State Workers Protests Continue in Wisconsin

In Wisconsin there have been six days of protests numbering in the tens of thousands of workers. The coming week here is likely to bring more sickouts from state workers and teachers. Though the WEAC head, Mary Bell has told the state teachers to go back to work. In return she's withdrawn her support for charter schools in Milwaukee and cutting up the school district, ending seniority pay and "merit pay". As with most merit pay schemes everywhere it is another way of saying nobody will get a raise. Walkouts of students in the high schools, and universities have occurred around the state in large numbers against education cuts all around the state.

The AFL-CIO heads came to speak to call for collective bargaining as the sole demand, leaving all the attacks on workers in the bill SB11 intact. This was entirely to be expected. If the unions won collective bargaining, they could declare a "victory" and tell everyone to go home. To keep people in line a parade of bourgeois figures came out to speak, AFL-CIO Pres. Richard Trumka, Jesse Jackson and others.

Now the aspirations of the unions to keep a seat at the bargaining table and the aspirations of workers are quite different. Workers entering into these protests are coming in with obsolete views of unions, maintained largely because few workers have any prolonged contact with unions. They still think the union is on their side. The Democratic Party (DP) here is fighting to keep its political base while the Republican bourgeois want to reward their wealthy associates with tax cuts, creating a budget crisis and attacking the largest segment of the workforce in the state, while also attacking the base of their rival bourgeois party. The entire event has been a blessing for the unions and the DP in that it allows them to posture as defenders of the working class. The unions aren't in control of everything that is happening in this struggle, including the rolling sickouts of teachers, and students walking out of the public schools.

Workers want to fight but the unions want to sit at the table. Workers look to the unions for protection and hold illusions as to what unions today actually are. So there has not been an independently articulated expression of discontent towards the anti-worker parts of the bill which have gone ignored due to the focus on denial of collective bargaining for the union. The bill is 140 pages and is a good deal larger than that one issue that bothers the union apparatus. It contains reactionary provisions for arbitrary cuts in Medicare and a whole host of attacks aimed at school teachers. Apparently despite the talk to the contrary from the governor, cops and firefighters are not immune from provisions here. There hasn't been a state sector strike here since 1975 when the Madison Teachers broke state law and went on strike to form a union.

A photo of a worker in Maidan Tahrir (Revolution Square) in Cairo showing solidarity for workers in Wisconsin
A photo of a worker in Maidan Tahrir (Revolution Square) in Cairo showing solidarity for workers in Wisconsin

The Governor may even give in on the collective bargaining demand and the unions will get what they want, the capitalist leaders will get what they want and all bourgeois factions could claim victory. State workers would then face the many cuts and get sent home being told they won a victory or sent home knowing they lost. The lessons workers learn from this event will not be learned until it is over.

By Friday, people started coming from neighboring states. Every news agency has had their equipment trucks here, even Al Jazeera. Union marshals in orange vests and portable toilets trucked in. The area left groups were present in a circus sideshow manner with flags and not much in the way of agitational content. There is a big vacuum here that the traditional left groups cannot fill. This is where a core of people committed to putting forward a revolutionary perspective on events with a call to take the struggle outside the unions could really be effective at reaching a large number of workers with a minimal number of comrades. The event cannot simply be dismissed despite the obvious fact that it is an AFL-CIO/Democrat Party managed spectacle. There are real class demands here that are predictably subsumed under the cloak of unionism, "rights" talk and the Democratic Party "progressive" nonsense. The real cost of the cuts is what is motivating people to come out. The austerity measures amount to a sixteen to twenty percent cut in take home pay which workers all know they can't afford.

It is events like this that will start workers thinking about their own political role. Especially those who haven't had to worry about their own livelihoods quite so much before are now confronted with something that cannot be ignored. In a place where protests usually involve events outside the US when the protests occur at all, you have workers demonstrating about something affecting themselves, and in the tens of thousands.