Thursday, March 17, 2011

Which Way Forward in Wisconsin?

There have been massive demonstrations numbering in the hundreds of thousands. There have been occupations of the Capitol building. There have been wildcat strikes ("sick outs") by public school teachers and there have been walkouts by high school students. 14 Democrat lawmakers took leave of the state for days in order to deny Walker quorum to pass punishing budget cuts designed to force working people to pay for the recession caused by the ruling class.

Still, Walker appears to be on top at the moment. Despite his unpopularity and embattled status, he was able to (potentially illegally) force through a bill that effectively revokes the right to collectively bargain for public sector workers. This makes obvious what many of us knew all along, namely that this so-called "budget repair bill" is nothing but an attempt to smash organs of workplace democracy in an effort to streamline austerity for working people. But the worst is still to come. Walker's budget is a complete disaster for working people. To name just a few of its provisions: it hikes up tuition (up to 25%) for state universities at the same time that it makes space for big layoffs and punishing wage/benefit cuts, and it also does serious damage to WI's "Badger Care" health program. Of course, this is after Walker and the Republicans handed big tax breaks to corporate elites and the rich. The plan is classic neoliberalism, and it would hardly be an exaggeration to say that WI is undergoing IMF-style "structural adjustment" at the moment: smash the unions, eviscerate public services and vital social institutions, privatize, slash taxes for corporations and the rich, layoff public workers and force those who remain to accept speed-ups and wage cuts, etc. This supposedly all part of creating a "favorable business environment" in order that normal profit rates can be re-established.

But there is also another dimension here: this is a way of forcing working people to clean up a mess created by the financial sector of the ruling class. As everyone knows, we're still in a global economic recession right now, and this is the reason why state and municipal budgets are in such bad shape. Whereas some municipal and state budgets were directly tied to the health of the financial sector by way of investments that went sour due to the 2008-09 global meltdown, almost all are indirectly tied to the financiers insofar as a bad economy means a sharp drop in tax revenues. High unemployment caused by massive layoffs simply adds to this problem by forcing more to seek unemployment benefits while contributing less in taxes owing to their lack of income. All of this was caused by reckless, profit-seeking actions from the business class.

Yet, the inclination of our rulers isn't to assign blame to those who deserve it. They are not fair or neutral arbiters among competing interests: they are bought and paid for by, if not outright members of, the wealthy investing classes. Thus the people being forced to foot the bill for the crisis are those least able to fight back, namely those with the least amount of power in this society. Hence the assaults on working class living standards from Madison to California to Washington (and, it's worth noting, this is hardly an American phenomenon).

So what is to be done in this context? How can ordinary people fight back to defend the rights and gains won through hard-fought struggles in the past?

If we're to successfully defend collective bargaining rights now, we've got to do it in the same way that our forerunners won such rights in the first place: through strike action. Collective bargaining was not won by phoning representatives or writing letters encouraging elected officials to make the right decision. Nor was it won by way of petition and legal maneuvering. Workers won the right to union representation by showing the ruling classes (i.e. the classes who own the vast majority of alienable productive assets such as factories and so on) that they have a power that no government or corporate elite can stop: the power to stop working and bring the economy to a grinding halt.

Of course, strikes aren't automatically successful. They don't always end pretty. One of the bargaining advantages that capitalists always have is part of what makes them capitalists in the first place: large reserves of capital on which they can comfortably subsist in order to weather the storm for a decent amount of time. Another is that elected officials and state law enforcement typically come to the defense of property owners rather than workers when push comes to shove. Yet another is necessary glut of labor on the market that enables employers to bring in scabs. Even with high levels of community support and class solidarity, determined strikes can still go down as horrible defeats for those involved in them (the Tyson strike is an example of such a defeat).

Yet for all those advantages, strikes are without doubt the most successful way of bringing about ambitious progressive changes. As an IWW pamphlet on the idea of a general strike (when workers across various industries and trades all strike at once) notes, some of the most successful general strike actions include:

· Chicago, New York, Cincinnati, and elsewhere, 1886 – First victory in the fight for an eight-hour day

· Toledo, OH, 1934 – First successful unionization of the auto industry.

· San Francisco, CA, 1934 – Unionization of all West Coast ports of the United States.

