From the Belly of the Beast: Wisconsin protest: sign of things to come

The largest demonstration against Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s drive to smash public workers’ unions happened soon after he and Republican legislators illegally pushed through legislation that virtually outlaws collective bargaining by these unions.

On March 12, more than 100,000 rallied in the cold and snow in the state capital, Madison, against the coup. Public workers were joined by those in the private sector. There was a long caravan of tractors driven by family farmers who saw the workers’ struggle as part of their own.

Even worse in Michigan

Smaller, but still significant demonstrations of thousands, have occurred in other states in the Midwest against similar laws. One of these, of more than 10,000, was held in Lansing, Michigan, the state capital, on March 16 against a draconian law passed that day. The Michigan law goes further than the Wisconsin one. It gives new emergency powers to unelected managers appointed by the governor when he or she decides local municipalities or school districts are in “financial trouble”. Since 1990, the governor has had the power to appoint such managers, and the cities of Benton Harbor, Pontiac and Ecorse are under such control, as are the Detroit public schools. Each city is majority African American.

The manager of the Detroit schools, Robert Bobb, has fired security guards, closed dozens of schools, spent thousands of dollars on crony “consultants” and threatened to raise class sizes to 60 children. The elected Detroit school board sued him and won some redress in court. The new law is designed to squash any such resistance throughout the state.

It exempts managers from being sued, and voids a rule that provided for mandatory continuation of an expired union contract and binding arbitration if negotiations fail. It gives the managers the power to “modify or terminate” union contracts at their “sole discretion and judgment”.

Unions’ existence at stake

In Wisconsin, there had been a stand-off for weeks as thousands of public workers engaged in continuous street demonstrations and raucous occupations of the public section of the state Capitol building. Under this mass pressure, the Democratic state senators fled the state, preventing a quorum needed to pass the new law. They had to leave the jurisdiction of the state because the governor ordered the elite state troopers to hunt them down and physically drag them into the legislative chamber.

The Republicans then staged a manoeuvre, passing the anti-union legislation without the budget provisions attached to it, with no notice and behind closed doors. They claimed they did not need a quorum to do this because the bill now wasn’t part of the budget. A judge has temporarily blocked implementation of the bill, because there is a state law that all such votes have to be made in sessions open to the public.

The public worker unions involved had already capitulated to the governor’s demands to slash their wages. What caused them to fight was the law’s virtual smashing of collective bargaining, that is, the reason for the unions’ existence. The Democrats rely heavily on funding from the public workers unions, and so they had a stake in preserving their existence. The unexpected massive response of the workers, including many private sector workers who joined the actions, also gave the Democrats a political opening.

The energy of the workers’ resistance has now been channelled into efforts to recall some of the Republican state senators. Petitions are being circulated to this effect. This is a positive development, which, if successful, will force the Democrats to repeal the bill and encourage working people. It will also have the effect of refurbishing the Democrats’ image, which is not positive.

Capitalist austerity drive

While the Republicans in a series of states are launching direct attacks on the very existence of public workers unions, the Democrats are waging a more subtle attack. Democratic governors Brown in California and Cuomo in New York are proposing cutbacks in real wages of public workers and big lay-offs. California and New York are big states with major public workers unions. The union tops are going along with this “shared sacrifice”.

At the federal level, some money from the “stimulus” bill went to the states to stave off lay-offs of teachers and other public workers. That money is gone, and the lay-offs are accelerating. The attacks on public workers are part of a broader attack on the social wage. Education is one of the primary targets of the capitalist offensive. Part of this attack is ideological, picturing public workers as the cause of budget problems from the federal government on down. Teachers are being blamed for the deterioration of education. Public schools are under attack, as part of a drive to increase the scope of private schools. At the same time, there is a massive public relations campaign in the capitalist media against taxing the rich.

The ruling class here as well as in Europe and elsewhere is embarked on an “austerity” drive to make the working people bear the brunt of the massive economic crisis of the capitalist system.

