A detailed report and analysis of the attack on public sector workers in Wisconsin and the response of workers and the unions.
The whole situation centered in Madison, Wisconsin has become a major class confrontation.
The university students (who may or may not be proletarian) excepted, from our side this is an almost exclusively working class event; it is the largest strictly working class action in the United States in decades and it is growing, drawing in new layers of workers with each passing day in what is effectively a strike wave led largely by students and teachers; still, its leadership and its methods are reformist pure and simple, and to this point at least so are its aims...
Under national or federal law, each juridical, political and territorial division of the U.S. State that is called a “state” is the institution from which public sector workers have wrested union recognition and collective bargaining rights. In Wisconsin, this is what is at issue.
In the last round of the electoral cycle, the Republican party swept state elections, taking the governor's office, and both bodies of a two house legislature, the lower one by a large margin.
The confrontation took it start from an announcement on Friday, 11 February by Scott Walker, the new governor, that he was introducing a bill into the legislature to increase public sector workers contributions to pensions and health care and to gut collective bargaining. On Monday, the lower house of the legislature's finance committee chair said the committee would hold hearings on the bill put forth by Walker. In his proposed legislation, Walker, a 43 year old career politician, called for enactment of several provisions, the most important of which are the following: Public workers are to pay up to half the costs of their pensions, and at least 12.6 percent of their health care coverage; collective bargaining rights will be denied to nearly all state, county and municipal workers; the same workers as public employers will be required to annually recertify preference for a union; and the state will no longer permit union dues collection by way of payroll checkoffs. All wage increases would be tied to the consumer price index, and any above it would require statewide referendum approval. The measures would go into effect on 1 July this year, and, to boot, Walker's administration has notified all unions currently holding contracts with the various levels of the state in Wisconsin that those contracts would be abrogated effective 13 March. Walker threatens to fire 6,000 state workers if the measure fails in the legislature. (By late in the week, Walker had upped the figure to 10,000.) He is confident that it won't, and there is little reason to believe that at this moment his assessment is wrong, though his administration has publicly stressed its readiness to employ bodily repression, the governor having gone to great pains to emphasize that he has put the National Guard on alert in the case where there is worker resistance (i.e., where a fightback threatens to shift the balance of forces against the class alliance he sits atop).
The governor's office has offered its own reading of some of the features of the bill, most importantly that it would grant state officials the right to arbitrarily fire workers who partake in any “organized action to stop or slow work” (such as now ongoing) and who are absent for three days or more without employer approval. Those workers immediately and directly affected by the bill include state office and state hospital wage earners (there is a large concentration of both in Madison), teachers statewide, workers employed by the University of Wisconsin (there are roughly a dozen campuses in the state) and its hospitals, childcare and home health workers who are employed in the public sector, and, perhaps surprisingly, some who are dubiously proletarian, in particular, state prison guards. Not surprisingly, some of the provisions (i.e., those eliminating collective bargaining) do not apply to front line repressive forces, local police and state troopers (and, not part of this characterization, to firefighters), though it is not at all clear whether they will not be subject to cuts in health care benefits and pensions The bill would also terminate health care coverage and pension benefits for all temporary workers so-called employed by the state, and this includes graduate student teaching assistants and researchers.
State Budgets and Capitalist Austerity
Wisconsin is one of forty-five U.S. states which have budget deficits. Unlike the national government that, under the auspices of the Federal Reserve, can and does print money endlessly to cover its debts, the states are mandated by their own constitutions to (bi)annually balance their budgets. Walker himself estimates the Wisconsin deficit at $137 million for the rest of the current fiscal year, and $3.3 billion for the next two fiscal years. (The state operates with a biannual budget.) Now, unlike the situation in many other U.S. states and capitalist countries around the world, the fiscal “crisis” in Wisconsin is largely manufactured: Walker was sworn in as governor in early January, and within days, he, together with the legislature, had enacted a series of revenue giveaways to the business classes and taxes cuts for the same. Half the projected budget shortfall is a product of this legislation. But that's okay, for the balanced budget provision in the fundamental law so-called is a mighty weapon that is periodically wielded to discipline the working class under the rubric of austerity.
