Friday, March 11, 2011

Wisconsin Students Walk Out, Demonstrators Dragged from Capitol

The police dragged a hundred demonstrators out of the Wisconsin capital on Thursday. Protesters had been occupying the building since lawmakers rammed through union busting legislation on Wednesday. No one was arrested in the incident. However, it did inspire thousands more protesters to join the demonstration in front of the state building. While large numbers of union members participated in the demonstration, leaders of the state teachers union, WEAC, and the public employees union, AFSCME, continued to try and quell the unrest and advised their members to go to work today.

Yesterday, Wisconsin students called for a nation-wide walkout at 2:00 p.m. Students did indeed walkout all over Wisconsin. There were also reports of students walking out in Teaneck NJ, Louisville KY, New Paltz and Ithaca NY, Idaho, North Carolina, Ohio, Colorado, Maryland, Alaska, Tennessee, Washington, Portland, Oregon, Mankato, Minnesota, Austin, Texas.

Over 100,000 demonstrators are expect to protest in Madison tomorrow. Farmers will engage in a “tractor-cade” around the capital. There are marches organized by many of the unions, including the AFT.

General Strike or General Politics As Usual?
The bill passed by the Wisconsin Senate gives officials the power to fire workers who participate in any kind of “strike, work stoppage, sit-down, stay-in, slowdown, or other concerted activities to interrupt the operations or services of state government, including mass resignations or sick calls.” However, if workers refuse to go to work and continue their street protests, they can effectively shut down government and block scabs from taking their places, forcing the state to reverse the bill and rehire them. More significantly, in the course of past General Strikes, workers’ demands have often evolved from defensive (e.g., fighting to retain collective bargaining) to offensive (e.g., demanding better pay and working conditions). A General Strike has the potential to so hamper profits that workers can theoretically ask for the sky.

The problem is that planning and organizing are needed for effective General Strike. However, the mainstream unions have flatly rejected this option and, together with most of the left, have thrown their weight into political campaigns to recall the Republicans and bolster the Democrats, a move that might not even bring a return of the old status quo, let alone progressive demands like better pay and benefits. Indeed, the union leaders have already conceded pay and benefit cuts. Furthermore, political action saps time, energy and money from the organizing necessary to pull off a General Strike.

Because the unions have already relinquished all forms of job action, it will be up to workers to organize and mobilize on their own (i.e., Wildcat). There are, of course, some alternatives to a General Strike that might also work, but they require even greater discipline and organizing. For example, working to rule can slow down the system to the point that the state backs down. However, it takes longer for the effects of a work to rule to become apparent than with a General Strike. It is also difficult to achieve high levels of compliance. Public service workers like teachers, police and firefighters tend to have a strong commitment to their constituencies and tend to avoid actions that might harm them. Working to rule at a factory and causing widgets to get produced at a slower rate is quite different than at a school, where students might lose extracurricular activities and opportunities to meet with teachers for extra help. Lastly, a work to rule action is still an organized job action and could be considered illegal under the new bill. Therefore, workers would still be risking their jobs by undertaking such an action.

Another option would be the roving sick-out. Under the bill, public sector workers can be fired if they are out for more than 3 days. However, workers could organize to be out at different times such that an entire department is gone for the same 3 days, followed by a different department for the next 3 days. Again, this would require much more organizing and discipline than a General Strike. It would also take much longer to have an impact, and it could also be considered an organized job action, subject to the same risk of being fired.

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