March 22, 2012
Book Review: Wisconsin Uprising
Yates, Michael D., Ed. Wisconsin Uprising: Labor Fights Back. NYC: Monthly Review Press, 2011. Foreword by Robert W. McChesney. 2011 304 pp. US $18.95 pbk
Michael Yates has put together a collection essays that captures the essence of the working class uprising that occurred in Wisconsin, in February and early March of 2011. The essays are organized into three parts. In Part one the authors describe the chronological events and provide a variety of insights that gives the reader a ring side seat as the events unfold. Part Two three essays attempt to sum-up important lessons of the Wisconsin uprising. Part three eight essays try to link the uprising in Wisconsin to the overall attack on the working people in the U.S. and Canada. All of these essays stress the importance of creating new cultures of struggle and creating communities that support social justice. This means creating history, values, beliefs, and behaviors that reflect class consciousness, which is transformed into action.
Part 1: Wisconsin’s Republican Governor Scott Walker proclaimed, in the winter of 2011 that his union busting, democracy destroying, Budget Repair Bill was “. . . all about getting our freedom back.” Walker’s campaign slogan – Wisconsin Is Open for Business - meant the elimination of state environmental protection laws, unions and worker’s expectations for a decent standard of living. Walker’s crusade for “freedom” meant busting unions, privatizing education, deregulating industry, cutting corporate taxes, and dispossessing the needy of publicly provided services. Freedom as defined by Walker was the freedom of capital to crush the worker. It was a blatant transfer of wealth to the rich and an attempt to destroy democracy itself.
Walker and the Republicans set up the budget crisis by turning a $121.4 million surplus into a deficit by promptly paying over $140 million to special interest groups in January through tax deductions, credits, and reclassifications.
On Friday, February 11th Walker introduced his bill which would effectively eliminate collective bargaining rights for all public employees except police and firefighters. Walker announced that he would lay off thousands of state workers if the legislature did not adopt his bill, and that he was placing the National Guard on standby. The attacks on working people and Walker’s heavy handed threats enraged people in Wisconsin. What started out by the Teaching Assistant Association (TAA) planning to protest by delivering valentines to legislators on Monday February 14 was soon followed by successive days of demonstrations by public sector workers including firefighters, who were exempted from the legislation. Soon hundreds of high school students walked out from classes in support of their teachers with their own signs calling out Walker.
No one expected that within a few days almost 100 thousand working people from all over the U.S. would descend on Madison to support the occupation of the capital and to defend workers rights. Wisconsin workers were inspired by the international struggles for democracy raging in Egypt and Tunisia. Worker solidarity shocked both Republicans and Democrats and union leaders. Not in generations had such a massive and militant protest been waged by working people. “Business as usual “could not happen and conventional methods for conducting union/management relations proved impotent. Sections of the union and labor movement were calling for a general strike to hammer home that enough was enough and that the working class would not be hammered down any more. But social structures were not in place to achieve victory.
In the face of massive protests 14 Democratic legislators made a bold move to prevent a quorum and the vote that the Republican majority would win. They had to be chased down by state troopers and forced to return. During the ensuing contract negotiations, despite courageous acts of solidarity by some unions like the firefighters, state employee unions and teacher unions engaged in concession bargaining . The leadership of AFSCME Council 24 seemed willing to negotiate a 6 to 12% pay cut to save collective bargaining and dues check-off. Concessions did not go unchallenged; a Wisconsin coalition of unionists including AFSCME members, TAA members and teachers formed the Kill the Whole Bill Coalition. The leadership of the National Nurses United (NNU) demanded that workers not be scape goats for the crisis and to directly Blame Wall Street – No concessions. The call for a general strike persisted, but even among some of the left wing of the labor movement there was doubt about the outcome of such a strategy. In the absence of institutions, culture or even current language to discuss and carry out a general strike, Democratic Party leaders and union leaders did what they were used to doing and had done for a generation. They tried to make a deal. They attempted to find an acceptable route to a peaceful resolution with Republicans who were bent on their obliteration. They made a decision to go to the electoral process, appeal to the Democratic Party base and attempted to recall Walker and his conservative base. The mass movement that rallied tens of thousands workers was dissipated into the electoral process in a vain attempt to recall the Republicans.
Part 2: If the interests of workers are going to be represented one message comes out loud and clear. Michael Yates says it clearly in his introduction. Workers must effectively combat the hegemony of Wall Street by persistently and militantly educating, organizing and mobilizing working people in their work place and communities and building cultures and institutions that focus on the needs of working people and create political programs and policies grounded in compassion for the 99% and not self interest and greed of the 1%. Another lesson is that business as usually cannot continue if working class men and women are going to dig themselves out of the miserable hole that Wall Street capitalists have put them in. This means that working people of the U.S. need to break with the two-party system and build a political movement and a political party that belongs to working people not to Wall Street.
