The eruption of class struggle in Wisconsin, that saw workers occupy the State Capitol Building for 17 days, has swept away two ideas that have been a mainstay of American political commentary since the Republican victory in last November’s midterm elections. First that America is a centre-right nation, for whom the agenda of Obama and the Democrats was too left-wing and out of touch with “true” Americans. Second that the far-right Tea Party, whose hysteria about big government has dominated the media, represent grassroots America.
The upsurge in Wisconsin comes after a long absence of activism from the labour movement. The mass movement that swept Obama into power was demobilised soon after he was elected, allowing his administration to capitulate to the right. Having demoralised their base, the Democrats lost control of the political agenda in the face of a right-wing backlash. The Republicans’ confidence grew, despite widely unpopular policies. They initially refused to pass a bill giving healthcare to 9/11 emergency workers and have demanded reductions in the American deficit—while opposing any taxes on the rich or big business and resisting attempts to re-regulate Wall street and the banks in the aftermath of the financial crisis.
But pathetically the Democrats are united with the Republicans on the need for austerity, which would see ordinary people suffer cuts in pay, conditions and services for a crisis they did not cause.
With this backdrop Tea Party member and newly-elected Republican leader of the state of Wisconsin, Scott Walker, brought forward a bill not just cutting public sector pay and benefits, but stripping public sector unions of the right to collectively bargain. This attack on workers has produced militant demonstrations of a kind not been seen for a generation. The day after Scott Walker signed the bill into law, Madison saw the biggest demonstration in its history with 185,000 on the streets.
The demonstrations successfully drew in more workers beyond those directly targeted by the bill. Fire-fighters, whom the bill does not touch, came out in solidarity with the other public sector workers. Workers from the private sector also came out, understanding that the Republicans will not limit themselves to these attacks. The initial protests were led in particular by teachers. One of the most effective actions was the teacher-led walk out that closed schools in the capital. The kind of working class unity that was on display shows the power to stop the Republicans in their tracks.
The Capitol Building itself became a hub of working class solidarity. To maintain the occupation, workers organised to ensure that food and medical supplies reached the demonstrators inside.
But eventually the occupation ended and the Republicans discovered a parliamentary manoeuvre to allow them to pass the changes and avoid Democratic Senators’ blocking tactics. The occupation’s end revealed the divide in the movement, with union officials and Democrats on the one hand trying to steer workers away from strike action, and instead focus on an electoral campaign to recall Walker and the Republican senators in a year’s time. On the other hand many rank-and-file workers wanted to continue fighting, not just to defend collective bargaining but against the layoffs and the cuts as they come down.
The Republicans are determined to press ahead with their attacks. Scott Walker has even drawn parallels to Republican President Ronald Reagan breaking the air traffic controllers union, the first blow in a series of historic union defeats in the 1980s.
Workers across the US are facing similar measures in other states, and from their federal government, as they force through cuts aimed at reducing government deficits. Once again workers are being made to bear the cost of the economic crisis, and the debts governments took on by bailing out billionaire banks and hedge funds. This is despite a return to record profits, record pay and bonuses at the very same banks and Wall Street firms who caused the crisis.
Workers in Wisconsin made many references to Egypt during the demonstrations, now they must follow the lead of the Egyptian workers, whose mass strikes broke Mubarak’s regime and have been winning concessions through further strike action from a ruling class that is now on the defensive. Workers in the US need to learn the lesson that relying on Democratic politicians, who disagree with the Republicans only on the severity of the cuts necessary, will get us nowhere. Like Egypt’s workers, workers in the US need to use the power of strike action to force change. This is the key to winning the struggles ahead.