Taking Back Our Labor: Wisconsin and the Crisis of American Capitalism

Dale Parsons

In the wake of the economic crisis, capital has launched an unprecedented attack on the living standards of the working people.  The Wisconsin protests show the way forward, if we can draw their true lessons with regard to the labor bureaucracy and the Democratic Party – Editors

Vicious attacks on the U.S. working class have escalated during the Great Recession.  As seen in both Wisconsin and the recent Chicago teacher’s strike, these attacks have also begun to touch off some large-scale and militant responses.

Trying to perform even a cursory summation of all the current attacks on the so-called 99% is extremely difficult given that the attacks are so numerous and would be incomplete unless posited in the context of “global” capitalism.. (We note, however, that the term 99%, popularized by the Occupy movement, is imprecise, as it includes many non-working class groups, even highly paid professionals and corporate managers.)

The recently concluded Chicago Teachers’ Strike exposed the attacks on education and how both Democrats and Republicans attack education and unions. I think the reason for the Chicago Teachers Strike is best articulated by a special education teacher, Katie Osgood; “When the teachers of Chicago rise up, they are not defending politics or ideology, they are speaking for actual human beings. They are crying out for the child who could not get appropriate special education services due to lack of staff. They are speaking for the many kids being punished, held back, treated like failures by the cruel standardized tests. They are saying ‘no’ to the truly outrageous class sizes which prevent too many of their most fragile students from getting that individualized attention they deserve. They are begging the district to hire more of the support staff like social workers, nurses, and counselors their students desperately need. They are exposing a system that views students who struggle as liabilities and schools as places of cutthroat competition.” (link)

At the same time that the Chicago teachers are fighting for better education, education as the pathway toward the attainment of highly skilled jobs has become a cruel hoax. Back in the day, college education used to be cheap, and in a lot of situations free, but not now. Recently, the student loan debt surpassed a trillion dollars. College graduates are saddled with student loan debts of 25 to 50 thousand dollars. Instead of starting families and buying houses, they have to move in with their parents and work off their debt, that is, if they can find a job. For a lot of students who can’t find a job, their student loan debt will last their entire lives, thanks to new bankruptcy laws, which prevent student loans from being settled through bankruptcy court. All of this dramatically effects the housing industry, because traditionally, older folks sell their houses to graduates and then move on to buy newer or more age appropriate housing, not anymore.

To further complete the attacks on the working class, elements of the ruling classes would like to eliminate the last remnants of social entitlement programs, i.e., social security and Medicare. I want to emphasize again that all of these attacks are aided by our mis-representatives in congress, by presidents, the courts, and their cheerleaders in the mainstream media, the most notable standout for dishonorable mention being Thomas Friedman at the New York Times.

What Is to Be Done?

While there are plenty of reasons to harbor resentment and contempt for the ruling class, the International Marxist-Humanists main argument (see Peter Hudis, “From the Economic Crisis to the Transcendence of Capital” ) is that blaming “greedy capitalists” for the present crisis is completely misguided, misleading, and counterproductive… And we will continue to deflect attention from the inhumanity of capital itself so long as the focus is on such epiphenomenal factors as greedy capitalists instead of the structural contradictions of the global capitalist system.

In response to these conditions, some of the most promising social movements in decades have arisen, from the protests of the indignados in Spain, to the strikes by workers and students in Greece, to the Occupy Wall Street Movement in the U.S. These popular movements have made an enormous contribution in highlighting the pervasive inequality and alienation that characterizes modern capitalism. Many in these struggles are searching for ideas and perspectives that can make sense of these realities and help take their struggle to the next level. The battle of ideas inside these movements is in some respects just beginning. I think it is worth mentioning at this point that some groups around the country within the Occupy movement are conducting teach-ins on various topics, in some cases on Marx’s “Capital”.

As comprehensive and total as the attacks on the working class have been, this does not mean that they face a situation in which resistance to today’s drive for austerity is essentially futile. First, the legacy of sustained, combative resistance even in a relatively small country or locale can have a tremendous impact in stimulating social mobilization on a broad scale, thereby leading to a direct assault on global capital. Second, at specific moments it is possible for masses of people to impose checks on the rapacious demands of capital, at least in the short term. Social unrest and mobilization can force the powers that be to temporarily retreat as the populace insists that more social wealth be devoted to labor and individual consumption—even if that is at odds with capitalism’s law of motion. The logic of capital is never completely homologous or harmonious with its historical manifestations at particular moments.

It Started in Wisconsin

Proof of what was just stated above is seen in the Wisconsin labor protests.

Wisconsin is often accused of having a dual personality, because Wisconsin is the birthplace of Joe McCarthy and governed by Scott Walker. But Wisconsin has a long and rich history of progressive politics that current progressive Wisconsinites argue far outweighs any conservative influences. Progressive reforms, e.g. worker’s compensation, the minimum wage and social security can trace their origins back to Wisconsin.