Measured by gross domestic product (GDP), the downward slide that began at the end of 2007 began to reverse in mid-2009. GDP has risen slowly from its lows. But we are clearly in a stage where recoveries are shallower and downturns deeper.

Wages slashed

Robert Reich, economist and former labour secretary under Clinton, is a moderate Keynesian, certainly no Marxist. But he made some observations in an article in the San Francisco Chronicle on March 13. “The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports 192,000 new jobs in February (220,000 new jobs in the private sector and a decline in government employment), and a drop in the overall unemployment rate from 9 to 8.9 percent”, he wrote.

“It looks as if we’re heading in the right direction. But the progress is far too slow to make a real dent in unemployment. To get the unemployment rate down to 6 percent by 2014, we’d need more than 300,000 new jobs a month, every month, between now and then. In some ways, we are just treading water. The number of unemployed Americans - 13.7 million - is about the same as it was in January. The number working part time who would rather be working full time - 8.9 million - is also about the same.

“In other ways, we’re going backward. Millions of jobless Americans are no longer on the radar screen because they’ve stopped looking for work. The percent of the total workforce either in jobs or actively looking is at its lowest point in 25 years …

“But here’s the big story, and it’s especially worrying: Most of the jobs we’ve gained pay less than the jobs we’ve lost. An analysis from the National Employment Law Project shows that the jobs created since February 1010 (about 1.26 million) pay, on average, significantly lower wages than the 8.4 million jobs lost between January 2008 and February 2010. The biggest losses during the Great Recession were jobs paying $19.05 to $31.40 an hour. By contrast, the biggest gains over the past year have been jobs paying an average of $9.03 to $12.91 an hour.” (These figures are for “gross” wages, before taxes and other deductions.)

Reich also notes: “Employers have been demanding wage and benefit concessions from their unionized workers and usually getting them. Detroit is creating auto jobs again - but new hires are getting about half the pay that autoworkers were getting before. Airline workers are taking home 30 to 50% less than they did years ago. And so on.

“Conservatives say it’s not enough. That’s why unions have to be busted - and why some governors are seeking to abolish laws requiring workers to become dues-paying union members in order to get certain jobs. Hence the confrontations over the future of labor unions, especially in Midwestern states with Republican governors.

“Millions of nonunion workers have also had to accept cuts in pay and benefits just to keep their jobs. Their health benefits have been slashed, their employer pension contributions dramatically cut, and their wages reduced or frozen.

“Millions of other private-sector workers have been fired and then rehired as contract workers to do almost exactly what they were doing before, but now without any benefits or job security. The attack on public-sector workers should be seen in this light. The change is that they now take home more generous pay and benefit packages than private-sector workers. It’s not true on the wage side if you control for the level of education, but it wasn’t even true on the benefits side until private-sector benefits fell off a cliff …

“At this rate, America’s unemployment rate will continue to decline. But so will the pay and benefits of most Americans.”

Growing anger

Reich doesn’t take into account what will happen when the next downturn occurs, which it will. But the picture he paints of the current reality explains the outburst of worker militancy against the over-the-top attacks on public workers in Wisconsin and other states. There is very deep fear and anger in the working class in both the public and private sectors. When, for their own reasons, the labour bureaucrats called for protest in Wisconsin, this fear and anger exploded in mass action.

There is no hope for a general counter-offensive being organised by the union bureaucracy heads. They have totally bought into the idea that the workers must sacrifice to keep up capitalist profits as the way out of the crisis. They may be forced to take sporadic action here or there, but they fear their own rank and file mobilising, for they might be swept away in the storm and lose their bloated salaries, which have enabled many of them to become part of the bourgeoisie.

But Wisconsin showed the potential bubbling below the surface. We can expect further eruptions. When or in what sectors, we can’t predict. Now is the time for socialists and other labour fighters to build networks of activists, to exchange experiences, to get to know each other across the divides of public-private sectors, union and trade jurisdictions, of race and nationality, of men and women, of employed and unemployed. We can do this now, starting small, in the thousands, so we can begin to intervene in the struggles to come as an emerging coherent force.