The defeat in Wisconsin: Lessons for the U.S. labour movement

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A year after facing a popular uprising, Wisconsin Governor Walker won a recall election yesterday.

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Democrats and labour types are coming up with a lot of excuses for Scott Walker's victory in Wisconsin. Not all are worthless. But the excuse-making impulse should be beaten down with heavy sticks.

Yes, money mattered. Enormous amounts of cash poured in, mainly from right-wing tycoons, to support Walker's effort to snuff public employee unions. While these sorts of tycoons-outside the Wall Street/Fortune 500 establishment-have long been the funding base for right-wing politics, they seem to have grown in wealth, number, consciousness, and mobilization since their days funding the John Birch Society and the Goldwater movement in the 1950s and 1960s.

But lingering too long on the money explanation is too easy. Several issues must be stared down. One is the horrible mistake of channelling a popular uprising into electoral politics. As I wrote almost a year ago ('Wisconsin: game over?'):

"It's the same damn story over and over. The state AFL-CIO chooses litigation and electoral politics over popular action, which dissolves everything into mush. Meanwhile, the right is vicious, crafty, and uncompromising. Guess who wins that sort of confrontation? Please prove me wrong someday, you sad American 'left.'"

At this point, few things would make me happier to say than I'd been proven wrong. But I wasn't.

There were several things wrong with the electoral strategy (beyond, that is, the weakness of electoral strategies to begin with). Barrett was an extremely weak candidate who'd already once lost to Walker (though by a slightly narrower margin than this time). Potentially stronger candidates like Russ Feingold refused to run, probably out of fear of these results. And the bar was very high for a recall. Only 19 states have recall provisions, and Walker was just the third governor to face one. Well over half of Wisconsin voters think that recalls should be reserved only for misconduct - and less than a third approve of recalls for any reason other than misconduct.

Suppose instead that the unions had supported a popular campaign-media, door knocking, phone calling-to agitate, educate, and organize on the importance of the labour movement to the maintenance of living standards? If they'd made an argument, broadly and repeatedly, that Walker's agenda was an attack on the wages and benefits of the majority of the population? That it was designed to remove organized opposition to the power of right-wing money in politics? That would have been more fruitful than this major defeat.

It is a defeat. It is not, as that idiot Ed Schultz said on MSNBC last night, an opportunity for regroupment. (Didn't hear it myself, but it was reported by a reliable source on the Twitter.) Because in the wise and deservedly famous words of Ralph Waldo Emerson, "When you strike at a king, you must kill him." When you don't, you look like a fool if you're lucky. More likely, you'll find your head in a noose.

And as much as it hurts to admit this, labour unions just aren't very popular. In Gallup's annual poll on confidence in institutions, unions score close to the bottom of the list, barely above big business and HMOs but behind banks. More Americans, 42 per cent, would like to see unions have less influence, and just 25 per cent would like to see them have more. Despite a massive financial crisis and a dismal job market, approval of unions is close to an all-time low in the 75 years Gallup has been asking the question. A major reason for this is that twice as many people (68 per cent) think that unions help mostly their members as think they help the broader population (34 per cent). Amazingly, in Wisconsin, while only about 30 per cent of union members voted for Walker, nearly half of those living in union households but not themselves union members voted for him (Union voters ≠ union households). In other words, apparently union members aren't even able to convince their spouses that the things are worth all that much.

A major reason for the perception that unions mostly help insiders is that it's true. Though unions sometimes help out in living wage campaigns, they're too interested in their own wages and benefits and not the needs of the broader working class. Public sector workers rarely make common cause with the consumers of public services, be they schools, health care, or transit.

Since 2000, unions have given over $700 million to Democrats - $45 million of it this year alone. What do they have to show for it? Imagine if they'd spent that sort of money, say, lobbying for single-payer day-in, day-out, everywhere.

So what now? Most labour people, including some fairly radical ones, detest Bob Fitch's analysis of labour's torpor. By all means, read his book Solidarity for Sale for the full analysis. But a taste of it can be gotten here, from his interview with Michael Yates of Monthly Review. A choice excerpt:

"Essentially, the American labour movement consists of 20,000 semi-autonomous local unions. Like feudal vassals, local leaders get their exclusive jurisdiction from a higher level organization and pass on a share of their dues. The ordinary members are like the serfs who pay compulsory dues and come with the territory. The union bosses control jobs - staff jobs or hiring hall jobs - the coin of the political realm. Those who get the jobs, the clients, give back their unconditional loyalty. The politics of loyalty produces, systematically, poles of corruption and apathy. The privileged minority who turn the union into their personal business. And the vast majority who ignore the union as none of their business.

Bob thought that the whole model of American unionism, in which unions were given exclusive rights to bargain over contracts in closed shops, was a major long-term source of weakness. I find it persuasive; many don't. But whatever you think of that analysis of the past is rapidly becoming irrelevant. Collective bargaining has mostly disappeared in the private sector, and now looks doomed in the public sector. There are something like 23 states with Republican governors and legislative majorities ready to imitate Walker who will be emboldened by his victory. And there are a lot of Dems ready to do a Walker Lite. If they don't disappear, public sector unions will soon become powerless.

That means that if unions ever want to turn things around - and I'm old-fashioned enough to believe that we'll never have a better society without a reborn labour movement - they have to learn to operate in this new reality. Which means learning to act politically, to agitate on behalf of the entire working class and not just a privileged subset with membership cards.

 

Doug Henwood edits the Left Business Observer, where this article first appeared. It is republished here with permission. 

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