Real Time Class Struggle

Posted on March 14, 2011 by

Union activists celebrated in 1995 when John Sweeney replaced Lane Kirkland as president of the AFL-CIO.

While American unions had been declining under Kirkland – an old guard “cold war democrat” – Sweeney had been leading a growth spurt at SEIU with his team of militant organizers and skilled strategists.

Though Sweeney guided some reform and brought new blood into the AFL-CIO, there was no let-up in the erosion of union “market share.”

Despite some extraordinary regional and national campaigns on behalf of janitors and hotel workers – and successful struggles to hold onto union contracts in legacy industries – broad-based union revitalization did not occur.

There are plenty of good reasons for this failure:  the fractured structure of American unions, outmoded labor laws, aggressive union-avoidance methods and globalization.

But the Sweeney era was a disappointment nevertheless, and it was under his watch – though not necessarily his fault – that organized labor suffered its biggest crack-up, when SEIU and several other internationals left the AFL-CIO to form the Change to Win coalition.

Those of us who were along for the ride are just a little jaded.  You get your hopes up – just think labor law reform under Obama – but then…

So we want to know:

Is this just another of those occasional episodes of rising expectations and opportunities or has Madison fundamentally shifted the dynamic?

Too soon to tell, of course, but here are a few thoughts:

You’re always hearing union activists complain about how hard it is to get the public’s attention and – if you do – how careful you must be to “frame” the issue.

In Madison, outraged state government employees conveyed courage, conviction, restraint, self-respect, solidarity and collective responsibility.  And they did the best job I’ve ever seen making “collective bargaining rights” a noble and truly American idea.

All this in front of a very big audience.  It may not be “the whole world [that] is watching” but it certainly is the whole country.

Then there’s the amazing, around-the-clock coverage and mobilization available online through AlterNet, American Prospect, Daily KosHuffington Post, In These Times, Labor Notes, Nation, Progressive, Truthdig and dozens more. 

Remember, it was just two months ago that the disappearing labor movement was a central concern to only a small circle of progressives.

But now, thanks to radical republican governors, media-savvy labor activists and suddenly enlightened democrats, Americans are getting a real-time look at what unions stand for and the meaning of class struggle.

Comments (7)


  1. John Connolly says:

    The Rightist assault in Wisconsin (et al) has engendered a magnificent and powerful response from our Movement and our allies.

    It has electrified workers and our unions nationwide, and has begun to confront Liberals with the grim necessity of answering Joe Hill’s famed question: “Which side are you on, boy?”

    It has released the pent up fury of workers and progressives who have seen the proto-fascists of the Tea Party seize the imagination of a segment of the working class long-demobilized by a depressing sense of confusion and helplessness to the point of voting directly against their own interests.

    Wisconsin has focused that pent-up fury into a mass movement of workers and allies, showing the TeaBags what true face of American rage looks like.

    Wisconsin has restored nobility to the notion of workers’ right to organize.

    And it’s made the Republicans’ legislative spokespeople and Governor Walker look like the two-faced, whiney, blustery nerds that they are.

    But can the refreshing militancy and fury engendered by Wisconsin power us to victory, after such a long agony of inexorable decline as Labor has endured?

    Can we build and sustain a mass movement that will translate into organizing victories against state power; that will force the Democratic Party to earn its keep; that will inspire millions of non-union workers to do what they say they want to do: organize a union; get a voice at work; seize the political power they own?

    We’ve got a lot of bravery, a lot of brains and a lot of bucks on our side out there … but do we still have the social weight to achieve critical mass in the population, to blast through decades of defeat, weariness, frustration, lousy laws, rigged elections, and cynical enemies and friends?

    Probably the only way to answer that question is to dig in, step up, and throw down. For the next long haul.

  2. Ben Sears says:

    Yeah, I agree that this time around, it looks as if we really might be seeing things turn around for the labor movement! I always appreciate your comments.
    I would just add the People’s World (on line version of the former Daily Worker) to the list of those providing great coverage.

  3. Gavin says:

    For labor to continue to be effective force and not lose strength, both public opinion and Union organizing must change. The current climate and declining numbers has proven what happens when Unions operate as a service model and not an organizing model. On public opinion I often wonder and characterize as what happened tor it – o the country – the 60’s bought forth thoughts of peace and better world. Makes me think of my term for it – “hippies to hypocrites” – as many have turned from liberal thinking to conservative me only thoughts. Labor needs to change its public image to gain public support. Without it, affecting politicians and laws will become even more difficult or Unions.

  4. Betty Madden says:

    On the streets around LA holding the “LA Supports You” sign and the “WISCONSIN” AFL-CIO sign stops people to ask were you there? What was it like to be there in WI? “I’m so mad” is the common lament or “This is crazy” “Thank you for being out here with your signs”. I tell everyone to come to have their voices heard on March 26 “Our Communities Our Jobs” and hand people a flier. We will see how focused people are and how committed to stand up for collective bargaining rights.

  5. Hey Ben and Lou,

    Thanks for the add! We have had correspondents in Madison and other parts of Wisconsin and around the country giving great coverage. Check out our facebook page: for the most recent report: 300 students walk out of Illinois high school in solidarity with Illinois Federation of Teachers and union rights!

    Check out the photos especially. They are enough to make you cheer.


  6. faberglas says:

    Great post! I have to say that the phony Tea Bag movement is just Daddy Koch’s John Birch Society rebranded by his boys. These are not neo-fascists or proto-fascists, they want corporations to rule America and that is Fascism.

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