Union Leadership Stands in the Way of Working People in Wisconsin

Union Leadership Stands in the Way of Working People in Wisconsin

In a surprise legislative maneuver last month, Republican legislators in Madison, Wisconsin, passed a bill which severely limits the collective bargaining rights of most state workers.

“Political rights do not originate in parliaments; they are, rather, forced upon parliaments from without. And even their enactment into law has for a long time been no guarantee of their security…

“Political rights do not exist because they have been legally set down on a piece of paper, but only when they have become the ingrown habit of a people, and when any attempt to impair them will meet with the violent resistance of the populace . Where this is not the case, there is no help in any parliamentary Opposition or any Platonic appeals to the constitution.”

– Rudolf Rocker, Anarcho-Syndicalism: Theory & Practice, 1947

In a surprise legislative maneuver last month, Republican legislators in Madison, Wisconsin, passed a bill which severely limits the collective bargaining rights of most state workers.

The move, which Democratic Senators hoped to prevent by leaving the state to prevent quorum, was pushed through by simply dividing the bill into two parts – one of which dealt specifically with collective bargaining rights, and the other simply with financial issues. State law requires that financial issues need a quorum of 3/5 of the legislature, whereas other issues – in this case, the anti-union legislation – require only a simple majority.

They have, with the stroke of a pen, destroyed state workers’ right to bargain over wages that exceed inflation. They have made participating in legally protected acts of protest an offence for which you may be fired. Home health care workers, family child care workers, UW Hospitals and Clinics employees, and UW faculty and academic staff have lost their collective bargaining authority altogether, and state employees are now barred from negotiating a contract which lasts longer than a year.

All told, the bill affects nearly 175,000 state workers.

Despite its massive proportions, however, not once was the repeal of these rights mentioned in Scott Walkers’ campaign for Governor. If he had, there is a good chance he may not have been elected – 53% of Wisonsin residents oppose the bill, according to even conservative pollsters.

Workers in Wisconsin, for their part, were infuriated by the passage of the bill – in response, eight thousand union members and their supporters forced their way into the capitol building, which protesters had been pushed out of only weeks before.

The Democrats – and union leadership – respond:

Democrats didn’t miss a beat. While Wisconsin working people were in the midst of a battle over their livelihoods and their basic rights, the Democrats and their lapdogs in labor leadership were calmly conducting what can only be described as a fairly typical election campaign – lambasting Republicans for “going too far,” and praising the Democrats for their “fab 14.”

The unions, in their bid to begin reigning in workers who had only weeks before launched one of the brashest wildcat strikes in recent memory, flooded the streets of madison with speakers and petitioners to drown out the rank and filers on the ground leading chants of “strike! strike! strike!”

On every corner of the capitol, soap boxes, microphones and bullhorns could be found, each equipped with an emcee directing protestors to the nearest petitioner. Big name speakers were called in from all over the country to decry the republicans and extoll the democrats.

“We have a great president…” remarked Rev. Jesse Jackson at the capitol building. “We have a great president. But he cannot do it alone. When we do not fight, we weaken him. We do not vote… if we had used our power to vote, we would not have Mr. Walker as Governor tonight.” He then paused to lead the crowd in a chant: “when we vote, we win! When we vote, we win!”

Labor leadership couldn’t agree more. The Wisconsin Education Association Council issued a statement urging its members not to go to the capitol to protest, but instead to go back to work, assuring its workers that they would “not back down.”

“Given the abhorrent and illegal action taken by the Senate tonight, MTI has received many calls as to whether those represented by MTI will be at work tomorrow, but rather engage in political action,” MTI Executive Director John Matthews is quoted as saying in a statement. “MTI advises those it represents to report to work tomorrow. The Senate’s improper and illegal action will be challenged in court.”

The message was clear: workers were not to be allowed to devise their own strategy or take their own initiative in this fight. The Democrats would do that for them.

An Opportunity for the Rank and File to Rebuild the Labor Movement:

Depending on how we conduct ourselves in the months following this defeat, we may be able to look back on the events in Madison and conclude that the death of public sector unions was the best thing that ever happened to the modern labor movement. The established unions, after all, have proved to be real obstacles to workers in this country. Madison was clearly no exception.

The idea of the union, however – that workers, united by their common interests, can more effectively defend themselves together than alone – is as relevant today as it ever has been. Workers across the United States, and indeed throughout the world, are enduring the most vicious attacks on their livelihoods and rights as we’ve seen in years.

We need a labor movement without the stifling regulations and officials that call their workers back to work when a wildcat erupts. In fact, we not only need a labor movement that doesn’t stand in the way of its own members’ creativity and initiative, but one that encourages those traits. If we had that labor movement before Scott Walkers’ assault began, we would be seeing a very different picture in Wisconsin today.

