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The magnificent energy of the 2011 Wisconsin labour protests is vividly captured in a collection of essays that also assesses the significance and lessons of the movement, argues Richard Allday

Wisconsin Uprising: Labor Fights Back, ed. Michael D. Yates (Monthly Review Press 2012), 304pp.

In the late winter/early spring of 2011, the Reaganite Republican governor of Wisconsin proposed and then forced through a blatant union-busting, wage-cutting attack on the public sector workers and services of Wisconsin state.

Much to the amazement of all concerned, for or against, it sparked off a massive wave of opposition. This led to unlawful strike action, 100,000-strong demonstrations in the state capital (Madison), the occupation of the State Capitol building, the fleeing from the state of 14 state senators, and the public endorsement of the opposition from one of America’s iconic sports teams (the Green Bay Packers). Finally it led to the reinvigoration of confidence in oppositional movements in the United States that we are now witnessing in the emergence of movements such as Occupy Wall Street.

The scale, energy, and militancy of the opposition, despite its inability to force back the attacks, inspired countless thousands of activists, in the US and beyond, to maintain their belief that resistance is not only desirable, but is actually possible. This is even though it came from an unexpected source and in an unexpected way. This collection of 17 essays by 19 writers is a serious attempt by seasoned activists in the North American labour movement to come to grips with the phenomenon that swept Wisconsin in the late winter and spring of 2011. The writers clearly share a passionate commitment to building support for oppositional movements in the States, identify organised labour as an essential component of this project, and see active participation as a necessary part of their commitment. Beyond this, they bring a variety of experiences and political analyses to bear in their contributions.

In his forward, Robert McChesney writes, ‘the account of the[se] events in Madison … are the best I have seen in writing, with context, detail, and analysis I have seen nowhere else’ (p.11). I have little reason to disagree. The book is exhilarating and frustrating, though not in equal measure. Exhilarating because the enthusiasm exhibited in almost every case is catching. These are political and labour activists who, in most cases, have been swimming against the tide, ‘in the heart of the beast’ for the majority of their political lives. The explosion of anger and resistance in Madison clearly excited them as much as any Arab activist would have been excited by the events in Tahrir Square (to which many of the contributors make explicit reference, as did the protestors in Wisconsin).

This, indeed, is one of the causes of frustration. These comrades are faced with many of the specific problems that activists in Britain face. Like us, they face a vicious stepping-up of attacks on workers’ rights, with public services and public sector workers taking the initial onslaught as our rulers use the financial crisis as a useful cover for their attack on the social wage, in a conscious attempt to increase the rate of exploitation of labour.

The significance of the events in Wisconsin is highlighted by virtually every contributor, but the potential, and the problem it poses for the left, is perhaps most clearly expressed in Dan La Botz’s contribution:

‘what we witnessed in Wisconsin was a working-class upheaval larger than any since the rank-and-file upsurge of the 1970s. Because this movement is so different than what many of us expected, it took us by surprise’ (p.86).

He goes on: ‘Many of us, myself included, had for years expected a rank-and-file workers’ movement to arise out of shop-floor struggles in industrial workplaces, out of the fight for union democracy, and out of the process of working-class struggle against the employers. That perspective still has validity, but something different was happening. The new labor movement that arose did not start in the industrial working class (though it will get there soon enough); it did not focus on shop floor issues (though they will no doubt be taken up too); it was not primarily motivated by a desire for union democracy (though it will have to fight for union democracy to push forward the leaders it needs). And it did not, as so many American labor movements of the past did, remain confined to the economic class struggle (though that too will accelerate). It was from the beginning an inherently political labor movement.’

This eloquently sums up the problem, not just for comrades in the US and Canada, but experienced by us Europe; the indignados in Spain; the anti-austerity protestors in Greece; the tumult in Italy that has consigned Berlusconi to the stature of yesterday’s fish and chip paper in the dustbin of history; the resonance of the message of Mélenchon in France; and the electoral victory of Galloway in Bradford. All of these, allied with the mass demonstrations called by the unions in all these countries, demonstrate beyond doubt the extent of opposition. But we still face austerity. We still have not demonstrated an ability to construct an effective movement of opposition. That is why this collection of essays is, at one and the same time, so exhilarating and so frustrating.

Overall, the book is divided into three sections. Firstly there are narrative and descriptive accounts of the events in Madison, with five essays from individuals depicting the events as they occurred. Then there are three essays on the lessons to be learnt from the events. Thirdly, there is a concluding section of eight essays attempting to chart the way forward for the US labour movement as a whole. Of course there is a considerable overlap between all the essays. None of the contributors see description, analysis and prognosis as exclusive forms. All are motivated by a desire to pick the lessons (good and bad) from the events they talk about, and each has worth and value in their own right.

The first section is straight inspiration. Written by people who were there, they transmit both their excitement at events as they unfolded, and frustration at the reluctance of union officials and elected representatives to move beyond conventional (and ‘acceptable’) politics, even when there was clear evidence of popular support for unconventional and mass participation. From the original officially sanctioned lobby, boosted by the unexpected show of support from fire-fighters (exempt from the proposed attacks), then swelled by the arrival of hundreds of school students who had walked out in support of their teachers, to the calling of unofficial strike action by teachers (covering themselves with the fig-leaf of calling sickies), to the mass occupation of the Capitol building, the writers evoke the elation they and thousands of others felt.

