Kim Moody on the Wisconsin strikes: “The Middle West explodes – in the US”

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In an article for Counterfire, Kim Moody writes that the recent waves of worker demonstrations across the Midwest are ‘putting new ideas about class politics and power on the trade union agenda.’ Charting the emergence of a revitalised union movement in reaction to fresh union-busting legislation being put forward by newly-elected Republican governors, Moody argues that:  

The laws were put forth by recently elected Republican governors in those and other states designed to destroy the power of public worker unions. The attack on public sector workers, often focused on teachers, is long standing, sponsored by big business and embraced by many Democrats as well as Republicans, from the Whitehouse to state legislatures and town halls across the country. The recent Great Recession provided a further opportunity for state governments facing growing deficits to propose the final coup de grace to public worker rights. The first sign of worker resistance came on Monday, 14th February when some 400 Minnesota union members filled the hearing rooms of the state legislature to oppose a bill that would undermine union security and cut wages by 15 percent.

The anger among public workers that generated this mass turnout has been a long time smouldering. Municipal employees in Madison, for example, had not had a wage increase in three years. Perhaps most aggrieved were teachers. All across the country they have been the target of educational ‘reforms’ that not only introduce scripted teaching and standard testing as the measure of all things, but specifically scapegoat teachers as the cause of America’s slumping educational ratings. President Obama’s ‘Race to the Top’ educational programme endorses this blame-the-teacher approach.

Moody is a contributor to Verso’s Rebel, Rank and File, which documents labor revolt and militancy during the long 1970s. Examining the conditions which have sparked the Wisconsin protests, Moody discusses the solidarity between union leaders and workers, as well as volunteers that would be unaffected by the proposed laws, which sets the movement in Wisconsin apart from the labor revolts of the 1970s:

The explosion of worker mobilisation in Madison, Wisconsin began on 15th February when the state’s three largest public employee unions called on members to demonstrate at the state Capitol against legislation proposed by the state’s new Republican Governor, Scott Walker. Walker won the election in 2010 with Tea Party backing and funds generously supplied by the billionaire Koch brothers, who are also major funders of the Tea Party movement. In addition to the severe cuts in public jobs and services that have become the standard fare of state politics across the country, Walker proposed to limit collective bargaining to wages, end payroll deduction of dues, force public sector unions to vote every year for recognition, and impose higher employee contributions for pensions and healthcare, which, if the bill passes, cannot be negotiated.

From Tuesday, 15th February, when about 10,000 answered their unions’ call, the demonstrations escalated each day, reaching 70,000 on Saturday, 19th February. For two weeks, workers and students maintained a 24-hour occupation. Thousands remained encamped around the Capitol with hundreds inside through the night during the entire second week. Although police and fire fighters were exempted from the law and private sector workers unaffected, the demonstrations saw fire fighters, ‘cops for labor’, steelworkers, building workers, and others in the crowd day after day. Fire fighters, at the behest of their union’s leader, were among those occupying and sleeping in the Capitol. Also present in the streets were member of Iraq Veterans Against the War, one with a sign reading ‘I left Iraq and came to Egypt.’

Wisconsin workers were reinforced as members of various unions came from around the Midwest in buses and car pools to show support. More recently, supporters have come from all around the country. People from around the world called in to a local pizzeria to order pizzas by the hundreds for the demonstrators. The rally on Saturday, 26th February drew well over 70,000 according to Madison police despite freezing weather and snow, while solidarity rallies, often numbering thousands, were held in all 50 states that same day.

Although the movement was called and backed by the union officialdom, much of the mass mobilisation was, as one reporter put it, ‘spontaneous.’ Another noted that the daily demonstrations, meetings, and overnight stays in the Capitol were organised by volunteers. Union branches in the area took turns joining the occupation. Union members in branches around the state took it upon themselves to organise their fellow workers into car pools. One group of 120 teachers from nearby Janesville answered their union’s suggestion to call in sick and go to Madison. When the same union asked teachers to return to work, not all of them did. Indeed, while the word strike was seldom heard, ‘sick-in’ became part of the language of protest.

Contextualizing the Wisconsin strikes within the militant labour movements of America’s past, Moody suggests that the current mass mobilizations are particularly noteworthy both because of the spontaneity of the organization and also because of cooperation between Wisconsin Democrats and the protestors:

The movement was, by nature, political from the start. But it produced a rather unusual action by the Democrats in the state Senate. On Thursday, before the Republicans could bring the 500-page anti-union bill up for debate in the Senate, all 14 Democrats left the Capitol and then the state. Effort by Governor Walker to have the State Police hunt them down came to nothing as they escaped across the border to neighbouring Illinois. This deprived the Republicans of the quorum required to do business. It also made heroes of a group of politicians seldom engaged in risky actions. A week later Democrats in Indiana did the same thing.

On 22nd February, delegates to the Madison-based South Central Federation of Labour, which represents 45,000 workers in 97 affiliated branch unions, passed a resolution calling on affiliated unions to prepare and educate their members in the ‘organisation and purpose’ of a general strike if the law passes. There hasn’t been a general strike in the US since 1946 when about seven cities saw such strikes. Whether or not this strike happens and whether or not the law finally passes, the massive upsurge in Wisconsin has put new ideas about class politics and power on the trade union agenda.

 Visit Counterfire to read the article in full.