Yesterday Wisconsin Republicans passed anti-union legislation that would end dues check-offs, mandate yearly votes to maintain union certification, and restrict bargaining to wages, which would be tied to inflation. In response, 8,000 thousand demonstrators forced their way back into the capital building in protest, some climbing through bathroom windows in order to make their way in. According to some witnesses, every floor of the capital was packed and police were threatening to move people out for their own safety. Meanwhile, Republican lawmakers had to sneak out of the capital through a side tunnel, but were confronted by 500 protesters who had predicted this cowardly move. The lawmakers had to be escorted to safety by state troopers.
While police and firefighters were exempt from the law, workers from all industries are outraged. Some demonstrators reported that fire trucks were driving through Milwaukee blaring their sirens in support of those in the Capital. The mainstream unions have organized protests for today and are calling for calm. However, the rank and file is outraged and support for a General Strike is mounting, despite the fact that it would be illegal under Taft-Hartley. Hundreds of protesters gathered outside the entrance to the Capitol on Wednesday evening chanting "Break down the door!" and "General strike!"
The protests are not limited to public sector workers or even to unionized workers. On March 12, farmers will head to Madison for a "tractor-cade" around the State Capitol, indicating that important alliances are already being made across industries and sectors of society.
Unfortunately, while the rank and file is escalating its militancy and its demands (e.g., more and more people are now demanding a reversal of the proposed pay and benefits cuts, as well as the rollback of collective bargaining), the mainstream union leadership continues to try to stifle dissent and collaborate with the terrified Democrats. Many are talking about a recall campaign against the Republicans who voted for the anti-union legislation. Others are talking about shoring up the runaway Democrats to come back and fight.
Ultimately, both of these tactics will fail to achieve any real gains for workers and, at best, will merely return things to the status quo of last year, with workers continuing to suffer declining wages and benefits. The Democrats apparent support for workers is actually just an attempt to preserve unions, one of their most important sources of funding and an important voting base. Once they have reversed the bans on the dues check-off and collective bargaining, they will have succeeded in saving this source of funds and votes and will have little interest in improving workers’ living standards or their working conditions. Indeed, most of the Democrats are also wealthy beneficiaries of the tax breaks that created the budget shortfall.
Living and working conditions can only be improved by directly confronting the bosses through strikes and other actions that harm their bottom line. This is one reason why the actions in Wisconsin are so exciting. Thousands of people from all walks of life are participating in activities that are disrupting business as usual. So far, the intent has been to disrupt the political system. However, once workers start striking, especially a general strike, bosses will start to feel both a decline in their obscene profits and the power of the people. The question is, will people limit themselves to the mere reversal of Walker’s loathsome new anti-union legislation, or will they continue to struggle for more?