When I moved to Madison, Wisconsin four years ago, I didn’t dream that it would become the site of a rebirth of the US labour movement. But since February that is what has happened.
Wisconsin voted for Obama in 2008. But last November, with unemployment still high and disillusionment with the White House’s pro-corporate policies widespread, many Democrats stayed home, allowing Republican Scott Walker to become governor. Walker ran a low-key campaign, but after his inauguration he unleashed a radical right wing agenda. Using the excuse of a $137 million shortfall in the budget, he unveiled a bill that imposed substantial healthcare and pension cuts on public sector workers, and also stripped them of most of their collective bargaining rights.
Only 7.6 percent of private sector workers are unionised in the US, but in the public sector the proportion is almost 37 percent. So Republicans have taken aim at public sector unions – which also provide Democrats with much of their local and state funding. Walker’s attack is part of an orchestrated national strategy by the right. His biggest backers are the billionaire Koch brothers, who have also given millions to the Tea Party.
The attack on unions touched a raw nerve of class anger. Thousands of workers descended on the State Capitol, joined by thousands of students and unionised teaching assistants. Teachers from around the state staged three- and four-day “sick outs” to join the demonstrations, which won strong support from private sector unions too. Uniformed firefighters joined the protest, as did even prison guards and cops.
Protesters occupied the Capitol building for over two weeks. Rallies took place twice a day, with the biggest drawing over 100,000 people (the city’s population is only about twice that). The struggle inspired the country, with solidarity rallies in every state.
The huge and militant response led all 14 Democrats in the Wisconsin Senate to leave the state, depriving Republicans of a quorum necessary to pass Walker’s bill. For nearly three weeks the legislature was gridlocked. Activists began talking about a general strike and pointed out that the budget deficit would disappear if taxes were raised on corporations and the rich. But after the teachers returned to work, union leaders were unwilling to call more actions. Instead, most said they would accept the economic concessions in Walker’s bill in exchange for the preservation of collective bargaining.
Walker slowly made access to the Capitol more difficult. Rallies continued outside, but on 9 March the Senate detached the anti-union sections from the rest of the bill and voted to pass them without the Democrats present. The result was a huge and spontaneous outburst of anger. Several thousand of us retook the Capitol in the early evening, climbing through windows and pushing past cops.
The mood was electric, and the many teachers at the occupation waited for word from their union to walk off the job again the next day. If that had happened, other workers might have joined them. But instead union leaders urged their members to go to work. As a result, organised labour was absent from the Capitol the next morning. The occupation delayed the state assembly from voting for several hours, but the cops eventually cleared people out and the bill passed there too. Walker signed it the following day. This is a significant defeat.
But the war is far from over. The day after the bill was signed saw the biggest demonstration yet, of up to 150,000 people. The unions have launched recall campaigns against eight Republican senators, several of which are likely to succeed. Walker himself may well be recalled next year. But replacing Republicans with Democrats won’t be enough.
The Democrats don’t want to destroy the unions – they want to co-opt them to push through their own austerity plans. What is needed is a mobilisation from below to fight cutbacks proposed by either party. The struggle has already made that kind of movement more likely. For decades there has been a one-sided class war in the US. Now our side is fighting back.
Phil Gasper is a member of the International Socialist Organisation in Madison
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