Saturday, May 14, 2011

Wisconsin, The Democrats, and Beyond

Let's be clear. The Democrats suffocated the struggle in Wisconsin and ultimately snuffed out opposition to Walker. They called for an end to the protests, an end to the occupations, and an end to the discussions about labor action. They told crowds of 100,000s to "lay down their placards" and to focus on electioneering efforts. The result of this strategy is on full display. Walker has got his way, and our side was defeated. The opposition has dwindled, and the energy of that uprising has dissipated. Had the movement maintained its independence from the Democrats and pushed on to ratchet up the pressure through job actions, things could very well have turned out differently.

But it's actually worse than just defeat in Wisconsin. Trade unionists are facing ruthless Wisconsin-like anti-union laws in several other states as well. And, though it has largely gone unnoticed by the crowd, many of these states are run by Democratic governors. The crushing of unions is a bipartisan project.

The most obvious examples are New York, California and Illinois. These are well-known "blue" states, with solid "liberal credentials". That's supposed to be as good as it gets from an electioneering standpoint, right? From the perspective, what could be better than a solidly Democratic state government, a Democratic governor, and two Democratic U.S. Senators?

In New York, Gov. Cuomo actually had the chutzpah to campaign on an anti-union, pro-austerity platform. He didn't even bother sugar-coating his conservative politics. And what did the liberals in New York do in the last election cycle? They gave Cuomo full support on the grounds that he was the "lesser evil". And hat about the public sector unions whom Cuomo promised he would face down and suppress in order to balance the budget? They gave him full support too. The utter bankruptcy of this political strategy is on full display for all to see.

Cuomo has allowed taxes on the richest New Yorkers to expire, while simultaneously pushing through punishing cuts to education and health care. Cuomo has also boldly placed public sector workers in the cross hairs. He wants more than $450 million in cuts to come from union workers. And he's promising to layoff more than 12,000 public workers at a time when jobs are scarce and public aid is being slashed. So much for the lesser evil as the only political option. If there was a large, highly organized and militant Left in New York, it would be possible to ratchet up pressure by way of protests and strikes. This is how such austerity measures have been defeated elsewhere in the world, and there is no reason why they couldn't be defeated here in a similar fashion. But to take this more oppositional perspective would require cutting the umbilical cord from the Democratic Party. It would mean being open to independent, grass-roots, social-movement-driven politics.

In Illinois things are similarly bleak. In the run-up to the 2010 elections, the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) voted to endorse Democratic incumbent Pat Quinn for governor. Not everyone in the union thought this was a good idea. Reformers felt that the union should take a more independent, oppositional stance toward the Democratic governor given the attacks that were sure to come in the following year.

In IL, the Democrat-controlled General Assembly has just passed a Wisconsin-style bill (S.B. 7) that revokes the right of teachers to go on strike, undermines tenure, and works to generally silence the voice of teachers. This move by Illinois Democrats is right out of Scott Walker's playbook. Predictably, Quinn did not veto it. And even more predictably, Mayor-elect and former Obama chief of staff Rahm Emanuel strongly supported the measure. Say what you like about Rahm, at least he was frank enough to proclaim his hatred of teachers and his desire to revoke their union rights during his campaign for mayor. The same cannot be said for his former boss. And, as has been widely noted, it's important to point out that Rahm worked his connections to put tremendous amounts of pressure on the legislature to get the anti-union result he'd been hoping for. This bill has the grubby finger prints of the most powerful Illinois Democrats names all over it.

The bill itself is a real whopper. As a Chicago Public Schools (CPS) teacher recently told me, the bill effectively guts teachers' vacation time and opens the doors for an unpaid increase in their workday. Emanuel has been pushing hard to increase the school day in Chicago without paying teachers for the extra hours they will now be asked to work. Of course, as teachers frequently point out, they already do a hefty amount of unpaid labor in the form of lesson-planning and grading (which they perform in the private sphere, which is a big reason why it often goes unnoticed or unappreciated). Rather than increasing their obligation to perform unpaid labor, they should be compensated for the unpaid labor they're already performing! But that is the exact opposite position of the one that the Democrats in Illinois are taking. For the Democrats, the answer is to squeeze more work out of the teachers for less money. And in order to to do that effectively, the organs of voice and workplace democracy (i.e. unions) must be weakened enough that teachers have no way to contest these changes. As the Democrats who run the state are well aware, when there is even a small measure of democracy in the workplace, it is far more difficult to push workers around and screw them over. From a P.R. perspective, the Democrat strategy is to scapegoat teachers as "lazy public employees" and further tout the toxic ideology of "education reform" (i.e. privatization, union bashing, corporate-run charters as the answer to structural problems, etc.).

This post is already getting too long, but readers will have no difficulty finding information on Democrat Jerry Brown's aggressively conservative, pro-business, pro-austerity budget in California.

This is tough news to stomach. But there's going to be a fightback. Teachers in IL understand that there must be a fightback -they've got no choice but to fight for their lives right now. And fighting back in this context means fighting against the regressive, corporate-friendly policies of the Democrats. It means using independent community organization and trade unions to leverage people power against the entrenched conservatism and inertia of the Democratic Party machine. It certainly doesn't mean rolling over and accepting the status quo as "the best we could possibly hope for" on the grounds that the Republicans would be worse. That cynical, do-nothing strategy has shown itself to be bankrupt time and time again. What we need is to build the independent Left, build the existing movements, and kickstart new ones.

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