A New Era?

Posted on February 20, 2011 by

For decades, union activists across America have worked like crazy to keep the labor movement alive: 

Organizers, reps, officers and – in particular – members who do hours of union work on their own time. 

These “true believers” have been deeply moved by the events in Wisconsin

Ordinary Americans are taking it all in and – though some certainly have a temperamental affinity for the conservative position – my guess is that many are waiting to see who wins. 

To most people, the demonstrators may be something of a curiosity.  And even to those generally sympathetic to unions, notions like “solidarity” probably seem rather quaint. 

But although the idea might seem dated, it’s a core principal and an essential predicate for union survival and growth. 

While the struggle in Madison focuses on public employees, union veterans understand that any possibility of re-unionizing the business economy hinges on government workers – now a majority of union members – holding onto their power.

In fact, the fantasy is that winning these fights in republican-governed states could eventually trigger a new era of private sector organizing. 

But I’m getting ahead of events. 

That’s the problem with hope.  You get carried away. 

Didn’t we just make that mistake?

Comments (7)


  1. Greg says:

    Lou this is not even so much about union survival, this is about worker survival. If we don’t win in Wisconsin, you can bet they will continue their drive to strip every worker of their right to be a union member or at least strip every union of it’s power to protect it’s members. And when that happens we will see the continued erosion of salaries, the continued erosion of worker’s rights and there will be only two class of people in this country — The haves and the have nots. The really stupid thing is the politicians think they are part of the former. Give it time, they will be one of us. After all, they are only workers doing their corporate master’s bidding.

  2. Texas Cowboy says:

    Well said Lou, but I also agree with Greg. It is about worker survival and should Walker succeed, union busting will become a Republican platform all over this country; wages and benefits will be reduced over time as the Republican rich and corporate America become more powerful. Their goal is to establish a peasant class. I stand with Wisconsins and hope they will eventually remove this radical, activist Walker from the entire state.

  3. John Connolly says:

    The attack on Wisconsin public employees, is part and parcel of a long-term strategic plan to eliminate unions as fighting democratic instruments of ordinary Americans. Paul Krugman’s column in today’s New York Times is a useful addition to this discussion.

    I’m a bit of a broken record on Labor Lou in discussing the coincidence of the decline of the Labor Movement and its subservience to the Democratic Party.

    But there is an even more important evolution in the world’s political economy that has increasingly hobbled the organized working class, and which has been patiently managed by the ruling rich and their executive staff: the de-industrialization of the United States, and thus the radical reduction in the number of unionized industrial workers.

    This process, aided and abetted by pro-NAFTA Democrats often “Liberals”, has produced a seeming irresistible outflowing tide of quality, well-paid, skilled jobs from our shores to the incredibly low-wage economies of Asia and Mexico.

    As US industrial unions were sapped of members, resources and marketplace power, the terms and conditions of the “Labor Market” are being shaped more and more by low-wage, non-union service industry jobs. The UAW, Steelworkers, the Rail unions … all are shadows of their former selves, maintaining some strength by merging with other failing industrial unions. Half of the US Auto industry and of the remaining steel industry are non-union now. In part that’s why the Right hated the Stimulus/”Bail-Out” so much … they didn’t want Detroit saved, they wanted it killed.

    The power to effectively shut down portions of the economy was a key strength of industrial unions. This power plus solidarity often provided a key backstop against attacks on low-wage and public workers.

    And even though SEIU, UFCW, IBT and RSDWU among others have attempted to organize in this sector, they’ve often started with too little and too late — again one of my unfortunate themes in these pages — the bitter results of 50 years of “Business Unionism”.

    Labor’s buy-in to 1950′s anti-communism was the fool’s set-up for this 21st Century Wisconsin stab-in-the-back by ungrateful Capital. The ’50s Labor Bosses and Racketeers worked with the government to drive radical workers and leaders out of the movement; were well-rewarded with cushy fiefdoms; and let the Movement rot. Stalinist betrayals of workers’ democracy and socialist ideals gave the employers and politicians cover to lump all labor progressives and radicals together as unworthy, to be swept away by McCarthyism. We lost an entire generation — maybe two or three — of honest progressive union leaders who could have made a difference in the strategy and direction of the Movement and our class. Lost were the lessons of solidarity and the willingness to wield power fearlessly. Instead we steadily became the ATM and volunteer labor bureau for the Democratic Party.