Where the Wisconsin budget deficit is not engineered, it is seamlessly a piece with the global crisis of capital manifested most forcibly in the collapse of Lehman's in September 2008. Lehman Brothers was symptomatic for when the crisis broke it had the outward appearance of a crisis of the great financial capitals. The immediate reaction of capitalist states everywhere was to come to their rescue, to bail them out, to print money since, at any rate, there is nothing so characteristic of capitalism today as financial hegemony within ruling class social groups that control the states of the world. (Since September 2008 the Fed has pumped $4 trillion into great financial capitals a large number of which are not even U.S. based.) This reaction was followed by stimulus packages, again everywhere, across Europe, Russia, the Middle East, in Japan, Korea, in the ASEAN countries (Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, etc.), in Latin America (Brazil, Chile, etc.), and most importantly in China and the U.S. With financial collapse in the offing, credit dried up (for both firms and individuals), world trade enormously contracted and sites of production around the world shut down. Neither trade nor production have recovered their 2006 levels, and financial institutions are still willing to lend to only the most secure borrowers. Having triggered the financial collapse (through sale of residential and commercial mortgages packaged into convoluted securitization instruments), the burst housing bubble has as its consequence housing markets that remain deeply depressed (worst in Britain, Ireland, Spain, Latvia and the Ukraine, the U.S., and now Australia), prices still falling. The reflex response of employers to a precipitous fallout in consumption demand, expressed as we indicated in trade levels, has been layoffs and firings. Unemployment remains at historical high levels in Europe and the U.S., and at unprecedented levels in the capitalist world including the Middle East, and where employment is available it is almost exclusively casualized work.
This entire situation has led the U.S. Federal Reserve to engage (the Treasury) all over again in printing vast quantities of money in order to purchase bonds of the very same Treasury, a policy known as “quantitative easing,” in the faux hope this will stimulate lending and spending. Instead, vast sums called “hot money” (product of monies accruing from nearly thirty years of lowering tax rates on capitalist firms, of printing money to cover wars in Iraq and Afghanistan without ever generating revenues to cover these “expenditures,” and of the banking bailouts) have flowed to regions of the world where the greatest returns are available, into Brazil, East and Southeast Asia and Australia (its dollar being in part a surrogate for the Chinese yuan), and have been deployed by the individuals and institutions (e.g., brokerage houses, pension funds) possessing and managing these monies to purchase crucial commodities (oil, copper, wheat, corn, cotton, etc.) sending world prices for these commodities soaring. The fear of dollar inflation stands at the origins of the most recent hot money flows and in the immediate sense it is a real inflation that they have created.
It is in these developments in the global crisis of capital where the events in Madison come together with those in Tunisia, Bahrain, Libya and above all Egypt (much on the mind of many of the younger demonstrators in Madison): In the U.S., taking over the bad debts of the great financial institutions and the Executive's stimulus package have created a national fiscal crisis, the cutbacks in production and unemployment have resulted in a rapid, large scale drop in tax receipts of states leading in those states to their fiscal crises and to an austerity aimed directly at the public sector proletariat; in the Middle East, huge state imposed, overnight rises in the costs of subsidized fuel and food stemming from global commodities price inflation was immediate motivation for taking to the streets in protests, action that developed into mass demonstrations, and devolved into “regime change” at the very top, political revolutions or military coups depending on your perspective.
An Unfolding Confrontation
On Monday, 11 February, over a dozen union leaders has come together in Madison to plan “strategy” to deal with the governor's proposal. Meeting together with state Democratic party representation present they mapped a lobbying campaign to pressure “key” Republican legislators to commit to watering down the bill. What transpired in the following days was nothing like anyone, they or their counterparts in the other formal party of capital, anticipated. In a little noted event, an inkling of what was to come, that very day a 100 high school students abandoned classes in a small working class community, Stoughton, some ten miles south, southwest of Madison in protest over the legislation.
When the lower house committee convened on Tuesday to conduct its hearing on Walker's bill, students and public sector workers crowded into the state capitol structure. Led by graduate student teaching assistants whose union had called for an action some 1,100 students had made their way up State St. to the capitol (and, students at one local high school walked out and did the same). The committee had not expected anything like this, for it, and Walker with his Republican majorities in both the senate and assembly, looked forward to a pro forma discussion, easy sailing with a vote passing the bill on Thursday. Instead the entire building was packed, the committee taking testimony and fielding questions in both cases most of it exhibiting politely restrained hostility in a 17 hour long marathon hearing. By late afternoon, the huge capitol rotunda could not accommodate all those who attended as a crowd of roughly 15,000 flowed out into the state capitol steps and grounds. At this point, some words about the topography of Madison are in order.
