USA: Wisconsin Unions Preparing a General Strike. Photo: Nickolas Nikolic

Wisconsin Unions Preparing a General Strike

After more than a week, demonstrations by public sector workers defending their pay, benefits and their right to union representation continue to grow. The struggle in Wisconsin is rapidly becoming a nation-wide struggle, a kind of American “Tahrir Square,” a point of reference for workers under attack around the country.

22 February, union rally in the occupied capitol building. Photo: Nickolas Nikolic.Demonstrations against similar cuts have spread to Ohio and Indiana, both states where unions have traditionally been very strong. Dozens, if not hundreds, of solidarity actions have taken place around the country. In a development that would have seemed unthinkable just 2 weeks ago, Wisconsin unions are now preparing for a state-wide general strike if Governor Walker’s bill is passed by the state legislature. While this struggle has only just begun and is far from finished, it marks an important turning point in the U.S. — the class struggle is back!

Wisconsin workers have also received solidarity from a place where the workers’ mass struggle recently led to the overthrow of an unpopular leader: Egypt. On Monday, Kamal Abbas of Egypt’s Center for Trade Unions and Workers Services, a participant in the 1989 strike at the Helwan Steel works, which was brutally repressed by the now-defunct Hosni Mubarak regime, wrote:

“We want you to know that we stand on your side. Stand firm and don’t waiver. Don’t give up on your rights. Victory always belongs to the people who stand firm and demand their just rights…Today is the day of the American workers. We salute you American workers! You will be victorious. Victory belongs to all the people of the world, who are fighting against exploitation, and for their just Rights.”

The revolutionary events in the Middle East have clearly had a big impact on the consciousness of workers and youth everywhere. The capitalist system connects every country into the world market, but it also creates a world working class that shares the same interests. The victories of workers in one country are an inspiration to workers everywhere! The main lesson to be drawn from the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions is that mass action, with the working class at the head of the movement is the way forward. This is the way forward here too!

On Thursday, 3,800 union members and supporters filled the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus as hearings began on a bill which if passed, would deprive all state workers of collective bargaining rights. Following Wisconsin’s lead it is possible that other public sector struggles will erupt in Indiana, New Jersey, Missouri and Iowa in the coming weeks. A call has gone out for a national day of action on March 2nd to defend the public sector, which is sure to be taken up around the country.

The Indiana legislature is due to begin discussing a bill that would deprive teachers of union rights. New Jersey Governor Christie has for weeks been telling public workers that they “have to face reality” and prepare for cuts. Iowa Republicans have said that the state’s collective bargaining agreements with public sector unions are “too expensive.” Missouri, which has a Democratic Governor, may soon see a referendum on a “right to work” law, which if approved would mean that both public and private sector workers employed at a union organized workplace would not be required to pay dues, which would hamper unions’ ability to struggle against the bosses by taking away their economic base.

Photo: d76Meanwhile, the crowds outside the Capitol building in Madison, Wisconsin grew from 40,000 on Friday to 60,000 or more on Saturday. Despite the largest outpouring of the working class in the US for decades, Walker and the Republicans have refused to back down and continue the push to break the public sector unions.On Tuesday, February 21st, the South Central Federation of Labor (SCFL), the umbrella organization of southern Wisconsin unions, voted to prepare a general strike if the state legislature approves Walker’s bill. This is the resolution they passed:

“Motion 1: The SCFL endorses a general strike, possibly for the day Walker signs his ‘budget repair bill,’ and requests the Education Committee immediately begin educating affiliates and members on the organization and function of a general strike.

“Motion 2: The SCFL goes on record as opposing all provisions contained in Walker’s ‘budget repair bill,’ including but not limited to, curtailed bargaining rights and reduced wages, benefits, pensions, funding for public education, changes to medical assistance programs, and politicization of state government agencies.”

The mass demonstrations in Wisconsin are inspiring millions of other workers to fight against the barrage of cuts. Without thousands and millions of working people standing up and saying “enough is enough!” things will never change. But as important as these mobilizations are, they are only one component part. The experience of the class struggle in the US and around the world shows that it is not enough for masses of ordinary working people and youth to hit the streets; it is also necessary that the movement have a leadership that is willing to fight the bosses and their political representatives “no-holds-barred.”

