The Nation magazine is hosting a great debate about the recent defeat of labor and progressive forces in Wisconsin. Here are some quotes from the debate:
Mike Elk: Organized labor’s current approach is not working, and we need all the critiques of labor leaders and organizing approaches in order to save the labor movement. As a labor movement, would we rather have a few union leaders embarrassed by how much they make, or do we want a serious discussions about how we revive the movement. Accusing pro-union people, who raise serious questions about the strategy, finances and political orientation of unions in effort to save unions of giving ammunition to union’s enemies or being “left anti-union” is more than just absurd. It could kill the labor movement.
Bill Fletcher and Jane McAlevey: Once you get past the reports that Walker outspent the Wisconsin workers by 7:1, the next most startling fact is that 38 percent of union households voted to keep the anti-worker Governor. That’s slightly more than one third, and had the pro-recall forces held the union households, Walker would no longer be Governor. With major media outlets drubbing us with the 38 percent number, the liberal political elite seem stuck on a rhetorical question: why do poor people and workers vote against their material self-interest? Actually, in our own experience, the poor and working class don’t vote against their self-interest—but there’s a precondition: we have to create the space for ordinary people to better understand what their self-interest is, and how it connects with hundreds of millions in the US and globally.
Adolph Reed, Jr.: The problem beneath this debate about the labor movement’s role in Wisconsin is that since the economic crisis we’ve all been confronted by our weakness and irrelevance as a left in American politics. This isn’t really news, or shouldn’t be. The left has been a solipsistic fiction in this country for years. It lives in an echo- chamber universe of actions, critiques and debates that have no institutional connection to anyone outside our own ranks and no capacity to influence the terms of national political debate. Reluctance to face up to that grim reality is understandable, and the relentlessness of the right’s increasingly bloodthirsty attacks – on multiple fronts simultaneously -- also understandably inclines progressives to look ever more desperately for hopeful possibilities. That in turn fuels a tendency to discover magic bullets, single interventions that will knock the shackles from the people’s eyes, spark popular outrage and mobilize it into action. The Democrats’ fecklessness in responding to these attacks and their acquiescence and, often enough, active collusion in supporting a regime of intensifying regressive transfer of income and wealth only exacerbates the problem.
Doug Henwood: The traditional approach towards organizing the private sector—trying to recruit a majority of workers and win a representation election—looks as good as dead. (For example, there were about 6,000 representation elections in 1980 and not quite 1,600 in 2010, the latest year available, a decline of almost 75 percent.) Employers are unfraid of breaking the law, and workers are afraid of losing their jobs. And the traditional approach to organizing the public sector—electing sympathetic politicians—looks seriously ill, if not terminal. Next to this, slow and incremental progress would seem quasi-revolutionary. Though it’s hard to get the likes of Lafer to admit this, business as usual is no longer an option...Lafer, who is not shy about painting others as identifying with power, is certainly embedded in the union status quo himself. Tom Chamberlain, the president of the Oregon AFL-CIO, is the chair of the board of advisors at the University of Oregon’s labor research institute, where Lafer is an associate professor. Its board is full of other union leaders. The institute’s curriculum is heavy with service-y stuff like grievance handling, bargaining technique and even labor-management cooperation. While these aren’t all evil pursuits, they don’t seem the most compelling material for labor’s intellectuals to be concentrating on in a time of institutional crisis.
Gordon Lafer: The Wisconsin movement “began to disintegrate the moment the leaders decided to pour everything into the Democratic Party,” Rothschild explains. That decision, he argues, “destroyed the lesson that you can exercise power outside the electoral arena.” Indeed, Kroll insists that the electoral strategy would have been a “loss” even if Walker had been defeated, since “the Madison movement would have found themselves in…the same broken system, with…little hope.”...Really? The limitations of electoral politics are obvious, but the assumption that electoral strategies per se are always wrong is hard to fathom. The loss in Wisconsin is very serious. But that loss would be the same if unions had forsworn the recall. Around 175,000 employees would still be stripped of union rights, with all that entails for them personally and for the material and organizational basis for progressive mobilization. And while the electoral loss no doubt emboldened anti-union conservatives, not challenging the governor would have conveyed much the same message: It’s politically safe to follow Walker’s example—after all, the unions didn’t even have the guts to take him on! Labor leaders confronted a genuinely hard choice: roll the dice on the recall, which everyone knew would be an expensive and uphill battle, or give up...For that matter, how should we account for last fall’s referendum in Ohio, where voters overturned a copycat law modeled on Wisconsin’s? The Ohio labor movement chose an electoral strategy—and won big. Was that also a “horrible mistake”? If not, what—besides the outcome—makes the Wisconsin choice obviously wrong, a crime instead of a tragedy?...Critics insist that union leaders should have chosen a more radical path, overturning the Walker regime by harnessing the people power of the capitol occupation. Rothschild calls for mass civil disobedience, slowdowns and strikes; Kroll for consumer boycotts and a new political party; Henwood for grassroots education and lobbying...But none of these offers a realistic alternative for restoring labor rights in Wisconsin. At their core, these prescriptions fundamentally misunderstand the reality of how unions generate mass action. Both the tremendous strength and real limitation of the labor movement is that, alone among “left” organizations, it is not a vanguard movement. Unlike the Sierra Club or Occupy, its members do not join based on pre-existing ideological beliefs. Overwhelmingly, they become members because they get a job someplace that happens to have a union. Union members are, almost entirely, exactly the same as any other working-class Americans.
Check the debate out here.