Home to about 235,000 people, Madison (inclusive of the very old contiguous residential suburbs of Middleton to the north and Monona to the southeast) is the inexact sense bounded by roads and lakes. From north to south, I-94 defines an eastern boundary; from east to west, running along the southern edge of Lake Monona state highways 12/18, known as the beltline, determine a southern boundary; in the west, highways 12/14 make a sharp northward thrust from the beltline and define a western boundary; and, the northern edge of Lake Mondota, itself occupying much of the northern half of the city, forms a northern boundary. Outside these boundaries, home for the most part to the city's middling groups, vast amounts of new residential development has occurred, construction having taken place especially since the end of the Reagan-Volcher recession, particularly northeast, east and south of I-94, and southwest of the beltline. Within these boundaries, the old residential areas of Madison lie (since the early sixties transformed into mostly rental properties accommodating some 46,000 UW students, among others), the main University of Wisconsin campus occupying a good hunk of real estate along the southwestern section of Lake Mondota. The two lakes, Monona at its northern reaches and Mondota at its southern extent, are separated by an isthmus about 2½ miles long and no more than ¾ mile wide. The isthmus rises along its length in each direction to somewhere to the (south)west of its centerpoint, and it here that the administrative center of the state of Wisconsin was long ago constructed. The state capitol building lies on a very large open grounds (altitudinally, it is reputed to be the highest state capitol in the U.S.), a huge square city block, circumscribed by a multi-laned road that traverses each of four sides of the square and around which can be found a few expensive retail outlets and restaurants, lots of law offices, and state (and city) office buildings. Significantly, all the major streets in the city sweep into the square in all four directions (plus one). It is into this huge square, onto the sidewalks surrounding it and often overflowing into the streets, that the crowds of demonstrators who could not be accommodated within the capitol building or its lengthy series of steps rallied.
It was on Tuesday, 12 February, that the true dimensions of working class anger, outrage and activity began to really unfold. In the first place, actions were not simply confined to Madison; in Eau Claire, Milwaukee and Superior demonstrators gathered to demand the bill be killed. High school students in Appleton walked out of school in protest. In Madison, the crowd surged to an estimated 20,000-25,000. In the vanguard were students and teachers, students from the university and high schools around Madison, teachers from Madison, but beginning to appear in significant numbers from around the state. In Madison, Wednesday was the first day the school district superintendent was forced to cancel classes by the sheer lack of attendance. And, from Tuesday evening on a growing number of the protesters have “camped out,” as it were, in the capitol building, sleeping overnight on its floors.
From Wednesday on, student absences and teacher engaging in “sick outs” began to rapidly spread. From the high school student side, this movement was organized by word of mouth, Facebook and other social media by the students themselves. By Thursday, walkouts occurred in Eau Claire, La Crosse, Appleton, Green Bay, Madison and Milwaukee, and a host of small towns and school districts, Dodgeville, Fennimore, Holmen, Hudson, Iowa-Grant, Onalaksa, Platteville, River Falls, Tomah, West Salem, Shullsburg and Viroqua. From Thursday on, schools were closed in Madison, of course, and Milwaukee, and in small communities with a single high school, towns close to both cities especially Madison to where students headed – in Baraboo, Lodi, Middletown/Cross Plains, Wisconsin Dells, Monona Grove, Pardeeville, Randolph, and Deerfield – but also in other small towns, in Belleville, Evansville, Mauston and New Lisbon, and in Janesville. The closures did not occur as a consequence of school board or superintendent generosity, but was forced on the districts by student walkouts and teacher absences (40% of Madison's teachers called in sick on Thursday). If teachers’ motives for informally striking should be clear, high school students may not. But confronting disciplining from school authorities, their action should not be simply dismissed as a function of “cool” or mere adventure: A good deal of the high school students we talked to, in particular those from the small outlying towns have parents, who as sanitation workers, drivers, transportation workers, clerics in the towns and counties and, to be sure, as teachers, have everything to lose if Walker's bill becomes law.
