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Wisconsin shows workers can resist: now a general strike can deliver victory

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The struggle going on in Wisconsin shows that American workers have an appetite to fight, but how can they win?

Wisconsin is the first battleground in a national all-out war between workers and Republican austerity. Republican governors, Republican Study Group Congressmen and Tea Party activists aim to bulldoze the welfare state in the coming years, but first they have to break public sector workers, the last, mass bastion of trade unionism in the US and a major obstacle to their downsizing and privatising plans.

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker has ridden out ahead of his fellow Republican governors, launching massive cuts and an attack on the most basic trade union rights within a month of his swearing in. Walker is determined to smash the public sector unions, kick off a wave of Republican victories and make himself the hero of the right. His win last November was part of a national strategy for the Republicans, backed by a massive campaign chest topped up by the rightwing billionaire Koch brothers with $43,000, and on top of this the Republican Governors Association spent $3.4 million on advertising for his campaign.[1]

Wisconsin is a highly symbolic target. In 1959 it was the first state where public sector workers and teachers won the rights to collective bargain union organization and is the home of AFSCME, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees union, launched in 1932.[2] Today the workers of Wisconsin can make history again, by being the first state to smash the Republican offensive, unleashed since the 2 November midterm elections last year.

Abolishing the unions, pure and simple
Governor Walker’s emergency budget bill proposes to slash state contributions to employee medical insurance and pension funds and force up employee contributions, but it goes much further than cuts. And its payback time for the Koch energy magnates too: one of the provisions buried in Walker’s budget bill is to lease or "sell any state-owned heating, cooling, and power plant … with or without solicitation of bids” or legislature oversight. But this is more than a power grab by one governor, or a returned favour for campaign contributors.[3] It’s a union buster’s charter.

Provisions bar the state government (and any Wisconsin counties and municipalities) from bargaining with unions over anything other than pay rises, which could only rise above inflation after a local referendum! One nasty innovation is a provision that workers must ballot every year to recertify their union for bargaining. Republican state politicians are open about the link between the need to make “deep cuts” to local government and school boards, and collective bargaining rights that would mean the unions stand in the way of this.[4] The AFSCME sums up why the union officialdom has been forced into a fight: “this is about trying to abolish the unions, pure and simple.”[5]

In fact Walker has manufactured the Wisconsin budget “crisis”. When Walker was sworn in less than a month before, the budget showed a $121.4 million surplus for the rest of the fiscal year. Since then some outstanding bills coming in that Walker claims could lead to a deficit in coming months will not even approach the state’s statutory deficit limit which would require a stopgap funding measure. The big budget deficits he has pointed to all come on screen next year, so what’s the emergency? And it has to be noted that these potential budget problems did not stop the new Republican trifecta (the assembly, senate and governorship) in Wisconsin immediately awarding a $140 million tax cut for corporations.

While spinning in public that he doesn’t want to have a fight with the unions, in private he took a joke caller pretending to be one of the Koch brothers and revealed his real stance. Walker applauded Reagan’s breaking of the Air Traffic Controllers’ strike as “one of his defining moments” and went on to add he had layoff notices ready for 5 to 6,000 state workers. “If they think I'm caving, they've been asleep for the past 8 years, I don't budge.”[6]

Workers revolt
The explosion of protest by workers and students in response has stunned the US political class including Walker himself as well as the media. Workers of all ages and ethnic backgrounds marched on the Statehouse in their tens of thousands rally outside in bitterly cold weather, while workers, led by teachers and students invaded and occupied the building - for two weeks now and counting! A wide range of home-made funny placards went alongside slogans like Kill the Bill, showing the broad roots of the movement but also its common, militant purpose.

Despite Walker trying to exempt the firefighters and police from the cuts, firefighters turned out in solidarity with the protests and have formed part of its backbone, staying in the occupation to help guard it. Most heartening was the massive support from young people who can be seen thronging every protest and cheering the union speakers, recognising they and the workers must stand together for a common future or they will not have one. Solidarity messages, donations and delegations from across the country streamed in as all eyes turned to Madison. Thousands of protestors in Indiana and Ohio followed suit, surrounding and crowding into the state houses.