· Poland, 1980 – Began the process of democratic reforms that led to the end of Stalinist control over the country.

· Egypt, 2011 – Brought the 30-year reign of an autocratic despot to an end.

There are many other such examples.

This is the American tradition that we must look to if we're to move the struggle forward in Wisconsin. The idea of a general strike may be a long-shot at the moment, but there is no reason to think that it is objectively impossible. Of course, it won't happen all at once. It could only come about as the result of a chain reaction of strikes and job actions set off by one ambitious action that sparks others. The rank and file militancy and presence of political radicals in the labor movement in past struggles (e.g. the Teamsters Rebellion in MN in 1934) is lacking today- and there is reason to think that this will make it more difficult than in the past for arguments for strike-actions to get the light of day in many of the big unions. As is to be expected, the union leaders are playing a basically conservative role at present and will not be the spark that sets off an escalation in struggle.

So, what's next in Wisconsin? What's the way forward?

The thing that has inspired people the world over has been the massive outpouring of solidarity of hundreds of thousands of protesters who've braved cold conditions to occupy, march, and demonstrate in support of workers rights. This is the basic raw material that we must use to move the struggle forward. Whereas Democrats and union leaders are asking that we chill out and lay down our placards, we need to do precisely the opposite if we're going to win this thing. We need more demonstrations in conjunction with strike actions. Most of the pieces of the puzzle are already in place: deep bonds of solidarity among hundreds of thousands of people, a wide sense that "we're all in this together", and well-formed public anger at the wealthy classes who are attacking us with austerity and union busting. The only thing that is lacking is the kind of rank and file militancy and organization that could successfully make the argument within the unions that, contra union leadership, more militant strike action is what we need right now. But although this organization infrastruture is lacking as the result of a 40-year-long one-sided class war (i.e. neoliberalism)... consciousness is developing at such a fast pace that this could compensated for in a context of rapidly escalating struggle.

But the only way that escalation is possible is on the condition that someone makes the first move. It need not be big- it could be as small as a librarian walk-out, or a Grad Student wildcat strike, or a barista day of action. Everyone would get behind such a brave move- and this could even force a discussion of wider strikes and job actions. It remains to be seen whether this will occur. But it is far from impossible right now. There is more chance that such a thing could happen now than at any time in the last 20 or 30 years. People are enraged by what is happening, and they've got their backs against the ropes. Let the recall efforts continue, but the rest of (all 200,000 of us or so) have a fight to win. There is no reason why our demands should be anything less than "No Cuts, No Concessions!".


JM said...

Speaking of teacher's unions, look who hates em whilst railing against corporatism:

Anonymous said...

To attack teachers unions is to unreflectively regurgitate ruling class ideology. Only the ruling class has a legitimate reason to dislike them- everyone else has a basic interest in seeing that teachers are well-paid, respected and entitled to a democratic voice in how their job gets done. All the garbage about "protecting bad teachers" is just that- garbage. This is a red herring, and the folks attacking unions know it. They could care less about the few "bad" teachers out there- they are interested in pushing down wages and being able to fire all teachers with impunity, no matter how accomplished they are in their domain.

In Chicago, where the teachers union is relatively strong, thousands of teachers have been laid off in the last year- with no consideration given to their skill as educators. They were laid off, we were told, in order to "balance the budget"- translation: they were thrown under the bus in order to clean up the mess created by capitalists who wrecked the economy.

I went to public schools my whole life K-12, and I got a wonderful education. Not all public schools are as good as the ones I attended- and that should be cause for outrage. That is a problem that everyone -unionized teachers included!- should want to fix. But fixing something is not the same as fragmenting it, tearing it apart, and turning part of it into a business opportunity for capitalists. That, in effect, is what "solutions" like vouchers and charters do. Imagine there were 12 people living in a building with no heat and a leaky roof. Most of us would say: the solution is to fix the roof and heat the building. Pro-Charter partisans reject this logic entirely: the answer is to allow 3 people from the building the opportunity to get a subsidized ticket to live elsewhere (so much the worse for the remaining 9 people). That is no solution at all- but an unsystematic cherry-picking maneuver aimed at making profit.

Education is far too important to be debased and treated as a mere commodity.