A labour war has broken out in the state of Wisconsin, USA. Republican Governor Scott Walker has proposed a Bill to remove the right of public sector unions to engage in collective bargaining on any issue other than pay (and then they are forbidden from negotiating above-inflation pay increases).
Thousands of teachers across Wisconsin shut down schools for five days through a “sick-in”, effectively an illegal strike. Thousands of workers have been staging a sit-in in the capitol building in Madison, holding up a vote and using the mass occupation as a centre for organising.
School students have staged walkouts; workers from virtually every branch of the public sector in the state have joined the movement; workers’ co-operatives have joined protests; supporters from across the US are flooding in; and the minority of shops which do not display pro-union notices are facing a boycott.
On 17 February the minority of Democrat state senators fled Wisconsin to keep the senate vote from quoracy and thereby hold up the vote. However, it is rumoured that they could soon return from their hiding place over the state border and trigger a vote.
A debate is now going on between the union leaderships and Democrat politicians, who are considering amending the Bill, and the rank-and-file, among whom a popular slogan is still “Kill the Bill!”
As we go to press, Madison area AFL-CIO has voted for a general strike if the Bill is passed. Such a general strike would be illegal, as it is political and sympathy action. But the Madison area AFL-CIO motion calls on affiliates to “educate members on the organisation and function of a general strike” — a legal way of calling for such an action.
Socialist commentators like Dan LaBotz from the Solidarity group are drawing comparisons between the movement in Wisconsin and the sit-down strikes of the 1930s, where militant grassroots action in industrial centres transformed the labour movement nationally and sparked the creation of new organisations which pushed aside the bureaucratic leadership of the the union movement. US union organiser and socialist Traven Leyshon spoke to Solidarity:
“Governor Walker has created a large deficit by changing the tax structure so that the wealthy will pay less. Last year two thirds of Wisconsin corporations paid no tax at all. He has managed to manufacture a budget crisis.
“Public sector employees in the US did not have bargaining rights before the 1960s-1970s. Wisconsin was an interesting test case where those rights were won. There was a strike wave which gave birth to public sector trade unionism. So you had the famous Memphis sanitation strike, for example, where Dr Martin Luther King was killed.
“Wisconsin is now a test case for a co-ordinated, well-financed national strategy to weaken public sector unions. Bills similar to Walker’s have been submitted in many states in January and February.
“There is a significant national response on the part of labour to what’s happening in Wisconsin.
Many of our state federations have limited their political efforts to lobbying legislators and focusing on personal relationships with political leaders, so the approach of trying to rally members and supporters is new.
“We are seeing secondary action in Wisconsin and not just in Madison. The schools were closed by co-ordinated sick-call-ins for five days and that’s very significant. Perhaps you could call these political strikes.
“This is part of a strategic move by the ruling class — the moment to go for the jugular vein of what remains of the union movement. It is a do or die moment for us.
“The priorities for the left now are to build the local rallies, to expand the communication networks within the unions and among our allies.
“There are significant possibilities for political discussion.
“The Democratic Party is trying to pose as the saviour of union rights in Wisconsin. But every public sector worker knows that the Democrats are lowering taxes on the rich, cutting budgets and laying off employees.
“The unions have done their politics almost entirely through the Democratic Party, and that’s true of other social and anti-war movements as well.
“But the need for developing a mass alternative to the Democratic Party will once again become a proposal with some real traction.
“For example, at the Emergency Labour Conference in Cleveland in March a small wing of the labour movement will discuss the need for a labour party. It will attract a couple of hundred middle-level and low-level labour leaders. It is not yet on the scale of the attempt in the mid-1990s.
“Is it transformative? Do we have a new labour movement? Perhaps. We’ll know in a week or two when we see if there will be a national response in Ohio, Iowa and so on.”