In Madison and Elsewhere, Defense of the Unions Prepares the Workers’ Defeat

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After weeks of protests that drew national and even international attention, the streets of Madison are again empty. Scott Walker’s state-budget repair bill has passed (pending a court appeal delay), and where cries of “general strike” once rang through crowds of thousands of demonstrators, the air is silent and workers are back at work. The union leaders scramble to push through all the Governor’s economic demands in exchange for the right to “collectively bargain” one last contract. Workers’ action has been reduced to the signing of petitions to recall state senators. While some groups are trying to resuscitate the movement, it has mostly been defeated. The question is: why?

Throughout the United States, public sector workers are being targeted, and then attacked, in the name of state fiscal solvency. Most state governors expect hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of savings from new contracts with public employee unions, enough to cover their states’ colossal budget shortfalls. The better to accomplish this goal, the bourgeoisie has unleashed a broad campaign to demonize unionized public sector workers as overcompensated and privileged at the expense of “the taxpayer”. Ohio and Nebraska have passed legislation similar to Walker’s, and many other states are considering similar bills. Meanwhile the unions have called for solidarity rallies throughout the country for the defense of collective bargaining “rights,” presenting themselves as the last best hope workers have for the defense of “democracy” and “middle class jobs.” To understand the defeat of the movement in Wisconsin and to prepare for further attacks to come, we must examine these ideological campaigns. We must understand how they contributed to derailing the movement in Wisconsin and how they can only deliver the working class up to the bourgeoisie.

The official media presents the wave of austerity attacks on the state level, and the mass movement in Wisconsin, as a showdown between newly elected, ideologically-driven Tea Party governors pushing a “union-busting” agenda, and the Democratic-aligned public employee unions. The unions and the Left peddle this narrative as well. They have zeroed in on the defense of “collective bargaining rights” in their solidarity rallies, letter-writing, and now the campaign to recall Republican state legislators in Wisconsin. This narrative obscures the reality of the situation to workers, and makes those workers who accept it more amenable to the “solutions” advanced by the bourgeoisie. 

The Public Sector in the U.S.

While it’s true that Governor Walker, Ohio Governor Kasich, and some of the other Tea Party-backed governors are ideologically motivated in their attempts to end collective bargaining and dismantle the unions, their states’ fiscal problems, and their need to attack the living standards of public employees, are very real. They are common to states under the control of both parties. All but 6 US states face massive budget shortfalls for the 2012 fiscal year.[1] The combined deficits through 2013 total $175 billion, on top of the $230 billion in budget gaps already filled for the last three fiscal years.[2] Governors of both parties are preparing attacks on state workers’ salaries and pensions, even pursuing the end of collective bargaining rights, to help close these budget gaps. The newly elected governor of Connecticut, Democrat Daniel Malloy, is demanding $1 billion in savings from state employees for each of the next two years—the biggest cuts per capita of any state. Democrat Jerry Brown in California imposed a hiring freeze on February 15 while negotiating his budget, and Democrat Andrew Cuomo in New York announced a one-year salary freeze for state workers as part of an emergency financial plan, on top of $450 million already conceded by public sector unions on behalf of the workers. 

Teachers at “underperforming” public schools are being blamed for low tests scores and graduation rates, and school boards and teachers unions are debating merit-based pay and job security ratings. Teachers are being pitted against each other, with younger teachers being told that merit-based pay will give them all the advantages associated with youth, while older teachers are told that accepting new tiers for pensions will protect their jobs in the case of layoffs. The bourgeoisie is attempting to head off a strong display of solidarity between the young and the old, between students and workers. The working class has demonstrated this solidarity in many of its major mobilizations since transit workers in New York City struck against pension cuts that would primarily affect workers yet to be hired.

In all these cases, both parties have united in pursuing and passing draconian austerity measures against public sector workers. Contrary to the narrative of the media, the unions, and the left, the unions work with state governors, through collective bargaining negotiations, to decide how to implement the attacks. They push them on the workers with promises to wage a struggle or elect different governors in the better future they, along with the state governments, assure us is just around the corner so long as we accept “sacrifices” today. In New York State the unions have held countless “solidarity” rallies in support of the collective bargaining in Wisconsin, but have said nothing about the prospect of layoffs in education. They have even supported merit-based pay initiatives for teachers. Unions across the nation clamor about the need for solidarity rallies with already-defeated workers in Wisconsin - whose only struggle currently is a recall campaign in which only Wisconsin residents can participate - yet they accept all the layoffs and contribution increases being proposed for their own members. What role are the unions really playing?

