Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Some Thoughts on Wisconsin

Now that some of the smoke has cleared and most of the Monday Morning Quarterbacks have shot their load, I get the chance to give my two cents:

Claims of Our Demise are Grossly Over-Exaggerated

As much as many pundits and bloggers would like it to think, defeating the recall did not qualitatively alter the balance of forces nationally. Labor is still embattled no doubt, but we have beaten back as many post 2010 attacks as we have suffered defeats.

While not being sucessful at recalling Walker we were able to blunt his agenda by retaking a pro-labor majority in the Senate. We were also enormously successful in energizing a critical mass of members not only in Wisconsin but around the country. While we are not dead yet, in order to ensure that we didn't just wake up to die, we have some serious work to do.

Labor needs to deepen the process of how to make the drastic changes we HAVE to make in order to survive. Obviously we cannot continue on the downward spiral that we have been in for decades. We cannot continue simply tinkering with structure and resource allocation while avoiding challenging deeply entrenched disfunction that prevents us from climbing back from statistical irrelevancy.

The battle in Wisconsin DID reveal how precarious public sector unions are in relation to changing political winds. Labor has been far too dependent on growth in the public sector as a substitute for much needed growth in the private sector. Large scale organizing in the private sector and a deepened commitment to educating and mobilizing our members is the only way out of this mess, otherwise we eventually (and by eventually I mean soon) will reach the tipping point of being so tiny we lack the resources to claw back from the abyss.

Debate is Good (and Essential)

I Sincerely appreciate The Nation for Opening up it's website to be a forum for debate about the Recall and the struggle in Wisconsin. The opening to "Labor's Bad Recall?" asks,
Unions invested heavily in the campaign to recall Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. Was that a huge mistake?
 The opening exchange between  Doug Henwood and Gordon Lafer  does a pretty good job of putting forward two perspectives that many would agree with on each side of the debate. The discussions happening now give another teachable moment that helps to underscore the need for all of us to dig deep, put aside longstanding presumptions, and truly do some soul searching about the future of our movement.

One big problem is that too much of the debate is coming from outside the labor movement from people who know very little about the inner workings of the very movement they are discussing. The need for folks to have a forum for a broad discussion in the labor movement is great. Unfortunately, no one Blog or Website has successfully caught on as a place where the strategists discussing and assesing Wisconsin and the state of the labor movement could coalesce into a popular discussion.

Labor is Not in Denial, We Just Know How to Lose a Fight

The handwringing by many progressive pundits over Labor's alledged flippancy or minimizing of the defeat in Wisconsin reminds me of the differences in how people from different social classes often react to losing a fistfight.

Many middle class people that I have seen lose fights often immediately begin explaining why they lost the fight. Most blue collar folks I know that lose a fight simply get up dust themselves off and often state matter of factly some variation of," wow he/she sure kicked my ass".

The point being many of the faults laid out with some venom by the progressive professors are things that labor has been discussing internally for decades. NOT A SINGLE point made has been unique nor stated for the first time. We get it we lost, we came up short, but it was not the end of the world for the labor movement.

Electoral Politics Will Continue to Be a Tactic in Labors Arsenal

One of labor's  loudest outside critics is Left Business Observer Editor Doug Henwood. He places the majority of the blame on labor's utilization of the recall as a tactic:
But lingering too long on the money explanation is too easy. Several issues must be stared down. One is the horrible mistake of channelling a popular uprising into electoral politics.
The recall  became the strawman along with labor's alledged lack of rapport with the majority of Wisconsin workers on which the defeat was largely blamed by Henwood and other critics. The fact is that an overwhelming majority of those who participated in the mass protests participated in the recall movement. The recall was simply another stage in the movement. Most of the people involved in the protests voted with their feet and the protests fizzled well before the recall kicked into gear.

As much as it tortures uber radical armchair activists and their more active but just as misled hangers on, electoral politics is still one major component of how most American people will continue to choose to express themselves politically. Yes people are cynical about elections, but that is borne more out of a lack of collective power that also translates into not being active at all rather than engaging in more militant activity that they fantasize about. It is important not to confuse cynicism and abstentionism with militancy.

I wake up every day working to help workers to engage in collective activity, to gain a greater sense of their own power. The day that the majority of working people are ready to move will be a day of celebration, but we are not there yet. We need a combination of grassroots organizing and education that builds power in our workplaces and our communities, but as long as elected officials continue to determine as much of our lives as they do elections will be a terrain we must operate on, recalls included.

