My heroes have always been union organizers. Mom and Dad were labor organizers, as were my cousins, Bernie (printing trades), Charlie (shipbuilders) and Joe (auto workers). If we had a religion, it was One Big Union with loud, rambunctious mass meetings as its eucharist – such as we are seeing in huge numbers of drum-pounding, slogan-shouting local government workers in Wisconsin’s state capital Madison. We’re talking about teachers, custodians, clerks and garbage collectors, not to mention sympathetic cops and firefighters.
Some kids are raised to respect God and country; I was bred to respect a picket line. My very first parade, probably at age eight or nine, was down Ashland Avenue – Chicago labor’s main drag – honoring a union official murdered by company goons.
In a dozen other state capitals – in Ohio, Indiana, Florida and others – there is a sustained, coordinated campaign by recently elected and highly pugnacious Republican governors to cripple what’s left of the American labor movement. This assault is essentially an ambush of the working middle class. It is openly financed by Big Money, like the hard-right multibillionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, who also fund – courtesy of the US Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision – the Tea Party groups that supply anti-labor’s ideological storm troopers.
Sensing a possible kill, union-busters are – unlike our side – in no mood to compromise.
So, it comes as no surprise when Jeffrey Cox, Indiana’s deputy attorney general, calls Wisconsin public sector workers “thugs” against whom he advocates deadly force. “Use live ammunition,” he tweeted. Reluctantly, his boss fired him. Poor lawyer Cox was merely saying aloud what a whole slew of Republican state governors and elected officials are thinking, but dare not say … yet.
They want to push us back not just to the 1930s, before New Deal labor laws mandated collective bargaining and anti-child labor laws, but to the red-in-tooth-and-claw pitched battles of the 1890s, in which unions were defeated by force of arms – as in Homestead, Pullman and Coeur d’Alene when local and federal governments felt little compunction about shooting down strikers.
Wisconsin’s governor Scott Walker, a dim bulb but ultra-reactionary and with obvious political ambitions, has threatened to bring in the national guard, and dispatched armed state troopers to round up absent Democratic lawmakers who have fled to avoid a quorum vote to strip unions of collective bargaining rights. Now, Walker is twisting the screw on unionists by issuing pink slips to state employees.
Wisconsin is a make or break fight for labor. The citizen demonstrators camping out, in tents and on sleeping bags, in freezing Madison can expect almost no help from their natural ally, the national Democratic party, nor from President Obama. For years, the now-defunct “centrist” Democratic Leadership Council has been indistinguishable from the rightwing US Chamber of Commerce and Business Roundtable. Two years ago, a campaigning Obama promised, “When I’m in the White House, I will put on a comfortable pair of shoes and I will walk on that picket line with you as president of the United States.” Today, he says he has “no current plans” to go to Madison – while his partner Michelle chooses this exact moment to fly off to way-expensive Vail, Colorado for a ski holiday. So much for solidarity!
We are on our own in this battle to save America’s middle class. But it need not be so.
The Wisconsin workers will lose unless they turn their skins inside out and make this a community fight, too. Unions are notoriously insular and atrocious at public relations. They can’t afford the luxury of that ineptitude now. Unions win when they reach out, convince people that a strike is their fight also, as Martin Luther King taught us during the Memphis garbage workers’ strike, and in the more recent, remarkably successful “Justice for Janitors” campaigns, and my own Writers’ Guild strike against studio corporations three years ago when we touched base with churches, synagogues and mosques, community groups, rock bands and even reached into police and fire stations to ask for their support. When you’re walking a picket line, there’s nothing more uplifting – and PR-savvy – than being serenaded by Bruce Springsteen or Billy Bragg while cop cars and fire engines drive by blowing their horns and flicking their lights in support.
But the public has to be convinced first. Junk those placards that accuse the opposition of being anti-union. Much of the Fox News- and Rush Limbaugh-propagandized public is anti-union because it perceives public sector workers as soft-living crybabies who refuse to sacrifice high-on-the-hog benefits and pensions along with the rest of us. Education, by any and all means, is the key. Make this what it is: a fight to protect the American middle class.
It’s not easy to put it right out there, with pie charts, statistics and personal stories, among your neighbors, the family next door, the American Legion post. The crux, as expressed by America’s most successful investor Warren Buffet: “There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making the war, and we’re winning.” But pushing the case that it was labor unions that made the middle class could get through – because it’s true. When unions at their height, with 35 per cent of the private sector workforce in the 1950s (now down to 7 per cent), bargained collectively for better wages and conditions, it impacted everybody and made their lives better, union, non-union and anti-union alike.
Wisconsin has suffered badly from the “rust belt” disease of outsourcing jobs, deindustrialization and stagnating wages. Still, the state has a good many Forbes 400 companies like the plumbing giant Kohler, Harley-Davidson and Mercury Marine, whose billions are left untouched by Scott Walker’s tax cuts to the rich. And contrary to his absolutely false assertion that the “fiscal crisis” is due to bloated worker pensions, the latest report, from the Pew Research Centre, says that Wisconsin’s state pension fund is one of the healthiest in the nation.
Go, Wisconsin! You’re fighting for all of us.
CLANCY SIGAL is a novelist and screenwriter in Los Angeles. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org