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Lessons from the Protests in the US State of Wisconsin for the International Workers’ Resistance


“The images of tens of thousands of workers and their supporters – including teachers, students and firefighters – who took part in the occupation of the Capitol Rotunda in Madison, Wisconsin for more than two weeks have reignited the morale and militancy of the labor movement. Even beyond labor, the scenes from Wisconsin have shown ordinary people the power they possess when they are organized and take bold action. Many who visited Madison in the first two weeks of the struggle commented on the breathtaking spirit of solidarity among the protesters, the efficient operation of self-organized demonstrators, and the display of democracy come to life.”

This statement by the labor journalist Brian Tierney on the self-organization of working people to defend their democratic rights in the midst of the extended capitalist crisis brings out the realities of the current political and ideological struggles in the United States. Before the news of the multiple tragedies of  earthquake, tsunami, nuclear crisis and massive loss of lives in Japan dominated the consciousness of people in all corners of the world, the images of hundreds of thousands of workers demonstrating for their rights as humans in Wisconsin competed with the images of uprisings in Yemen, Bahrain, Libya and Oman.

Wisconsin is one state in the USA where there are progressive traditions as well as very conservative heritages. It was the state that produced the dreaded Senator Joseph McCarthy who pursued one of the most systematic anti-communist witch hunts during the Cold War. It is also the state where there were intense and militant demonstrations against the war in Vietnam. Senator Russell Feingold was for a long time the representative for this state until the conservative forces nationally poured millions into the state to defeat him in the last round of elections in November 2010. In this Republican sweep Scott Walker became the governor of Wisconsin state and promised to continue the job of Ronald Reagan: breaking the organized workers of the USA.

The threats to take away the basic democratic rights, including the right to elect local leaders had come after three decades when the neo-liberal ideas of trickle down wealth had launched a forthright attack on working peoples all over the world. From Durban, South Africa to Athens, Greece; from Jakarta, Indonesia to Mumbai, India; and from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to Rio De Janiero in Brazil, working peoples have been struggling against “austerity” measures where the costs of the capitalist crisis were being transferred to working peoples. After the impressive struggles by the youth, women, workers and students in Egypt to remove a dictatorial regime, the workers of Wisconsin in the USA gained inspiration and courage from these revolutions in Africa and stood their ground against a governor who had signed into law the removal of collective bargaining rights by workers. For a brief period after the financial meltdown and the capitalists were exposed in September 2008, the capitalist class in the USA was on the defensive, but under the Obama administration, this class recovered its nerve along with the extraction of wealth as high rates of corporate profits have returned with all forms of government support, and now are pushing an all out counter-revolutionary campaign to destroy the last vestiges of the collective rights of the US working class. After stoking the fires of racism, sexism and Islamophobia, this class decided to go after the last vestige of popular democracy in the USA, taking away the ability of working people to bargain, which also represents an attack on a key piece of the Democratic Party Political Machine and is thus a opening political salvo of the 2012 Presidential campaign in the United States.

In our analysis this week we seek to place the struggles in Wisconsin in the wider social and political struggles in the United States.

Collective bargaining and the working class in the United States

When Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker signed into law, on March 11, 2011, a bill that bans collective bargaining by most of the state’s public sector workers, he was striking at one of the fundamental pillars of the democratic rights of workers in the USA. Liberal democracy in the US had emerged after centuries of struggles where the working people fought for the right to vote and the right to collective bargaining — including the fundamental right to organize and bargain for better pay, benefits and working conditions. These struggles had matured after the Civil War in a society that had denied Africans the rights to be citizens and the rights to be free. The war against enslavement was the first major working class struggles in the United States. When this Civil War ended in 1865, the conservatives sought to divide black and white workers by placing the stamp of whiteness on sections of the working class so that labor was divided between black and white workers.

