Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Mark Serwotka: Unions must step up the fight

Socialist Worker (Britain)
2 April 2011

PCS civil service workers’ union secretary Mark Serwotka spoke to Socialist Worker after the demonstration last Saturday

‘Saturday was extraordinarily uplifting and inspirational. I marched with the PCS contingent and took two hours to get from Waterloo Bridge to Big Ben.

We think we had about 20,000 PCS members on the march. What was clear to me from the response to my speech at the final rally was that calls for joint action and taxing the rich caught the mood.

Just seeing hundreds of thousands of people cheering action and an alternative to cuts was invigorating.

It took an awful lot of arguing to even get this march, and many of us wanted it earlier. Saturday was proof that people are looking for a lead.

I hope it goes some way to tackling the caution that exists among many on the TUC general council about how far and how quickly you can go.

If the momentum is lost there’s always the fear that the mood can dissipate and that we’ll miss our moment.

We’ve got to move quickly. There will be a meeting of all the public sector unions at the TUC on Wednesday, which in part has been called to discuss coordinated industrial action over pensions.

The PCS will go to that meeting arguing strongly that we need to move to ballots as soon as we can. We are hoping to convince as many unions as possible to go along with that.

But we are also having discussions with some of the teaching unions.

We think that the UCU and the NUT unions especially are up for action along the lines of the timetable we’re envisaging.

That is to get conference mandates in April and May and balloting for action in June.

We have a PCS executive meeting in early April and the recommendations that will go to that are being finalised now.

They will ensure the ballot we propose allows for a variety of different types of action, including national strikes with other unions.

They will also allow us to respond quickly in all of the places our members work.

The ballot we’re planning should combine the questions of pay, pensions and cuts in jobs to get us the maximum flexibility to take action where members support it.

The big picture is that we move swiftly from Saturday to try and engage on major national action.

I believe we should work with all those who want to oppose the cuts but we’ve got to say we oppose them all.

People seem to understand that if you don’t do this then the question becomes: which cuts do you accept.

It was very good that Ed Miliband came to the rally.

But we can’t be sucked into saying that some cuts are acceptable and others aren’t.

I’m hoping in May that the Tories and the Lib Dems get annihilated in the elections.

However, elections are not going to stop the onslaught of cuts.

We’ve got to build an alliance of trade unionists and campaigners that is going to defend all our services.’


Monday, March 28, 2011

Opening the way to a fightback

Madison resident Marshall Braun reviews the last month of protest in the capital.
March 16, 2011

IT'S BEEN a month since Gov. Scott Walker introduced his "budget repair bill" and simultaneously kicked a sleeping giant called the labor movement in the face.

Bill details were released on a Friday in February with little to no fanfare. On Sunday, 80 people protested at the governor's mansion. On Monday, February 14, 2,000 people showed up with "Valentine's Day" cards for Walker at the Capitol. On Tuesday, 15,000 folks surrounded the Capitol. Wednesday, 30,000 shut down the streets around the Capitol square. Thursday and Friday saw increased numbers, culminating in 70,000-plus on Saturday the 19th.

The occupation of the Capitol building began that Tuesday and lasted nearly three weeks before severe restrictions on Capitol access, combined with Democratic Party maneuvering, forced the remaining occupiers out. There were 24/7 protests, with numbers in the thousands nearly every day after, and on Saturday, March 12, the largest protests yet drew 185,000 people, according to the Wisconsin AFL-CIO's estimate.

This past month has been the most tremendous and invigorating yet exhausting time of my life. It has been dotted with tremendous high points, like the four-day "sick-out" of thousands of teachers across the state, and devastating setbacks, like the signing of the amended bill that strips most public-sector unions of most of their rights, with the not-so-hidden intent of decertifying as many of them as soon as possible.

There have been small lows, like daily forgetting where I parked and the all too often accompanying ticket--and personal highs, like my 2-year-old son falling asleep in my arms despite following a drum line with helicopters overhead, and being surrounded by 70,000 protesters out-chanting a couple hundred Tea-baggers.

There is a political fire in this town, hard to describe, maybe even harder to quench. It's difficult to leave my apartment without getting into a political conversation. On top of the ever-present pins and T-shirts folks are wearing in solidarity with public workers, many have decided simply to carry around signs.

At first, I thought people were just going to or coming from the Capitol, but I've since realized that getting groceries is the perfect time to carry a placard. While driving, I've gotten so used to seeing joggers with carried or pinned-on signs that I instinctively give them the "This is what democracy looks like" horn beep, which always elicits a raised fist, no matter how tired they may be.