The recent protests in Wisconsin in response to Governor Walkers  “Budget Repair Bill” with its central focus on severely limiting collective bargaining rights for public sector workers (link) saw mass protests from thousands to tens of thousands to a 125,000 in Madison in mid-March 2011.  A half-century earlier, in 1959, Wisconsin became the first state in the United States to provide collective bargaining rights to public employees. Governor Walker thought he could exploit the long history of animosity between private and public sector workers with a divide and conquer strategy, but when the cops and fire fighters came out in support of the protestors, that ended that delusion (link).

The protests centered on theWisconsin State Capitol in Madison, with satellite protests also occurring at other municipalities throughout the state. The intersectionality of the protestors was remarkable and saw professors protesting alongside construction workers, African-American and Latino/a high school students rallying with 80-year-old white farmers. University of Wisconsin faculty pledged solidarity with state workers across the system, the elementary and high school teachers, corrections officers and nurses. One of the most active participating groups was the “Teaching Assistant Association” and was involved in every phase of the protests. Factories have almost completely disappeared, taking the private sector union workers with them, but educators, social services sector workers, along with the wider public, stepped in to fill the void.

In larger Wisconsin cities a very welcome new kind of solidarity emerged on May Day. May Day 2011 became “Immigrants Rights Day,” as turnouts were larger than at any May Day since the 1940’s. The estimated 100,000 participants in the Milwaukee May Day/Immigrant Rights Day 2011 had to be the largest labor turnout in the state in recent memory, it was reported, just below the 125,000 in mid-March 2011.

The Wisconsin protests and the recall of Governor Walker were defeated in the end. Walker’s divide and conquer strategy didn’t work, but according to the labor writer Mike Elk, he may have been aided in that strategy by at least two of the unions.

Labor journalist Mike Elk makes some good points in his “On ‘Left Anti-Unionism’ and the Reason We Lost Wisconsin”:

“In the wake of the Wisconsin defeat, there has been far too little concrete criticism of why organized labor lost. The analysis pushed by unions has relied on claiming that Walker outspent his opponent by a margin of 8-to-1. However, the great champion of labor, Paul Wellstone, was outspent 7-to-1 in his first election for Senate right next door in Minnesota, and he still managed to beat an incumbent senator. Strong, organized labor candidates have always been outspent, but they are able to win by harnessing people power the way Wellstone did.”

“At the height of the occupation, when 100,000 protesters were occupying the capitol, polls showed Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett beating Governor Scott Walker 52-45. The key question is how did the movement in Wisconsin lose this people power?”

“Quite simply, union leaders have just not invested their members with that much people power—before or after the Wisconsin recall. In February 2011, two union leaders—Marty Beil, one of AFSCME Wisconsin’s Executive Directors, and Mary Bell of the Wisconsin Education Association Council—agreed to across the board wage cuts averaging $4,400 a year for their members. They did so without even taking a vote from their members. You can argue that agreeing to the concessions was a smart strategic move to win public support for collective bargaining rights, but shouldn’t unions let their own members make that decision? How do unions distinguish themselves from corporate America if they don’t allow their own members to even vote on whether or not to accept a $4,400 wage cut?”

“Once Walker’s bill passed and the drastic wage cuts went into effect, the avenues of protest for union supporters were limited. And by failing to show that they would fight for workers in their day-to-day struggles through direct action, unions lost not just public support, but support from their own membership. After Walker’s anti-union bill went into effect outlawing automatic collection of dues, the majority of AFSCME’s members in Wisconsin chose to leave their union. Membership in AFSCME declined from 62,818 in March 2011 to less than half of that —just 28,745 in February of 2012. A majority of AFSCME members decided not to renew their membership in AFSCME—not exactly a vote of confidence for the union.”

Governor Walker was also aided during his recall election by the betrayal of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), as seen in their lack of support. One of the Republican Super PAC strategies was to proclaim the ridiculous notion that the very notion of “recall” was undemocratic, when the exact opposite is true. The simple fact is that Democrats don’t like the option of recalls either! We learned during the “Paris Commune” of 1871 that the practice of “Immediate Recall” is the most democratic. Obama could have made an appearance as a show of support, as he was after all close by in Chicago. Instead he tweeted, literally at the eleventh hour the night before the election. None of this stopped the DNC from adopting the Wisconsin official motto “Forward” at their convention. (For more information on the Wisconsin protests, see also It Started in Wisconsin, edited by Mari Jo Buhle and Paul Buhle.)

The Wisconsin experience exposed the need for new forms of resistance. The mistakes need to be examined, the most flagrant of which would be the long history of virulent discrimination against African Americans. Perhaps then, a more radical alternative vision of a new society will eventually emerge. Working out an alternative to capitalism is a hard task. It is not something that can be done by one individual or even by one organization. It takes a collective effort of thought, struggle, experience, and discussion. The International Marxist-Humanist Organization sees its role as a catalyst in this needed task that we hope our readers can join us in further developing, as part of our response to today’s endemic crises.

—  Dale Parsons works in construction in the Denver area


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