Weighing General Strike Option, Wisconsin Unions Map Fights
on Many Fronts
by David Moberg
Working In These Times
In These Times Magazine
March 11, 2011
Ten days after Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker proposed severely
crippling public employee unions and virtually eliminating
collective bargaining, the state's South Central Federation
of Labor (SCFL) voted to support a general strike if the
legislation was passed and signed.
Now, relying on a legally questionable maneuver, the
overwhelming majority of Republican legislators have passed
the anti-union part of Walker's putative "budget repair"
bill proposal, sending it to Walker for certain signing. In
the hallways outside the legislators' chambers Capitol,
protesters were shouting "shame" and "you're disgraceful,"
but also calling out, "general strike."
Could Madison - or Wisconsin - workers turn to a general
strike, shutting down public and private enterprise?
"I don't know if there's any serious thinking about it,"
says SCFL president Jim Cavanaugh, a member of a state
employee union, who worked on labor history projects for the
famous Wisconsin State Historical Society. "Many people are
seriously talking about the possibility, what it means, and
what critical mass it would take. But we're several steps
away from a planning stage."
An ad hoc committee of the SCFL - the central labor council,
or local counterpart to the national AFL-CIO, covering
Madison and surrounding counties - has pulled together on
the SCFL website information about the history of general
strikes and what organizational work went into successful
general strikes in Ontario, Canada, from 1996-1998.
During general strikes most unions in some geographical
region, typically joined by nonunion workers and other
groups, shut down all private and public goods and service
production for a period of time, usually keeping open and
running essential services.
Historian Peter Rachleff notes that general strikes - some
spanning many states, others limited to a city - have played
an important role in U.S. history. In the late nineteenth
century, for example, there were three especially wide-
ranging strike waves - the 1877 railroad strike, the 1886
Haymarket/8-hour day strikes, and the Pullman strike and
boycott of 1894. In the twentieth century, workers conducted
general strikes in Seattle (1919); in Minneapolis, Toledo
and San Francisco (1934); and in a half-dozen cities - along
with industry-wide strikes immediately after World War II.
"One of the most interesting features of general strikes,"
Rachleff writes, "has been the extent to which, although
they usually start out as `defensive,' as resistance to
employer/government pressure on workers, they turn
'offensive,' with workers seeking to improve their work and
living situations, to expand their power, and to imagine a
In Wisconsin, local unions would have to call strikes. But
almost all public employee unions are barred by law or
contractual arrangements from striking, and most private
sector unions also face contractual and legal obstacles.
They could strike, nonetheless, without legal protection and
with higher risk of retribution, raising the stakes in the
conflict. The central labor council could play a major
coordinating role if the battle reaches that stage, but a
general strike is not simply "called," Cavanaugh says. "You
build for things like that."
Much of the building now is for demonstrations that took
place Thursday when the bill passed, leading up to a mass
rally on Saturday at the Capitol (preceded by a
"tractorcade" by sympathetic family farmers).
Union members and supporters are so enthusiastically
throwing themselves into the task of getting signatures on
petitions to hold recall elections for eight Republican
state senators that a key server was overloaded Wednesday.
(Cavanaugh says "We Are Wisconsin," a broad coalition, will
coordinate the recall efforts.) At least a few are quite
vulnerable, given their margin of victory and the shift in
political sentiment in the state against Walker and his plan
and for workers' rights.
Even before then, on April 5, voters will choose between
incumbent state Supreme Court justice David Prosser - a
self-identified political and judicial conservative who says
he complements Gov. Walker's program and is part of a four
to three Republican majority on the court - and moderate
Democrat JoAnne Kloppenburg, a veteran of the attorney
Cavanaugh worries that important as that vote could be for
rulings on Walker's legislation or future action, unions and
progressives have been preoccupied with immediate battles.
"I don't know if the good guys can launch a big enough
effort" for an election that's coming soon and likely to
draw lots of outside corporate and conservative money on
behalf of Prosser," he said.
Although labor strategists are focusing much of their
attention on politics, they are not neglecting the
workplace, the streets, and other arenas.
Union members are planning to wear symbols of solidarity at
work on specific days - green for AFSCME (state, county and
municipal union) state workers one day, red for all
Milwaukee public employees another.
Wisconsin unions are also embracing the call from
Communications Workers of America President Larry Cohen for
nationwide actions on April 4, the anniversary of Martin
Luther King Jr.'s assassination.
On their own, workers could organize more sick-outs,
following the lead of many Madison teachers last month. But
the new legislation gives Walker the power to fire any state
employee who misses three days of work. And public employees
could work to rule. As Madison labor attorney Aaron Halstead
explains, "Hypothetically, when workers are conducting
safety checks on vehicles, there are checks that are really,
really thorough, and checks that are cursory. Individuals
could decide to be very thorough."
New state labor federation secretary-treasurer Stephanie
Bloomingdale also urges unions to take advantage of the
public interest in and support for unions to organize new
workers more vigorously.
General strike or no, there is already a general labor,
political and social movement building in Wisconsin that has
potential to grow, spread and gain.
[David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been
on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in
1976. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work
for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and
worked for Newsweek. He has received fellowships from the
John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation
Institute for research on the new global economy. He can be
reached at [log in to unmask] ]
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