People are taking literally any opportunity to show their union support and contempt for Walker. Because Johnsonville Brats gave a hefty campaign contribution to Walker and are served at the twice-annual world's largest Brat Fest, multiple alternative brat fests are being planned, including a virtual fest that's already up on Facebook, promising a "cyberbrat" in return for a donation to a local food bank.

This spirit isn't confined to Madison. My small hometown nestled in the conservative armpit of Wisconsin known as the Fox Valley has had multiple pro-labor rallies. There have been solidarity rallies in all 50 states. Of course, many other states are now facing the same type of legislation, or even worse, which has prompted massive protests from Indiana to Ohio to New Jersey.

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LAST WEDNESDAY, the state Senate hastily passed the stripped-down union-killing bill. The GOP-controlled Senate had been waiting since February 17 to pass the full bill. On that day, we stopped the vote by blockading the Senate chamber.

People also blockaded several Democratic legislators' offices, preventing the police from taking them to the chamber and allowing at least one senator, Chris Larson, to sneak out a window and join his fellow Democrats in Illinois. The 14 AWOL senators prevented a quorum that was necessary to pass the full bill. Instead, the new bill passed with a smaller quorum. Devoid of any "fiscal" provisions, it laid bare the lie that union-busting had anything to do with balancing the budget.

Within an hour of the bill passing, thousands surrounded the Capitol, while hundreds fortunate enough to be let in earlier protested inside. When I arrived, people were banging on doors at all of the dozens of entrances and chanting "Let us in!" Many people including myself were looking for any way in. A familiar protester whispered to me, "Window open at Wisconsin Street entrance." When I got there, hundreds of completely silent protesters were waiting to stream through a chest-high window.

Dozens got in before extremely angry police officers came and shut it from inside. Immediately, the silent crowd boomed. Some who got in the window broke through the cops and opened the doors. I was among the roughly hundred or so who rushed in before the police regained control of the entrance.

We immediately started planning how to let everyone else in. We found some who were already talking about rushing one entrance as a decoy, and then sending many more to the opposite entrance to try to keep it open. We planned it for 10 minutes out and texted everyone we knew outside to move to the State Street entrance.

The deception worked, as dozens of us flew past a couple cops and opened the State Street doors, allowing thousands to stream in to cheering and high-fives from the jubilant protesters inside. That action broke the cops' resolve, and they retreated to the fourth level.

Hundreds made their way toward the Assembly chamber, where the final vote required to pass the bill was to happen at 11 a.m. the next morning. Many spent the night in a vestibule outside of the chamber, discussing how best to hold their ground. Unfortunately, by morning, the numbers had dwindled. The vote went through, but the demonstrators succeeded in delaying the vote by a couple hours as state troopers had to drag dozens from the hallway.

The "people's mic" that had run continuously for three weeks, except for during sleeping hours, was once again live in the middle of the rotunda with thousands listening to speeches and chanting. Around the mic, I ran into state Sen. Mark Mueller's son, who was trying to convince folks to leave. He was saying that we would look bad if we were arrested and would ruin the efforts of his dad, one of the "Fab 14." I argued that if we held our numbers, no one would be arrested. Following him around for a while, I made that point to everyone he talked to.

I took the microphone and introduced myself as a 20-year Madison resident, worker and a socialist, to hearty applause. The biggest reaction came when I talked about the various aspects of the original bill beyond stripping collective bargaining.

It is obvious that folks sped to the Capitol that night, angry about the loss of collective bargaining, but many were also upset about cuts to wages, state health care plans, transit and other programs for the poor. Walker's new budget released last week has severe cuts across the board.

It's laughable that he advocates the only way to balance the budget is through spending cuts when he just gave a $140 million tax break to corporations a month and a half ago, at a time when half of the corporations in Wisconsin already pay nothing in taxes.

I ended with a plea for people to keep up the protests and for rank-and-file union members to talk to each other, organize and think about job actions. The union leadership is reluctant to even hint at a strike and is seemingly content to focus only on elections and recall efforts for select GOP state senators and Walker. There has been one notable exception. President of the Madison Firefighters Union Joe Conway has advocated for a general strike.

Most people who are jazzed about the recall effort have their heart in the right place. However, it will take a year before we can even start collecting signatures for Walker's recall.

