Submitted by John Reimann on Mon, 02/21/2011 – 11:46pm.
While less than 10% of the private sector work force is organized in unions in the United States, these unions still represent a potentially massive force in US society, capable of mobilizing millions of workers and youth. This is in the process of being proven in Wisconsin, where the class struggle has broken out into the open.One-Sided Class Warfare
For the last few decades, it has been almost entirely a one-sided class war. The employers and their political representatives (Republican and Democrat alike) have been conducting a policy of “death by a thousand cuts”. In the work place, workers have seen cuts in benefits, pensions and wages as well as speed-up (often masked by what is called “multi-tasking”). In education, high school students have seen increased class size and elimination of many extra curricular activities while teachers have seen wage cuts and increased work loads. Workers in the public sector have seen lay offs and cuts in benefits and pay while the public has seen reductions in public services.
On and on this wave has rolled, without an apparent response from the working class. What lies behind this wave is a vast redistribution of wealth in the United States, which now has the honor of being the industrialized nation with the greatest economic inequality in the world.
Hundreds of Thousands in the Streets
Now a mass response has developed in Wisconsin, where hundreds of thousands of workers and youth have been mobilized to fight a draconian, union-busting bill that the newly elected Republican governor has proposed. Under this bill, public sector workers would be forced to pay 5.8% of their pay for their pensions and 12.6% towards their health care. One teacher estimated that this would mean a $1,200 cut in monthly pay. Not only that, but this bill would basically eliminate collective bargaining rights for all public sector workers except firefighters and cops.
Unfortunately, the union officials are accepting the pay cuts; where they draw the line is at elimination of collective bargaining rights since this step would mean, in effect, the near elimination of the public sector unions themselves. For the Democrats, this is also a great threat as they receive millions in donations from these unions. Thus it is, then, that these union leaders have mobilized massive protests – up to 100,000 strong – against this bill.
In addition to the public sector workers, many thousands of private sector workers – mainly union workers including construction workers and others – have come out to protest this bill. Thousands of students, including high school students, have also been involved.
Here is one report of the protests of last weekend: “By mid-afternoon over 100,000 had completely surrounded Capitol Square…. For hours they marched and marched around the square, chanting “Kill the Bill” and “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Scott Walker (the governor) has got to go.” The public employees union AFSCME called a rally on the Capitol steps at 4 p.m., and tens of thousands stayed until it ended an hour and a half later, even as the temperature sank below zero and the wind picked up…. There were numerous references to the recent protests in Egypt, several noting that while they had forced out a dictator in Cairo while Wisconsin is still saddled with one.” (The Internationalist.org)
The far right has been stunned. The Tea Party movement tried to mobilize a counter demonstration, but they were completely dwarfed by the pro-union protesters. The far-right talking head Glenn Beck has been on the air waves pleading that we are not anti-capitalist in the United States.
Up until now, the bill has been stalled because the Democratic state senators have left the state. While they don’t have enough votes to vote the bill down, their presence is needed to provide a “quorum” – that is, for enough state senators to be present to allow a vote to be held. These Democrats are bowing to the pressure as well as being extremely worried that if the public sector unions are nearly killed, this will mean a sharp cut in their political donations.
While this mass movement shows the nearly unlimited potential for an open class struggle in the United States, it also demonstrates the weaknesses that still exist. On the one hand, the union leadership has openly said that they accept the wage cuts. (They, the leaders, will not be taking such cuts in pay themselves.) Also, much has been made of the fact that most private sector workers pay this same amount for their benefits – if they have any benefits at all. Walker and the Republicans are playing on this, saying why should these public sector workers have it so much better than the private sector ones? Given the present consciousness in the United States, it is likely that this theme will resonate with some workers in the state.
There is an alternative.
The union leadership should break from the dictates of the Democratic politicians and openly oppose any pay cuts by any means. At the same time, they should explain that if public sector workers take a cut in pay, this will only lead to further pay cuts in the private sector, especially for non-union workers. This is the infamous “race to the bottom”. Instead, this mass mobilization should be turned into an organizing campaign throughout the state – amongst secretaries, store clerks and salespeople, coffee shop workers and factory workers, etc. The demand should be for the employers to fully pay for full health benefits for all employees and their families as well as to fully pay for a decent pension (including health benefits) for all retirees.
Nobody can expect that workers in Wisconsin can win such advances in isolation. However, a movement like this would quickly spread throughout the United States.
Where the Money Is
Of course, a howl will go up that they cannot afford this. In answer, the workers’ movement can point to the over $2 trillion in cash and other liquid assets that Corporate America is sitting on at present. (source: Wall St. Journal, 2/19/11) They can point to the fact that the top one percent of U.S. households owns 37.1% of all private assets in the nation, which comes out to $20 trillion. The top 10% owns 70%, or about $38 trillion. (source: Citizens for Tax Justice)
It is not likely that the union officialdom will make this break with their Democratic masters, even in this heated situation. However, there are small forces within this mass movement (and a mass movement it is) which could start to implement such a campaign. Students and others new to the struggle would be especially open to this approach. It would not take much to mobilize just a few hundred to take up this campaign amongst private sector workers. They could start with those most accessible such as store clerks and salespeople and workers in coffee shops and restaurants. Teams of ten or twenty activists could go into the stores with a leaflet explaining this campaign and talk with the workers. (Note: Of course, the management would try to kick them out, but by the time they succeeded the “damage” would have already been done.) Simultaneously, they could explain what they are doing within the wider movement and urge the movement as a whole to take up this approach.
Already, there is some discussion within the movement for a general strike call in the state. However, for this call to be really effective, it must draw in the non-union majority of workers. The above approach is how this can be accomplished.
From the Defensive to the Offensive
Workers in the United States have seen a massive redistribution of wealth upwards in recent decades. In this way, a campaign could be started to reverse this process and redistribute the wealth downwards. In this way, a start could be made to turn this defensive struggle onto the offensive.