The Madison worker uprising shook up the US political landscape. State governments that were peacefully going about their business forcing workers and communities to pay for upper class gluttony are facing resistance on a scale they had not imagined. Instead of letting their fellow workers be picked off and destroyed sector by sector, a wide swath of the working public rose in support of Wisconsin teachers and state workers. This, in turn, has given new juice to efforts to challenge tax-dodging banks, defend school programs and resist corporate land grabs across the country. It has changed the discussion from "whose needs should get axed, since the money is gone?" to "Hey! Who stole the money!?" The assault on unions and the public sector is continuing unabated, however, and we'll need some serious strategic realignment if we wish to avoid the dystopian future that's been ordered up for us.
The prospects for any social movement rest on the presence of three essential elements: unity, capacity and clarity. Like some nutrients in the body they need to be in balance or they turn toxic. Clarity by itself leads to frustration since you can see what needs doing but can't get it done; unity alone results in missed opportunities, making it more difficult to rebuild unity down the road; capacity without its partners can deliver victories that slip through our fingers or that turn out to not be so great. How a movement defines what it is fighting for will influence the development of all three elements and will signal to other constituencies whether or not they have common objectives.
While the Wisconsin awakening was sparked by teachers and teaching assistants, the voices that have so far dominated the mic at rallies and press conferences have been union officials, elected Democrats and white populists united behind the slogan "Let's take America back!" This rallying cry has a strong appeal to working-class sectors that have seen the foundations of their world -- livable jobs, educational access and affordable home ownership -- collapse with the manufacturing economy and the consolidation of casino capitalism. "Taking America back" represents to them the return of a semblance of democracy and the dream of a rising living standard for each generation. In short, it appeals to a population that has a "reset" point, a time when things were not so bad, to which it can dream of returning.
The insecurity and repression being visited on the vaunted "middle class" are permanent features of life in communities of color. In these communities, the exhortation to return to "the good old days" does not hold the same magic. It represents a minor modification of a harsh status quo in which a timid white, liberal establishment would reclaim its old "seat at the table." Some folk's nostalgia is other folks' de'jà vu.
What about this "America" we're supposed to be so eager to get back to? The relative security for white workers in the post-war era rested on a series of bad bargains that set the course for today's class massacre. Among these was complicity with an interventionist foreign policy designed to create "attractive climates for investment" for US corporations in the global south. This was accomplished through implanting repressive regimes that would gut their nation's public services and regulations, suppress unions, eliminate price controls on necessities and crush protest. Implemented by Democrats and Republicans alike with the support of the union bureaucracy, these policies prepared the greener pastures to which runaway manufacturing (and, more recently, many services) could relocate.
The outflow of manufacturing jobs coincided with the post-civil rights backlash against the gains of African-American workers. Management in agriculture, hospitality, meatpacking and other sectors moved systematically to replace Blacks with more vulnerable undocumented immigrants. As California hotel owners described it to researchers, Blacks were beginning to act "entitled" and were behaving too much like whites. In other words they were acting as though they had citizenship rights and must therefore be replaced with workers who literally didn't. This echoed the WWII displacement of Japanese farm workers and family farmers at the behest of western ag interests, who campaigned relentlessly for mass, race-based internment under the mantle of patriotism. That goal accomplished, they immediately clamored for a Bracero program to fill the newly created labor void with a vulnerable, contingent workforce.
The replacement of one workforce with another was again accomplished by means of mass internment. Where racial codes had once barred African Americans from many occupations, housing opportunities and the voting booth, now these restrictions would be reserved for "criminals." Criminal laws and police practices were dutifully adjusted to speed up the criminalization -- en mass -- of Black people. Simultaneously, immigration without documents -- a civil infraction under US law -- was re-cast as a national crisis of criminality necessitating its own parallel system of raids, mass detentions, incarceration centers and suspension of due process.
some, the good old days are closer at hand. "If Wisconsin had done its job in
the last election," quipped one of the fugitive state legislators upon their
return to Madison. "None of this would have been necessary." It would have been necessary, of course; it
just wouldn't have been possible. Electing Wisconsin Democrats in 2010 would
have preserved a status quo in which worker and democratic rights are bargained
away in a controlled, incremental process without the messy recklessness of the
The Democratic legislators from several states who went into exile to block anti-worker laws are to be lauded for their courage. They cannot, however, be expected to provide the vision that the moment demands. This reflects the realities of funding. Democrats can get behind targeting companies that contribute to Republican right wingers but are not down with identifying the corporate class as a whole as the problem -- especially with the financial arms race for corporate money unleashed by the Citizens United Supreme Court ruling. But it is precisely the consensus of the corporate sector as a whole that is driving the restructuring of the global economy and the offensive against workers rights everywhere.
The Wisconsin bill which sparked the uprising is sometimes identified (including by Gov. Walker himself) as a "PATCO moment" for our time. It wasn't. PATCO was the air traffic controllers' union whose members' firing by President Reagan in 1981 unleashed a ferocious nationwide offensive against private sector unions. Today's PATCO moment came months before the Wisconsin governor made his move; in November, 2010, when President Obama announced a two-year freeze on federal workers' wages. This action -- negligible in its effect on the federal deficit -- affixed the presidential seal of approval to the strategy of handing workers the bill -- and the blame -- for the economic havoc caused by Wall Street fraud, corporate tax relief and war. As Dan LaBotz predicted in Labor Notes:
"Now, around the country, governments at the city, county, and state level faced with budget deficits and already engaged in layoffs and furloughs will use the president's position to justify their actions. Private industry -- which hardly needed encouragement -- will do the same."
Obama's green light was not directed at Republicans or Democrats; it was a signal to management -- public and private -- and their pet politicians that open season on union contracts is in full swing. It's about class, not party.
Mass criminalization -- be it of dark-skinned citizens or immigrants -- is a lynch-pin for ensuring a divided and paralyzed working class. Its success is what permits the corporate class to move in for the kill. W. E. B. DuBois declared race the "Achilles heel" of organized labor. It is certainly a strategic blind spot to not recognize that repressive immigration policy and mass racial incarceration -- two pillars of US social policy -- are fundamentally labor issues as much as slavery was in its day.
The attack on public sector unions is part of the same strategic offensive as the decimation of public schools and services; corporate plunder of the treasury; subversion of climate policy; replacement of local government by corporate managers; "Free Trade" destruction of southern economies; and the assault on democratic communications. It is also linked to efforts to demonize and isolate sexual, religious and other minorities. The breadth of this attack overwhelms the go-it-alone strategy instinctively pursued by unions, non-profits and issue campaigns. The common wisdom is that if I allow my issue to get tangled up with yours, I lessen my chances of bringing home concessions (and, indeed, funders and officials reward lobbying to benefit narrow constituencies rather than broad efforts to improve things for everyone). This approach has yielded short-term benefits at times (when the elite were in a mood to share some goodies) but in the long run leaves us inexperienced and unprepared for the imperatives of broad-based, united struggle.