Thursday saw another surge as the absences among teachers was starting to take on the character of a strike wave, a massive wildcat. While, less than a dozen school districts cancelled classes (among them though the biggest, representing at least a quarter of all students and teachers in the state), teachers were pouring in from all over the state, and when they couldn't local protests were held. At this point, on Thursday, significant numbers of workers employed by private capitals began to make their way, most from Madison, to the capitol grounds to demonstrate their solidarity and opposition to Walker's bill. We talked to electricians and painters, both members of the local trades, to retired teachers from outside Wisconsin, a couple from as far away as upstate New York, as well as to public sector nurses and firefighters. A pattern had now emerged that would be repeated on Friday. The crowds peaked at noon and in the late afternoon, as workers, especially state office workers large numbers of whom had been casualized in the last two decades, were drawn into the movement, at will employees of the state of Wisconsin who were showing up when they could do so without risking their jobs. The surging, and swelling mass of demonstrators tells a story in and of itself. On Thursday, over 30,000, on Friday, an estimated 40,000, and Saturday, when public sector workers were free not to worry about their jobs, a stunning number, some 70,000 people cramped into the square and overflowed into its side streets. By Friday, when the bourgeois reformists put on their biggest show (Jesse Jackson and AFL-CIO head Richard Trumka both appeared and spoke) buses were organized and leaving from campuses in Milwaukee, Eau Claire, Green Bay, La Crosse, River Falls, Stout and Superior. Separate rallies told place at university campuses in La Crosse, Milwaukee and Superior, and in towns without such campuses such Hudson...
Our little party numbered three, one comrade driving up to Madison from Chicago, and two others down from St. Paul. We arrived on Thursday, and met at 9:30 in the morning at a pre-arranged location, a large restaurant parking lot, on the eastside of Madison not too far east of the point where state hwy. 51 intersects E. Washington, about two miles from the state capitol grounds. Our suspicion was that parking would be hard to locate any closer in due to the numbers of working people driving into the city participation in the protest and rally. (The surmise had been correct.) We immediately set out on foot, passing through the largest of the student ghettos, for the most part two stories homes divided up into rentals, that took decided shape in the early sixties and once formed single family house stock of one of the old residential neighborhoods of Madison. We arrived at the state capitol grounds just shy of 10:00. By this time, we roughly estimated 10,000 people were present. We spoke with various workers and students for most of the next hour, then split up. Since the two St. Paul comrades had both lived in Madison at various times in the past forty years and are quite familiar with the surroundings, one stayed with the Chicago comrade and the other headed down State St., a six block diagonal that runs down to the very south end of the UW campus (to the Humanities building, Memorial Library and the student mall). When he returned from the campus area (he was fortunately able to find us quickly, since we had moved very little from the side of the square on which we were speaking with people), he was able to point back down State St. to a march still three blocks long which he had been part of and which had yet to reach the state capital grounds. These we estimated at about 2,000 university students.
Our sense of the thinking, feeling and sentiments that have guided what has and is happening (this is being written Sunday, 20 February) can be summarized as follows:
The unions with the greatest number of members have organized the formal events on the capitol grounds. These include the American Federal of State, County and Municipal Employees, AFSCME, the Wisconsin Education Association (and Madison Teachers Incorporated), and the American Federation of Teachers, AFT. Tied hand and foot to the Democratic party of capital, they are, as we indicated, intent on a lobbying effort to force a handful of Republican legislators to mitigate, from their standpoint, the most onerous provisions of Walker's bill. The provision that concerns them above everything else is the elimination of collective bargaining, for without it, they've no social power (they lose their position flowing from their informal incorporation into the capitalist state), a social power they have in this part of the country never used (as in a strike, the legal ramifications be damned, against reactionary laws effecting their members, against wage cuts and essentially rewriting the rules of the pension funds into which many of the workers on the capitol grounds have paid into for decades) and they lose their financial clout and the revenues that provide incomes to the entire union bureaucracy (they lose the dues checkoff). They have done nothing to organize what, after all, is effectively is a massive wildcat by teachers and precious little to encourage it (for here they fear legal sanctions against their persons). The paint Walker as a loose cannon, a renegade from political party civility, who needs to be reined in.