The Democrats are obviously pressuring the unions to convince their members to channel their protest energy into the polling booths and petition drives. Ironically, the recalls and ultimately the bill's overturning will happen only if the political pressure of the type fostered by the protests is maintained on the Democrats.

For example, there is no way that the now famed Fab 14 would have left the state had it not been for thousands of people in the streets.

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WHAT ARE the next steps? Already illegal for public unions to strike, the new bill makes it more difficult by allowing the governor to fire any public employee who misses three days of work without a doctor's note during a "state of emergency."

However, massive job actions make it nearly impossible for firings. The teachers have already shown that. The governor cannot replace most public positions with scab workers because they are specialized jobs. One of my favorite signs at one of the protests was, "Can the National Guard Teach Organic Chem?"

That being said, the union leadership is making a concerted effort to shift energy into electoral strategies and away from strikes. AFSCME Local 60-Council 40 President Don Coyler wrote to members a day after the largest labor protest in memory:

Thanks to everyone who attended Saturday's rally. This enormous show of unity was inspiring. As you talk about this event with family, friends, and co-workers, please encourage them that we need their continued support. The recall effort needs grassroots support. Volunteering to help with gathering signatures or donating money are just two ways to help. Then, there will be campaigning for more enlightened candidates.

This type of rhetoric has been persuasive, judging by people's attitudes.

Now is the time to keep up the protests and civil disobedience. The lesson from Wednesday's reoccupation of the Capitol is that confident steps and a little bit of planning can cascade into victory.

Continued protest can give confidence and organizing space to union members. Civil disobedience is, by nature, illegal, but we must not be afraid of breaking the law. Most of what we've done in the past month has been illegal. The occupation was illegal, especially last Wednesday night's, since a recent court order threatens up to six months in jail for anyone staying past closing time.

Every rally since the first has been held without a permit. How can we expect unions to act illegally if we won't ourselves?

We've come so far. The Teaching Assistants' Association, which during the Valentine's Day rally urged its members to stay on the sidewalk in order to not disrupt traffic, is now having to urge them not to strike.

The Firefighters have moved from symbols of solidarity to leaders in the struggle, disobeying police orders to leave the Capitol two weeks ago. In fact, it was their steadfastness that convinced Capitol Police Chief Charles Tubbs to disobey his superiors and allow the protesters to stay another night, which led to four more days.

It may take one bold union like the Firefighters Union to show the way and open the doors for others to enter the fray. A victory in Wisconsin could embolden the union movement nationwide.

Even if we lose here, something has fundamentally changed. Masses of workers here understand for the first time in a long time that they are workers, not just consumers. Across the country, many workers are starting to realize that their interests lie primarily with other workers, private or public, Black, Brown or white, male or female, gay or straight.

They realize that the Koch Brothers' interests are not their own. The formerly one-sided class war has met a second side here in Madison, and we have Scott Walker to thank for that.


Monday, March 21, 2011

Libyan Developments

By Gilbert Achcar
March 19, 2011
[Gilbert Achcar grew up in Lebanon, and is currently Professor at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) of the University of London. His books include The Clash of Barbarisms: The Making of the New World Disorder, published in 13 languages, Perilous Power: The Middle East and U.S. Foreign Policy, co-authored with Noam Chomsky, and most recently The Arabs and the Holocaust: The Arab-Israeli War of Narratives. He was interviewed by Stephen R. Shalom.]

Who is the Libyan opposition? Some have noted the presence of the old monarchist flag in rebel ranks.

This flag is not used as a symbol of the monarchy, but as the flag that the Libyan state adopted after it won independence from Italy. It is used by the uprising in order to reject the Green Flag imposed by Gaddafi along with his Green Book, when he was aping Mao Zedong and his Little Red Book. In no way does the tricolor flag indicate nostalgia for the monarchy. In the most common interpretation, it symbolizes the three historic regions of Libya, and the crescent and star are the same symbols you see on the flags of the Algerian, Tunisian and Turkish republics, not symbols of monarchism.

So who is the opposition? The composition of the opposition is -- as in all the other revolts shaking the region -- very heterogeneous. What unites all the disparate forces is a rejection of the dictatorship and a longing for democracy and human rights. Beyond that, there are many different perspectives. In Libya, more particularly, there is a mixture of human rights activists, democracy advocates, intellectuals, tribal elements, and Islamic forces -- a very broad collection. The most prominent political force in the Libyan uprising is the "Youth of the 17th of February Revolution," which has a democratic platform, calling for the rule of law, political freedoms, and free elections. The Libyan movement also includes sections of the government and the armed forces that have broken away and joined the opposition -- which you didn't have in Tunisia or Egypt.

