Wisconsin Death Letter Blues

I got a letter this mornin I say how do you reckon it read?
You know it said Hurry, hurry, ’cause the gal you love is dead.
I grabbed up my suitcase and I took off down the road
but when I got there she was already layin on a coolin’ board
Looked like there was 10,000 people standin’ round the buryin’ ground
but I didn’t know I loved her ’til they laid her down

— Son House, Death Letter Blues

What is unfolding in Wisconsin these last few weeks with tens of thousands protesting the legislature’s plan to gut the state employee’s collective bargaining rights is certainly news; however, the basic storyline is nothing new at all. Scott Walker is the duly elected Governor, but he acts more like the CEO of Sate of Wisconsin, Inc. , His plan to dismantle the public employees union is more than a move to cut the state budget; it is the continuation of a class war that has been going on across the country since the 1930s; and it is war of attrition that labor has lost. Like any political war, this conflict is not one about ideas and beliefs so much as it is a conflict of interests; in this case, a remnant of union-elite workers vs. the state acting on behalf of the corporatist agenda. The real story is the elephant in the living room none want to acknowledge, namely, the cuts that humbled union production workers in the 1980s are now moving up the ladder to include the last bastion of union held territory. The schoolmarms and staffers who were content to play the fiddle while blue collar labor was burning, now want solidarity and sympathy from the Wal-Mart generation.

While I support unionism in general, the war was won by the other side years ago. What we are seeing now is little more than a mopping up action. In other words, what is happening in states like Wisconsin is not the emergence of a new front in the war on labor; but the backside of a prolonged attack on labor that has been going on for decades. Big business fired the first volley with the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947. This is the legislation that Harry Truman once called a “slave-labor bill”; and it blasted holes in the labor protections enacted during the the New Deal. Then in 1981, organized labor was trounced at The Battle of PATCO, when Ronald Reagan broke a strike by firing all 11,359 of the nation’s air traffic controllers. After the formation of the NAFTA alliance — signed into law by Bill Clinton in 1994 — labor was doomed. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 enabled the consolidation of media power into fewer and fewer hands, creating a media oligarchy with the unmatched power to frame the debate. Then, lest we forget, there is the most recent corporate triumph in the U.S. Supreme Court, the Citizens United case, which has effectively sealed our political lips and virtually assured labor’s electoral defeat at the polls.

During this same time, the U.S. government was being transformed from an institution that promoted the common good,into a steering committee for the private corporation, thereby enabling rabid privatization schemes and so-called right to work initiatives across the nation. From Clinton era out-sourcing, to the mercenary contractor armies of Bush-Obama, to such things as the sale of the Chicago parking meter system, public wealth and services have steadily been taken over by private capital. Why should it surprise us now that Wisconsin wants to eat its own employees? After all, the job is done. Union power has been emasculated — and the state workers who now find themselves under the gun have been complicit in its demise by looking the other way the whole time. Now it is their turn. Someone has come for them. The question is, are there any left to save them?

None of this is meant to suggest we give up the fight. But it is essential to take stock of the situation if there be any hope to reverse the tide that has swept away good jobs and imposed a lower quality of life on ours and our children’s future. One can begin by refusing to participate in the lies and deceptions that say all of this is somehow natural, inevitable, and acceptable. Otherwise, it’s a race to the bottom for all of us; everyone that is, except U.S. presidents, the quislings in congress, and a handful of billionaire activists.

General strike, anyone?

MATTHEW STANTON is a Professor of Law at Chicago-Kent College of Law.


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Matthew Stanton is a Professor of Law at Chicago-Kent College of Law.

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