Wisconsin Effect

Only four months ago the consensus among the political establishment was that of a right-wing resurgence in U.S. politics. After relegating the Republican Party into the political wilderness in 2008, the Democratic Party managed to snatch defeat out of the jaws of victory, conceding a midterm electoral sweep to the GOP which now had the wind of the tea party “movement” at its back.

The left, it seemed, was on the retreat and workers were bracing for further attacks while Corporate America returned to prosperity.

Four months later and the picture could not be more different. Suddenly state capitols are being swarmed with protesters and workers are taking action to stop the ideological assault on their union rights.

After decades of decline in the private sector, the relatively stronger but dwindling strength of unions in the public sector has long been a target of the right. But under the pretext of solving budget crises across the nation, politicians – including Democrats – have accelerated the agenda of austerity, calling for a kind of “shared sacrifice” from which the wealthy are exempt.

The beleaguered labor movement has been on the defensive for decades. Its numbers and power have diminished dramatically as business gained the upper hand.

In Wisconsin, however, Governor Scott Walker’s anti-union “budget repair” bill, which threatened to strip public workers of their collective bargaining rights, has touched a raw nerve. It appears that the waning labor movement has arisen from its slumber.

The latest move this week by Republicans to split the budget bill and ram the union-busting measure through the State Senate has now thrown even more fuel onto the fire. By removing the fiscal elements from the bill, Republicans were able to avoid the quorum requirement that until now Democrats were able to use to prevent the bill’s passage by leaving the state. For weeks the Republicans framed the attack on unions as a purely fiscal issue. But their most recent underhanded maneuver is a shameless admission that the motive behind the assault on collective bargaining has been ideological all along.

From the start, Walker’s union-busting bill was more than just the usual attack on public sector union pensions and benefits; workers have been losing ground on these issues for years. The governor’s original budget bill was replete with punishing austerity measures and posed an existential threat to unions in the state of Wisconsin and beyond.

Thankfully, his anti-worker crusade backfired profoundly.

The attempt to divide and conquer workers by pitting private sector workers against the supposedly lavish lifestyles of public sector workers has failed. A study by the Economic Policy Institute last September exposed the myth of the overpaid public employee, finding that on average public sector workers actually earn less than their private sector counterparts when controlling for education and experience levels.

The images of tens of thousands of workers and their supporters – including teachers, students and firefighters – who took part in the occupation of the Capitol Rotunda in Madison, Wisconsin for more than two weeks have reignited the morale and militancy of the labor movement. Even beyond labor, the scenes from Wisconsin have shown ordinary people the power they possess when they are organized and take bold action. Many who visited Madison in the first two weeks of the struggle commented on the breathtaking spirit of solidarity among the protesters, the efficient operation of self-organized demonstrators, and the display of democracy come to life.

Who could have predicted in those days of tea party triumphalism back in November that unions and labor solidarity would soon come to dominate national discourse?

Having suffered low popularity in opinion polls for years, the labor movement has gained sympathy throughout the country because of Wisconsin. Forty-two percent of Americans side with the unions compared to 31 percent who side with the governor, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey. And when it comes to stripping public employees of their collective bargaining rights, 64 percent oppose taking away those rights.

“We’ve never seen the incredible solidarity that we’re seeing now,” said AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka.

That solidarity has been more than just a national phenomenon. Statements of solidarity and other support have come from as far away as Egypt, where for the past decade workers have been staging strikes in key industries that opened the way for the revolution that ousted a US-backed dictator from power last month.

The 14 Democratic state senators who stalled the passage of Walker’s bill by leaving the state prompted many media pundits to see the fight in Wisconsin as one between Republicans and Democrats. It was a rude wake-up call, but Democrats are finally remembering their base and have chosen to stand on the side of workers this time – so goes the liberal analysis. But in reality the Democrats – particularly at the national level – have marched shoulder to shoulder with Republicans in targeting public sector workers to reign in deficits.

Consider that the fight in Wisconsin was thrust into the national spotlight in part because tens of thousands of teachers called out sick for up to four days, bringing out the critical mass of protesters that made the Capitol feel like Tahrir Square.

Teachers have been a focal point of this battle for the simple reason that they represent the largest unionized force in the public sector and have therefore been a prime target for the union-busters. And, despite some of their recent words of sympathy, Democrats are well-represented among the forces attacking teachers unions.