The public sector unions, far from defending the workers they represent, do not question the need for workers to “make sacrifices”. They have only mobilized to the extent they have in order to maintain their position as trusted partners with the state in implementing the cuts necessary for the health of US capitalism. From the beginning of the movement in Wisconsin, the state’s two largest public sector unions, AFSCME and the WEAC teachers’ union, offered to accept every economic demand, and help ‘negotiate’ the attacks, so long as their collective bargaining rights, and with them the closed shop and dues check-off system that funds them, were left unscathed. Indeed, since the passage of the bill, public sector unions across the state have rushed to push through contracts containing all the economic demands of Walker’s bill, knowing that if their contract is ratified before the new bill becomes law, they won’t have to hold another election next year to keep their dues money flowing in, as they will maintain the “closed shop” for the duration of that contract. This also explains the widespread opposition to ending collective bargaining rights from Democratic Party politicians, as the Democrats rely on public sector unions as their chief source of campaign contributions for local and state elections. 

The Movement in Wisconsin

On Monday, February 14, the first weekday after Walker’s announcement, over 100 students spontaneously walked out of class in Stoughton, Wisconsin. They were followed the next day by over 800 Madison students, who struck class and marched through the town to demonstrate in front of the government buildings. By Wednesday, Madison public schools had to close due to a sick-out action by teachers, many of whom joined their students in marching to the capitol building. As early as Thursday, the Wisconsin Educators Association Council (WEAC)’s president Mary Bell told reporters, “This is not about protecting our pay and our benefits. It is about protecting our right to collectively bargain.” In a statement released to the press the following day, Marty Beil of AFSCME Council 24 explained bluntly, “We are prepared to implement the financial concessions proposed to help bring our state’s budget into balance, but we will not be denied our God-given right to join a real union.[3] Teachers and students continued their actions throughout the week, and public sector workers and supporters from the surrounding region joined in the demonstrations. These grew and grew until the weekend, when the state capitol building was occupied. The WEAC ordered teachers to return to work on Monday, but Madison teachers voted to stay out sick an additional day in defiance of the union president’s order.[4]

Leftist celebrities (including Michael Moore and Jesse Jackson, among others) poured into the city to praise the 14 Democratic state senators who had left the state to prevent the passage of the bill as labor heroes, and to help solidify the union rhetoric that the fight was entirely about collective bargaining rights. The presence of high-profile politicians and activist celebrities also helped to bolster all kinds of illusions in the Democratic Party and in mostly harmless actions as opposed to real class struggle. The unions had said from the beginning that they weren’t interested in strikes. Meanwhile, the Madison IWW and others attempted to gain an endorsement from the South Central Wisconsin Labor Council of a state-wide general strike in the event of the bill’s passage. A great deal of propaganda was carried out amongst the workers about what a general strike would mean, and in fact, the day before the bill passed, chants in favor of a general strike were among the loudest heard in the capitol building and on the streets.[5] Despite all this, the day the bill was passed, the unions and the Democrats unveiled their new strategy: they would channel all the energy of the protests into a protracted campaign to recall 16 Republican state senators whose presumably Democratic replacements would eventually reverse the bill. 

The ‘General Strike’ Slogan

The US has not witnessed a general strike in years, making the slogan’s appearance in Wisconsin surprising at best and mystifying at worst. Despite the image of power the call for a general strike conjures, we must ask what a general strike would look like or accomplish if it allowed the unions, which had already agreed to carry out attacks on the working class’ living conditions, any leadership role. In the past two years throughout Europe, the unions have called national general strikes against austerity measures presented as solutions to state debts, and have led them all to defeat. Just last fall in France, 14 general strikes led by the “radical” CGT and other unions, as well as oil blockades, were unable to block the passage of pension reform, and the only significant movements for self-organization and class-wide struggle were all conducted in direct opposition to even the most radical of the unions. The trouble is that the ‘general strike,’ as a planned, mass walkout of all the workers, is a tremendously ambiguous slogan. Who is to call the strike? Who will run it and decide how long to stay out, how to picket, and how to spread it? If weeks of strikes and demonstrations throughout a France far more heavily unionized than the US were unable to stop pension attacks last fall, what would come of one-day general strikes or ‘Days of Action’ by American unionized workers, who make up less than 12% of the American workforce in the first place?

