U.S. workers battle nationwide assault on public unions

by Carl Sack
Workers in Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, and elsewhere are continuing to battle massive neoliberal austerity measures and attacks on their organizing rights. But in the absence of any strikes, and with the almost universal capitulation of the labor leadership on wage and benefit concession demands, the bosses’ offensive seems to be spreading and gaining confidence.
In Ohio, after weeks of pro-labor protest throughout the state, Gov. John Kasich signed a law on April 1 destroying collective bargaining rights for 360,000 public workers. The law removes seniority-based pay raises, mandates a 15 percent co-pay on health-care premiums, outlaws public-sector strikes, allows easier union decertification, and nullifies contracts in school districts in towns or school districts that declare a “financial emergency.” Rather than striking to protect their rights and pay, unions are backing a Democrat-let attempt to put the law before a voter referendum.
The assault on public workers goes hand in hand with deep cuts to the unemployed and the poor. Michigan has passed a law to reduce unemployment compensation from 26 weeks to 20 despite an official unemployment rate of over 10 percent, while Florida and Arkansas are considering similar measures.
The Indiana legislature backed off of an open-shop law after weeks of protest and a walkout by Democrats, but advanced bills reducing unemployment payments, rolling back project-labor agreements in construction, massively expanding school vouchers, cutting school funding for poorer urban districts, and banning local minimum wage increases.
In Minnesota, the Senate passed a budget bill that would eliminate 15 percent of the state’s workforce and freeze wages for all other state workers. The bill would require state workers making an average of $38,000 per year to pay over $6000 more toward health insurance premiums. The House approved a bill eliminating teacher tenure and instituting merit pay based on student test scores.
Coupled with the attacks is a massive propaganda assault aimed at erasing the gains of organized labor from official recognition. In the most egregious case so far, Maine’s Republican governor, Paul LePage, had a mural depicting the history of the state’s labor movement removed from the capitol. The Maine legislature is also considering a bill that would allow companies to pay $2.25 less per hour than the state’s minimum wage to workers under age 20 and eliminate the maximum number of work hours for teenagers over 15.
Wisconsin remains the state with the most dramatic showdown over anti-union measures. On March 11, Gov. Scott Walker signed the bill that strips collective bargaining rights and reduces public workers’ pay by 8 percent. The law is in limbo as of this writing, as a Dane County (where Madison is located) judge issued a restraining order preventing the bill from going into effect.
Walker’s administration initially attempted to ignore the order, claiming the bill had been published on-line and was therefore in effect, but backed off implementing it later in the week. Multiple court challenges to the law are based on its passage having violated the state’s open meetings statutes, because a Senate committee gave less than the required two hours’ notice for a hearing to pass the bill.
The indefinite halt to the Wisconsin law has been thanks to the most massive and sustained fightback of any state. Some 185,000 protesters took to the streets around the state capitol on March 12, the largest protest in the state’s history. That event included a worker-farmer solidarity tractorcade. The same day, 3000 protesters came out in tiny Washburn, in far northern Wisconsin, to “greet” Walker at a Republican Party fundraiser.
Although street actions in Madison have since ebbed, there continue to be creative forms of protest regularly. These have included everything from labor ballad singalongs and free speech actions inside the capitol building (now guarded by state troopers with metal detectors at the entrances), to Union Cab taxi parades, to running protests and a “Zombie Walk” against Walker. Around the city, many shops have pro-worker slogans plastered to their windows, and it’s hard to go anywhere without seeing solidarity buttons or shirts worn by pedestrians.
Solidarity protests continue to ripple across the state, albeit of a much more modest nature than previously. In several cities, activists have taken to picketing M&I Bank, whose board of directors all gave the legal limit in contributions to Walker’s election campaign, making them his second largest source of funds. During the height of the protests at the state capitol, M&I allowed Walker to use an underground tunnel connecting the building to their bank to avoid contact with protesters.
Unfortunately, the focus of pro-labor action has been parried by union officials and the Democratic Party away from the streets and toward electoral efforts, including petitioning to recall Republican state senators and campaigning for Democrat JoAnne Kloppenburg in the April 5 Wisconsin Supreme Court election.
A broad call for mobilization on April 4 initiated by the AFL-CIO, dubbed, “We Are One,” will likely draw tens of thousands into actions nationwide, ranging in character from street protests to phone banking for Democrats. This day is appropriately symbolic as the anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. during the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike. A one-day general strike does not appear to be on the agenda, although such an action—like the “Day Without Immigrants” on May Day, 2006—could have demonstrated the power of a united working class to repel the ruling-class attacks.
While Socialist Action supports the recall of any politicians who have participated in the attack on worker’s rights, electing Democrats is the last thing that will serve workers’ interests. Ironically, the much-vilified Koch brothers, major funders of the Tea Party, also contributed over $12,000 to the Wisconsin Democratic Party and individual Democratic candidates in 2009 and 2010. M&I Bank executives gave almost $4000 to Democrats over the same time period, according to data collected by the Center for Responsive Politics.
The Democrats are beholden to the same ruling rich as the Republicans, but position themselves as an opposition party by softening their neoliberal agenda and dressing it in pro-labor rhetoric. Unions should use the momentum generated on April 4 to call together a broad Congress of Labor to found a real Labor Party based in the unions and representing the interests of the working class rather than corporate campaign donors.
> This article was originally published in the April 2011 print edition of Socialist Action newspaper.