SCFL’s call for a general strike is a huge step forward. Walker is single-mindedly intent on breaking the public sector unions, not working with them, and a general strike is the only way to defeat “Hosni” Walker. Victory in Wisconsin would set the tone for other public sector struggles getting ready to erupt across the country.

The Democrats’ Role

However, it must be said that the call for a general strike wasn’t made by the union leaders as a recognition of the movement’s strength, but rather as a last resort. On Friday, the day before the SCFL’s announcement of preparations for a general strike, the leaders of two of the largest public sector unions, Mary Bell of WEAC and Marty Beil of AFSCME Council 24, announced that they were willing to accept all of Walker’s demands for pay and benefit cuts (totaling $30 million), if only he would withdraw his demand to dismantle collective bargaining. True to form, and fully supported by the billionaire Tea Party-backers the Koch brothers, Walker rejected their offer.

AFSCME’s Beil said afterwards that this position was “not a compromise,” but the union’s original bargaining position. With tens of thousands of workers and supporters surrounding the Capitol, why bargain for concessions in the first place? With meetings, marches and other events taking place all day, Beil and Bell should have instead organized a mass meeting of workers and supporters to discuss the terms to present to Walker and point the way forward, including the preparation of a state-wide general strike. Instead, it seems their concession-laden “compromise” was proposed without seriously consulting the thousands of workers who would be affected.

Unfortunately, Beil and Bell‘s concessions offer shows that if public sector workers are called out on a general strike, these leaders cannot be counted on to take the struggle to the end. It is therefore absolutely necessary that the strikers have complete, direct and democratic control over the struggle. SCFL must urgently organize a mass “town hall” meeting of Madison public and private sector workers, students, and community suporters, to begin planning how the general strike will be carried out, and make a call for the formation of coordination and action committees in every factory, workplace, and school, linked up centrally and governed by democratically elected representatives.

The union leaders are under tremendous pressure, not just from below, by the thousands of rank and file union members at the Capitol who are ready to struggle and are pushing the leadership forward, but also from above, specifically from the Democratic National Committee (DNC,) which has sent dozens of its members and operatives to Madison. Their intervention is being backed up in the media, with Obama speaking against Walker’s assault on the unions. Beil and Bell’s line is the same as the line of the Democrats in the state legislature, who returned from a four day boycott to move amendments to the bill which would keep Walker’s pay and benefit cuts but maintain the right to collective bargaining.

Neither the Democrats or Republicans represent the working class majority; they represent the interests of the big banks, the Fortune 500, and the wealthiest in society. Unlike the working class in many countries, US workers lack a mass Labor party that can represent our class interests. In such a situation, two parties representing the same tiny minority in society have to lean on the vast majority of the population to maintain the status quo. Both the Republican and Democratic parties engage in different forms of populism to do this, with the Republicans leaning on conservative churches, the Tea Party, etc., and the Democrats leaning above all on the unions for support, not in the unions’ interest but in their own.

The two parties, while representing the same capitalist class, defend this tiny minority in very different ways. The Republicans are using the budget crisis as a cover to attack the unions directly, hoping to weaken them in both the public and private sector. The Democrats, on the other hand, jump to “support” the unions by pushing a “compromise” in the “middle.” The Democrats would like not just to lead the movement in Madison, but to more importantly to use it. The Republican and Democratic proposals in the state legislature have one thing in common: cuts. This is because the crisis of the system demands it. The difference is that the Democrats are seeking a roundabout way of pushing them through.

This has been their strategy for decades, and was seen most recently in the auto industry bailouts where the Obama administration offered GM and Chrysler a financial rescue package, leaning on former UAW President Ron Gettlefinger to force concessions on the membership in exchange. But this old relationship between the unions and Democrats will be increasingly difficult to maintain, as evidenced by events unfolding in Wisconsin, with SCFL being pushed to call a general strike.

Make the rich pay for the crisis!