The workers, students and student workers present overwhelming see and feel something quite different. They feel, rightfully so, the unions have caved far too much and too often on austerity demands that predate Walker's election, they see this as a fight not just against wage and pension cuts, but against a whole political culture that starting at the municipal and county level and extending up to the national Executive aims to drive their living standards into the ground, and they see this, the latter in the context of a social and economic climate that has emboldened bosses – supervisors, managers and higher level administrations – in pursuit of increasingly arbitrary and authoritarian practices in the workplace, and to ratchet up the demands on them to produce more (whether producing means generating paperwork, teaching in larger classrooms, larger territories and shorter times to cover in highway and street maintenance such as in plowing snow, etc.). Significantly, large numbers of people we spoke identify themselves and their actions with ongoing workers and plebian activity in the Middle East, especially in Egypt, and they understand quite well these are dictatorial regimes fully supported by the U.S. state, the central question here being oil flows. In fact, manifested in countless handmade signs (“Hosni Walker”) there is a huge current among the demonstrators who would get rid of the current governor immediately, some no questions asked. Within this current, there is a core, say maybe 2,000-3,000 who believe that by sheer force of will, like their counterparts in Cairo and Manama, they can force Walker out of office.
In all this, and in our stay in Madison, we ran across only on a handful of unionized industrial workers (from an Oscar Meyer plant in Madison). We shall return to this...
Scott Walker is a fascist, perhaps not in the classical sense since he doesn't operate in the streets but a fascist nonetheless. And while at this moment it is altogether unlikely, whether or not he calls up the National Guard and behind it a mass of declasse elements to engaged in violent attacks on the protesters remains to be seen. Consider though, if you will, fascism has it has emerged historically.
Our understanding of fascism is based on the events of the early interwar years, though we hasten to say that we do not consider fascism an interwar phenomenon, and emphatically not merely a European event. The term had yet to be coined but the Black Hundreds that appeared in the industrial cities of Russia in 1906 were fascists. Their social basis was among the precapitalist, petty bourgeoisie and the smaller nobility. They were anti-Semitic and nativist, emphasis on the latter. In their nativism, they opposed “foreigners,” i.e., Belgian, French and British capital (financing Russian industrial construction), to which, in practice, they assimilated industrial workers who were their real targets. They operated on the ground with a penchant for lynchings (taking it over from Klan activities and even adopting the American word). Note that this entire development came on the heels of the formation of the Petrograd soviet in late September 1905 (and some thirty others in about the same number of industrial cities and towns), the winning of a free press and assembly in a revolutionary way and, in particular, the soviet's opposition to the martial law in Poland (which in the Pale combined industrial towns with a Jewish proletariat). But, for us, fascism took full form in the Po Valley in 1919, and in Bavaria, especially München, in the early twenties and then all over again in Berlin from 1929 forward. In the Po Valley, fully modernized, agriculturally capitalist firms had come into being and, backed by the Italian Socialist Party, rural laborers (braccianti), forming unions, demanded socialization of the land, and expropriation of landowners and landlords. These demands were starkly contrasted to the new peasant owners, former leaseholds and tenants, who had for the first time consider themselves to have a real stake in the social order. The overriding context was, however, crisis rooted in rationalization of production generated by competition first within the national and then with world markets, a crisis that was part and partial of a larger crisis of the Italian social order as a whole that had been precipitated by defeat in imperialist world war. The biggest owners and landlords engaged gangs of hooligans and murderous toughs (squads of fasci or squadrists) often drawn from the desperately unemployed and, with them, incited the new peasant owners to break strikes to enforce labor discipline in the fields.
In Bavaria, there was a lengthy prehistory, it also reaching back to defeat in imperialist world war and especially to the German Revolution, confrontation between organized workers and the far better armed and trained Frei Korps militias, to the Kapp Putch, the great inflation and countless workers actions between the last two events. In this, the legislative arena in which historically ruling class interests have been articulated and class alliances have been formed in bourgeois society was closed to the competing nationalist, völkische sects. These sects from which the nazis emerged played to altogether absent parliamentary-bourgeois prejudices among the Mittelstand (which they, the nazis, shared, and) who were to form the bulk of their social base. The early active-formative practice of the sectarian nationalist organizations consisted in provocations and brutalities which included street fights and brawls aimed at demonstrations by communists, socialists, workers (who may have been one or the other), at public actions, at breaking up rallies, shouting down speakers, and at beating and murdering reds. The immediate goal, achieved by intimidating workers and winning the respect of the patriotic Mittelstand, was organizational growth and consolidation. In the success of their systematic street violence, the national socialists under Hitler won admiration and esteem of these strata and achieved organizational unification of the fragmented völkische sects. Hitler was in the bourgeois legal sense a political outlaw, a kind of king of München's squares and assembly halls. The success and growing organizational strength of the nazis presupposed both generalized doubts about the legitimacy of the Weimar Republic and the toleration by the state's repressive forces, which, of course, was largely guaranteed by the fascists' paramilitary links to the Reichswehr as brothers in nationalist resistance to the French, to the Versailles Treaty, etc. All this was repeated over again on a larger scale from 1929 forward in the context of a general crisis of capitalism (the Slump).