    And we’re all paying for it now.

    But the Right-Wing offensive will run into natural limits sooner or later. Eventually, the world market for cheap labor will stabilize … at a very low level indeed. When we’re all working under equally lousy conditions, it will become easier for US, Chinese, Nigerian, Albanian, Bolivian, and Iranian workers to see what they have in common — although it’ll be a miserable time getting there.

    Just in the last few weeks there have been news stories about Volkswagen moving from Mexico, and apparel manufacturing moving from Columbia, both to Asia in search of lower wages. Eventually, without a major power shift leftward in the US, we’ll all be paid like a Chinese steelworker, an Indian call-center op, … or an Alabama Wall-Mart Greeter. Who knows the steel industry might come back to Wheeling when it gets cheap enough.

    Of course there is a great irony in that if the Republicans and John Bircher Tea Partiers succeed in kicking the US Working Class back to the days of the Triangle Fire, they will also be creating the conditions for a revival of worker radicalism, probably less constrained by cowardly bureaucrats or traitorous politicians.

    Then the great-great grandchildren of Gene Debs and Molly McGuire will move to get a little of their own back. And it won’t be pretty.

    If we take a cue from the Wisconsin unionists and progressive citizens fighting for their lives right now, we may be able to head-off the threatened Dark Ages of Tea Party-ist triumph.

    The other day I pointed out how US Rep Paul “Slice-’em-&-Dice-’em” Ryan (R, WI) snickered that “Madison’s looking like Cairo out there”.

    No kidding, Pal. It’s no accident.

    And the good news for all of us is that the workers of Wisconsin have a shot at making that snicker turn to sobs.

    Madison! Cairo! WE ARE ONE!

  4. It is not what it seems says:

    Hi Lou, I agree with most of the comments with exception to John’s about Madison and Cairo being one. I have to disagree and point out that on the surface it appears that Cairo is in a fight for labor rights and maybe some of that is true. However, the news does not portray the complete picture. Anyone that knows the history of the Middle East understands that the reality of the current uprising also has deep political, radical islamic driving forces trying to take control of the country’s political reigns. My best analogy would be how hamas is now in charge of Gaza (They were elected in a “Democratic process”? Hamas is a recognized terrorist group. As well as the Muslim Brotherhood which is trying to seize control of Egypt. The only stable part of the government in Egypt right now is the military (Oddly enough).

    The muslim brotehrhood’s goals are as follows: 1. Jerusalem shall be returned to palestine control. 2. Israel shall be destroyed and a palestinian state will be declared & 3. The United States is the second Israel.

    So, back to John’s comment about Madison and Cairo we are one!

    I THINK NOT!!!!

    Sorry, but I think we all need to do a little more reading up before we support people who are for the destruction of our country. If you read the US Department of State travel warnings you can get a very clear picture of what’s going on over there. We as american citizens are not really that welcome.

  5. Glen Arnodo says:

    A planeload of union members, organized the the LA County Federation of Labor, is leaving for WI tomorrow at the crack of dawn to stand shoulder to shoulder with our sisters and brothers there.

  6. Gavin says:

    WI is a union fight peiod!! – Given that the initial reason given by the Gov. was financial and when the public unions endored giving contributions in health/pension resulting in meeting the Gov. reason – and the Gov. continues the fight leads to no other conclusion but of ending union collective bargaining and political basis for democrats.

    The idea that the Cairo concept of social unrest (not the poltical reasons) give rise that Americans can protest as well. New concept for the younger gen. One of the reasons why unions were started in the first place.

  7. Steph B. says:

    The Right is looking for a fight in at least 13 states with their anti-union agenda. I’m willing to bet that if, if they win in any of the northern or midwestern states, Labor will fall. Our own members, with rare exceptions, have no idea of the benefits of collective bargaining. Everything is taken for granted, all their hard won benefits are “deserved”. They’ll whine and bitch and moan and complain “what does my union do for me?”
    How do we tell them, what did you do for your union? Protests and demonstrationsby Public Sector union members in Wisconsin may change my mind.
    On Wisconsin! Don’t let the bastards win.

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