First the Good News
Wisconsin’s mass demonstrations continued today for the eighth straight day, with public workers demanding that Gov. Walker withdraw his plan to gut their unions. Between 5,000 and 20,000 braved the frost to protest outside the capital. Graduate students also walked out of classes today. Some teachers continued their sick-out despite orders by their union, the Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC), to go back to work.
|Huck/Konopacki Labor Cartoons|
Meanwhile, the Madison-based South Central Federation of Labor, which represents 97 unions in the state, has endorsed a call for a general strike, possibly to take place the day Walker signs his "budget repair” bill. This is fantastic news in light of the fact that most of the state’s unions have thrown in the towel and conceded that passage of the bill is a done deal. It is also an indication of labor’s growing militancy and frustration with traditional union tactics that a general strike is even being considered. It is particularly exciting, as there have been very few General Strikes in U.S. history, including Seattle in 1919; San Francisco, Toledo and Minneapolis, in 1934; and Rochester, Pittsburgh, Stampford and Oakland, 1946. In a show of solidarity, the tiny but militant IWW has made their General Defense Committee available to support the General Strike.
Now the Bad News
A federation cannot declare a General Strike. It can only educate unions and members on the structure and function of a General Strike. Another problem is that General Strikes were outlawed with the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act, in 1947, one of the many rollbacks the ruling elite was able to enforce on the working class in the wake of a wave of post-war labor militancy. As a result, there hasn’t been a General Strike in the U.S. since the Oakland General Strike in 1946. Therefore, unions and members will need lots of education and encouragement. For those who are unfamiliar with the term, a General Strike involves work stoppages across numerous industries, with the goal of paralyzing business long enough to force the ruling elite to concede to working class demands. It is the fear of precisely such an action that prompted Gov. Walker to threaten to use the National Guard on workers. The question is, would the National Guard, police and prison guards join the movement or suppress it on behalf of the ruling class? Several National Guard officers toured a state prison yesterday, ostensibly to get a feel for their role as prison guards, should the prison guards join the strike.
We will probably never find out. There is very little chance that WEAC, AFSCME or the AFL-CIO would support a General Strike because they would be breaking the law to do so. They would also be violating their social contract with the ruling elite. Union leaders from both the WEAC and the Wisconsin State Employees Union have consistently agreed to the governor’s pension and health care cuts, demonstrating their willingness to serve as the enforcers of ruling class dominance. Their demands that collective bargaining and workers’ voices be preserved are completely cynical and meaningless to workers considering that they have already bargained away pensions and health care for the coming year (which will result in an 8-20% de facto pay cut) as well as working conditions (through increased class sizes). This comes on top of de facto pay cuts last year in the form of furloughs. In other words, collective bargaining, unions, democracy, free speech, are all good and well as long as you don’t use them to fight for better living conditions, and certainly not to challenge the hegemony of the ruling elite.
The union leadership is much more interested in preserving their elevated status, including their six-figure salaries and their perennial seats at the table with law makers and business leaders, than they with the living standards of their members. As union leaders, their status and interests are no longer the same as ours. What happens to us on the ground and in the classrooms does NOT happen to them. The implications of our sell-out contracts, our declining pay, pensions and benefits, do NOT happen to them. The only tangible, material connection between the rank and file and the union leadership is their salaries, which come from our dues, and the war chests they use to buy elections (and their seats at the table), which also come from our dues.
This relationship binds the union leadership more closely to the interests of the bosses, and loosens their accountability to their members. It turns them into internal enforcers of the contract, which primarily serves the interests of the bosses by keeping workers well-behaved, compliant and productive. This has often manifested itself in the outright suppression of worker dissent by the union leadership. For example, every March, layoff notices go out to thousands of teachers, as required by Ed Code. Union leadership typically takes the stance that it is in the districts’ rights to do this and consequently does nothing in defense of these teachers who have paid their dues to the union all year.