Wisconsin unions can now either give it all they’ve got, or they’re done for.
Right now, after Scott Walker and the Wisconsin Senate Republicans have pushed through this step in the decades-long corporate assault on labor, the unions really have their backs against a wall. Membership has declined, manufacturing has gone oversees, the national Democratic Party has abandoned them, and the cancer of the corporation has metastasized over not just government, but society. If the unions don’t rediscover their past, if they don’t turn around their more recent history of capitulation and infighting, they’ll die soon enough anyway. It’s their choice: militancy or death.
At solidarity rallies and on blogs and in Madison itself, people are fond of saying that because of the unions we have weekends and eight hour workdays, and we don’t have child labor, and so on. And they’re 100 percent right. Most of the greatest gains of labor came in the early 20th century, when they knew that it wasn’t the Democrats who they must support, but themselves, and when militants like the Wobblies would come out by the hundreds of thousands, and solidarity meant putting your body in the way of the bosses, not just signing an online petition.
Now, I’m no labor historian, and I’m not even a union member, and ultimately the people of Wisconsin must be the ones to decide what to do. This is a suggestion, friendly and urgent. But I do believe in that great maxim of Frederick Douglass, “Power concedes nothing without a fight.” And man, has it been great to see labor get back some of its fighting spirit in the past few weeks! But, to quote another great dissident, Thomas Paine, “These are the times that try men’s souls.”
Many people in leadership positions in the labor movement – and this has been seen in the environmental movement, civil libertarian groups, and generally in politics, this is not an attack – since its heyday have been too quick to place their own well-being over the well-being of the movement. That either has to end or these leaders must realize that, in the long term, those two goals are one and the same.
Scott Walker’s attack on labor has, for the moment, been successful. It is just one more nail in the coffin of the movement. It is one more step to complete domination for the corporate bosses. And so, given that situation, the unions can either choose to give half-hearted resistance or to go all-out.
What would militant resistance look like? Perhaps a general strike. Many people in Wisconsin, including labor leaders, have been talking about it and some have officially endorsed the idea. Whatever form it comes in, it is sorely needed. Not just for Wisconsin, but for anyone who is not in the top of the economic pyramid.
The unions could fight and lose. But if they don’t fight, if they don’t give it their all, they will surely lose.