What, then, has constituted fascism historically has been a mass movement based on the petty bourgeoisie centered middle strata. In it, the vast majority of the middle strata, declassed proletarian layers and dominant ruling class social groups see possible resolution to a general societal crisis, rooted if not always in immediate profitability then in accumulation, that has reached an impasse. Fascist movements have had a singular, historically significant outcome, namely, resolution of an enormous socio-economic and political crisis of capitalist society through atomization of the industrial proletariat, that is, through destruction of its mass organizations and the murder of its most militant elements. The resulting collapse of achieved level of working class living standards then opened up the real historical possibility of a renewal of a new cycle of accumulation, thereby reliving the crisis.
Walker is not an master, overlord or chief of political criminality in the class sense as it might be practiced in the streets. This may be explained functionally, culturally, socially and politically or however it is desired, but there is simply no need for such with control of the executive, legislative and repressive bodies at that level of the state where he operates. Subordinate to the overall objectives of the ruling class in the United States, he remains a fascist. If we are to insist that he operate in the streets as in the interwar years in Europe, we are closing ourselves to novel historical developments. He is a fascist, for his program takes immediate and direct aim at (a sector of) the working class, the only sector in the United States which has functioning, albeit fossilized, mass organizations, organizations whose relation to capital on the terrain of the state has institutionalized a standard of living that impedes resolution of the fiscal crisis of the state, a state of, by and for capital. To boot, the social basis of Walker's support can be found in the business classes, especially among the mass of small owners and independent contractors so-called, and in the middling layers in particular those who are employed by medium-sized and large capitalist firms. But it did not just come from this quarter, for by themselves these social groups would not have carried the electoral weight to put him in office.
Basic Industry and its Collapse in Wisconsin
In 1969, the entire eastern length of the state from Racine to Green Bay was heavily industrialized. In Kenosha, American Brass, Simmons Bedding, Samuel Lowe publishing, MacWhyte Wire Rope had manufacturing facilities, while American Motors had a large auto complex. In Milwaukee, manufacturing centered on Briggs and Stratton, Allis Chalmers, Harley-Davidson and A.O. Smith, while numerous tool and dye and machine shops dotted the industrial landscape. North along old U.S. Hwy 41, Fond du lac and Oshkosh, possessing a large shoe and a large clothing manufacturer, were characterized by countless foundries and machine shops that were oriented still further north, servicing the largest concentration of paper mills in the world, names like Kimberly Clark, Fort Howard and Charmin, some nineteen along a 26 mile stretch from Appleton to Green Bay that employed upward 90,000 workers. From the small shops to the big concerns, the vast overwhelming majority of the industrial workers were unionized. Today, in Kenosha, all these manufacturers and a half dozen large industrial firms not mentioned here are gone, some simply disappearing. In Milwaukee, manufacturing agricultural equipment (tractors and mechanized farm implements), hydroturbines, compressors, electric motors, air purification and coal gasification machinery, values and pumps, Allis Chalmers struggled with the downturn in the farm economy in the early eighties, sold off its agricultural division to Klockner-Humboldt-Deutz and its electrical control equipment to Siemans, and collapsed in 1985. Once the largest producer of automotive frames in the world (in north Milwaukee, operating inventory, stacks of auto frames six to eight high, were once crammed into a triangular area equivalent of three square city blocks), A.O. Smith has had to reinvent itself as a vastly smaller firm. Briggs and Stratton and Harley have survived, greatly downsized. In Milwaukee, Fond du lac and Oshkosh, the tool and dye stamping facilities, machine shops and foundries are gone. And, in the Fox River Valley to the north, maybe a half dozen paper mills still stand.
