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Unions fighting back with direct action -- Madison style

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Thanks to Mark Brooks, researcher and campaigner with the Utility Workers Union of America, and one of the hundreds who occupied the Madison Capitol, for insight and assistance with this posting.  

American trade unionists and their student allies are putting up a hell of a fight to stop union busting, and there is a lot we can learn from the experience.

The formula is straightforward. First, stand on principle. Second, mobilize in large numbers and be in the streets. Third, engage in peaceful, but direct actions that focus and dramatize the goals of the movement. Finally, communicate -- and encourage everyone to communicate.

Because tens and hundreds of thousands have been in the streets over principle, the unthinkable seems to be taking place. For the first time I can remember, U.S. media is reporting majority support for unions and what they stand for. 

Ground Zero of the current struggle in the U.S. has been in Wisconsin, where the newly-inaugurated Republican Governor and Republican majorities in the statehouse are trying to ram through legislation to effectively outlaw public sector collective bargaining.  It is also the State where unions and students have organized huge protests against the union-busting legislation, and successfully occupied the state Capitol building 24/7 for more than two weeks.

The protests haven’t defeated the anti-labour legislation -- yet. But they have so far stalled the Wisconsin legislation, while slowing down the anti-labour attacks in other states. The U.S. labour fight has forced Americans to choose, as a famous labour song asks, “which side are you on?” And to do that, labour is using traditional methods:  work stoppages, massive protests and peaceful civil disobedience -- tactics that had been used less and less frequently by North American unionists who were told that there are smarter, more effective ways to wield influence.

What we are watching in Madison is direct action. A communication from a senior U.S. labour organizer after the protesters forced Wisconsin authorities to back off their threat of mass arrests last weekend suggested that “the Capitol is our Tahrir Square... if we hold on to it, the Republicans will fall.”

It is also striking that the most important role Wisconsin Democratic Senators have played is to leave the State therefore denying the Republicans a legislative quorum and allowing workers time and space to organize and fight back. It gives new meaning to the slogan heard ringing from inside the Capitol rotunda, “this is what democracy looks like...” Of course, that is the slogan of the anti-globalization movement that stopped the WTO in the Battle of Seattle more than 10 years ago. But at that time it was not labour saying that, but youth engaged in direct action.

We are seeing in Wisconsin what it means to mobilize tens of thousands for more than an afternoon march and rally. The mobilization of thousands for a sustained period of several weeks is reminiscent of Ontario’s Days of Action in the 1990s or B.C.’s Solidarity movement of the 1980’s -- but there has not been a labour mobilization and struggle of this intensity in the U.S. or Canada for many years.

Wisconsin reminds me of B.C.’s Solidarity movement also because in both cases teachers took the lead with protests and strikes that closed the school system. At the Madison Capitol, hundreds of students were with trade union members occupying the Capitol and keeping the protest going through the night for more than two weeks.

Part of labour’s decline as a social movement in North America over the past three decades has been the diminishment of its communications capacity. Labour has not kept pace with technological change, but neither does it have the professional capacity it once had. In the U.S., that shortcoming is being made up by thousands of bloggers and social media users, and something Canadians would find shocking: media commentators like MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow who consider labour struggles for basic rights to be as important as events in the Middle East and tea party protests.  Progressive U.S. journals like The Nation and Mother Jones have also been very important to the labour struggle.

Although I was able to follow events in Madison through a number of labour-based social media sites, including the AFL-CIO’s Twitter feed, the lack of professional trade union communicators was evident. Most of the live feeds and breaking news from inside the Madison Capitol came from volunteer bloggers. At one point last Sunday when the police had been ordered to clear the Capitol and mass arrests were feared, thousands watched on-line to a feed provided by an iPhone.

Of course we cannot know where the labour struggle will lead now. In my experiences, labour struggles seldom result in clear wins or losses. Every outcome is relative and the only real measure of progress is the strength and solidarity of the union for the next battle. Labour victories often take the form of persuading adversaries that picking a fight with the union is not something they want to do again soon. Certainly, the U.S. labour fightback is defensive, but an effective defense of labour rights can open the way to going on the offensive.

One important distinction about the current labour struggles in the U.S. is that the Republicans and their very rich supporters like the Koch brothers have picked a fight not with any union, but the entire U.S. labour movement. The first big lesson of the U.S. fightback is that no union, or even groups of unions in the private or public sectors, are going to win the crucial battles that move the line on basic rights. 

Given the power of big capital, and the gloves-off, class hatred of today’s fundamentalist right wing politicians, the entire labour movement must be mobilized to fight as a social movement.

On this side of the border, we are watching and learning from an historic struggle.

One further explanation: I had signaled that this space would have turned to the state of the union(s) in Canada.  But the American unions had my attention for the past two weeks -- we will get back to the plan soon.  

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