One Year Since the Wisconsin Protests

A little over a year has come and gone since the protests in Wisconsin and already there are a half a dozen books out on the subject, all of the reformist liberal democratic variety. While all efforts have been expended on electing a Democratic Party governor, the effects of the cuts and rewriting of work rules is already being felt. The Democratic Party succeeded in asserting control from the start through the party apparatus and the state workers unions. When the portable toilets showed up it was obvious that the Democrats were in charge. From the start the unions demanded only that the traditional bargaining structure remain intact. All the other austerity measures they agreed to accept. Since then changes to seniority and transfer rules have been pushed through, along with hefty increases in insurance and pension contributions taken out of workers take-home pay and an end to third-party grievance procedures. Those who would seek the governor’s seat have opposed none of these measures.

The rewriting of popular history provides little background and leaves little room for criticism of the Democratic Party’s own role in initiating these attacks on workers. From the previous Governor’s “furlough days” to the current Governor’s pay and benefits cuts. The energy of the thousands that gathered for the protests was effectively dissipated by its’ own deference to the orators of bourgeois reformism. While the unions did not oppose the concessions, the absence of the union in the workplace has given credence to the general feeling that nothing can be done to oppose the capitalists of the state administration.

Democrats and Unions Against the Workers

The official position of the unions from the start, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), was to have no strikes, or strike talk, from the union locals. The regional union umbrella group the South Central Federation of Labor did vote to give the go-ahead to a statewide strike but this was a token resolution while the real power lay with the international union headquarters and the Democratic Party circus. Many workers were more than willing to do this bare minimum in defending their immediate interests and didn’t want to take another trouncing. Doctors from the UW Hospital came out to sign sick notes for workers who had walked out and have since been facing sanctions for their actions. Unsurprisingly, given the statements of the Democratic Party candidates, it looks as if the austerity measures signed into law will not be decisively reversed by any incoming Democratic Party administration and union recognition and bargaining agreements could hinge directly on which party occupied the Governors’ Mansion. This state of affairs would be convenient for the politicians of the Democrat’s ruling fraction, as this would place unions in a more subordinate position.

The main reason the state workers unions achieved any limited collective bargaining recognition from the state was because of the 1972 Federal Postal Workers strike. Across the US many of the clerical and blue-collar workers unions that had existed since the 1930s achieved this limited recognition from the state in the interests of maintaining capitalist order. The agreement contained in it a ‘no strike’ clause in exchange for ‘collective bargaining’ with the state government as an employer.

This is not to say that public workers did not take action in all that time, usually it meant the total isolation of any strike move as it began to break out. In such circumstances waves of “blue flu” occasionally occur. The Madison teachers began with a strike for recognition back in 1976 and were for many years a union body independent of the AFL-CIO. This changed in the years immediately prior to the protests when they finally allowed the American Federation of Teachers to swallow them. Of the three teachers strikes in Wisconsin in the 1970s, the 1977 Racine Teachers strike and the Hortonville teachers strike 1974 were both deeply isolated and bitter. The growth of the teachers unions at the time was the product of a good deal of militant sentiment among workers and was successfully channeled through the unions and into the Democratic Party.

A Class on the Retreat?

The conflict between the default control mechanism of social protest and the desire to fight on the part of workers was definitely present. The pall of the old left hangs over social protest in the hostility towards all political organizations other than the Democratic Party. The bourgeoisie gets to have its political organizations but if workers try to form their own revolutionary organizations that would be somehow “totalitarian”. Given the political environment where anti-communism is still the common political denominator. Everything that is the opposite of anything “socialist” is the highest virtue. The ghost of Communism still haunts the bourgeoisie in its overly conspicuous political absence. The use of American flags to show that one isn’t “anti-American”, the talk about a “middle class” instead of talking about a working class, the use of phrases like “the 1%” to describe the capitalist class, reducing the common situation in which workers find themselves to a patronizing folksy neo-reformism. It is ironic that Governor Walker threatened to call out the National Guard if state workers went on strike as the Democratic loyal opposition had already pacified them.

Crushing American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees in its birthplace, where AFSCME Local 1 was founded, was meant as a powerful message to workers that all ‘resistance is futile’. Large sections of the capitalist media painted this state-workers version of Woodstock as if the Bolsheviks were storming the State Capitol building itself. A handful of incidents involving minor damage and wear and tear were blown out of all proportion to make it wrongly appear as though there was actual violence occurring. The hostility towards the state workers was pretty evident when religious fundamentalists and handfuls of Tea Partiers came down to deliberately provoke fights, walking up to people and insulting them. The fact that the protests had gone on for a week, where the numbers of protesters were from 80,000 to 120,000 before the national capitalist media was reluctantly forced to take notice.

For any capitalist enterprise in the wealthy imperialist power centers the dominant mode of thought in controlling labor costs has increasingly focused on what is termed “legacy costs”, that is to say having to pay the pensions and benefits the employers agreed to pay. Bankruptcy is one of the standard ways of achieving this in any enterprise from the State of California to General Motors. In Wisconsin it meant a massive cut in take home pay as the employee “contribution” to health insurance and retirement benefits was increased dramatically. The lowest tiers of the Wisconsin state civil service, the workers earning starting wages from $11.28 to $12.229 USD per hour, were hit the hardest as the increase employee “contributions” was an across the board cut affecting those workers with the least ability to cope with the loss in income.

The passing of the austerity bill, made it such that the union could only bargain on wage increases up to but not beyond the rate of the Consumer Price Index of inflation. Gone was any bargaining over working conditions or anything else. Certification elections for unions were to take place every two years. Most of the unions on the UW Campus decertified themselves and took up side bargaining with the university authorities themselves as the teachers unions took up collective bargaining agreements with the individual public school districts.

A year has passed and most workers have pinned their hopes on a recall election in the belief that it will reverse some of the measures implemented by the state government under the Walker administration. It was the Democratic Party, who gave workers rolling layoffs called “furlough days”. To trust the unions to defend our immediate interests as workers when they were pledged to “no strike” from the start and were willing to give every single concession solely for a seat at the table to participate in the austerity measures was an error of habit for workers who are used to handing over their struggles to one faction of the political representatives of the bourgeoisie or the other and know of no other realistic options for waging their own struggles.

Walker accomplished exactly what the capitalists wanted, a massive reduction in labor costs in the public sector. There is little chance that workers will willingly choose a revolutionary unknown over a reactionary ‘lesser of two evils’ unless there is a strong enough revolutionary voice present. At the protests workers took the first steps in recognizing a need to fight in their interests but could not take the next step in realizing that their interests are diametrically opposed to the capitalist class its political representatives. Revolutionaries can take a first step by organizing territorial workers groups to open a space to build up that revolutionary voice. AS

Sunday, September 30, 2012