In Wisconsin, the movement against the anti-union Walker Bill is entering a new phase.
Protestors have been cleared out of the Capitol building, which they had been occupying since 15 February. But trade unions and other grassroots campaigners against the bill are still rallying and organising actions and demonstrations outside the Capitol building; and fourteen Democratic senators are still in hiding in Illinois, thereby making it constitutionally impossible for the Wisconsin state senate to pass the Bill into law. Meanwhile, similar bills are being passed in other states — there are ongoing, large protests against a Walker-style anti-union bill in Ohio, and state senators in Indiana have copied the Wisconsin 14 and fled the state.
Traven Leyshon, an American labour activist, spoke to Solidarity about what’s at stake in this new phase of the fight.
The AFL-CIO union federation had a national conference call on 7 March with leaders of AFL-CIO locals. The attitude displayed was very contradictory .
AFL-CIO national president Trumke said: “this is really our moment right now. How do we take the momentum and sustain it?” He said that events in Madison have breathed new life into the labour movement.
That’s true, and it’s not just in the labour movement, people beyond it are looking to the trade unions – college and high school students and progressive organisations are demonstrating. The labour movement is the centre of people’s attention right now.
But what’s the strategy to win? There isn’t a coherent one. The unstated strategy is an electoralist strategy – organising for the elections in 2012.
In the interim we’ll be pursuing recalls of eight of the Wisconsin Republican senators and if we are successful we’ll be able to reverse the worst parts of the bill. And in similar states like Ohio where similar anti-collective bargaining bills are being passed, we’ll deal with that by getting a referendum which we will perhaps win.
It’s an electoralist strategy which I think will be very demoralising and demobilising.
At the same time there is lot of activity in Madison. On 3 March the National Nurses United union organised a march against workers making any concessions, with 7,000 people on it. On 5 March there were 50,000 at two rallies that occurred in the same place. The larger one was organised by a grassroots coalition in Madison and the smaller was organised by the AFL-CIO national leadership.
The reason that there were two rallies was that the AFL-CIO leadership were worried that speakers at the locally-organised grassroots demo would be off-message and too left-wing. But the demonstration was inspiring. It had a militant message with a good speech by Michael Moore.
The Wisconsin AFL-CIO has called for a statewide mobilisation on 12 March. It will not include official strikes, though there might be unofficial walkouts, as there previously have been with teachers. The feeling in Madison is still very strong.
4 April is the next really big step in the national AFL-CIO campaign, calling a day of action across the country, looking to students and so on for broad support.
I think we are at a crossroads. There are two different tendencies in the workers’ movement. The leadership are looking towards closer links with the Democrats and rebuilding their institutional power.
And then there is a very inspiring level of activity at the rank-and-file level, exemplified by the call for to educate members in Wisconsin about the role of a general strike.
The attacks can be stopped either way but it really matters which way.
The lessons of a victory, if it’s won by the Democratic Party in the legislature with the support of the union officials, will be that workers need to rely on the Democratic Party to defend themselves, that is to keep a dependent relationship to a political party which is dominated by big business.
On the other hand, the workers in Ohio and Wisconsin and other states are engaged in a battle the likes of which we haven’t seen in 35 years, and if we win through our economic and workplace power and through civil disobedience, possibly including political strikes, then the lessons of such an experience would be that workers do have power: it would put us on a path of political independence and rebuilding a working-class movement in this country.
There are these two alternative paths and the reality is of course a hybrid. There are going to be national demonstrations called by the national unions, there is going to be local action including workplace action in some case supported by national unions and then there’s going to be electoral activity. That’s why I think we’re at a crossroads.