An update on events in Wisconsin

In an 18-1 vote on the evening of March 9th, the Wisconsin State Senate passed a bill eliminating collective bargaining rights for state sector workers. This was done without the required quorum numbers because the bill ending collective bargaining rights was removed from the larger austerity budget bill. Both bills are now set to pass. Collective bargaining will come to an end by the end of the week when the governor signs the new bill into law. The austerity part of Senate Bill 11 will be passed separately in short order. This is an assault on every worker in the state and is a spearhead in the struggle of employers to drive down labor costs nationwide. This represents a stepping up of the factional fighting between the two factions of the bourgeoisie in power, Democratic and Republican. The destruction of the unions in the public sector will destroy funding for the rival Democratic Party’s election campaigns.

For workers this means nothing less than a huge pay cut, a massive attack on social services and the outright layoff of slightly more than 20,000 workers as their jobs get privatized or eliminated. Already there are 4,000 unfilled positions in the state civil service that will never be filled. Many state workers nearing retirement have started retiring en masse before the austerity measures come into effect.

The root of this crisis is found in the falling tax revenues to the states. The fall in tax revenues is two-fold. First, the Federal government has refused to give aid to the states in favor of maintaining endless war spending. Second, the states tax structures do not allow for increases on taxes for the wealthy and thus rely on payroll taxes from workers paychecks, property taxes on workers homes, lotteries to sucker the poor into buying lottery tickets and punitive sales taxes that affect the poorest first. Thus the crisis hit the state revenues that were primarily based on taxing workers due to the loss of workers property and incomes. The US has a religion based on the “right” to private property, which properly understood means the right of the capitalist class to fleece workers of their wealth and property. Capitalist economic crises are not acts of nature that must be accepted the way one accepts the fact that a tornado has touched down wiping out a small town. There is a cause and the cause is in the fall in profit rates of capitalism worldwide. It is a crisis exacerbated by the drive to generalized imperialist war.

The Teachers’ Union, WEAC, has told teachers to keep going to work and save their picketing for the weekend. The teachers union aim to prevent another wildcat walkout of public school teachers. The student walkout from the High Schools and Colleges was the product of the efforts of the students and contributed greatly to the strikes. The regional union federation, the South Central Labor Federation has unions have formally given the okay to the possibility of a general strike with their 97 member unions, while the union leaders attempt to contain the desire of workers to go on strike with peaceful protests. Tens of thousands of workers have packed the streets for over three weeks now. The first protest started with about 20,000 and the numbers grew until the protests had 50,000 to 100,000 workers protesting. As the bill ending collective bargaining passed workers chanted slogans demanding a general strike. The “cooler” heads attempting to maintain control of the situation have succeeded in deflecting this sentiment. While the backbone of the protests has been teachers and students, there is enormous solidarity from every sector of workers in the state. Huge contingents from private sector unions have come out in support. A protest movement has subsequently spread around the US, ostensibly against collective bargaining of union and state employer, but underlying this is the recognition by workers that they cannot afford any more austerity.

This coming Saturday March 12th, Farmers are driving their tractors in a convoy to the state capitol to protest in solidarity with the unions and against cuts to rural schools and social services. The cuts in the state insurance program, “BadgerCare” will result in huge numbers of the poor losing their access to medical care. This will seriously impact farmers who have to purchase their own insurance, thus it is that they depend heavily on the state subsidized insurance program of BadgerCare which allows people to purchase health insurance out of their own pockets at a rate lower than that offered by the private insurance companies.

State social services will be privatized. Every form or social service could end up being sold off to private companies to “administer”, or properly understood—fleece. All the public school students in the state stand to lose $500 in funding per school year, per pupil. Charter schools will be expanded to further fleece public coffers at the hands of private corporations that are now taking over the public schools nationwide. There is no data suggesting that charter schools perform any differently than public schools so it is not a question of better schooling, rather it is a question of capitalist theft of public revenues in the name of “free enterprise” and “competition”. This represents the downsizing and deskilling of the workforce and a huge attack on wages.

State run electrical power plants stand to be turned over in “no bid” contracts to private companies as a payback to the supporters of the current faction of the bourgeoisie in power. This includes one nuclear power plant and several other coal burning power plants around the state. Funds for wastewater treatment will be cut, and groundwater will not be tested for biological and manmade toxins as in the past.

Despite the assertions of the typical capitalist moron, Governor Walker, that he wouldn’t negotiate, he was conducting negotiations with the state Democratic Party over the extent of the collective bargaining issue as the release of his recent emails to the runaway Democratic caucus show. To give an idea of the stupidity and arrogance of a typical American bourgeois, Walker honestly believes that God himself (you see God in the US is a right-wing hyper-calvinist) is telling him what to do.

The Democrats and their union apparatus were perfectly willing to throw workers under the bus and maintain a shred of collective bargaining, just enough to keep funding their election coffers and keep turning out the vote for them during election campaigns. What has not been debated is the austerity budget that the unions accepted from the beginning of the current struggle, if only they were to be allowed to retain the structure of collective bargaining of labor contracts with state employees. The contracts set the standard for all state sector workers, represented and non-represented, amounting to some 175,000 workers statewide most of whom aren’t represented by unions at all, but are very much impacted by the contract bargaining process.

The unions themselves have accepted “furlough days” in the form of a month of rolling layoffs per employee per year. In itself this was a huge pay cut for state sector workers who saw no defense from the unions or their masters the Democratic Party when they were in power in the state last year. Last fall two Democratic legislators joined with the Republicans to shelve the contract until Walker and the Republicans could take power.

