As the national assault against the working class in the U.S. increases, most openly evidenced by the orchestrated attacks aimed at destroying public employees’ unions, workers and their unions are challenging these vicious attacks. The most blatant attack, by Republican Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin–who introduced legislation to eliminate the right of public worker unions to bargain collectively–has unleashed a national storm of protest, not only from union members, but from the entire population. Women, students, civil rights organizations, religious leaders have been galvanized into action by this attempt to destroy a right won after decades of struggle.
Nor is Gov. Walker alone. Legislation to eliminate or restrict collective bargaining rights of public employees has been introduced in at least 18 other states, most notably Ohio and Indiana, where similar massive protests are ongoing. The GOP governors of these states claim that labor restrictions are necessary to balance the billions in state budget deficits. The deficits are real, but are used as a smokescreen to attack labor.
These anti-labor measures would gain only a small amount of what states need to meet their fiscal crises, which were not caused by unions or public employees. The banks and Wall Street have recovered nicely, thanks to government bailouts over the last two years, and are paying out billions in bonuses to their executives.
ALL UNION PRINCIPLES UNDERMINED
Meanwhile, corporations relentlessly pursued their cherished goal: to destroy the idea of unionism, which was based on the principles and practice of brother and sisterhood–an injury to one is an injury to all, equality for all and solidarity against a management workers knew to be their exploitative enemy and determined to exercise dictatorial control over them. Every one of these union principles has been undermined with two-tier wage agreements, loss of seniority rights, elimination of job classifications and acceptance of automation that resulted in massive layoffs.
Education is another union battlefield, as well as another key component of Republicans’ reactionary agenda, along with limitless, vicious attacks on women’s rights (see “Vicious attacks on women’s healthcare” this issue). Teachers face loss of tenure and reduction in pay and benefits, and school vouchers for children for charter schools threaten the very existence of public education. Teachers face harassment at work and are retained or fired by students’ test scores rather than overall educational achievement (see “Teachers’ real value” this issue).
There is a growing militancy among teachers in this severe education crisis. In Chicago, the old union leadership, marked by cronyism and concessionary attitudes, was replaced by a rank-and-file caucus which promises to change the culture of the union to accurately represent the needs of the teachers.
Union bureaucrats have contributed much to the negative attitude to unions, due in large part to capitalist media that emphasizes corporate interests over those of workers. Corporations, not just the Koch brothers, spend huge sums for public relations, lobbyists and lawyers with access to newspaper reporters, columnists and commentators like Rush Limbaugh, and Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly of Fox News. Workers and their unions do not have resources to match those billions.
UNION LEADERS PLAYING CATCH-UP
The present mass national outrage against the attacks on public employees has stirred up some union leaders, who are trying to catch up with this outpouring of protests, and are forming various coalitions among themselves and sympathetic community organizations to oppose these attacks. And the burgeoning protests have had an effect, as some reactionary governors have withdrawn or moderated the worst of their draconian legislation and permit collective bargaining.
Much more is needed. While the outcome of the confrontations in Wisconsin and elsewhere is still in doubt, many protesters, and especially union members in cities across Wisconsin, have been inspired by the revolts in Egypt and the Middle East. The clear revolutionary impact on the protesters here is seen in slogans on posters like “Mubarak Walker” and chants that “Cairo is right here!”
This mass protest has the potential of becoming much more than it is today, and was dramatically expressed in a protester’s sign declaring “There is a new world.”