Despite this division, the depths of exploitation and brutality were so deep in the USA that the struggles for the 8 hour workday strengthened the resolve of workers internationally. The Haymarket uprisings and the battles in Illinois at the end of the 19th century are now part of the legend of working class struggles internationally. Yet, despite these epic struggles in the industrial heartland of the USA over decades, the ideological push of the US rulers sought to inculcate the idea of pulling oneself up by the bootstrap into the minds of working peoples. This idea was that every worker could become a member of the capitalist class if they worked harder. The media was deployed to divide the working class so that although the struggle for the 8 hour workday galvanized workers in the USA, May 1 is not celebrated as a worker holiday in the USA.  US workers were told to see themselves as part of the ‘middle class.’ However, police violence, ideological confusion and goon squads could not halt the long term workers’ struggles. During the capitalist depression of the thirties, the organized workers of the US combined to defend their interests.

Capitalism is the social system which now exists in most countries of the world, but pundits prefer to speak of the market or globalization in order to mask the realities of social production of goods and services and private appropriation of wealth. Under this system, the means for producing and distributing goods (the land, factories, technology, transport system etc) are owned by a small minority of people. We refer to this group of people as the capitalist class. The majority of people must sell their ability to work in return for a wage or salary (who we refer to as the working class.) At all times, this capitalist class believe in socialism for the rich, that is they are the ones who benefit from the gains of the system while the majority of the poor absorb the losses. This socialization of the dangers of capitalism is best exemplified in the areas of environmental destruction when capitalist plunder nature and the society bears the social costs of the clean up.

Under the present mode of economic organization, the dominant capitalist class profits from the exploitation of labor. During periods of extended capitalist crises, especially during a depression – when there is a severe economic downturn that lasts several years – the capitalist classes seek to drop all of the usual legalities of  the rights for workers, whether the right to vote or the right to collective bargaining. In the most extreme cases, when the capitalist class seize total power there is the rise of fascism. The strength of the working class movement, especially the organized resistance of black workers ensured that the US escaped the worst aspects of fascism, although local fascism was manifest in the activities of the Ku Klux Klan and the extreme white supremacists.  During the last major depression (1929-1945), US workers consolidated the gains that we take for granted today: the eight-hour workday, the minimum wage, social security, pensions, job safety, paid vacations, retirement benefits and health insurance. These concessions were won because the struggles were linked internationally and organizations such as the International Labor Organization (ILO) opposed the division of working peoples internationally.

In the aftermath of World War II, it was accepted internationally that the right to collective bargaining should be one of the fundamental rights of workers in all parts of the world and this right was enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Collective bargaining asserted the right of workers, organizing together (usually in unions) to meet, discuss, and negotiate upon the work conditions with their employers. For a generation after World War II it was accepted that collective bargaining was as important a right as the right to freedom of association or the right to vote. In fact Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights stated,

  1. Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favorable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.
  2. Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.
  3. Everyone who works has the right to just and favorable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.
  4. Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.

Hence when the Governor of Wisconsin signed into law a bill that banned the right to collective bargaining by public sector workers, it was a major attack on the US worker as well as an attack on a right recognized in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Even the New York Times opined that, “Workers’ rights — including the fundamental right to organize and bargain for better pay, benefits and working conditions — are under attack in states from Maine to Ohio, from Wisconsin to Florida.”  

Weakening the US workers

The very strength of the US workers in the aftermath of the 1939-1945 war challenged the capitalist class to find ways to weaken the organized workers. This was affected through a massive brainwashing campaign to separate US workers from international working class struggles by mobilizing US workers as a privileged sector of humanity who could plunder the resources of the planet. In this way, even the trade union centers in the US were mobilized as accessories to US military adventures overseas. Hence, the trade union bureaucracy supported the military attacks against the peoples of Vietnam and the support for counter-revolution in Africa, Asia and Latin America. This counter-revolutionary mobilization took a fillip under Ronald Reagan when the idea of anti-communism was used to scare US worker

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