In the past week, only a small number of industrial workers could be found among the throngs of workers and students in Madison. Why? We could well ask why industrial private sector workers failed to join the waves of strikes and demonstrations that swept France last autumn in opposition to Sarkozy's pension “reform.” Why? Because, like in France, large industrial concerns and small basic industry producing raw material inputs and components of the mean of production have disappeared not just from the state of Wisconsin, or the United States but by and large from the entire old capital metropolises (U.S., Europe and, to a lesser extent, Japan). This is not only and not for the most part a matter of shipping industrial jobs offshore or abroad; even if, by 1995, as a World Bank report has documented, 80% of the world industrial proletariat was situated in East Asia. For, both relatively (relative to the world's populations today) and absolutely (in terms of total numbers) that proletariat is far smaller than it was in the 1960s. Mediated by the technological apparatus it sets in motion, write this down to colossal growth in the productivity of industrial labor, and thus to the enormous industrial overcapacity at the level of the world manifested in the endless production of bobbles, trinkets and junk to relieve some of that excess capacity. Yet unionized, industrial workers once represented the backbone of the Democratic party in Wisconsin and elsewhere in the United States.
There are two relevant facts here. First, it's not that industry and manufacturing, and with them industrial work, have simply vanished in the United States. Far from it: The United States, not China, still has the largest manufacturing economy in the world. But what we might call the productive landscapes of capitalism are different, novel, having undergone a sea change. Massive scientific inputs to production in telecommunications, informational, biogenetic and materials technologies (the last including composites, ceramics, nanotechnological products and micro devices) have made possible undersized capital- intensive productive units (relative to the great industrial concerns of the era of the big factory, the Fordist era) and vastly smaller workforces that are largely non-unionized and often engaged in production for export. We can offer a single example. Unlike the massive, integrated steel mill complexes based on the open-hearth furnace, or even the oxygen furnace, emerging after 1987 minimills use large electric furnaces to melt scrap steel and reshape it, rather than making new steel starting from the production of ore, dispensing with the need to mine and ship ore as part of the costs of the production of steel. A minimill can be constructed at a third or quarter of the cost of an integrated mill. Today, minimills account for 38% of total steel shipments made in the U.S; and, most importantly here, a ton of galvanized steel that takes an integrated mill 2-4.5 man hours (depending on the age of the mill) to produce takes a minimill 45 minutes. Witness, then, the enormous productivity of industrial labor we just spoke of. The second relevant fact is this: With the loss, nay hemorrhaging, of industrial work, there are simply far fewer full time, benefit and well paying waged jobs available today. In the United States, some 80 million or more workers are casualized, engaged in precarious work. Additionally, in August 2010 (the numbers have not changed substantially since that time), BLS figures indicate over 27 million people, in excess of one in every six workers, 17½ % of the force available to capital as labor power, was unemployed, desiring full time work but unable to get it, “marginally attached to the labor force,” or discouraged and no longer looking for work. In Wisconsin 7% of the workforce is officially unemployed (December 2010 figures). In a state of just under 6 million (5,687,000) and a labor force participation rate of 54.6%, the 175,000 unionized members of a public sector of 300,000 constitute 6% of the officially employed in the state, among which 1.9 million are casualized.
Among both full time, non-union workers, and particularly among the casualized, at least here in the that region of the old North with which we are familiar (Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois and Michigan), with no visible alternative to the order of capital there is enormous resentment of organized public sector workers whose wages are sometimes considerably higher than non-union workers and who have access to medical and genuine (if stingy) retirement plans that non-union workers do not. Walker won the November 2010 gubernatorial contest with 52% of the vote. Since that campaign he has continued, particularly in the past week, to argue this arrangement is basically unfair to non-unionized workers. The latter appear to agree: It was their votes, those among them who bothered to vote, that, atop the vote from middling groups and business classes, that won him the election.
Role of Unions
The public sector unions at risk in implementation of Walker's bill-become-law have done nothing, nada, to counter this perverse and pernicious form of “argument.” Nowhere on Thursday could we find any union official making arguments against a race to the bottom. If some small owners pay $15,000-$18,000 in out of pocket medical expenses annually (it is this situation that fuels vast resentments), while shouldn't public sector union workers pay more, a whole lot more for their health care? Having saddled themselves with the Obama healthcare plan, now law, the unions can't make the argument for universal, free health care. At any rate, that's not politically realistic. Maybe not. Maybe this alone will require the revolutionary abolition of capital. So much the better.
