Labor Leaders Say Wisconsin Signals ‘New Era of Labor Militancy’

By Mike Elk

Mike Elk

MADISON, WIS.—In the past, labor leaders have been hesitant to call militant actions in part because they’re afraid they won’t have the support and energy of union members. But after the massive outpouring of rank and file support in Wisconsin during the last eight days—triggered by proposed GOP legislation that would gut organizing rights for public-sector workers—today’s leaders are starting to see things differently.

“I think that we have entered a new era of labor militancy,” SEIU President Mary Kay Henry told me the other day after speaking at a rally in front of 10,000 people. “I think Wisconsin proves that the rank and file is willing to take bold steps.”

Many organized labor leaders have been shocked by how a (more typical) one-day protest became a weeklong occupation of the Capitol. Furthermore, they have been pleasantly surprised by the massive community support they have received in this fight from people not traditionally affiliated with organized labor. The protests initially tightly organized by organized labor are no essentially community-driven affairs. “It’s like if we build it, they will come,” said one local labor leader.

But it will take more than just Wisconsin’s uprising to inaugurate a “new era” of militancy.

After the Republic Windows and Doors occupation in December 2008, at the height of the recession, many people following the labor movement—including myself—said the factory occupation in Chicago would mark a new era in which militant actions would become the norm for unions fighting plant closings.

It didn’t happen. In fact, Republic Windows and Doors was an isolated instance in which workers were able to take advantage of outrage over the bailout to shake $5 million out of banks that were hoping to get a second round of $350 billion in TARP bailout money from the Congress. Scores of U.S. factories have closed since then.

The question now is: Will the current level of energy and militancy just be limited to Wisconsin, where the stakes are unusually high for unionists? How much of what’s now happening here is a result of Madison being a college town known as the “Berkeley of the Midwest,” in a state with a strong tradition of public-sector unionism? (Wisconsin was the first U.S. state to grant public workers the right to bargain collectively.) In other words, will this become the new normal for the labor movement as it fights attacks on states’ public sectors throughout the country?

The new energy has clearly already spread beyond Wisconsin’s borders. In Ohio, thousands stormed the Capitol in Columbus, causing state troopers to lock down the Capitol out of fear of an occupation. In Indiana, state legislators fled the state when a vote was attempted on a so-called “right to work bill”— denying Republicans the quorum needed to hold a vote (which is why Democratic legislators fled Madison last week). Protests are planned across the nation. Organized labor has shown a willingness to dedicate the key resources. Protesters have shown a willingness to follow spontaneously.

“I think for our generation of labor leaders, this is our PATCO moment,” said United Steelworkers International Vice President Jon Geenen. “We learned the lessons of PATCO and know that we need to instead engage in the type of militant direct action like the type we see in Wisconsin.”

Of course, organized labor’s position in U.S. politics is much weaker than it was in the 1980s, when President Reagan busted the Air Traffic Controllers’ union. The fact that public-sector workers now make up the majority of all union members in the country—7.6 million people, versus 7.1 million in the private-sector—will surely motivate some.

“Governor’s Walker decision to eliminate organized labor…marks the end of an era of labor relations. We have now entered the era of organized labor extermination,” says UE Political Action Director Chris Townsend. “There are no more negotiations, no more making concessions. Walker wants us to accept our death. Nobody in organized labor is willing to do that. Nothing quite motivates people like extermination.”

This grim new reality raises a deeper question: If organized labor throws significant energies into defending itself from attempted exterminations—which it must—will it ever have the resources to organize new workers? If we have indeed entered a purely defensive era for labor, unions may never be able to grow large enough to make attacks like Walker’s what they have been for decades: politically taboo.

Mike Elk is a third-generation union organizer and labor journalist based in Washington, D.C. He is a frequent contributor to the American Prospect and In These Times and has appeared as a commentator on CNN, Fox News, and NPR. Follow him on twitter @mikeelk. He is reporting from Madison for

4 Responses

  1. This needs to be the beginning of a fight with boots on the ground for a fair economy. The aim of Grover Norquist and his like was to “starve the beast”. They have done that – they have bankrupted our governments – federal, state and local – by cutting taxes on the wealthy, making the economy work only for them. Now they want to eliminate every program that works for the middle class, that creates jobs and middle class stability – because the government “is broke”. The time to fight back is long overdue.

  2. I salute Wisconsin workers. Workers across the nation will rally tomorrow in support of the brave Wisconsin workers.

    My comment, from Buffalo, N.Y., is the following:

    Governor Walker and the lawmakers of Wisconsin are, in fact, public workers.

    Governor Walker et al., propose to reduce salaries and benefits of public workers. This task will be made infinitely easier if collective bargain rights are outlawed.
    Have Governor Walker et al., offered to initiate salary and benefit reductions with their own salaries and benefits?

    If not, why not?

    I would propose that any reductions in salaries or benefits start with theirs. Let them put their salaries and benefits where their mouths are.

  3. The Labor Council in Madison, WI voted to endorse a general strike

    The article describing the decision to endorse a general strike says , “many private sector unions would not go out on a general strike out of fear of being sued by their employers”.

    That’s the old “sanctity of contract” argument. It goes one way. It favors employers. It favors a “free market” that couldn’t care less about the well-being of working families. What does Taft-Hartley say about corporations that rob workers of their jobs by moving them offshore, or lock them out, or impose lousy contracts on them? Nothing, that’s what.

    There are moments in time when we have the opportunity to help build a better future. One moment was squandered when pie cards refused to call on the ranks to take militant action in opposition to Reagan’s decision to bust the air traffic controllers. Look what has happened to the working class in the intervening years. Wages and benefits have stagnated. Union density has shrunk. The rich on the other hand got richer.

    Let’s hope that enough pressure is put on the AFL-CIO offices in Washington, D.C. and on Change to Win leaders to call for a general strike in Madison and beyond! The ranks and file will have to demand it! What is happening in Wisconsin is another “air traffic controller” moment. We cannot afford a repeat of the retreat that labor took back then. If labor-haters take Wisconsin, Ohio will be next, and on and on. An assault on private sector unions will follow!. First, however, is the attack on public unions. If they are busted would the work done by public employees be turned over to the “free-market”? Who would you call to fix the broken water main threatening to flood the neighborhood you live in? Who would teach your kids? WalMart Schools, Inc.? If your house caught on fire here’s hoping you’d have lots of water and a good sturdy hose (and a long ladder if you live in a two-story house). State-run unemployment offices? Closed! You get the idea. Public services would be turned over to private, for-profit companies. If you like the hosing the for-profit medical-industry complex has given you, or if you adore the thieves on Wall Street, you’ll love turning publicly owned resources over to private, investor owned corporations

    This is a moment in time. This is a moment for workers to teach private and public sector employers what “sanctity of contract” means to us. How will posterity record this generation’s response to anti-worker lawmakers? How will our children and grandchildren picture us? Will they remember us as advocates for justice, or as cowards in retreat?

    An injury to one is an injury to all. United we stand, divided we crawl

  4. Brother Mike,

    I admire you a lot, but I really have to call you out on this claim you made in your lede:

    “In the past, labor leaders have been hesitant to call militant actions in part because they’re afraid they won’t have the support and energy of union members.”

    Sorry brother, that’s 180 degrees opposite of the truth.

    I’ve been a union member for 20 years, 18 of that in the United Brotherhood of Carpenters, 13 of that as a shop steward. I’ve also blogged about labor for the past 11 years.

    From what I’ve seen – and from what I’ve read and studied about – typically it’s the WORKERS who are ready to fight, and the union officialdom who are reluctant to struggle.

    Sorry brother, you got it backwards.

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