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Realpolitik in the Wood Violet State

March 3, 2011

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I received this writing from a friend who is a UE staff member. The United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers of America is a national union representing some 35,000 workers in a wide variety of manufacturing, public sector and private non-profit sector jobs. UE is an independent union that is not affiliated with the AFL-CIO.
My reason for posting this text are two fold: The Justseeds blog always supports critical writing and critical points of views. Second, this is one of the few writings that I have read that is critical of some of the recent tactics and decisions by the higher-up within the three major unions involved in the struggle in Wisconsin.
The text argues that the movement in Wisconsin should be led by rank and file members and workers should not concede paying more for pension and heath care benefits at the expense of Walker’s cut-throat policies. The text also urges the strong alliances between EVERYONE in Wisconsin and argues that union members, non-union workers, migrant workers, and the unemployed should come together to form a mass movement.
The author requested that he/she should remain anonymous and we honored that request. We also want to strongly state that those of us in Justseeds in Wisconsin have been working tirelessly to support unions, lend graphics for free to unions, and encourage more people to join unions. We want to see unions become even more powerful and critical writing and debates over tactics and leadership within unions will help this cause.
Realpolitik in the Wood Violet State
by Lucy Parsons, UE staff

“Its pretty clear that we are in an all out class war here and everyone seems to know it,” wrote Andrew Sernatinger in a thought-provoking analysis of the dynamics between union leadership, rank and file members and non-union/unemployed workers who have been participating in the demonstrations in Madison, Wisconsin over recent weeks (http://www.solidarity-us.org/current/node/3175).
The unofficial spokesperson of the ruling class, billionaire CEO Warren Buffet famously asserted his class’s foreknowledge of said war when he told the New York Times’ Ben Stein in 2006, “there’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.”
Considering that Buffet made those comments a full two years before the banks crashed and unemployment skyrocketed, the supplemental history of the past five years can be summed up by saying the generals of the opposing army have marshaled their ground forces in the form of Republican governors and congress people and called in air support in the form of the Koch Brothers and the Obama Administration and are presently attempting to bomb the working class back to the stone age.
As a friend who has held a host of elected union positions within AFSCME Local 82 at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee has said repeatedly since Scott Walker’s Budget Repair Bill was released, “it may be class war but it ain’t the revolution.”


