The meaning of Madison

March 2, 2011

The battle to defend unions in Wisconsin shows the potential for labor to take a stand against Corporate America's assault--and change the direction of U.S. politics.

SCOTT WALKER had it all figured out. With the latest statistics showing that organized labor was at its weakest point in a century, Wisconsin's Republican governor calculated that a blitzkrieg against public-sector unions would result in a quick victory and catapult him into the front ranks of presidential contenders for 2012.

Instead, Walker has sparked a union mobilization on a scale unseen in the U.S. in decades--and one supported by individuals and organizations with no formal connection to the labor movement.

What began as protests by students and rank-and-file unionists and a sick-in by teachers in the capital city of Madison mushroomed into an occupation of the state Capitol building by students and workers. The daily demonstrations soon reached across the state and around the country, drawing an estimated 100,000 union members and supporters in Madison on February 26.

"Solidarity Forever!" was transformed from a phrase from the history books into a living, daily reality. Suddenly, the long, one-sided class war in the U.S. looks a lot different. Our side was fighting back--and showing that it has the power to win.

The occupied Capitol building in Madison
The occupied Capitol building in Madison (Eric Ruder)

Anyone who thinks talk of "class war" is an exaggeration should remember that it was Walker who declared the National Guard would be prepared to deal with any work stoppage by public employees who took job action over attempts to bar meaningful collective bargaining, bar their unions from collecting dues through payroll deductions, and impose higher costs for health care.

The all-out assault was justified in the name of closing a budget deficit--even though Walker's first act as governor was to push through two corporate tax breaks and a business-friendly health care initiative worth a total of $117 million, nearly the size of the budget gap.

So at the decisive sit-in on Thursday, February 17--when teachers, students and union members blockaded entrances to the Wisconsin state senate chambers--it seemed perfectly normal that a kindergarten teacher would lead protesters in a chant of "class war."

Those on the other side of the battle lines made a similar call to arms. Tim Phillips, the head of Americans for Prosperity--the right-wing think tank created and funded by Walkers' backers, the billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch--argued that the governor should pursue a "complete victory" over the unions by not only extracting economic concessions, but also stripping of them of their rights.

Such comments are meant to bolster the resolve of other Republican governors in Ohio, Indiana and Pennsylvania who have hesitated in following Walker's all-out attack on labor.

Wisconsin, therefore, is a test case for both sides. Thus, Richard Fink, the executive vice president of Koch Industries, declared, "With the left trying to intimidate the Koch brothers to back off of their support for freedom and signaling to others that this is what happens if you oppose the administration and its allies, we have no choice but to continue to fight. We will not step back at all."

THE WAR on workers, though, isn't being waged just by secretive billionaires like the Kochs and their Republican hit squad. The attack on public-sector unions is being carried out in the spirit of bipartisan unity that President Barack Obama celebrates so much.

Obama has done his part by hammering teachers through the Race to the Top education legislation that dangles money in front of state governments if they adopt anti-teachers' union measures--and by proposing a two-year pay freeze for federal workers.

Meanwhile, Democratic governors like Jerry Brown in California, Andrew Cuomo in New York and Pat Quinn in Illinois are also determined to cut public employees pension funds and health care benefits, and impose unpaid furlough days and other cuts in workers' compensation. The only difference is that the Democrats want to leave the union machinery intact in order to turn dues money into campaign contributions at election time.

Until now, public unions have responded to these attacks by retreat, if not outright capitulation. Even in the midst of the Wisconsin protests--fueled in large part by teacher job actions--American Federation of Teachers (AFT) President Randi Weingarten announced her abandonment of tenure rights, which ensure due process for teachers who face termination. Weingarten now proposes contracts in which teachers who were rated unsatisfactory would be given one year to improve or be fired within 100 days.

Similarly, the leaders of the Wisconsin public-sector unions, such as Wisconsin Education Association Council President Mary Bell and AFSCME Council 24 Executive Director Marty Biel, have repeatedly stated that they would make economic concessions to Walker. These cuts would amount to a more than 7 percent cut in workers' take-home pay in exchange for continued public sector bargaining rights. In other words, rank-and-file union members would have to take a hit in order to ensure the continue operation of the unions--and the payment of union officers' salaries, presumably without a cut.

Over the last 35 years, union officials have repeatedly justified such concessions by claiming that there was no other choice--because profits are down, government budget deficits are too high and unions are too weak to resist.

But three years after the economic crisis, profits are soaring, and the federal and state budget deficits are caused not by the modest pay and benefits of public-sector workers, but by spending on two endless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and a multitrillion-dollar bank bailout that continues to this day.

As Rose Ann DeMoro, executive director of National Nurses United, wrote in the Huffington Post:

Working people did not create the recession or the budgetary crisis facing federal, state and local governments, and there can be no more concessions, period.

It should be apparent that the right wants to scapegoat workers and their unions, and is trying to exploit the economic crisis for an all-out assault on unions, public employees, and all working people in a campaign that is funded by right-wing, corporate billionaires like the Koch brothers.

MAKE NO mistake about it--Scott Walker won't abandon his war on unions without a fight, and the national Republican Party is basing its strategy for the coming years on it. In this, they're serving the interests of Corporate America, which wants to take advantage of an opportunity to target organized labor's last bastion of strength--and if Corporate America wants it, that means the Democrats will go along with a milder version of austerity.

So the challenge that facing our side is formidable. But what the struggle in Wisconsin has proved is that unions--in spite of the battering they have taken in recent decades--have the capacity to mobilize, fight and win.

From the union members on five-hour bus rides from the city of Superior to Los Angeles teachers boarding a plane to Wisconsin, the labor movement has been at is finest in rallying support for its brothers and sisters in struggle.

The 100,000-strong rally on February 26 brought together truck drivers, social workers, electricians, teachers, nurses and construction workers around the basic notion--embodied in the famous old labor slogan--that an injury to one is an injury to all. Then there were the many working people who aren't in unions--in Wisconsin and beyond--who also support the struggle, based on an understanding that if employers and politicians can crush organized workers, the rest of us will be all the more vulnerable.

The struggle in Wisconsin has given our unions the opportunity to step forward and challenge the assumptions of U.S. politics--that the rich must continue to get tax breaks while working people must continue to pay the price of this crisis. Now, when union officials push for concessions, rank-and-file union members can point to the powerful mobilization in Wisconsin and argue that we can fight back.

Whatever the outcome in the battle between Walker and the workers, our side has shown its strength, determination--and capacity to win.

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