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Labour in the streets: Democratic uprising or last stand?

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Trade unions are once again at the centre of global social change, for better and worse. If you are a union member, or care about the future of progressive movements -- it's time now to pay attention to what labour is doing, and what is happening to labour.

Trade unionists are a powerful, but only recently visible, force propelling change in the Middle East. In Egypt and Tunisia, strikes and union protests over the past year were critical in laying the ground for popular uprisings. And in the transitions of power, labour is the main democratic alternative to the old guards and the socially conservative religious movements. There have been 30 to 60 strikes per day in Egypt since the fall of Mubarak, an Egyptian labour lawyer told Democracy Now. The illegal strikes include 15,000 workers at Egypt's largest factory, MSIR Spinning and Weaving, demanding the removal of corrupt management.

In Europe it was labour, not the social democratic or Green parties, that has been fighting back against the austerity programs. Only months ago in France (how quickly our faster-than-a-speeding-bullet media moves on) general strikes against pension cuts brought millions into the streets three times in one month, with three million marching on one day in late October. Refinery workers closed gasoline production for a month.

In England, the TUC has been meeting to plan coordinated strikes against public sector cuts by the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition, and they are planning a massive March 26 day of action which may be the largest mobilization ever in Britain's rich labour history. Organizing for the action began four months ago, even before students began their direct actions against education cuts.

Two weeks ago in Hamilton, Ontario, 10,000 people braved a cold, Canadian winter to rally in support of locked out U.S. Steelworkers, fighting to defend pensions.

But today, labour activists in this country are gripped by the incredible drama playing out very close to our borders in Wisconsin. Public sector strikes have closed schools and over 30,000 people took over the capital buildings for five days. Feb. 19, up to 80,000 people rallied in Madison.

It was widely accepted that the Democrats, who had been beaten badly in the mid term elections in Wisconsin, would put up only a token fight against the vicious and far reaching assault on labour rights proposed by the Republican Governor. But as told by The Nation reporter John Nichol, a Wisconsin native and activist, when the Democratic senators looked out their windows and saw tens of thousands of union members and students in the streets, they decided to flee the state to deny the Republicans the quorum needed to pass the union busting laws.

The images of thousands of workers, teachers and students occupying the Wisconsin capital buildings are inspiring, but the real meaning of this struggle is more complicated. One view, expressed well by Jane McAlevey in the Nation, is that Wisconsin in many ways is a "last stand" for labour in the U.S.

The thrust of the argument is that with private sector union density now at seven per cent, American elites are turning their attention to the last bastion, the public sector unions. The legislation in Wisconsin and many other states is aimed not at costs but at the right to bargain for pensions and other matters, and at the ability of public sector unions to engage in politics. Beyond union activity, forms of so-called "right to work" legislation which prohibit union shop agreements and automatic dues check off are proposed in 12 states, including Northern states like Montana, Ohio and Wisconsin. The calamitous end of this "final offensive" was forecast most dramatically by Chris Hayes on MSNBC who said that Americans should care about Wisconsin because they could wake up one day soon to find the disappearance of the US union movement.

Other voices, like Cincinnati labour writer Dan La Botz, are making the case that the assault on rights is giving rise to a new wave of labour activism based on political demands. This view suggests that when large numbers of workers move into action as they are in Wisconsin that political consciousness rapidly grows and the labour movement can become transformative.

Both of these dynamics are clearly at play in the U.S. What we can conclude at this point is that, partly on the cusp of democratic struggles and partly with its back to the wall, labour is in the streets in a way that we have not seen for some time.

It can also be said that labour politics changes when workers engage in mass protest. In spite of the delusions of many labour leaders about the social role they play, youth and social activists have limited or no experience with trade unions that have for a generation largely rested on the fulcrums of social democratic (and U.S. Democratic Party) electoral politics and collective bargaining relationships with business. That is one of the obvious reasons why social and human rights movements, academia and media have not responded to labour's appeal for recognition of labour rights in the US and Canada as human rights.

From Cairo to Madison and Hamilton, tens of thousands of labour activists are changing that experience and making the point that trade union rights and progressive unions are fundamental to achieving democratic change.

For community and social progressives, there is no better or urgent time to meet the labour movement and join forces. In spite of all of the trade union movement's problems, it is the ultimate force that every democratic revolution needs. And when labour is broken and defeated it has everywhere marked the triumph of oligarchies and despots.

As usual, Canadian labour is following global trends slowly and tentatively. Labour campaigns and solidarity actions like the Hamilton rally are gaining some attention, but Canadian unions have been battered by membership losses, while hopes for renewal and reorganization in the Canadian house of labour are stalled by a great resistance to change. Some views on Canada's labour movement in my next posting.

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