Photo: Emily MillsAcross the country, Republican public officials and the media have been howling after public sector workers, pointing to their pay and benefits as the cause of state budget deficits. After almost four years of recession and a “jobless recovery,” with millions still unemployed, this does not fool many people. Instead, it justifiably angers most working people. As one sigen held by a protester said: “Attacking Workers Doesn’t Create Jobs!” It is insult added to the injury of the economic dislocation, uncertainty and hardship of the vast majority since the “Great Recession” began in 2008. An article on the first demonstration inside the Ohio Statehouse from Bloomberg Online gives a glimpse of what many public sector workers think of the Republican attacks:

“Joe Rugola, the former president of the Ohio AFL-CIO who also is executive director of the Ohio Association of Public School Employees, said he represents bus drivers and janitors who earn about $24,000 a year. ‘I’m still looking for this privileged class of workers,’ Rugola said in an interview while waiting to testify.’ This is just part of a national attack on working people.'”

Almost every state in the US is either in debt or will be soon. State Governors and legislatures are presenting the situation as an “open and shut” case. They say that the only choice is between layoffs and job cuts or massive concessions. But the leaders of public sector unions would not be good “lawyers” if they simply accepted the other side’s argument (even if they do call for demonstrations and even strikes)! The union leaders have to answer all the lies of Big Business.

The budget crisis is the result of the weakened economy, massive military spending, and the huge tax breaks and give-aways to big corporations and the wealthy, not the salaries and benefits of public workers. For the past 30 years there has been a colossal transfer of the division of national income in the United States, from the working class to the capitalist class. In 2010, a Duke University study found that the top 20% of earners controlled more than 84% of the nation’s wealth. From 1979 to 2005, the after-taxes earnings of the top 1% of earners increased by 175%. Between 1998 and 2009, 57% of all US corporations did not pay any Federal taxes for at least one year. At the same time, state and city governments have for years been sucked into a downward spiral of tax incentives and breaks to get these same large corporations to move businesses to their areas, which then proceeed to lay off workers and shutter operations once the tax and other incentives run out. At the same time, average inflation-adjusted wage levels for workers have not risen since 1975!

Despite growing profits and massive cash reserves of the largest corporations during the recent “recovery,” these same capitalists are not investing and creating jobs, but are instead squeezing more productivity from fewer workers. These corporations have more than $2 trillion in funds and assets, but they still refuse to invest. Librarians, teachers, and firefighters did not cause the economic crisis — the slump is a result of the inherent problems of the capitalist system. If the union leaders are to address the root causes of the public sector struggle, they cannot ignore this fact.

The resources exist to maintain public sector workers’ jobs, pay and benefits, and to continue to provide much-needed public services. The resources are also there to provide quality union wages and conditions for workers in the private sector. There is also more than enough to go around to provide jobs for the millions of unemployed, and to provide free, quality education for students, who will be tomorrow’s workers. The problem is that both major political parties are firmly wedded to the big banks and corporations and they refuse to make real inroads against the wealth and privileges of the tiny handful of capitalists — the top 1% — who really “call the shots” in US society. The Labor movement will always be fighting with one hand tied behind its back as long as the leaders of the unions continue to support the Democratic Party, which is just as tied to the big banks and corporations as the Republicans.

So let’s be clear: the capitalists, not the workers are to blame for the crisis. Instead of supporting the Democrats and hoping for better times, the unions should break with the Democrats and form a Labor party. Instead of parceling out the scraps left over from the table of the 1%, a Labor party should demand that the rich pay for the crisis. A Labor party would be able to fight in Congress and in the state legislatures alongside the unions in the streets and in the workplace for a massive program of public works, to build schools, universities, and repair the country’s aging infrastructure, all of which could provide millions of jobs. Last but not least, these jobs should be 100% unionized and pay a living wage.

The cost of such a program should not come in the form of higher taxes or reduced public services for working people but should come from the top 1%, the big banks and the Fortune 500 companies, not just in the form of higher taxes but also by instituting an “open book” policy to make the banks’ and corporations’ finances public knowledge. Then much of the colossal wealth that has been siphoned off by this tiny minority at the expense of the overwhelming majority could be put in public hands, to be democratically administered in the interests of all. This is a critical fight for labor movement, both in the public and private sector. The victory of the public sector workers will strengthen the unions in the private sector, while the defeat of the public sector workers will weaken the position of these unions.

  • An injury to one is an injury to all! Full solidarity with Wisconsin’s public workers!
  • No to concessions! For an all-out one-day general strike in Wisconsin to stop the cuts!
  • Break with the parties of Big Business! For a mass party of labor based on the unions!

Source: Campaign for a Mass Party of Labor (USA)


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