Wisconsin has been a microcosm of the enormous strength but also the weaknesses of the US Labor both union and political. It has seen the treacherous national strategy of high up Democrat politicians (“friends of Labor”) and the union leadership. The Wisconsin surplus falling into Scott Walker’s hands in January came thanks to the previous Democratic Governor Jim Doyle who boasted on TV, "I’ve made deeper cuts than any governor’s ever made and I’ve had to impose tougher cost controls on state employees than anybody’s made” – something that no doubt helped the Democrat trifecta get turfed out of both chambers and the governorship in November![7]

From the start Democratic legislators have offered to meet Walker “halfway” on his budget, while union leaders also shamefully accepted the cuts, which would hit service users, and the AFSCME branch even willing to concede a two year freeze on collective bargaining. Both are limiting their opposition to protecting union rights.

Walker, the “new hero” of the Republican right and backed by big fish like the Koch brothers, has refused. He and his backers want a confrontation and nothing short of victory. Without any avenue for negotiation behind closed doors, the union bureaucracy has been forced into a fight, mobilising its national resources and presidents to descend on Madison.

The protestors and unions should certainly not rely on the Democrats to stand up to him. Obama has caved in to Republican demands again and again since the midterms, keeping George Bush’s tax breaks for the rich and taking up Republican demands to unleash big budget cuts. He has not attended any of the state protests since they began, simply called Walker’s policies an assault on the unions – this after his promise that he would “walk on that picket line with you as president of the United States of America”![8]

Wisconsin Democrat representatives have put forward hundreds of amendments and filibustering (delaying through debate) the bill for two days and nights, but then the Republicans just broke the rules, guillotining the debate and voting the budget through. Fourteen Democratic state senators fled across state lines to make the senate inquorate and blocking the next stage.

General Strike?
Whether they hold out or the Republicans find a way around the bill (for instance by separating the workers rights from the budget, which is the only part requiring a quorum) workers have to rely on their own strength and up the action. This is especially true since Walker’s threats to lay off 1,500 workers immediately if the bill continues to be blocked.

There are good signs that that is happening. When the Wisconsin Education Association Council called out its 98,000 members to take two days off school and come to Madison thousands of teachers and students responded, closing dozens of school districts and occupying the Capitol building, the movement took a great step forward. Teacher’s union members report their meetings are discussing a statewide strike, despite the fact that this would be illegal. On Monday 21 February, the 97-union South Central Federation of Labor of Wisconsin voted for a general strike of its 45,000 members if the Walker law goes ahead, with sixty delegates of member unions voting unanimously for the resolution. But the Madison Capital Times points out that “local labor leaders are careful to point out that no strikes have been called; the federation does not have the authority to call a strike and several union leaders stressed that job actions would be individual workers' decisions.”[9]

Since then Labor Notes website reports the South Central Federation is contacting European unions to see how they organise general strikes, and made practical preparations of education and outreach to other unions and what services would be allowed to run.[10] In a great show of solidarity it has voted to oppose any concessions on the bill and support all those who will be affected including the service users. Far from alienating the “public”, the dramatic action has put Walker on the back foot and an AFL-CIO poll shows that 67 percent backed the protestors.[11] And Saturday 26 Feb saw the biggest demos yet in Madison, over 100,000, the biggest in Wisconsin history, and actions in all fifty states. When Walker managed to assemble hundreds of police on the Sunday night to try to evict the two-week occupation, a hundreds courageously refused to leave without a struggle and he was forced to back down.[12]

Now with the first vote on the bill passed through, the struggle isn’t over, but Democrats and union leaders are demobilising teachers and even agreed to end occupation of the Statehouse. Now that the bill could go through, or Walker start mass sackings, preparations need to intensify for the action that can make him back down, a state-wide general strike and developing a movement that can link and intensify the struggle nationally. Though a rarity in the US, in the last great period of Depression – the 1930s – it witnessed what were in effect citywide general strikes; longshoremen in San Francisco, autoworkers in Toledo, Ohio, and teamsters in Minneapolis - strikes which won and opened a huge explosion of unionisation.

Getting a state-wide general strike

Workers, students and protestors can build towards this goal if they organise committees of action with delegates of the best activists from all the workplaces, schools, campuses and working class neighbourhoods, accountable to regular mass meetings, who can coordinate the fight and decide a strategy to defeat all the cuts. Strike committees in workplaces and rank and file caucuses in the unions could tie into these while waging a fight within the unions to turn them in this direction, and replace leaders who back down with activists from the ranks with the will to fight, like the largely women teachers who defied the law to walk out of school and into the Statehouse.

By making direct contact with the Ohio and Indiana unions and movements that are mobilising against similar attacks the movement could develop its own structure nationally without depending on the union apparatuses. While demanding the support of the AFL-CIO fulltimers and leaders, the movement must organise so as to be able to act without them if necessary, since along with the Democratic politicians officials would be unlikely to endorse illegal strikes much less a general strike.

