A major battle has erupted in the State of Wisconsin. Over 30,000 descended on the state capitol in Madison. Thousands of students walked out of class. Teachers called in sick. Why? Because they are outraged at Wisconsin’s Republican Governor Scott Walker’s plan to strip state and other public sector workers of collective bargaining rights. This is nothing short of an attempt to effectively break the public sector unions.
The proposed law would not allow state workers to negotiate anything but pay increases, and even that would be capped based on the Consumer Price Index. This would essentially take away all formal bargaining power the union has. Additionally, the law would require annual votes to re-certify the union and would allow members to opt out of paying dues. It is a recipe for destruction.
The pretext of this attack is of course the money problems of the state. However, according to the Wisconsin Fiscal Bureau, the state wouldn’t even have a deficit if it weren’t for the huge tax cuts Walker handed out to big corporations. This anti-union legislation is all about weakening unions and making it easier for big business to make huge profits by making workers pay more while dramatically undermining their ability to push back against corporate domination.
Wisconsin is the birthplace of unions representing non-federal public employees and, historically, has had a strong labor movement. This attack represents a threat not only to unionized state workers. It is an assault on all working people and youth. If they can beat back the state workers, it’s open season to further attack all workers’ rights, jobs, wages, benefits, and future pensions, and to slash public services.
Wisconsin workers and youth are not taking this one lying down; instead, they are courageously fighting back. Just like in Egypt, there have been mass mobilizations in the capital city of Madison on a daily basis. Buses of union workers and supporters have arrived from around the state. The student walkouts and teacher “sick-outs” effectively shut down many schools. Hundreds have camped out at the capitol building overnight. The Governor’s attempt to divide the struggle by exempting some unions such as the firefighters has failed as firefighters as well as private sector workers joined in the demonstration of solidarity.
So far, the protests have had an enormous impact. With an occupation of the Capitol building pressuring Democratic state Senators to boycott the Senate starting on Feb 18, this prevented the law, at least temporarily, from going to a vote. “Kill the Bill! Kill the Bill!” was one of many chants. “Shut it Down!” was another chant as the protest surrounded the capitol building. Signs at the demos have appeared comparing Walker to a mini-dictator, calling him Scott “little Hosni” Walker. Some have called for his impeachment. The demonstrators have certainly taken enormous inspiration from the heroic and determined struggle of the Tunisian and Egyptian people who would not give up until their voices were heard.
Socialist Alternative members have energetically supported and participated in these actions. We passed out several thousand leaflets with ideas about how to make this struggle a launching pad for a broad all-out mobilization to stop Walker in his tracks.
In our view, preparations must begin for a highly-coordinated mobilization which will stop all business as usual. This means being prepared for a one-day public sector general strike if necessary. The public sector unions and the AFL-CIO should issue a call to all working people to join a mass demonstration on that day to unite with mass student walkouts to shut down schools.
Even if strike action is not legal for all state workers, we must remember that the unions were built in the first place by struggles which often defied anti-union laws. The right to strike must be defended and extended. If we are not prepared to take a stand now, then when will we? After the power of unions has been stripped away?
The stakes are extremely high. If this anti-union legislation passes, it will embolden those seeking to attack jobs and services elsewhere. On the other hand, if the bill is defeated, it will give confidence to workers across country to stand up for themselves. That is why a national call to mobilize the labor movement must be made: to pour as much union resources as possible into this central battle for the future of the labor movement.
Wisconsin has become the center stage in what is a full-scale attack on the public sector all across the country. Already there are signs that this struggle is spreading: there have already been demonstrations in Ohio, among other states. A victory in Wisconsin and elsewhere will represent a major blow to the plans of big business to weaken unions and further drive down wages and benefits of all workers.