So the Libyan opposition represents a mixture of forces, and the bottom line is that there is no reason for any different attitude toward them than to any other of the mass uprisings in the region.

Is Gaddafi -- or was Gaddafi -- a progressive figure?

When Gaddafi came to power in 1969 he was a late manifestation of the wave of Arab nationalism that followed World War II and the 1948 Nakba. He tried to imitate Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser, who he regarded as his model and inspiration. So he replaced the monarchy with a republic, championed Arab unity, forced the withdrawal of the U.S.'s Wheelus Airbase from Libyan territory, and initiated a program of social change.

Then the regime moved in its own way, along the path of radicalization, inspired by an Islamized Maoism. There were sweeping nationalizations in the late 1970s -- almost everything was nationalized. Gaddafi claimed to have instituted direct democracy -- and formally changed the name of the country from Republic to State of the Masses (Jamahiriya). He pretended that he had turned the country into the fulfillment of socialist utopia with direct democracy, but few were fooled. The "revolutionary committees" were actually acting as a ruling apparatus along with the security services in controlling the country. At the same time, Gaddafi also played an especially reactionary role in reinvigorating tribalism as a tool for his own power. His foreign policy became increasingly foolhardy, and most Arabs came to consider him crazy.

With the Soviet Union in crisis, Gaddafi shifted away from his socialist pretensions and re-opened his economy to Western business. He asserted that his economic liberalization would be accompanied by a political one, aping Gorbachev's perestroika after having aped Mao Zedong's "cultural revolution," but the political claim was an empty one. When the United States invaded Iraq in 2003 under the pretext of searching for "weapons of mass destruction," Gaddafi, worried that he might be next, implemented a sudden and surprising turnabout in foreign policy, earning himself a spectacular upgrade from the status of "rogue state" to that of close collaborator of Western states. A collaborator in particular of the United States, which he helped in its so-called war on terror, and Italy, for which he did the dirty job of turning back would-be immigrants trying to get from Africa to Europe.

Throughout these metamorphoses, Gaddafi's regime was always a dictatorship. Whatever early progressive measures Gaddafi may have enacted, there was nothing left of progressivism or anti-imperialism in his regime in the last phase. Its dictatorial character showed itself in the way he reacted to the protests: immediately deciding to quell them by force. There was no attempt to offer any kind of democratic outlet for the population. He warned the protesters in a now famous tragic-comic speech: "We will come inch by inch, home by home, alley by alley ... We will find you in your closets. We will have no mercy and no pity." Not a surprise, knowing that Gaddafi was the only Arab ruler who publicly blamed the Tunisian people for having toppled their own dictator Ben Ali, whom he described as the best ruler the Tunisians would find.

Gaddafi resorted to threats and violent repression, claiming that the protesters had been turned into drug addicts by Al Qaeda, who poured hallucinogens in their coffees. Blaming Al Qaeda for the uprising was his way of trying to get the support of the West. Had there been any offer of help from Washington or Rome, you can be sure that Gaddafi would have gladly welcomed it. He actually expressed his bitter disappointment at the attitude of his buddy Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian prime minister, with whom he enjoyed partying, and complained that his other European "friends" also betrayed him. In the last few years, Gaddafi had indeed become a friend of several Western rulers and other establishment figures who, for a fistful of dollars, have been willing to ridicule themselves exchanging hugs with him. Anthony Giddens himself, the distinguished theoretician of Tony Blair's Third Way, followed in his disciple's steps by paying a visit to Gaddafi in 2007 and writing in the Guardian how Libya was on the path of reform and on its way to becoming the Norway of the Middle East.

What is your assessment of UN Security Council resolution 1973 adopted on March 17?

The resolution itself is phrased in a way that takes into consideration -- and appears to respond to -- the request by the uprising for a no-fly zone. The opposition has indeed explicitly called for a no-fly zone, on the condition that no foreign troops be deployed on Libyan territory. Gaddafi has the bulk of the elite armed forces, with aircraft and tanks, and the no-fly zone would indeed neutralize his main military advantage. This request of the uprising is reflected in the text of the resolution, which authorizes UN member states "to take all necessary measures ... to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, including Benghazi, while excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory." The resolution establishes "a ban on all flights in the airspace of the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya in order to help protect civilians."

