From Workers Vanguard No. 975, 4 March 2011
No Illusions in Democratic Party!
Wisconsin Showdown Over Union Rights
On February 26, some 100,000 pro-union demonstrators flooded the streets of Madison, Wisconsin, following nearly two weeks of protests against Republican governor Scott Walker’s proposed union-busting bill, which would strip public employees of most of their collective bargaining rights. The massive demonstrations began on Valentine’s Day, when over 1,000 workers and University of Wisconsin students occupied the state Capitol building rotunda. They flooded into the lawmakers’ chambers, with hundreds camping at the Capitol every night since. This action sparked the teachers unions to organize sick-outs, causing schools to close across the state. Sensing a draconian threat to their livelihoods and rights, tens of thousands of unionists and their families as well as students and other supporters have flocked to Madison on a daily basis demanding, “Kill the Bill!”
It is in the vital interest of the entire labor movement to defend Wisconsin’s public employee unions and spike the union-busting “budget repair bill.” This deadly law would eliminate public sector collective bargaining on any issue besides wages, limit raises to no more than cost-of-living increases, and require public sector unions to endure mandatory annual recertification votes that would threaten the very existence of these unions. Under the bill, employee payroll deductions for health care would be dramatically increased. Workers would be required to pay 50 percent of the contributions to the pension fund, resulting in a pay cut of 5 to 12 percent. Walker, a Republican of the reactionary Tea Party ilk, has threatened to start laying off 12,000 workers beginning this week if his bill does not pass.
“It’s about the assault on labor, an assault on the working human being; to take and throw away the contract and say it’s balancing the budget is bull crap,” said a member of Wisconsin’s American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). In short order, Scott Walker confirmed this observation. Believing, gullibly, that he was in a phone conversation with right-wing billionaire and Tea Party backer David Koch, Walker confessed to having considered planting troublemakers among the pro-union demonstrators while praising Ronald Reagan’s 1981 smashing of the PATCO air traffic controllers strike and destruction of the union; Walker said that this was “our” PATCO “moment.” Indeed, the impact of such legislation is demonstrated in Indiana, where all collective bargaining for public unions was banned six years ago. Since that time, as the governor of that state brags, union membership for state workers has nose-dived by 90 percent.
There will either be class struggle or defeat. In his phone call with the ersatz David Koch, Governor Walker articulated a strategy of simply letting the protests play out. What is needed is hard class struggle to defeat this union-busting attack. The massive, hugely popular Madison protests show that there is widespread outrage over the savage cutbacks and that workers are ready to fight.
On February 21, the South Central Federation of Labor (SCFL), composed of delegates from 97 public and private sector union locals representing 45,000 workers in Madison and southern Wisconsin, unanimously passed a motion stating: “The SCFL endorses a general strike, possibly for the day Walker signs his ‘budget repair bill’.” In another motion, SCFL rejected any bargaining concessions on wages, benefits and union rights. At the same time, SCFL president Jim Cavanaugh was quick to explain that the group’s support for a “general strike” was just advisory: “We’re just a support organization, and the actual local unions would have to decide if they wanted to escalate things to the point of a strike.” Recommendations will not do the trick. The Wisconsin labor movement needs to prepare for statewide strike action if this attempt to gut the unions is to be defeated.
But the Wisconsin public union tops have centered their whole strategy on pressuring the capitalist politicians to “compromise” by merely deleting the portions of Walker’s bill that gut their collective bargaining rights. Blathering about the need to “share the sacrifice,” these labor lieutenants of capital have pledged their support to all the wage and benefit givebacks Walker wants to wring from the unions. On February 21, the teachers union bureaucracy called off the school sick-outs—themselves a weak form of protest that sets individual teachers up for victimization.
It is necessary to defend each and every gain that the labor movement has won—from wages and benefits to pensions to the right for unions to exist. But that cannot be done by playing by the bosses’ rules. Beginning with the very right to form unions, all the major gains that labor has wrested from the bosses in the past century were once themselves “illegal” by the norms of bourgeois “law and order.” The class-struggle methods through which our rights were won—from massive picket lines to factory occupations to hot-cargoing struck goods—were also “illegal,” and are today! Hard-fought strikes galvanize the rest of the labor movement and, when victorious, tear up the bosses’ anti-strike laws and injunctions.
With similar restrictions and cuts against labor on the legislative agenda in many states (see article, page 1), the showdown in Wisconsin—the first state to legalize public sector unions, in the 1950s—has riveted the attention of workers nationally and internationally. In the U.S., private sector unions have mobilized in force alongside public sector workers around the Midwest. From New Jersey to Oklahoma and elsewhere, labor has rallied against similar anti-union legislation. In Columbus, Ohio, over 5,000 trade-union demonstrators filled Capitol Square.
With the global economic crisis grinding down working people and the oppressed throughout the world, mobilizations against exploitation and oppression quickly resound. Many in Wisconsin have identified their struggles with those of the working masses of Egypt, with some carrying signs denouncing Walker as a Mubarak-type dictator. In turn, messages of solidarity have been sent to Wisconsin from Egyptian workers and activists.
