The governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker, has passed a bill to remove the trade union rights of some 175,000 workers in the US.
But the battle against him isn’t over—and the mood among people is defiant and upbeat.
Walker wants to destroy public sector unions, cut public services and open the door to widespread privatisation.
He didn’t intend to spark the greatest working class rebellion in the US in decades. But that’s exactly what he did.
From small hamlets on the shores of Lake Superior, to high school campuses in affluent suburbs, to firehouses and school classrooms, people have been organising. The working class in this Midwestern “rust belt” state has stood up.
Daily marches by firefighters in full gear have become commonplace in the state capital city of Madison. A three-week round-the-clock occupation of the state capitol building kept passions high.
Strikes by public sector workers are illegal in the state, but so many teachers called in sick at different times that whole school districts closed.
Madison teachers stayed out for four full days.
A “tractorcade” of smaller farmers opened up the largest demonstration in the state’s history on 12 March, three days after Walker passed his bill.
An estimated 150,000 workers poured into Madison.
The legislation prohibits collective bargaining for most public employees, requires an annual re‑certification vote for all public sector unions and prohibits payroll deductions for union dues.
The intention is clear—to destroy the power of workers at the base and severely compromise the role organised labour can play in elections and in promoting progressive social legislation.
The attacks are part of a national agenda to privatise public institutions and destroy the unions.
Governors elsewhere are watching closely. The Democratic Party has historically sided with unions on the need to protect collective bargaining.
But the incessant teacher-bashing of Barack Obama’s secretary of education, Arne Duncan, and the “Democrats for Education Reform” laid the groundwork for these anti-worker proposals.
Walker’s legislation passed despite 14 Democratic senators leaving the state to prevent a quorum meeting.
It’s not clear how soon the legislation will become law. Several court suits are contesting the legality of the process by which the law was adopted. However, activists know that the courts will not find in workers’ favour.
People are debating a variety of tactics and strategies. The Southern Wisconsin Labor Council, which includes Madison, has been investigating the feasibility of a general strike. But with only 7 percent of private sector workers in the state unionised, that is a daunting task.
Firefighters and others have started a boycott of the M&I bank for its support of Walker. Many people are circulating recall papers in an attempt to unseat several Republican senators and force new elections.
People are mobilising for several important elections on 5 April and organising to fight the impending budget cuts.
People’s energies are not just going to be channeled into supporting the Democratic Party’s electoral strategy. Their creative energies have been unleashed and they’ve seen the power of being in the streets.
The slogans “tax the rich” and “stop the corporate takeover of Wisconsin” have become commonplace, and that political perspective is not common among the mainstream Democratic Party.
The struggle will be won politically through a variety of strategies—at the ballot box, in the streets, through boycotts, workplace actions, and direct action. The unions, school students and political activists continue to organise daily rallies, pickets, political gatherings and other actions.
“We might have lost the first battle,” said one high school teacher. “But we are going to win the war—the class war.”
Bob Peterson is a teacher in Milwaukee and editor of Rethinking Schools. Go to www.rethinkingschools.org