Now there are not enough safeguards in the wording of the resolution to bar its use for imperialist purposes. Although the purpose of any action is supposed to be the protection of civilians, and not "regime change," the determination of whether an action meets this purpose or not is left up to the intervening powers and not to the uprising, or even the Security Council. The resolution is amazingly confused. But given the urgency of preventing the massacre that would have inevitably resulted from an assault on Benghazi by Gaddafi's forces, and the absence of any alternative means of achieving the protection goal, no one can reasonably oppose it. One can understand the abstentions; some of the five states who abstained in the UNSC vote wanted to express their defiance and/or unhappiness with the lack of adequate oversight, but without taking the responsibility for an impending massacre.

The Western response, of course, smacks of oil. The West fears a long drawn out conflict. If there is a major massacre, they would have to impose an embargo on Libyan oil, thus keeping oil prices at a high level at a time when, given the current state of the global economy, this would have major adverse consequences. Some countries, including the United States, acted reluctantly. Only France emerged as very much in favor of strong action, which might well be connected to the fact that France -- unlike Germany (which abstained in the UNSC vote), Britain, and, above all, Italy -- does not have a major stake in Libyan oil, and certainly hopes to get a greater share post-Gaddafi.

We all know about the Western powers' pretexts and double standards. For example, their alleged concern about harm to civilians bombarded from the air did not seem to apply in Gaza in 2008-09, when hundreds of noncombatants were being killed by Israeli warplanes in furtherance of an illegal occupation. Or the fact that the US allows its client regime in Bahrain, where it has a major naval base, to violently repress the local uprising, with the help of other regional vassals of Washington.

The fact remains, nevertheless, that if Gaddafi were permitted to continue his military offensive and take Benghazi, there would be a major massacre. Here is a case where a population is truly in danger, and where there is no plausible alternative that could protect it. The attack by Gaddafi's forces was hours or at most days away. You can't in the name of anti-imperialist principles oppose an action that will prevent the massacre of civilians. In the same way, even though we know well the nature and double standards of cops in the bourgeois state, you can't in the name of anti-capitalist principles blame anybody for calling them when someone is on the point of being raped and there is no alternative way of stopping the rapists.

This said, without coming out against the no-fly zone, we must express defiance and advocate full vigilance in monitoring the actions of those states carrying it out, to make sure that they don't go beyond protecting civilians as mandated by the UNSC resolution. In watching on TV the crowds in Benghazi cheering the passage of the resolution, I saw a big billboard in their middle that said in Arabic "No to foreign intervention." People there make a distinction between "foreign intervention" by which they mean troops on the ground, and a protective no-fly zone. They oppose foreign troops. They are aware of the dangers and wisely don't trust Western powers.

So, to sum up, I believe that from an anti-imperialist perspective one cannot and should not oppose the no-fly zone, given that there is no plausible alternative for protecting the endangered population. The Egyptians are reported to be providing weapons to the Libyan opposition -- and that's fine -- but on its own it couldn't have made a difference that would have saved Benghazi in time. But again, one must maintain a very critical attitude toward what the Western powers might do.

What's going to happen now?

It's difficult to tell what will happen now. The UN Security Council resolution did not call for regime change; it's about protecting civilians. The future of the Gaddafi regime is uncertain. The key question is whether we will see the resumption of the uprising in western Libya, including Tripoli, leading to a disintegration of the regime's armed forces. If that occurs, then Gaddafi may be ousted soon. But if the regime manages to remain firmly in control in the west, then there will be a de facto division of the country -- even though the resolution affirms the territorial integrity and national unity of Libya. This may be what the regime has chosen, as it has just announced its compliance with the UN resolution and proclaimed a ceasefire. What we might then have is a prolonged stalemate, with Gaddafi controlling the west and the opposition the east. It will obviously take time before the opposition can incorporate the weapons it is receiving from and through Egypt to the point of becoming able to inflict military defeat on Gaddafi's forces. Given the nature of the Libyan territory, this can only be a regular war rather than a popular one, a war of movement over vast stretches of territory. That's why the outcome is hard to predict. The bottom line here again is that we should support the victory of the Libyan democratic uprising. Its defeat at the hands of Gaddafi would be a severe backlash negatively affecting the revolutionary wave that is currently shaking the Middle East and North Africa.