Part 3: The assault by the right wing on worker’s rights in Wisconsin highlighted the attempt to crush the remaining bastion of unionization, the public sector. But, what really comes out is how this assault is another component of an overall conservative strategy to diminish the work standards and living conditions of the majority of working people so that the rich or the 1% may increase their wealth.
If we are to build community cultures of solidarity and institutionalize the defeat of Wall Street hegemony the working class has to build strategy that takes into account that workers are impacted in different ways depending on race, immigrant status, gender and sexual orientation. The issue of race was not as apparent in Wisconsin, but for instance, nationally blacks who are only 12.6% of the US population were 20% of public employees. The public sector is the single most important employment source for African American men and second for black women.
Researchers have attributed the greater rise in African American unemployment compared to whites to the huge layoffs in the public sector. An article by Akito Yoshikane in In These Times, reported that since January 2009, 429,000 public sector workers have lost their jobs. Public sector employment is at its lowest level since 2006, and job cuts are not stopped. This is proving disastrous to African American’s climbing out of poverty. The proposed cuts at the USPS will disproportionately affect African Americans.
The Wisconsin experience suggests that working class militancy must be revitalized because generations of anti-worker media, anti-union, anti-strike laws and unions negotiating away their power to strike has greatly weakened working class culture in the U.S. The recent ILWU victory in Longview, WA demonstrated how militancy and working class solidarity can prevail even when the law, courts and the police are lined up against workers. The ILWU’s culture and communities of solidarity that were created by organizations like the Portland Jobs with Justice and the Occupy Wall Street movement were instrumental in the union’s ability to achieve a fair contract.
Ingrained in community cultures of solidarity is the expectation that the community must respond to injustice and be accountable. Neoconservative cultural strategies create a formidable obstacle to cultures of solidarity. Laws that allowed the monopolization of the media helped to reshape the cultural terrain of the U.S. working class. Consumerism, personal enrichment, privatization, and the diminishing social role of government, deteriorating public infrastructure, deregulation, increased poverty, deteriorating health care and education, immigrant bashing racism and no alternative worldview all breed hopelessness. National and local conservative community cultures have diminished the scope of civic responsibility along with notions of class solidarity. The building of local “cultures of solidarity,” thus expanding the scope of civic responsibility, becomes an essential building block for making possible an alternative worldview one built on addressing human needs and compassion.
At its essence, our labor movement is about democracy. It is only through collective action that regular working folks have a voice. As stated by the workers in Wisconsin themselves, their willingness to fight on was inspired by the people’s victory in Egypt over tyranny and for democracy. It is no accident that right-wing forces in the U.S. are currently trying to obliterate unions. For forty years the conservative political forces in North America have been experiencing a cultural and political resurgence. They have been spurred on by the theories of Milton Friedman and the conservative Chicago School of Economics. Since the 1970s, conservative policymakers who influenced presidents have advanced a revised conservative economic and political agenda that transferred income and wealth upward and guided U.S. foreign policy. In the U.S. this neoliberal strategy provided the means to reverse the reforms of the New Deal and the War on Poverty.
This strategy has five major policy components that manifest themselves universally. These are: Implementing a regressive tax system that puts the tax burden on working people (the rich and the corporations get a much lower tax burden), casualizing the workforce (full-time work converted to part-time), reducing the political and economic role of unions, eliminating the role of government to regulate and redistribute resources to those who are poor, and the privatization of the public services.
In order for this to be accomplished, the role of the public sector has to be dramatically reduced, and the burden of taxation has to be shifted onto the backs of working people. Data from the Tax Policy Center shows that in 1940 corporations paid 18.3% of the federal tax, while personal income accounted for 13.6 percent. In 2011, personal income accounted for 44 percent of the federal tax revenue, while taxes on corporations accounted for 9.1%. A similar redistribution of the tax burden is reflected at the state level. Because of the disproportionate taxation governments find themselves strapped for revenues. The result is universal public fiscal crisis. What is left of the public sector in terms of its social welfare function is being stripped away through privatization and sale of public assets.
Local unions could be cultural models of working class solidarity and be at the center of union/community organizations, but instead many operate like competitive corporations and limit their actions to only those that would directly benefit their own union or members. For example, Governor Andrew Cuomo successfully broke the solidarity of the state’s union movement by offering needed jobs to the building trades with the money saved by eliminating public sector work. Fundamental notions of working –class solidarity gave way to the interests of particular unions and their members. On the other hand, in Wisconsin firefighters were exempted from the draconian laws that would ruin the other public sector unions; however, when asked to support Governor Walker and his policies, they said they would rather stand together with their union brothers and sisters than to support a tyrant like Walker.
Wisconsin Uprising is about building working class institutions and culture that give rise to the growth of communities of solidarity and the collective demand for social justice.
Fernando Gapasin has led several local unions and Central Labor Councils. He is a union organizer, labor educator, author, and former professor of Industrial Relations and Chicana/o Studies. He is the co-author, along with Bill Fletcher, Jr. of Solidarity Divided: The Crisis in organized Labor and A New Path Toward Social Justice.