In contrast to the “general strike” slogan, for the workers to defend themselves they need to develop a dynamic similar to what Rosa Luxemburg called the “mass strike”[6] —a wave of strikes which is not planned for a single day or period of time. In the mass strike, both unionized and nonunionized workers from various sectors enter the struggle for their own demands and the demands of their brothers and sisters in struggle. The dynamic of the mass strike always seeks to widen the extent of the movement and collectively develop its goals and demands. Such a movement, organized by the workers themselves, coordinated by committees which owe their mandate to, and can find it revoked by, assemblies of all the workers, would immediately threaten the state. It would not be in the hands of the state’s trusted negotiating partners and could at least temporarily beat back some of the proposed austerity measures. Furthermore, such an experience would develop the combativeness, creativity, and confidence of the working class on an unprecedented scale, making workers all the more ready to defend themselves in the future, eventually to the point of posing questions about how and in whose interest society is run.

The Union Obstacle

Last spring in New Jersey, very shortly after the University of California students had begun their struggle, high-school students staged walkouts all over the state against cuts to education spending and attacks on their teachers. The students often looked to these same teachers to advance the struggle. Despite the widespread admiration and appreciation felt by the majority of teachers for this show of solidarity, the teachers’ union discouraged the students’ mobilization and agreed with the administration that the students involved should be punished.[7] A very similar story developed in Wisconsin. Students, who worried that this system holds no future for them, decided to take action both for their own demands and in solidarity with workers who had not yet even begun to struggle. Knowing that they could not win these demands alone, the students asked these workers to join the fight. It was the belief, still held still by many teachers and their students, that the unions exist to defend them, and will be fighting alongside them, that prevented this solidarity from growing. 

Unions in today’s decaying, moribund capitalist world do not even modestly defend the working class. The problem is not that they are ossified, their vision and strategy that of the post-war boom when they were at their peak. Unions, while built by the workers and able to be controlled by them in the 19th and early 20th Centuries, now exist as agents of the state. Their task is to police the struggles of the working class, to chain them to legalism, democratic illusions, and the interests of national capitalism. Through a thousand mechanisms of state recognition, legal structures, and structural mechanisms, the state has captured these organizations completely, and uses them to prevent, by diffusion and derailment, any dispute from developing into an actual struggle of class against class. The unions demonstrated this perfectly when they, despite being threatened with total emasculation by the new bill, preferred to channel the workers’ anger into a fruitless recall campaign that could take over a year. The unions preferred being reduced to electoral pressure groups to further aggravating the class struggle with strike action, even strike action under their control. Madison AFSCME Local 60 exposed the unions’ nature again when it rushed to sign a new contract which would crush workers’ living standards down to the level Walker’s hated bill had demanded by 2014. Madison’s Mayor praised the union’s cooperation. “We did it with collective bargaining,” he said. The system worked exactly the way it was supposed to work.”[8]

When teachers and public sector workers, legitimately threatened by legislation that directly attacks their salaries, healthcare, and pensions, fight for the defense of the unions rather than the defense of their own living standards and those of their class brothers and sisters, they move from fighting for their own class interests to being foot soldiers in a faction fight between different parts of the ruling class. Workers should not let their guard down against unions which implement cuts, negotiate layoffs, and silence any real struggles against these measures, just because certain ideological sections of the ruling class attack the unions while attempting to carry the cuts through. While many workers have illusions in the unions, revolutionaries should seek to help them break their illusions down. They must be clear that the unions are not just “the best we have,” or simply conservative, ossified, and bureaucratic: they belong to the class enemy, and real class struggle will be waged against them just as it will be waged against the bosses and the state. 

JJ 4/10/11.


[1]Elizabeth McNichol, Phil Oliff and Nicholas Johnson. “States Continue to Feel Recession’s Impact.” Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, 9 March 2011

[2]Fletcher, Michael A. “Governors from both parties plan painful cuts amid budget crises across the U.S.” Washington Post, 7 February 2011

[3]Jason Stein, Patrick Marley and Steve Schultze. “Assembly’s abrupt adjournment caps chaotic day in Capitol.” Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 18 February 2011

[4]“Teachers debate returning to work after Wisconsin protests.” CNN.Com, 20 February 2011

[6] Luxemburg contrasts the mass strike dynamic to the planned general strike called by pre-existing organizations for a definite period of time in her book The Mass Strike, the Political Parties, and the Trade Unions.

[7] Heyboer, Kelly. “N.J. students who left class to protest Gov. Chris Christie’s budget cuts are given minor punishments.” Newark Star-Ledger, 28 April 2010

[8]Mosiman, Dean. “Madison moves to extend contract with its biggest labor union.” Wisconsin State Journal, 16 March 2011


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