Thursday, March 10, 2011

Do or die in Wisconsin

Socialist Worker

With Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker poised to sign a bill gutting public-sector union power, organized labor must use its power now, argues Lee Sustar.

March 10, 2011

AFTER THREE weeks of demonstrations and an occupation of the Capitol building, the labor battle in Wisconsin was coming to a head after Gov. Scott Walker's Republican allies suddenly rammed through legislation aimed at gutting the bargaining power of public-sector unions and crippling them financially.

The question now is whether unions will push back with the kind of job actions that launched the biggest labor mobilization in decades--or allow Walker to drive a legislative steamroller over half a century of public-sector unionism in Wisconsin.

The immediate reaction to the legislative sneak attack was furious. Thousands of protestors swarmed into the Capitol building in Madison--six days after an occupation had ended. "General strike!" was among the most popular chants, along with "This is what democracy looks like!"

Asked if he supported the call for a general strike, Joe Conway, president of Madison Local 311 of the International Association of Fire Fighters, said, "I'm in total agreement. We should start walking out tomorrow and the next day, and see how long they can last."

Mike Imbrogno, an executive board member of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 171 at the University of Wisconsin (UW), described the scene inside the Capitol:

People keep asking, "When are we going on strike?" There is the broad mix of workers here who have been out for the last three weeks: boilermakers, AFSCME members, teachers, firefighters, graduate employees of the UW Teaching Assistants' Association, lots of building trades people.

Many students and parents are here with their children, too. People got the e-mail that this was happening around 5 p.m., and they immediately rushed here. As the crowd swelled outside, the cops abandoned the doors and let everybody in. This is a turning point. Peoples' anger is overcoming their fear.

While thousands jammed the ground floor, a few dozen protesters, many of them TAA members, made their way into the state Assembly chambers, where they planned to sit in to block that body's vote on the final version of the anti-union bill, scheduled for the morning of March 10.

Even Democratic State Rep. Brett Hulsey, who last week actively urged protesters to abandon the occupation, this time gave up on trying to limit the action. UW graduate student Aongus Ó Murchada said, "I shouted at him, 'You going to lead us out again, Brett? We're not leaving.' He said, 'I don't blame you,' and just walked away."

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THE REPUBLICANS' maneuver comes after a three-week standoff in which state Senate Democrats were able to block the anti-union provisions since they were part of a broader "budget repair bill" that requires a quorum of 20 votes because it concerns fiscal matters. The Republicans have 19 seats in the Senate, which meant that at least one of the 14 Democrat had to be present. By leaving the state, the Democrats stalled action on the bill.

On Wednesday, Walker and his main legislative ally, state Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, decided to drop the pretense that their anti-union attack has anything to do with balancing the state budget. They moved the anti-union measures into a separate bill that wasn't about finances, so it didn't require any Democrats to be present for a quorum.

Walker's bill would bar collective bargaining over anything other than wages, which in any case would be limited to the rate of inflation. The automatic deduction of union dues would be barred, which could cripple the unions financially. The unions would further have to hold annual elections to maintain their status as bargaining units. Beyond this, Walker's bill would force state employees pay 12.6 percent of their health insurance and 5.7 percent toward their pensions, resulting in a cut in weekly pay of at least 5 to 7 percent.

If the anti-union legislation passes the Assembly in its final version on Thursday, Walker is expected to sign the bill into law immediately.

So the unions are faced with a do-or-die proposition. The repeated mass mobilizations--which exceeded 100,000 on February 26--have failed to deter Walker. Now labor must go beyond demonstrations to take action that will force Walker and his business backers to retreat. Without such escalation, the public-sector unions in Wisconsin may well cease to exist as effective workers' organizations.

Whether or not the anger of the union rank and file will push union officials into action is unclear. "Right now, what I am seeing from the labor leadership is a lack of response," said J. Eric Cobb, executive director of the Building Trades Council of South Central Wisconsin. Top union leaders have been in a reactive mode, rather than leading, he said.

Cobb pointed out that top union officials have focused only on the attacks on collective bargaining, rather than the economic attacks on workers or the other anti-worker elements of the bill, from cuts in state health care programs to the privatization of the University of Wisconsin. Labor officials, said Cobb, "have always backed off from fighting actively against the aspects of the budget repair bill that are literally devastating."

In recent days, union leaders have shifted their focus further away from mobilizations, and toward the recall of eight Republicans in the state Senate, as well as the campaign for the Wisconsin state Supreme Court. A mass labor rally scheduled for March 12 was intended to give a boost to that effort.