Labor Did Not "Sell Out" the Struggle

The biggest myth perpetuated by Henwood and people like Matther Rothschild is that labor "shut down" the protests at the Capitol and "funneled" the movement into the recall campaign. According to Rothschild, the masses of Wisconsin were prepared to carry out open ended sickouts, slow downs, and mass civil disobedience and labor missed it.

No doubt there were people agitating for a general strike and other forms of direct action, the fact is that the critical mass of workers, students, progressives and other people that were part of the movement suffered from the all too human element of exaustion. Bills had to be paid, no strike clauses were in place that people as a whole were not willing to violate, so people returned to back work and continued to organize. Workers did in fact continue to organize on the shop floor by wearing buttons stickers, signing petitions. Maybe not as sexy as Henwood would like, but this is the stuff that actually builds movements.

The romantic notions of what was possible in Wisconsin make for good blog posts but were obviously written by people who have never actually organized workers. This post on Cory Robin's blog gives some insight into the mind one participant who was part of one of the most militant elements of the Wisconsin struggle, the Teaching Assistants Association, who lead the first demonstration and initiated the occupation of the Capitol.

 Which Labor Movement are They Talking About?

Doug Henwood says:
A major reason for the perception that unions mostly help insiders is that it’s true. Though unions sometimes help out in living wage campaigns, they’re too interested in their own wages and benefits and not the needs of the broader working class. Public sector workers rarely make common cause with the consumers of public services, be they schools, health care, or transit.

I don't know what union Henwood is talking about. All the major unions I know of and most of the major private sector unions build labor community solidarity as a major component of any organizing campaign where it makes sense and many if not all public sector contract campaigns.

SEIU, AFSCME, ATU, NNU (Nurses), the Teamsters and a host of other unions with public sector members almost always put a sizable chunk of effort into build community alliances over staffing issues related to public safety and services to the broader community. The days of meat headed "go it alone" unionism are the exception and not the rule and they certainly are not how most union leaders are trained in today's labor movement.

This also further underscores Henwood's lack of understanding of what the purpose of a union actually is. Unions exist specifically to improve the lives of their members. Worker do not join unions to change the world and members take action because broader social change will increase their capacity to improve their own lives. People join struggles at least initially out of their own self interests, union members included. That is a basic ABC of organizing that Henwood apparently misses in his critique.

FACT: The National Democrats Turned Their Backs On Us

Yes Barrett was a sucky candidate, yes our messaging could have been better, yes labor could have done a better job of conveying it's message to it's members, all that is true.
BUT THE DNC AND OTHER NATIONAL DEMOCRATS SCREWED US, HARD. And that more than anything set the stage for defeat.

While some other Democratic groups, such as the Democratic Governors Association and the Obama campaign did send money and resources, the massive infusion of cash that was needed to counter Walker's arial bombardment of anti-recall commercials never came. And for a period of time the recall was openly dismissed by DNC head Debbie Wasserman Schultz as not relvant to the national election. What did come from the DNC came after Walker had already been allowed to define the race and to undermine the recall as a legitimate tactic.

The unanswered call for president Obama to make an appearance in Wisconsin no doubt left a bad taste in the moths of many especially in the aftermath where exit polls showed that a majority of voters were Obama supporters and it was those supporters who provided Walker with his winning margin.And just for the record, the fucking tweet from the President was outright insulting and an outrage.

 It would be suicidal for labor to sit out 2012 in retaliation for the inaction and some would say outright betrayal of the national Democratic Party apparatus out of our own interests in America not lurching further on an anti-worker trajectory. We should also have no illusions that until labor regains substantial density, we will more and more be seen as a junior partner and ATM by a party that is increasingly dominated by business interests. Ultimately the old quote by Samual Gompers that "labor has no permanent friends, only permanent interests" rings as true as ever.

Update: I had wanted to include some commentary about this post by Van Jones where he points out "The lesson of Wisconsin is pretty straightforward," "This is what happens when we put our minimum against their maximum." but the clock ran out.


  1. Bravo! It is obvious to anyone with time spent organizing in a Union setting that a lot of the post-Wisconsin whining is coming from folks with no experience. I've been a Teamster Shop Steward for 14 years and I've had my ass kicked more times then I can count. But each whoopin' got me a new friend, because I was standing up for someone.
    We have a ton of work to do. Anyone without Union experience is free to call for general strikes and sick-ins, but I've yet to see support for that, even in Union shops. Lord knows we're fighting like hell just to build solidarity.
    Excellent piece, I've passed it down my communication lines.
    And now, back to Organizing!

  2. This is the best analysis and answer to Henwood and his ilk I've seen so far. Distribute widely.