The unions last fall were offering the state a 3% cut in pay, and a $100 million in benefits giveaways. This was not enough for the state who wanted a pay cut of at least 8% and $136 million in benefits giveaways. Some state workers could see a pay cut of up to 20% once the higher contributions to pensions and benefits are included in the pay cuts. This will hit the public school teachers particularly hard. The usual course of action would’ve been for the incoming Republican government to go back to the table with the unions and negotiate a bigger set of cuts and concessions. The governor didn’t do this, but rather went ahead with the aim of destroying collective bargaining and attacking his political rivals and state sector workers in one sweeping bill that was meant initially to be passed in a week long session without any debate or input from the public. Only the protests delayed the bill allowing people to see what was in this 144 page legal document.

Now the mood is one of anger, and talk of a general strike. The union leaders don’t want this, but votes will come up in the union locals and there could be a mass strike anyway. A mass strike is the only response left for workers in the state.

A huge amount of politicization has occurred in the space of a month. Workers who took no notice of things beyond their daily lives now are engaged and trying to shape events the only way they know how. This involves a deep degree of illusions held in the Democratic Party and the unions. It is easy to have illusions in the unions as few workers are in unions or have any idea of how they function even when they are members of a union. The unions themselves can’t mobilize the numbers of workers who have taken to the streets. Public sector employees unions don’t have the numbers or the impact to put 100,000 people in the streets. This was a response from the workers themselves and one that cannot be ignored regardless of union and Democratic Party control. Now that the bill has passed the flagging spirits of the protesting workers and students have been fired up by a sense of anger and betrayal.

Collective bargaining agreements with state employees, in Wisconsin, were put in place primarily to avoid strikes and keep the government functioning. The 1971 state law allowing for it was put in place in the wake of the massive nationwide strike of US postal workers in that year. Technically the tradeoff for not being allowed the same right to go on strike as workers in the private sector was a collective bargaining process. These state labor peace treaties have now become an obstacle for the capitalist class in power as they attempt to lower labor costs as much as possible.

Unions have deflected talk of defending workers with rhetoric about an attack on the “middle class”. This middle class democracy talk is a false flag put up for workers to rally around. It is not about a mythical middle class rather it is about attacking the last stronghold of stability in the workforce. For the political party bosses Governor Walker is a sacrificial lamb, a rich buffoon put up to do their dirty work and then to be cast aside when they are done with him. This was the same purpose that Senator Joe McCarthy once unwittingly served. When the bourgeoisie was done with his hysterical anti-communist rhetoric, once he started accusing the army and President Eisenhower of being communist, they censured him and pushed him aside. Governor Walker’s political career is most likely going to end as the result of this. The Republican Party itself sees this as the means to cut out their rivals funding source in the unions so they can secure the White House in the next presidential election. This is why killing collective bargaining took precedence over the budget bill which has not yet been passed and which didn’t actually need to be resolved until the 30th of June, the date that marks the end of the current funding cycle for the state. Thus the budget “crisis” wasn’t in any way as pressing of a crisis as the rulers claimed.

A new period is opening up in the US and revolutionaries have to be prepared to step forward. They cannot dismiss this simply as a Democratic Party sideshow but they must try to be present and make themselves heard at a time when workers are becoming more politically conscious of a need to fight and willing to do so. That the very words “general strike” are now being spoken in the land of labor peace is an extraordinary thing. Ninety-seven union locals in the state will be meeting to decide what their next step is and the leaders will not want to go on strike, rather they would prefer to buckle down with legal challenges and peaceful protests and find a way to make defeat acceptable.

The very fact that this has lasted for over three weeks, where workers marched in nasty, sloppy, freezing weather of late-winter to defend their interests the only way they know how. Defending their interests has of yet, only involved taking over the State Capitol building to protest. The unions and their Democratic Party handlers will lead this to exhaustion and defeat, unless workers can impose their own wills on the situation through a mass strike. There must be a strike and workers must make this a demand in the workplaces, among their co-workers and at local union meetings.

Capitalism has in two hundred years gone from being a progressive force against feudal order to being a class bent on promoting the collective suicide of the entire human race. Even if this leads to a defeat for workers in the present, it will not be the end of struggles against capitalist austerity here in the US but the beginning.



This is a terrific article. And very witty too. I hope it's getting a wide distribution in Wisconsin and other states. Are we on the move in the States at last?

I hope so. It depends on whether workers have had enough with the Dems and their unions. Many workers were talking about a general strike last Wednesday but this has been largely drowned out by a parade of Democratic Party officials and union bosses declaring "victory" in the face of the defeat they have engineered. 20,000+ workers will get laid off outright as the result of the legislation and they say to sign a election recall petition and wait patiently for the next election. The calls for a strike were so strong that the former, and future Mayor of Madison, Paul Soglin felt compelled to write an editorial against the idea. He was once known here as the "red mayor", he got his political start in the anti-Vietnam war movement and is a Democratic pol of the first order. This last weekend there was the biggest demo yet, some 100,000 or so people in the streets. All the posterboard in the county is gone, having been purchased to make picket signs. Class sizes for public primary schools in Milwaukee are set to increase to fifty students per class in the coming school year. The state of Michigan has got similar legislation on order but there whole cities and townships can be sold off to private businesses bringing back the days of company owned towns.