Now it will be test of whether unions will stand up to the challenge of the greatest attack they've faced since President Ronald Reagan fired 11,000 striking members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization in 1981.

"When this [anti-union legislative] bomb hit, I called my union leadership," Cobb said. "The best answer I got was to get as many people to the Capitol as possible. But the Capitol is not the prize. The prize is our rights. The prize is not having peoples' back broken by having them pay for this Wall Street greed."

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LABOR HAS already shown it has the power to stop Walker's union-busting. But do union leaders have the will to use it? Following the Senate passage of the union-busting bill, the Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC) called on members to go to work as usual on Thursday.

Yet the great mobilizations over the last three weeks--and the outpouring of solidarity from across the U.S.--were only possible because teachers in Madison called in sick February 17 to lead a sit-in at the Capitol. Hours later, their parent union, WEAC, urged teachers across the state to skip work the following day and join the protest.

The teachers' job action was the spark for tens of thousands of people to make their way to the Capitol as well. There, they made common cause with the students and workers who occupied the building and turned it into a round-the-clock political speakout and strategy session.

Construction workers in hardhats and firefighters in their gear mingled with state office workers, highway repair crews and health care workers. Nonunion workers rallied in support as well, based on a feeling of solidarity and a recognition that if organized workers could be defeated, they would suffer, too.

The feeling of solidarity--and momentum--for our side grew as Walker's popularity plunged. After a year in which the corporate-funded Tea Party protesters were highlighted in the mass media as the authentic voice of grassroots America, the mass labor mobilization in Wisconsin put working class political struggle back on the political map for the first time in decades.

But once teachers were back at work after three or four days, police gradually reasserted control over the Capitol. Though the union rallies grew larger and larger, labor leaders shifted increasingly toward an electoral strategy of recalling the Republicans.

Certainly, the recall effort is a useful pressure tactic. But in practice, union leaders have counterposed the electoral strategy to further job actions that can put pressure on Walker and his business backers.

Even worse, union leaders have repeatedly offered to accept the concessions on health care and pensions demanded by Walker in exchange for continued collective bargaining rights. WEAC officials have gone so far as to urge affiliate unions to include those same concessions in two-year contract extensions with local school districts.

The apparent aim was to protect the union's status--and its collection of dues--if Walker's bill is passed.

But Walker apparently took all this as a sign of labor's weakness. And no wonder: If union officials are willing to take concessions even as labor shows its power to organize and inspire masses of people, why shouldn't employers try to crush unions once and for all?

The next attack is likely to come on March 13, when Walker has announced that he will no longer honor a contract extension for AFSCME and other state employees.

But if the mood of the Wednesday protests when Republicans rammed the bill through is any indication, Walker has overreached once again. He's made it clear that what's really going on isn't an effort to fix a state budget deficit, but a showdown between capital and labor. Talk of a general strike isn't the product of the anger of the moment, but a conclusion reached after decades of a one-sided class war--and a powerful three-week mobilization that shows the power of workers' collective action.

If union leaders won't move face up to this battle, then the rank and file that has already showed so much strength and determination must take the initiative again. Unions have to respond to Walker by fighting as if their lives depend on it--because they do.


Sunday, March 6, 2011

The New American Workers Movement at the Crossroads

Dan La Botz
International Viewpoint
March 2011

The new American workers movement, which has developed so rapidly in the last couple of months in the struggle against rightwing legislative proposals to abolish public employee unions, suddenly finds itself at a crossroads. Madison, Wisconsin, where rank-and-file workers, community members, and social movement activists converged to create the new movement, remains the center of the struggle. In Ohio, which faces similar legislation, unions have also gone into motion, while working people around the country have been drawn into the fight

In both states, things are coming to a head. In Wisconsin the courts have ordered the capitol building closed and the governor is threatening layoffs to begin next week. In both Wisconsin and Ohio the legislators are threatening to push the bills through one way or another. And now, in the fight to win, the movement has come to a fork in the road.

Two different tendencies in the labor movement point in two quite different directions. The top leaders of the AFL-CIO and Change to Win unions like SEIU have thrown their weight into the struggle in the only way that they know how. Following the model they use in political campaigns, they have reached out to established organizations to build coalitions. They have sent organizers into take charge and to reach out to communities. Their goal is to rebuild their institutional power and their relationship with the Democratic Party, hoping to turn the upsurge in support for public employees into a political victory.

