaning of the period is called for.

[9] See our articles Revitalization of the Trade Unions: A Key Element in Capitalist Strategy (Internationalism #113); and "“Employee Free Choice Act”: A Weapon to Derail the Class Struggle" (Internationalism #152) for our analysis of these events.

[10] See our "Crisis in the AFL-CIO: A Falling Out Among Thieves" (Internationalism #135).


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