If all sections came out in a general strike, staying out until Walker backed down, he would be at a crossroads, to back down a broken figure or make good on his 11 February threat to call out the National Guard. And if he does, then what? They can’t teach in the classrooms! The police marched with the firefighters and the Wisconsin Professional Police Association has condemned Walker’s plans and actually advocated its members to sleep in the Capital building the eve of the 26th. Police sent to disperse protestors on the 26th actually marched into the Capitol with them and stayed to sleep![13] Of course workers should put no reliance on the cops, but the union movement should continue to put every pressure on them to ignore Walker’s orders and side with protestors or stay out of any clash. But above all strikers should ensure their own safety not by taking a leaf out of the history of the 1934 Minneapolis teamsters strike and organise massive picket line defence.[14]

In present circumstances if Walker were to arrest teachers or lead them away in chains, a spontaneous solidarity movement would likely leap into action across the country. Unionists and the left across the country need to prepare for this and organise to make sure it happens. If Walker gave the order for the National Guard to shoot at protestors, he would ignite a national explosion. And would the National Guard even do it? This isn’t the ghetto revolts and college protests of the 1960s, where white conservative, often racist Guardsmen would be trucked in to put down protests of people they didn’t identify or live with. This is a mass, union-led struggle of workers and students who are the brothers and sisters, moms and dads of many of the Guardsmen.

If Walker were to escalate, he would be taking a massive gamble. He might well lose and he knows it. The workers would be the winners, if they stuck to their guns and pulled out all the stops in the event of a move towards violent repression of the movement. They could demand the AFL-CIO and CTW leaders called a nationwide general strike in solidarity if such vicious attacks took place, along with call on solidarity from the guardsmen themselves and for them to disobey such criminal orders.

A threat becomes an opportunity

With such a high profile struggle, and the eyes of workers and unemployed on it across the country, the huge apparatuses of the national unions can now be used to mount a campaign against the whole Republican austerity drive at the state and national level, to ensure that the Wisconsin movement isn’t isolated but instead spreads everywhere, against the Republican governors but also goes forward in Democrat-controlled states too such as Illinois, Nevada, New Jersey with big budget shortfalls, 45 percent in Nevada’s case.

If the unionised workers can develop democratic anti-cuts assemblies and committees that can link them solidly to the youth, unemployed, and retired, then they can develop mass political strike action, and the organised movement behind it, to win.

Workers in the US have seen three decades of seemingly endless givebacks and cuts to welfare programmes. Their unions – top heavy with overpaid bureaucrats - have caved in time and again rather than mobilize their members. Thanks to Scott Walker’s bid to become the first hero of the Republican austerity offensive millions have woken up to the mortal threat to their cherished, hard-won union and welfare rights. Officials from union locals and rank and file members have taken the lead in occupying the Statehouse and organising mass action. This presents a real opportunity of a turning point in the fortunes of organized Labor which the bosses’ media has proclaimed to be in terminal decline.

The historic revolt in Madison shows serious resistance works and that a historic victory is possible. A fight like this shows to all workers what unions can really do - fight for their most urgent needs and fundamental rights. If the movement continues to grow on a national scale- if it breaks the taboos on direct action faced with a political attack - then millions of workers –including in the now largely non-union private sector will flood into the unions. What the US needs is a massive organising wave like the ones which gave birth to the Industrial Workers of the World (the Wobblies) before the First World War or the CIO in the 1930s and ‘40s.

But the biggest obstacle remain the top union leaders- they are trying to trade continued bargaining rights in return for accepting most of the cuts. Wisconsin Education Association Council President Mary Bell says that money issues have been” taken off the table”, and that the only issue is Governor Walker's assault on the collective bargaining rights. This would be a terrible betrayal and deflation of a magnificent struggle. That is why the rank and file, who initiated and organised the militant action, must establish workers control over the leaders and their negotiations - a veto over any rotten deals which must be put to mass meetings. All this would be a hundred times easier if US workers broke from the Democrats and created their own militant Labor party, instead of handing union funds to those who make “deeper cuts than any governor’s ever made.”

So important is a revival of the US movement to workers around the globe that it is no wonder that Egyptian workers and youth chanted their solidarity with the Wisconsin workers in Tahrir A Square. No wonder too that one of the slogans on the mass demo in Madison was “Fight like an Egyptian!”














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