For the full, original article, feel free to visit the Trial by Fire.

Posted By

John E Jacobsen
Apr 24 2011 03:27

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Comments

Juan Conatz
Apr 24 2011 05:33

Hmm. Thanks for writing this up, there's been a pause on folks writing about WI recently. Maybe a lot of us are like "Ok, wtf just happened?". Heh.

I take a little bit of issue with the blame laid on the union leadership though. I mean, it's a common criticism from the radical left, and it's, at this point, kind of a stock one, at that. But I think there are way bigger elements than the union leadership. If we wanted to, we could wipe them off our shoes in less than 5 minutes.

huli
Apr 25 2011 13:40

I agree, there are other elements we need to examine. For one, why did the teachers return to work so readily? Were they afraid? How can we build the courage necessary to reject future calls to go back to work?

Labor law as it stands pretty much requires union officials to put the lid on wild-cat actions lest the union itself be crippled financially by injunctions and law suits. Complaining about officials' behavior seems to assume that they can somehow be convinced to do otherwise. That seems misdirected to me when we still have so much work to do building up our courage as working people to wild-cat for as long as it takes.

The next "Wisconsin moment," will run up against exactly the same limitations if we don't prepare to outmaneuver them (to avoid getting "kettled.")

LBird
Apr 25 2011 14:17
huli wrote:
How can we build the courage necessary... we still have so much work to do building up our courage...

huli, I don't think it's so much 'courage', as it is 'ideology'.

'Rejecting going back to work', 'wild-cat actions' and 'damaging officials' are not actions taken by 'Americans' or 'liberals' or 'trade-unionists', for whom these 'limitations' are insurmountable.

It is not from 'fear', but because these 'limitations' are what defines what it is to be an American, liberal or trade-unionist, that people don't act.

Only Communists can go mentally beyond these limits.

I'm not sure how, but workers have to have already rejected their in-bred ideas from the capitalists, to move beyond these 'same limitations'.

Struggle helps workers, but their current ideology hinders struggle.

John E Jacobsen
Apr 29 2011 18:28
Quote:
Struggle helps workers, but their current ideology hinders struggle.

What do you mean by "ideology?" I'm not so sure that only people with communist ideologies can transcend or "move beyond" the limitations of liberalism.

That being said, I think it does help quite a bit to have one.

mons
Apr 29 2011 20:00
Quote:
I'm not sure how, but workers have to have already rejected their in-bred ideas from the capitalists, to move beyond these 'same limitations'.

That's just not the case in practise though. I mean, people often act in radical ways before they change their political views ('action precedes consciousness'). For example, people didn't riot at student protests because they were communists; but the rioting has led more people to get into libcom politics. Likewise, not everyone who takes wildcat strike action is a communist with an ultra-leftist notion of unions and an understanding that the working class and ruling class have nothing in common. Equally, some people with a certain ideological perspective won't carry it through into action when it comes to it, because of boundaries like fear. I agree that having communist politics helps though, and challenging capitalist ideology on a purely ideological level has some, limited, value.

Obviously all the stuff I know about Wisconsin is just stuff that's been written down, but it seems much more likely that teachers went back to work because of fears over losing their jobs or whatever rather than because they don't have the perfect communist positions..

huli
Apr 30 2011 01:08

I just attended a labor law training this week and I learned that unions are not actually liable for true wild-cat actions. I don't know how a judge would determine whether or not an action is a "true wildcat" action, but apparently, unions can't be crippled by them, which is good to know.

Most likely some union officials are ignorant of this fact, and therefore shut down such activity out of fear of liability. Sometimes they may be insulating themselves pro-actively by disavowing the activity. I have seen union officials do this with a wink and a nod; a couple of years ago city workers in a nearby town had a wild-cat sick out, and the president of the local union announced that the action was totally unsanctioned by the union, but that he imagined that the city workers were falling ill due to the stress of budget cuts and furloughs, etc.

Of course, it is probably far too common for officials to decry wildcat actions simply because they are evidence of rank-and-file self-activity and a threat to officials' positions and privileges. (unfortunately, this often seems to be the case in the avowedly "militant" mainstream US service-sector unions.)

I imagine that while the union isn't held liable for wildcats, unions haven't been so great at defending workers who suffer reprisals from the boss for wildcatting either. I wonder if they can be held liable for the wildcat action if they do assist the members after the fact? I also imagine that there are plenty of cases of unions disciplining members as punishment for wildcatting too.

I think it might help to understand this more fully if we are preparing to talk to fellow union members about the possibilities for going beyond union leadership in future battles.