The Union Leaders’ Approach
In both Wisconsin and Ohio, while not publicly giving up the fight to defeat the anti-union legislation, the top union officials quietly suggest that the bills cannot be stopped in the legislatures. So the unions in Wisconsin and Ohio indicate they will be turning respectively to efforts at recall and referendum. With their usual orientation toward political solutions, the unions’ Central Labor Councils in Ohio return to their reliance on the Democratic Party and prepare for the contest in the coming elections.

The unions’ top leaders at the national level shy away from mobilizing the social and economic power of the unions to win this thing, turning instead to their allies in the Democratic Party. It is not that the union officials don’t want to win in Wisconsin and Ohio, but their notions about how to win and what winning means represent a particular conception of the role of the labor movement. For the AFL-CIO and other major unions, winning means preserving, through political influence, the existing model of collective bargaining—even though we know that under the existing model unions have been losing for the last 40 years.

The Workers Power Tendency
There is, however, another tendency in the new workers’ movement which presents a different alternative. This alternative, which is not so easy to name but which might be called workers’ power tendency, is made up of those rank-and-file workers and their union stewards and local officials, together with the community groups and social movement activists who have rallied to the cause. This group includes the teachers who called in sick and produced a virtual shutdown of the schools in Madison and other parts of Wisconsin. It is made up of firemen, policemen and other public employees who have spent every available minute surrounding the capitol in spirited demonstrations. And it includes the union, community and student activists who have occupied the capitol building and made it the center and the symbol of the new workers’ movement.

This tendency has demonstrated—even it is has not yet worked out an elaborate position on paper or issued some sort of manifesto—that for them winning means using workers’ power to stop the anti-union bills and to stop concessions offered up by some of the union leaders. Some of these workers have been holding on to the capitol risking arrest. Others are considering some form of direct action or civil disobedience.

These are the workers and their supporters who taken seriously the call for a general strike issued by the South Central Federation of Labor. Taking seriously the idea of a general strike of Wisconsin workers doesn’t mean jumping into it. A general strike issue from the ranks isn’t simply called—as some activists have been trying to do. A general strike is mulled over, it is prepared through conversation, discussion and debate. It is organized. And finally (but soon), when the moment is right, it is begun when one crucial group of workers has the courage to make the first move drawing others into the process.

How We Win Makes all the Difference
One might argue that the anti-labor legislation might be stopped either way, either by the union officials’ program of working from the top down to build coalitions and create the alliances that will return the Democrats to power or by the workers’ use of their economic and social power. Through either course, one could argue, the anti-union legislation will be stopped, unions and collective bargaining preserved, and the movement vindicated. But the lessons of the two courses and the results would be quite different.

The lesson of a victory organized by the union officials and won by the Democratic Party in the legislatures would be that workers must rely on the Democratic Party to defend themselves, returning unions and workers to their usual dependence on a political party dominated by big business. We might remember that it was the Democratic Party’s failure in Wisconsin and nationally to defend unions and workers’ interests which has been responsible for getting us here. The result of the top union officials’ strategy would be a return to the situation we were in yesterday, where employers forced the unions into retreat and where workers were losing ground. And so, it being yesterday again, the assault on workers in both the private and the public sector would resume—in truth, it would never have ceased.

The other alternative is that workers in Wisconsin, Ohio and other states engaged in this battle—and almost all of them are—exert their economic and social power, through direct action, civil disobedience, and economic and political strikes, reasserting the power of workers in our society. The lesson of such an experience would be that workers do have power and that workers can lead. Such an upheaval—which would necessarily be met by the employers with resistance and repression and which would entail both defeats and successes—would necessarily lead to new tactics and strategies, to new leaders, to new organizational forms.

We would come out of the experience with a new and revitalized labor movement. Such a new workers’ movement might even create independent political campaigns, and, if it grew in breadth and depth, might even raise the question of a workers’ political party. We would through the experience of fighting and winning this thing on our own, really have a new American workers movement and we would continue the fight on new and higher ground.

Dan La Botz is the author of several books on Mexican labor unions, social movements and politics. He also edits Mexican Labor News and Analysis, an on-line publication of the United Electrical Workers Union (UE) and the Authentic Labor Front (FAT), at:


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Revitalising Labour attempts to reflect on efforts to rebuild the labour movement internationally, emphasising the role that left-wing political currents can play in this process. It welcomes contributions on union struggles, internal renewal processes within the labour movement and the struggle against capitalism and imperialism.

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