In France this last fall, in Greece over the past year, recently in Spain, large public sector unions – far larger than any in the United States – have demonstrated that in open confrontations with capital, with its state, they've nothing to offer. The same goes in Madison: Late on Friday, Mary Bell, president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council, and Marty Beil, the AFSCME executive director for the state, abandoned all pretense to a fight over wages, pensions and especially working conditions... never mind that it simply wouldn't occur to these eminently practical souls to insist on the necessity that all workers are raised to union levels in compensation and benefits, since this is not possible within capitalism... Instead, they told reporters that workers, “their” workers, will do their “fair share” in closing the state budge gap, beyond exploitation daily in work, in rendering themselves further serviceable to the business classes... The Madison teachers union is now insisting that teachers return to work on Tuesday... What they will fight to preserve is the source of their power, collective bargaining and the dues checkout, and it alone: They could care less about the daily harassment and humiliations on the basis of which public employers achieve the bureaucratic norms they are oriented to (as the same harassment and humiliation is relentlessly pursued to insure the exploitation the secures profitability in private sector work). Scott FitzGerald, Republican leader in the Wisconsin senate, insists their can be no compromise because the state government, the counties and municipalities require the “flexibility” that passage of the bill will insure to balance their budgets, which, in turn, makes it possible for these agencies of the State to render the assistance to businesses and firms to make “Wisconsin competitive.” Chauvinism to the quick, loyal to State and nation (i.e., to a national ruling class) and one of its provincial expressions (“Wisconsin”), the unions can't touch this argument.
Now the authors would note that all three of us carry union cards. In daily work, it is a worker's first line of defense. Without it, there have been literally countless occasions over the past decade where any one of us would have fired for insubordination, for refusal to engage in certain dangerous or risky tasks, and for numerous other “offenses.” But we should be clear. It is sheer inertia that makes this possible: Stewards are loath to defend members, but bosses are even more loath to fight a member willing to avail herself of the cumbersome union machinery to defend herself.
The role of unions is contradictory: In a crunch, in an open confrontation with capital or the State, unions demonstrate they cannot defend workers, their “programs” patently offer nothing by way of alternative. At best unions abandon “their” workers (as experience confirms over and again, recently for us, occurring with the flight attendants at Northwest before it was absorbed by Delta Airlines), but more often than not actively subvert our efforts (the situation across Europe over the past year). In Madison, the unions are relying on their Democratic party allies in the senate who left the state Wednesday for a location undisclosed in Illinois to prevent a quorum necessary for a vote on the bill's passage. That is a defense doomed to failure. The unions are engaged in an exclusivist, purely defensive struggle effectively without perspective and strategy. It is a position that offers no hope. Sticking to it will sooner or later, and sooner than later, demoralize all those who have taken to the streets. On this basis, by themselves workers and students are going to lose. A lose here will be disastrous. A half dozen other state legislatures including Indiana, Illinois, Ohio and Tennessee already have similar enactments pending. Events in Madison are being carefully monitored.
Walker and his allies in the Wisconsin legislature can see all this. They are biding their time. The Democratic legislators will sooner or later return to the state and to their positions in the senate. Workers, teachers foremost among them, cannot continue to take day after day off from work to rally at the capitol. (It is this situation of they type that, no doubt, Walker aims to stop once and for all with his bill.) When they flag, the National Guard can be called in to remove the hard core, the 2,000-3,000 who believe that by their persistent presence alone they can compel Walker to resign. The numbers for passage are there, and the Republican leadership is certain it is just a matter of time. And, without contesting the State itself, and not just that jurdico-political layer of it as it exists in Wisconsin, this is undoubtedly the case: The State, particularly as it is constituted in the U.S., is so hardened, institutionally rigid and ossified that not even a modicum change can be accomplished without its revolutionary overthrow. And, of course, even this is inadequate precisely because the systems of states across the world are the institutionally concentrated defense of the order of capital, sustaining it, and will have to be overthrown and capital abolished.
Here and now, the only possible way forward resides in spreading what is ongoing in Madison. And, as Bloomberg and the Trotskyists at the World Socialist Website have noted, activity in Madison had resonated with other workers in the United States.
Since mid week past, in Columbus, Ohio some 4,000 state workers including teacher and firefighters have protested against a similar enactment put forth by the governor there, John Kasich.
In Detroit, several score of students walked out of Southeast High on Friday over cuts to funding of arts programs.
And, late in the week in Indiana over 600 steelworkers made their way to Indianapolis and to the capitol building to protest similar legislation that is under consider there.
This is the perspective of hope, for if events in Madison are isolated, passage of the bill is nearly certain, to be followed by demoralization and mass employer retaliation.