Steven.
Apr 30 2011 12:31
LBird wrote:
huli wrote:
How can we build the courage necessary... we still have so much work to do building up our courage...

huli, I don't think it's so much 'courage', as it is 'ideology'.

'Rejecting going back to work', 'wild-cat actions' and 'damaging officials' are not actions taken by 'Americans' or 'liberals' or 'trade-unionists', for whom these 'limitations' are insurmountable.

It is not from 'fear', but because these 'limitations' are what defines what it is to be an American, liberal or trade-unionist, that people don't act.

Only Communists can go mentally beyond these limits.

I'm not sure how, but workers have to have already rejected their in-bred ideas from the capitalists, to move beyond these 'same limitations'.

Struggle helps workers, but their current ideology hinders struggle.

sorry, but if I have understood you correctly then I think this is completely the wrong way round.

People don't walk out on wildcat strike because they are communists, they do so because they are workers. The thing which mostly stops people from walking out of work is not ideological opposition to strikes, but is there over losing their jobs.

These teachers did walkout on wildcat strike, so clearly the issue was not an ideological one, so it is important to try to find out what the reason is.

As the person above says, action often precedes consciousness. I have just finished reading Martin Glaberman's Wartime Strikes, which is very relevant here - it examines in detail the auto workers, who voted to maintain a no strike pledge during World War II, however this did not stop the absolute majority of them walking out in wildcat strikes at the same time. There is stuff in the library about this as well:
http://libcom.org/history/world-war-ii-post-war-strike-wave

LBird
Apr 30 2011 12:45
John E Jacobsen wrote:
What do you mean by "ideology?" I'm not so sure that only people with communist ideologies can transcend or "move beyond" the limitations of liberalism.

That being said, I think it does help quite a bit to have one.

Well, John, by 'ideology' I mean the way one sees the world. In this sense, we all already have an 'ideology', and given our socialisation by the bourgeoisie, it's usually liberal or conservative.

And the main 'ideology' which denies that it is an ideology is conservativism.

And the main 'ideology' which stresses 'individual opinion, as opposed to ideology' is liberalism.

But I, being a Commie, refuse to hide the ideology that I use. So, to 'move beyond' liberalism, I think one does need a different ideology to the liberal one to interpret the world. We're not 'individual free thinkers'.

To reinforce what you said above, it helps to have one - in fact, it helps even more to consciously choose one's own, rather than just mindlessly accept the bourgeois ideology that one has been given.

Being 'non-ideological' is an ideological position.

mons wrote:
That's just not the case in practise though. I mean, people often act in radical ways before they change their political views ('action precedes consciousness'). For example, people didn't riot at student protests because they were communists; but the rioting has led more people to get into libcom politics.

I don't agree with this, I'm afraid, mons. There is no such thing as 'conscious-less' action, in which deed precedes thought.

If you mean rioting (or trade union action, or wildcat strikes) may open some people up to new ideas, I think you're right. But the act itself won't do anything, necessarily.

The EDL riot, trades unions demonstrate, workers angry at their employer take wildcat action, but all these can be done in non-radical ways, producing non-radical outcomes. For example, the most potentially radical, workers walking out, can fight their bosses but remain solid nationalists. They won't necessarily draw the exploitative link between their boss and 'their' nation.

Rather than 'action then consciousness', I think we should posit 'old consciousness, contradictory action, potential for new consciousness', where the intervention of class conscious Communists can help the 'potential' caused by 'action' to be realised in the 'new'.

But without Communist ideas, I think the 'action' will lapse, not produce radicalism.

I don't think rioting alone has led people to LibCom; I think some rioters have also been exposed to Communist ideas, some before, some after the riot, and the combination has had a radicalising effect.

I'm not saying rioting has no good effect, I'm saying rioting alone is not enough, and it is certainly not necessary to riot to become radicalised.

LBird
Apr 30 2011 13:00

Sorry, I made a cross post with you above here, Steven.

Steven wrote:
The thing which mostly stops people from walking out of work is not ideological opposition to strikes, but is there over losing their jobs.

Again, I don't agree. Even when already faced with losing their jobs, so the 'fear' can't prevent them, most workers don't strike to prevent their job losses.

Most workers don't strike because they believe the ideological argument that 'strikes don't work!'

Steven wrote:
People don't walk out on wildcat strike because they are communists, they do so because they are workers.

No, not because they are workers, which suggests a class-consciousness which is not often present, but because they have a reason for striking, which may be nothing at all to do with being a worker. For example, some teachers have struck to remove headmasters who won't discipline children (or parents) more severely. They are striking as 'teachers' (of the old fashioned variety, indeed), not as 'workers'.

Of course, there are links between the two (action and ideas) which we can exploit with our propaganda, but we shouldn't necessarily see 'action' as 'radical' - it can just as often be reactionary.