A closer examination of the tactical decisions being played out in Madison — from the strategic value of trying to occupy the state capital building to the role of unions in supporting/relying on the 14 Democratic State Senators who remain in Illinois to attempts to carry out a General Strike — gets at two gigantic and looming problems: the first is that the labor movement has absolutely no strategy (short of giving member dues to the democrats and crying when they don’t do what they were paid good money to do) and the second is a total lack of democracy within unions.
The narrow focus on collective bargaining rights (read: loss of dues checkoff and annual re-certification) by the knuckle-dragging neanderthals who refer to themselves as labor leaders has become the resounding cry out of Wisconsin (less resonant in Ohio, Indiana, Tennessee and Michigan). Framing events in Wisconsin around collective bargaining rights – rather than as a crisis for the unemployed, mentally ill, HIV positive Wisconsinites, students, migrant workers, and many others – merits evaluating the relationship unions have to the situation in Madison.
This coming weekend the Internationals of many large unions (with the exception of the IBEW) are sending everyone they can (mostly union staffers because they are too afraid and too lazy to mobilize their own membership between elections) out to Northern and Western districts to pressure fence-sitting Republicans and gather signatures to recall Darling, Fitzgerald and a couple others from La Crosse and Dodge County. 
Is this an effective strategy? No comment. Is it democratic and directed by the rank and file? Absolutely not. Does it build power in work places or in communities? Not so far as I can tell. Does it in anyway alter the power dynamic between workers — unemployed, underemployed, union, or non-union — with either their employers or the state? While there is a logical case to be made for scaring Republicans into voting against Bill 11, in such matters I tend to defer to Lucy Parsons who rightly warned to “never be deceived that the rich will permit you to vote away their wealth.” Or in this case, vote out those who protect their wealth.
The spontaneity of the large-scale demonstrations and walk-outs after the bill was introduced, as well as the strategic and tactical decisions that have been made by workers and their unions in Wisconsin heretofore, are a referendum on Lucy’s statement — will workers believe in the power of the ballot box to protect their participation in democratic activity at the workplace or will they keep coming in droves to the state capital? Or is there another, more effective path to pursue and who does and doesn’t get to have a voice in charting that course?
There is a much longer conversation to have about what an effective strategy of working people and unions should look like but one thing is clear — rank and file union members in Wisconsin are a million miles ahead of the bureaucrats who legally control their unions. Witness Marty Beil from AFSCME and Mary Bell from WEAC’s unsolicited and unilateral grovel session at Scott Walker’s feet, before which they of course did not bother to consult their respective memberships. Beil and Bell simultaneously insulted the collective intelligence of those union members, who at this point are certainly a very politically savvy group of public workers who would likely have recognized the strategic value of publicizing their willingness to accept increased pension and health care contributions. This ain’t these public workers’ first rodeo when it comes to scapegoating public workers in state budget debates. Although there is no valid financial reason for any state worker in Wisconsin to be accepting any concessions whatsoever, it is not for Marty Beil nor Mary Bell to decide — that decision should be the singular domain of Wisconsin’s teachers and public sector workers.
The sheer number of hotel floors in Madison filled up by top AFL-CIO brass, all with many more stripes on their shoulders than the likes of state leaders like Marty Beil or Mary Bell, sitting in what have been deemed ‘war rooms’ that Trumka can be conferenced into as needed, clearly evidence that the entire machinery of the AFL bureaucracy is falling over itself to control the self-directed mobilization of rank and file members. Much more than Scott Walker ever could, it is the self-directed and autonomous action of workers that threatens these union bureaucrats who are flocking to Wisconsin.
Lovely, ravaged Wisconsin — where the unpretentious but joyful robin is the state bird, the wood violet is the state flower, people wave to strangers on most rural roads and socialist mayors created a working class panacea for some and a racist caste system for others — the realpolitik here cannot be defined by public sector union members and Democrats versus Republicans. Such groupings fall so grossly far from the mark it is a most entertaining passtime to divine guesses at which media commentator tried to fit this mitten-shaped state into that TV-conjured fantasy.
As I see it there are three critical constituencies in Wisconsin: poor and displaced rural folks (Latino farm workers, former farmers and all those whose livelihoods were directly dependent on agriculture); poor displaced urban folks (largely Black within Milwaukee, largely second or third generation European immigrants in the first-ring suburbs but all displaced manufacturing workers or previously engaged in livelihoods that were directly dependent on manufacturing) and the third constituency in Wisconsin is the ever-shrinking unionized workforce (both public and private sector). Of course there is great overlap between and among these constituent communities as many public workers are Black union members, many former agricultural workers/producers are now state employees and so forth (see http://colorlines.com/archives/2011/02/who_are_all_these_evil_public_workers_black_people.html)
All three of these communities have extremely high unemployment or face threats of being laid off; all three rely heavily on BadgerCare (state Medicaid/Medicare services and in the form of both services and employment); all three were disproportionately affected by the privatization of welfare under Thompson; all three will lose all access to abortion services if the federal cuts to Planned Parenthood go through and the discretionary funding for counties is removed as written in Bill 11; and all three communities will be disproportionately affected by the staggering and truly unbelievable cuts to public education (most intensely in the Milwaukee Public School District and poor, rural districts). This however is not the crisis.
The crisis in my view is that the labor movement is the only institution with the infrastructure and resources to mobilize rural and urban unemployed and unionized workers and they absolutely refuse to even consider it. A coalition of African American MPS parents, displaced family farmers from districts with raging public health epidemics of methamphetamine abuse shoulder to shoulder with unionized workers is what is required to beat these mutherfuckers back. Nature abhors a vacuum and tragically the dishwater democrats with their liberal double-speak will be right there to fill it.
At any rate, in light of the fact that the class war has opened a battle theatre in the Badger State, the labor movement should be doing a lot of things in Wisconsin right now. In order to bring that about it is necessary first and foremost for unions to take direction from their rank and file members and practice the democracy that they cry Scott Walker will take away from them.

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3 comments on “Realpolitik in the Wood Violet State”

Actually the unions and Democrats agreed to the budget cuts and pension reforms that Walker wanted and needed, they just didn’t want to get rid of collective bargaining. Even Walker on the phone with fake Koch was saying that was the most important thing. Because what they will do without collective bargaining the state and local govt’s can change anything they want in the work contract. They could make teachers come in 2 hours earlier in the morning in order to help with the school and setting up for the day and also give them time for their classes. Or lets say this time in the Parks and recreations dept in a county that is having financial difficulty, they decided to put he workers on 4 day work weeks to clear a hole in the budget. And if they don’t like it then they are fired and new workers are hired and they may be just part time.

Very good outline. One thing, little to no focus on efforts underway to organize for this general strike. No mention of the South Central Labor Federation delegates’ vote to “endorse” a general strike and to oppose cuts in social services. For more info, go to: http://www.scfl.org and http://www.madison.iww.org.
I spoke with dozens of workers from across Wisconsin at rallies and not one had heard of this through their unions. Instead, the union leaders and Dems work OT to focus everything on recalls that can’t possibly affect change for months. Not by accident, that.

As an ex-public employee myself (currently unemployed), I can’t even begin to describe the heights (depths) of my love for this piece. Bonus points for calling out President Change. It’s long overdue for American Labor to cut ties with the Democratic Party, before those ties strangle us to death for good.
Regards from Portland, OR.