By now, there's can be no doubting it: What's happening in
Wisconsin is one of the most important labor developments in decades. It's of
major importance to unions and their members, of major importance to working
people generally – of major importance to us all.
it's the 1930s again. Just as then, workers and their political allies and
demonstrating, picketing, marching, striking and otherwise forcefully demanding
the basic civil right of collective bargaining – the unfettered right for
workers' representatives to negotiate with employers on setting their wages,
hours and working conditions.
Eventually, workers and their millions of supporters won the
1930s struggle. Congress, acting closely with President Franklin D. Roosevelt,
granted the legal right of collective bargaining to most workers. Farm workers,
domestics and a few other groups were excluded from the law, but all others
finally had that vital right.
The 1930s struggle arose primarily because of the economic
pressures of the Great Depression that led to massive protests, just as today's
struggle can be traced to the pressures of the Great Recession that also have
led to massive protests.
There are key differences between then and now, however. In
the thirties, the struggle was to win union rights for workers in the face of
strong opposition from large financial interests, powerful conservative
politicians and other anti-labor forces. Today, the struggle is to keep union
rights from being taken away from workers by today's anti-union forces. Their
main targets are public employees and the pensions and other benefits they won
in past bargaining with their government employers.
The governments' aim, of course, is to use the savings from
that to make up for budget shortfalls resulting from the recession and, in many
cases, from poor government management.
But there's another important reason: Public employees have
become the vanguard of the labor movement. Their numbers and the percentage of
them belonging to unions have been growing steadily, while the number and
percentage of unionized workers in private employment have been shrinking.That's
caused anti-union forces to
shift their major efforts into attempting to curb the escalating spread of
unionization among public employees.
Which explains what's happening in Wisconsin, where
Republican Gov. Scott Walker has moved to all but eliminate the bargaining
rights of most state employees.
Walker is pushing bills through the GOP-controlled
Legislature that would bar state employees from bargaining on anything except
their pay, and limit any pay increases to the level of Consumer Price Index
Employees would have no say in determiningtheir benefits
or working conditions,
although most would have to increase their contributions topension and health
care funds by up to
50 percent. What's more, their contracts would have to be re-negotiated yearly,
and union dues could no longer be deducted from employee paychecks.It's hard
to imagine a union surviving
under such restraints.
The pay and benefits of Wisconsin state workers may be too
high, or too low, depending on who's measuring. But that could be addressed
through negotiations between Gov. Walker and union representatives. But like
some petty dictator, Walker insists, "I don't have anything to
Peaceful negotiations are how it's done in civil societies,
but that's not the style of union-busting Walker and his cohorts.And if anyone
doesn't like Walker's
approach, look out! He's alerted the National Guard to be armed and ready
should Wisconsin state workers strike, disrupt state services or otherwise rise
Shades, again, of the 1930s. In fact, the last time the
Guard was called out to quell a labor dispute in Wisconsin was during a United
Auto Workers strike in 1934.
Workers eventually won that and many other struggles of the
thirties, thanks to their courage and fierce determination and the broad public
support they inspired. And that's precisely what it will take to overcome today's
anti-worker onslaught by Walker and others like him.
The good news – and it's very good news – is that such help
is here and growing fast. Crowds of as many as 70,000 labor supporters have
been gathering daily outside the Wisconsin State Capital in Madison to demand
that Walker and his fellow reactionaries return to the 21st century.
But give Walker this: Like the anti-labor politicians of the
1930s, he has aroused public outrage that has brought important new strength
and solidarity to the cause of working people and their unions nationwide.
Certainly they'll need all the strength they can muster,
with major efforts similar to Walker's in Wisconsin underway in at least 17
other states.In more than a
dozen. , Republican anger over labor's strong support for Democrats in last
year's elections have led directly to measures curbing union political
President Obama is correct. There is indeed a nationwide
"assault on unions."
But as the assaults increase, so will the public outrage
that's winning unions the broad support they so badly need – and so richly