Tag Archives: Wisconsin

Adolph Reed Speaks Truth on Wisconsin

27 Jun

Over at The Nation, Adolph Reed weighs in on the great debate about Wisconsin. (His piece, as of this writing, is second from the top, just after Bill Fletcher’s and Jane McAlevey’s.) Adolph, whose credentials as a thinker and activist I assume no one (at least no one in her right mind) would question, has got some choice words of wisdom that I hope we’ll all heed.

Many observers have noted that the Madison occupation depended on intense, aggressive, even extraordinary mobilization by unions, and not only unions in Wisconsin. That point has underscored the labor movement’s centrality to any mass action of that sort because it alone has the capacity – people and organizational and economic resources — to pull it off and sustain it. The other side of that coin, however, is that the intensity of effort required to sustain that kind of action could not be maintained indefinitely. It is too easy to imagine, as the numbers in Madison grew, that the mobilization had taken on a life of its own, that the People were rising. However, generating and sustaining that mass action required great commitment of effort and resources – effort and resources that weren’t going toward meeting other pressing needs and commitments.

Mass protest is not the end all and be all of political action. It does not necessarily mark going on the offensive or seizing political initiative; it can just as easily be the opposite – an act of desperation or an attempt to create a little space or breathing room to try to recover from a serious blow. It is only the fetish of the Spark that underwrites the default assumption that mass protest or street action equates with radicalization and expansion of the struggle. How many of us have ever really seen (i.e., not simply read or heard about – everybody tells that fish story) a protest action grow entirely on its own to a point where it overwhelms political opposition or converts into a new insurgency?

The tendency to scapegoat the labor movement for Walker’s most recent victory in Wisconsin – and, to be clear, that is what I see in Henwood’s, Rothschild’s and Kroll’s arguments – stems from frustration and desperation and, ironically, recognition, if only backhanded, of the fact that labor was the only element of the coalition challenging Walker with the material and organizational capacity to set and pursue a strategy. What other organized political forces could be identified in order to be blamed? This scapegoating not only rests on a naïvely formalist juxtaposition of street action and electoral action; it also feeds on a long-standing suspicion in many precincts of the post-Vietnam era left of a politics rooted in institutions in general and unions in particular. Gordon Lafer is correct that these criticisms misunderstand what unions are and how they operate as democratic structures, the realities of union leaders’ accountability to their members. I don’t need to reiterate that argument, which he makes very well. I would also commend Corey Robin’s blog posting offering a “Challenge to the Left” to consider what actually attempting to organize a constituency to support an unconventional program requires. For those who want to build a left, that’s the mindset of slow, steady, face-to-face base-building we need, not lurching from one self-gratifying but unproductive action to the next. The point of politics is after all, to resuscitate an old Maoist dictum, to unite the many to defeat the few. Our objective has to be to create that “many,” not merely assume it’s out there already.

What Might Have Been: One Report from Madison, Wisconsin

20 Jun

In all the post-mortems about what went down in Wisconsin, this comment on my blog from a union activist in Madison got lost in the shuffle.  I have no idea who this person is or if s/he is correct in his/her assessment. But it seemed worth posting here in full.

. . . . . . .

I’m a member of the Teaching Assistants’ Association. I was heavily involved during the actual occupation of the Capitol, and then gradually less so after we were kicked out. I was at the meeting of the Wisconsin South-Central Federation of Labor when it voted to endorse a general strike if the bill went through. It should be noted that the final version of the bill involved endorsing an “international” general strike, whatever the hell that would be.

Although, to be fair, since the leadership knew they didn’t have a strike fund or any advance work with any unions, they were only endorsing a strike in principle, I still thought I was on the set of a movie. Since, you know, the last general strike in the United States was in Minneapolis in 1934. I talked to a still-wet-behind-the-ears paid organizer for SCFL, and he told me that, indeed, there was serious talk about a general strike.

When things actually hit the fan, of course, it was only the directly-affected public-sector unions that had any real strike talk. In my own, undoubtedly the most radical, there was a hard core of activists who had been working around the clock on the occupation who favored going on strike. I was willing to be one of them, but it became pretty clear that we had no chance in hell of winning a strike vote. The primary problem was not our ”fat-cat” union bureaucrats (our officers actually don’t draw a union salary) but the bulk of our membership. Even among the people who showed up to our large and contentious general membership meetings there were many who strongly opposed our “teachouts,” in which we didn’t teach our classes on campus but sometimes made alternative arrangements to teach near the State Capitol. I imagine that among the much larger number who didn’t come to the meetings and didn’t participate in the teachouts, such opposition was even greater. Certainly, those members would never have voted for a formal walkout.

Even some of our progressive faculty were getting antsy about the continued teachouts, and, of course, there was a considerable public backlash against the wildcat sickouts that many teachers participated in, most notably members of MTI, the Madison teachers union.

Without knowing all the decision-making details within the big public-sector unions, I am still confident that there is no way that a grassroots groundswell for a strike was squelched by union bureaucrats and Democratic politicians. They might have tried (and likely failed) to squelch such a surge had it existed, but it was clear to the vast majority of those involved that we had already done pretty much all we could do and that there was not going to be any strike, let alone the fabled general strike, the chimera of the left.

It might be interesting to imagine what would have happened had there been some organized campaign to stop doing any other activism and start preparing for a mass public-sector strike. For those who think the recall was an overreach, you shouldn’t try to imagine what the backlash would have been against that.

Update (6/21, 8:30 am)

One commenter reminds us that the last general strike in the United States was in Oakland in 1946, not Minneapolis in 1934.

Whither Wisconsin: A Guide to the Perplexed (Left)

15 Jun

Gordon Lafer on how to think—and not think—about the Wisconsin recall:

After all, if the real problem was overpaid union bureaucrats, then radical unions like the Wobblies or United Electrical workers—unburdened by highly paid staff or Democratic politics—should be meeting greater success in organizing. But, of course, they are not. The problem is not what unions are doing; it’s the coercive power of employers.

Read the rest here.


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