Under the guise of school reform and cutting budgets, Democratic leaders in major cities and nationally – included President Obama and his education secretary, Arne Duncan – have been among the loudest proponents of policies that aim to weaken teachers unions. Through the federal Race to the Top program, the Obama administration has enticed states with extra funding in exchange for the proliferation of charter schools and merit-based pay schemes that undercut fundamental union protections for teachers in public education.

In the labor movement, most leaders have been in lockstep with Democrats in arguing that their members need to make more concessions to address the very real fiscal crises facing states and municipalities around the country.

But if union leaders are having a hard time convincing members that there simply isn’t enough money and that concessions and cuts need to be made, it’s because working people see corporations recording some of the largest profits in history while the top one percent of households that are now worth more than $19 trillion continue to enjoy tax breaks.

In Wisconsin, many Democrats and labor leaders are eager to counsel union members on the necessity of accepting further cuts to benefits and pensions, but they are prepared to fight hard when it comes to eliminating collective bargaining and automatic dues deductions which would directly impact their own paychecks and campaign coffers. So while the “Wisconsin 14” who fled the state are understandably viewed as heroes, there are some undeniable economic and political calculations for self-preservation that motivate them, beyond just pure principles of solidarity.

But rank-and-file workers have seen in the last few weeks the power they have with the strength of unions at their side. Unions are the most formidable organizations on the side of workers that have any hope of beating back the naked class offensive being waged by politicians and bosses like Walker and the billionaire Koch brothers.

Wisconsin has become a proving ground for the full-scale assault now underway, but the battle lines have extended across the Midwest and the spirit of fighting back has reverberated as well. Protests have halted similar anti-union efforts in Indiana for now, and though the gauntlet has already nearly fallen in Ohio with the imminent passage of Senate Bill 5, the attempt there to strip public workers of collective bargaining rights just barely made it through the State Senate thanks to Republican defections that were undoubtedly influenced in part by the surge of mass protests in Columbus.

Governors elsewhere are closely watching the union battles in the Midwest as states like New York and California prepare to address even bigger budget gaps. And surely governors like Chris Christie in New Jersey, who has declared an all-out war on teachers and other public workers in that state, are emboldened by the anti-union attacks in Wisconsin and Ohio.

After more than two weeks of being occupied by protesters, the nerve center for the union fightback at the Capitol in Wisconsin was illegally closed off to most of the public. But after Republicans forced the split anti-union bill through the Senate this week, protesters retook the building. That the stakes could not be higher at this point is crystal clear to the protesters in Madison who rapidly responded to developments on Wednesday night by descending on the Capitol in the thousands.

While on the legal front Democrats are mounting recall efforts and challenging the legality of the Republicans’ latest affront to democracy and union rights, student walkouts and a massive demonstration on Saturday are being planned. And although this country has not seen a general strike since 1934, that option is reportedly being discussed by some union leaders. A few weeks ago the South Central Federation of Labor in Madison voted to endorse a general strike if one were called in the event that Walker signed the bill.

In Wisconsin and beyond, the continuation of protests and occupations of state capitols, especially the “people’s house” in Madison, will be essential for victory in the struggle against Walker and politicians in other states who are bent on stamping out the unions.

The hope of a revived labor movement and stronger unions will vanish quickly though if union leaders continue to parrot the demands for “shared sacrifice” and necessary cuts. Workers have made enough concessions, as the ever widening gap between the rich and the rest of us illustrates so eloquently.

The reality is that the labor movement has been on the defensive for decades and even if unions ultimately win this fight in Wisconsin, they will only have held onto a status quo that is a far cry from what the movement should be aiming for.

If unions are to seize on this moment, the movement will need to figure out not only how to defeat Walker and his ilk, but also how to translate this new vibrancy of struggle from a defensive front to an offensive one.

In order for the movement to take advantage of this moment, protests need to be coupled with job actions. That, of course, will entail an arduous struggle by rank-and-file workers who will need to go up against not only the anti-union forces, but also at times against their own leadership which will try to put the breaks on more militant actions.

History has already been made over the last few weeks, but what happens in Wisconsin over the next few days will be decisive for the labor movement

Whatever the outcome in Madison, however, there is a strong sense that the long-awaited period of labor’s resurgence is finally upon us.

Back in November, Civil Rights Act opponent and right-wing libertarian Representative Rand Paul of Kentucky declared that a tidal wave had swept the nation. He was talking about the tea party “movement.”

Four months later, a very different tidal wave representing a very different movement is on the horizon, from the Middle East to the Midwest. If union power is riding this new wave and giving it momentum, it can utterly drown the corporate-backed tea party and reanimate the labor movement for decades to come.

BRIAN TIERNEY is a labor journalist in Washington, DC