So their anger, as they saw the vibrant creativity of mass opposition steered into electoral number crunching, comes across raw and powerful. ‘The message from the AFL-CIO leadership was clear: leave the streets and direct your energy to electoral politics’ (Connor Donegan, p.38). What makes it all the more galling was that the bureaucrats’ fear of alienating public opinion was so misplaced. Jane Slaughter and Mark Brenner (p.142) quote a Bloomberg poll of March 4-7 (i.e. after people had heard or read the reports of the mass actions, walk-outs and occupation) finding that ‘64% nationally saying public employees should have the right to bargain collectively’. This in a population where only one in sixteen private sector workers are in a union!

This made the final section of the book, that dealing with the way forward for the American labour movement, the most frustrating. The contributors all agree that the Democratic Party does not meet the needs of working people. They all agree that self-organisation of working people is crucial to ensuring our voice is heard. They are united in condemning the unfair division of society’s wealth, and the squandering of taxes on war and destruction. They all look forward to hearing labour’s voice raised in confident support of the oppressed, the exploited, the marginalized and downtrodden.

Yet time after time, they come up against the harsh reality that the voices of the alternative, at present, are too weak, too fragmented to be able to challenge the orthodoxy promoted by capital and its trumpet-blowers.

For example, Michael Hurley and Sam Gindin in their essay pose the problem starkly. Titled, ‘The assault on public services: will unions lament the attacks or fight back?’, they highlight the attack on the public sector, and public sector unions, relating the Canadian experience. They state the scale of the task we face: ‘An effective response requires a social movement much stronger than we currently have … We obviously need to fight back … But given what we are up against … it’s also clear that “business as usual,” even if more militant, won’t be enough’ (p.186).

They realise that trade unions, as constituted (‘as sectional, not class organisations’), are not fit for purpose when it comes to combating austerity. To paraphrase their argument: unions gain support and influence because they organise workers ‘on the job’. When the decisions that dictate the form (or even the economic or social necessity) of the job are taken elsewhere, the power of organised labour to influence those decisions is reduced. ‘This means making a strategic choice: we must reset our focus from traditional collective bargaining to the defence of public services as a primary priority and take on … the leadership of the fight for adequate, high-quality, and responsive social services’ (p.187).

They continue: ‘It will require radical changes to all our strategies, tactics, and structures’ and recognise that ‘many activists and leaders will be nervous about such a transformation’. They state, quite baldly, that the coming struggles (against privatisation, contracting out, wage cuts and redundancies, in the public sector) ‘can only have a chance of widespread success if taken on as a class, alongside the rest of labor and new allies’. I have no quibble with the analysis of the problem; indeed I found it clear and compelling. However, members join unions (as they so clearly say) for protection ‘on the job’. The wider remit, which they so clearly argue for, transcends trades unionism. In fact, it appears to me that they are presenting a powerful case for a united front against austerity, a Canadian, or American, Coalition of Resistance.

A great many of the writers in this collection identify the problems facing the North American working class clearly and presciently. They locate their analysis in the wider context of neo-liberalism and its response to the global financial crisis. They clearly (and in most cases explicitly) derive considerable confidence from the social explosion rocking the Middle East, in the ‘Arab Spring’, and equally from the anti-austerity movements in Mediterranean Europe.

They are aware, therefore, that we are living in an age of mass movements. So why do they insist on trying to cram the social potential they so clearly recognise into the swaddling clothes of trades unionism? Jane Slaughter and Mark Brenner, in their wonderfully thought-provoking essay say, ‘in Egypt protestors closed factories and government offices and filled Tahrir Square. In Madison, workers filled their public square, too, but in order to go all the way we will also need to empty the workplaces’ (p.142).

This sums up the problem we face: in Madison, Manchester, Madrid or Marseilles we need to find a way to unite all the strands of resistance, against the relentless drive to make us work harder, longer, for less; against the relentless reduction of social provision of essential services; against the relentless ratchetting-up of prejudice and division, trying to get us to blame each other for the mess we never created; against the destruction of the environment; against the drive to war, which always seems to find the funding, as our kids go hungry to semi-derelict schools. Many of the writers pose the question explicitly.

It is a mark of the worth of this book that, at the end, I was left feeling dissatisfied. Having shared with me their hopes, and exultations, at an inspiring fight, I wanted more. The fact is, until we build many Wisconsins, we will continue to feel that frustration. For that, and for some remarkable insights into how a community, any community, when pushed too far can fight back and change the political landscape (as Madison City, Wisconsin did for three glorious months), I thank the authors for this book and recommend it to any reader with £20+ to spare, and the time to read it.

And having read it, may I suggest you get onto the Coalition of Resistance website, and get involved with building a Madison in your own backyard.

Richard Allday

Richard Allday

Richard Allday is a member of Unite the Union’s National Executive, a branch secretary and shop steward in road haulage.  A member of Counterfire, his comrades know him better as 'the angry trucker'.

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