We in Wisconsin are nearly two weeks into our struggle against Republican governor Scott Walker’s union-busting bill and there are no signs either side is about to surrender.

Walker’s “Budget Repair Bill” is the cutting edge of a Republican-led crusade to destroy the US labor movement. The bill would strip Wisconsin public-sector unions of their bargaining rights and impose substantial hikes in health care costs and pension contributions.

The movement won a major victory last Thursday when the Democratic caucus in the state senate, backbones stiffened by protests of up to 100,000 in Madison and a continuous occupation of the state capitol building, fled to Illinois, denying the Republicans the quorum to call a vote. Since then, the bill that was inevitable days earlier has remained in limbo.

Walker has threatened mass layoffs of public workers if his bill is not passed soon. In a 20-minute prank call to the governor’s office, a liberal blogger impersonating conservative billionaire David Koch duped Walker into disclosing his strategy to defeat the movement.

The governor described various ways to trick Democrats into returning to the Statehouse to force a vote, and revealed that he had considered secretly planting “troublemakers” inside the movement.

He also compared his plans to Ronald Reagan’s destruction of the air traffic controllers’ union (PATCO) in 1980, which like Margaret Thatcher’s crushing of the miners strike in the UK marked the big opening act of the neoliberal offensive.

Whether the stalemate will break in workers’ favor rests on whether rank-and-file workers can escalate the struggle.

That the protests have lasted so long and grown has boosted the movement’s confidence and raised expectations of what can be won. More and more people understand the struggle as part of a nationwide battle against austerity. A new spirit of internationalism has been kindled, evident in homemade signs calling Walker “the Mubarak of the Midwest” and referencing the heroism of the Egyptian revolution. Pizza delivery orders have flooded in from across the nation and the world, including from Egypt.

This mood of militancy and optimism is at odds with the attitude of most union leaders, who have announced at every opportunity their willingness to accept concessions. National and state union leaders have attempted to push a slogan on the movement,
“It’s not about the money, it’s about the rights,” while AFSCME has printed placards reading “I’ll give up everything for Wisconsin, except my rights.” Trade union leaders are caught between two forces. They are willing to bend over backwards to avoid offending the
Democratic Party, also currently imposing austerity across the country, except for the worst anti-union measures. However, the leadership must mobilize the rank and file to defeat an existential threat.

Despite the claims, workers are not ready to sacrifice. In the marathon public hearings on the bill, trade unionists talked about the economic hardship they already face.

One teacher broke down in tears during her testimony when she spoke about fear of the bank foreclosing on her home. AFSCME Local 171 shop steward Mike Imbrogno explained that many of his local’s members currently receive food stamps.

On February 21, Wisconsin’s South Central Federation of Labor pushed the movement forward by endorsing a general strike in the event of the bill passing and rejecting all concessions. SCFL is an umbrella group of various locals and its capacity is advisory. It will take more organizing by rank-and-file workers and their supporters to turn the endorsement of a general strike into action. However, anger from below and the desire to raise the stakes have increased dramatically in the last few days.

The success of this struggle rests on whether our side can turn up the heat. The demand “No concessions! Kill the whole bill!” must be taken up by the whole movement.

As Rose Ann DeMoro, Executive Director of National Nurses United wrote, “There should be two lasting lessons to emerge from the heroic labor-led protests in Wisconsin.

First, working people – with our many allies, students, seniors, women’s organizations, and more – are inspired and ready to fight.

Second, we need to send a clear and unequivocal message to the right-wing politicians and those in the media suggesting further concessions from working people. Working people did not create the recession or the budgetary crisis facing federal, state and local governments, and there can be no more concessions, period.”

Whatever the outcome, Wisconsin has demonstrated that after decades of defeat, U.S. workers are fighting back.

Paul Pryse is a member of the University of Wisconsin Teachers Assistants Association, and a member of the International Socialist Organization in Madison

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