In Wisconsin, Democratic Party politicians have heavily promoted the protests to burnish their image as “friends of labor” in Midwest swing states. Fourteen Democratic state senators fled across the border to Illinois in a maneuver to deprive Walker of a quorum to ram the bill through the Republican-controlled state legislature. President Barack Obama has claimed to sympathize with public workers, asserting that it would be wrong “to vilify them or to suggest that somehow all these budget problems are due to public employees.” That takes a lot of chutzpah from an imperialist Commander-in-Chief whose assaults on the United Auto Workers, relentless attacks on teachers unions, and two-year wage freeze on federal employees have set the stage for the current round of state and local attacks on public sector unions.
In distributing Workers Vanguard to the Madison protesters, our comrades have warned against any illusions in the Democrats. No less than the Republicans, the Democratic Party is a capitalist party and the class enemy of workers, black people, immigrants and the oppressed. While the Tea Party reactionaries want to smash the unions outright in order to extract the maximum concessions, the Democrats pretend to be “friends” of labor to better hoodwink the workers and maintain labor “peace,” while extracting the same economic concessions.
The union tops—a component of the Democratic Party—are fully committed to the system of capitalist exploitation. In the private sector, these types have for decades agreed to the savage cutbacks of wages and benefits and the job-slashing attacks deemed by the bosses to be vital to the health of corporate America. This class collaboration has fueled the steep decline of the once-powerful industrial unions, which were built in the giant class battles of the 1930s. Now public sector unions face the same attacks along with the threat of a nationwide spate of “right to work” legislation to assure the withering of their union membership. In short, the union bureaucracy’s subordination of the class struggle to the dictates of the bosses has set the stage for those forces on the right that seek the destruction of public sector unions.
The union tops are fond of portraying labor struggles as a fight to maintain the “middle class,” thus obscuring the class divide in this country. In turn, the Tea Party types portray their struggle as a fight to maintain the middle class against encroachments of the labor movement. In reality, what is at issue is the inherent class conflict of workers against their capitalist exploiters.
Walker’s bill exempts firefighters and cops from the cutbacks, supposedly in the interest of public safety. Firemen, who have joined the demonstrations at the Capitol, are workers whose job it is to save lives and prevent destruction. The cops and prison guards are not workers. They are the hired thugs of the capitalist rulers, front-line enforcers of the racist capitalist “justice” system. Marxists understand that far from being “neutral,” the capitalist state is at bottom nothing more than an apparatus of violence—the cops, army, courts and prisons—for enforcing the bosses’ class rule. This is no mystery to the bourgeois politician Walker, who has threatened to call out the National Guard to quell militant labor action. But the public sector unions like AFSCME have recruited cops and prison guards, deadly enemies of the working class, into the unions by the tens of thousands. Cops, prison guards out of the trade-union movement!
In channeling the workers’ anger into the dead end of bourgeois pressure politics, the union bureaucrats are aided by a host of reformist “socialist” outfits. Groups like the International Socialist Organization (ISO), Socialist Alternative (SAlt) and the Party for Socialism and Liberation have uncritically cheered the Madison protests while upholding the losing strategy of pressuring the Democrats to “fight the right” and “tax the rich” to balance the budget. In a February 19 statement on its Web site, SAlt cravenly wrote, “We can’t rely on the Democratic Party to maintain a principled stand unless they feel the fire of the movement spreading underneath them. After all, would the Senate Democrats have even taken their stand if the working people of Wisconsin hadn’t risen up in the first place?” For the ISO, the demonstrations have “transformed U.S. politics in a way that won’t disappear, whatever happens with Walker’s legislation.” Or as Jesse Jackson put it in addressing a crowd at the state Capitol, “This is a Martin Luther King moment, this is a Gandhi moment.” The continuing miseries of black Americans and of the Indian masses show that this is not the way forward.
Labor needs a fighting leadership that will break the chains that tie the unions to the capitalist Democrats—a class-struggle leadership that understands that the whole capitalist system of racism, war and exploitation must be thrown on the garbage heap of history. This is part of the struggle to build a revolutionary workers party that fights for a workers government and for a socialist egalitarian society in which those who labor will rule. Speaking of the victorious 1934 Minneapolis Teamsters strikes, which were key to establishing the Teamsters as an industrial union, Trotskyist leader James P. Cannon noted in The History of American Trotskyism (1944):
“Our people didn’t believe in anybody or anything but the policy of the class struggle and the ability of the workers to prevail by their mass strength and solidarity. Consequently, they expected from the start that the union would have to fight for its right to exist; that the bosses would not yield any recognition to the union, would not yield any increase of wages or reduction of the scandalous hours without some pressure being brought to bear. Therefore they prepared everything from the point of view of class war. They knew that power, not diplomacy, would decide the issue. Bluffs don’t work in fundamental things, only in incidental ones. In such things as the conflict of class interests one must be prepared to fight.”