After more than three weeks of protest, Wisconsin Republicans finally found a way to push through their draconian labor bill stripping public workers of collective bargaining rights. Governor Scott Walker falsely claimed collective bargaining had to end for budget reasons. Everyone knew this was a lie. Walker proved us right tonight when he separated the bargaining issues from the budget because the finance bill requires a larger quorum to bring to a vote. Walker and his legislative henchmen know no boundaries in their declaration of class war upon Wisconsin workers.
Never mind the vote’s questionable legality due to laws requiring a 24-hour notice before voting on bills before a conference committee. Walker is determined to crush labor by any means necessary. If this move doesn’t work, he will resort to another deception. In any case, unions will take the law to court immediately so Walker hasn’t won yet.
Wisconsin workers have reacted with fury. People are streaming to the capitol building in Madison, demanding the restoration of democratic rights. As I write, Wisconsin high school students are organizing a walk-out for tomorrow and Friday. I’d be shocked if most university professors didn’t cancel tomorrow’s classes. Events are evolving by the minute.
Workers have a clear path of action–strike. We don’t see too many strikes in the United States anymore. Declining public support for labor has made striking a risky and unpopular option.
But Wisconsin Republicans declaring open warfare upon worker rights has created considerable popular sympathy for their plight. Walker’s approval ratings have plummeted; most observers have declared that he has two feet in his political grave. People around the nation and world have shown an outpouring of support for the embattled Wisconsin workers.
Even if this sympathy didn’t exist, Wisconsin workers have few good options other than striking. If not now, when? This is when workers have to lay everything on the line. Let teachers and the entire apparatus of state government stop working. Wisconsin will cease to function. Walker may threaten to fire everyone, but where are the replacements coming from?
Union leaders are already telling their members to stay home from work tomorrow; by the morning I’d be surprised to see more than a handful of state employees on the job. Emergency rallies are already scheduled across the state. And workers have to hold out as long as necessary. I don’t know what kind of strike fund the unions have set up but people from around the nation will gladly give a few dollars to support workers if they miss a paycheck.
On the other hand, some of the unions need a push, even now. The Wisconsin Education Association, the state branch of the National Education Association, sent a notice to their workers telling them to report to work tomorrow. This reinforces why Republicans feel they can kick workers around at will. On the day teachers have lost collective bargaining rights, instead of calling for a strike, the WEA wants teachers to come to work like nothing has happened. We’ll have to wait until tomorrow morning before we know what teachers will do.
Moreover, I would like to see Wisconsin’s still relatively robust private sector unions walk out in a sympathy strike. The odious Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 made sympathy strikes usually illegal; a 1985 National Labor Relations Board decision expanded this prohibition significantly. Taft-Hartley began the process that culminated tonight in Madison—the corporate repeal of labor rights gained during the New Deal and World War II. Designed to undercut radicalism and mass collective action by organized labor, Taft-Hartley has weakened labor for sixty years and emboldened conservatives to begin the long process of marginalizing unions.
So sympathy strikes might be illegal. But at this point, what do workers have to lose? The nation is rapidly heading toward the outlawing of labor unions. This is the last stand for American labor. Workers need to lay everything on the line here or their union is next. Plus, given Walker’s blatant illegality in passing this legislation, what good reasons do workers have to follow the law, so long they remain peaceful and respectful of law enforcement officers?
I also call for massive nonviolent resistance. Labor must deploy every move in their playbook. It is time to occupy Republican offices around the state and the nation. Sit-down strikes. Blocking streets. Business in Wisconsin must end until this law is repealed.
If this seems too radical, I ask, what would you suggest? Unions have lost almost every battle they’ve fought for over sixty years. Today, the rights of working and middle-class people have eroded to levels not seen since before World War II. The Republican Party seeks to return this nation to the hell of the late nineteenth century. If this is not the time for radical action, when would be more appropriate?
No one can predict was will happen in the next day or week. But there are clear political landmarks ahead. The eight Wisconsin Republicans currently eligible for recall will soon find themselves fighting for their political lives. Walker faces recall next January, after he has held office for one year.
More immediately, Wisconsin has a state Supreme Court election on April 5. This partisan race will certainly become the most expensive court race in American history and will go a long way to deciding the ultimate fate of collective bargaining in Wisconsin. If the Democratic candidate JoAnn Kloppenberg wins, that’s an excellent sign that the Republicans are about to be swept out of power in Wisconsin. If the Republican David Prosser prevails, it will suggest that Democrats have already lost momentum and that unions face a dire future in this county.
This is one of the ten most important moments in the history of American labor. If Wisconsin workers lose this battle, Republicans around the nation will destroy public sector unions. Such a result will marginalize working-class voices and send the labor movement to the brink of irrelevancy. A win and a reenergized labor movement may emerge. A loss and the American labor movement is dead.