Wisconsin: beachhead in the fight for democracy

The battle in Wisconsin, the epicenter of a labor-led popular nationwide uprising, is stoking the fires of a people’s counteroffensive.

It is reconfiguring the political terrain in democracy’s favor as we head towards the potentially defining battle, the 2012 elections.

After the Republican election sweep, few, if any, expected a progressive popular resurgence so quickly, with such intensity and widespread solidarity. Much less, over the issue of workers’ right to collective bargaining.

That this labor-led popular movement chose to call a national day of action April 4 has significance way beyond its obvious historical symbolism. It was 43 years earlier that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated while supporting striking African American sanitation workers also fighting for the right to collective bargaining in Memphis, Tenn.

The Wisconsin workers’ application of the sit-in – pioneered by autoworkers in the 30s and widely employed by the civil rights movement in the 60s – was brilliant.

The clear, realistic and principled message reflected tactical flexibility: in the spirit of “shared sacrifice” we will concede health and pension benefits, but we will never concede our democratic right to collective bargaining.

The national labor movement, seeing the danger to unions’ very existence, mobilized as never before. The crowds in Wisconsin’s capital, Madison, reached more than 150,000 at one point.

Like wildfire, large solidarity actions spread across all 50 states, not once but repeatedly.

And polls showed the American people by large margins seeing the governor’s assault on collective bargaining as an assault on democracy.

This essentially defensive struggle contains the seeds of a counter-offensive as we head into the 2012 elections.

But there is more to the story.

People are witnessing – and feeling – fear, desperation and anger in the face of economic distress, while the bankers and other capitalist barons shower themselves with lavish salaries and bonuses as their businesses score record profits.

Meanwhile, they see the multibillionaire Koch brothers as prime examples of right-wing capitalist moguls fleecing the state of Wisconsin behind the public’s back while contributing generously to Walker’s campaign in return for post-election business favors.

The labor movement’s strategy and tactics in recent years, and especially during this upsurge, reveal an increasing understanding of the class and social forces at play and the kind of unity and alliances necessary to win at this stage of struggle.

The level of unity is unprecedented, at least in our lifetime.

First, firefighters and cops, whose collective bargaining rights weren’t threatened, joined the sleep-ins, clearly anticipating they would be next.

Soon, the initial public employee protesters were joined by private sector workers, organized and unorganized, and by Americans of all hues and national origins, female and male, young and old.

Joining the protests were contingents from various progressive social movements, including civil rights, faith, youth and student organizations and Internet-based groups.

Democratic legislators in Wisconsin and Indiana left the state to deny the Republican majority a quorum, putting to rest the notion that Democrats and Republicans are all the same.

Then we heard from Americans of varied political persuasions, not least traditional Republican voters, who – disgusted with Walker’s extreme anti-democratic measure – pledged not to vote Republican again.

The widespread support for the Wisconsin protesters is a public recognition of the labor movement’s new role as champion of the people’s overall needs.

A sea change in people’s thinking and will to fight is in the making, as class-consciousness and the democratic spirit cross-fertilize the political ground on which the 2012 elections will be decided.

More attention should be given to the racist and anti-woman edge of the Republican attack on public employees and on recipients of public services.

As result of the 30s and 60s struggles, African Americans entered economic sectors from which they had previously been largely excluded – primarily basic industries like steel and auto as well as the public sector.

Much the same can be said of sections of the Latino community.

We know the barons of capital – thanks to offshoring, outsourcing and use of labor-displacing technology and organization – turned communities thriving with unionized steel and auto jobs into rustbelts. If the Republican right succeeds, the public sector will go the way of basic industry, with disastrous consequences, especially for African Americans, Latinos, other people of color, women and children.

Women are employed in disproportionate numbers as teachers, office workers and caregivers, now on the Republican chopping block.

Women also represent the majority of heads of single-parent households.

The campaign to recall Wisconsin’s governor and several Republican legislators signals a move to the offense by labor and its allies, in preparations for the 2012 elections.

At the April 4 rally in Oakland, Calif., the biggest applause came when taxing the rich was proposed to preserve and expand jobs and social services and to solve government deficits.

These campaigns, whether defensive or offensive, must become building blocks for a decisive Republican defeat in the 2012 elections. A Republican rout in 2012 can lead to passage of the Employee Free Choice Act, potentially opening the door to widespread organizing of the unorganized into a much larger labor movement.

A bigger organized labor sector, at the helm of a broad popular movement, can broaden the scope of the democratic changes it is possible to win.

Image: Union members from Canada and the United States rallied at Peace Arch Park on the U.S.-Canada border, April 2, as part of the April 4 week of We Are One events. Tim Wheeler/PW