The statement by the LRP Wisconsin: A Tale of Betrayal was originally released as a leaflet on April 1, 2011. The Introduction, along with the statement, appeared in Proletarian Revolution No. 84 (Spring 2011)


After Wisconsin, Attacks on Unions Mount

The mass protest in Madison, Wisconsin against Republican Governor Scott Walker’s attack on public sector unions caught the attention of workers around the country. The bold move by workers and young people to occupy the Capitol building, followed by big rallies in support of the unions, raised hopes that the unions might finally organize a fightback – after years in which the capitalists and their politicians have gotten away with one anti-working class attack after another without facing resistance.

Instead, the opportunity was squandered by a union bureaucracy dedicated to serving itself and the capitalist Democratic Party, not the working class. As our statement (below on this page) shows, the unions and the Democrats caved in from the start on the devastating cutbacks demanded by the Republicans. And the unions failed to take strike action even at the key juncture when the union-busting bill was passed.

Since the struggle in Wisconsin receded, and the bureaucrats and Democrats have been petitioning for the recall of Republican state senators. Similar strategies are derailing the opposition to similar attacks in Michigan, Ohio and Indiana. The unions’ passive and defeatist approach has handed the momentum to enemies of the working class. Thus, despite the enormous potential created by the Madison occupation, the anti-union trend is spreading. Even more legislatures are lobbing bombs against the interests and rights of public workers and therefore all workers.

Illinois Teachers’ Unions Cave In

Take the situation in Illinois, where the state senate unanimously passed a bill (SB 0007) on April 14 that would drastically curb seniority rights and more. It is expected to be enacted, and then layoffs, tenure and promotion will be based more on “performance evaluations” than seniority. Teachers’ unions have long opposed this procedure, since such evaluations serve as weapons in the hands of school administrators to reward compliant teachers and punish those they dislike. As well, teachers would have to inform management of their intent to strike two months in advance.

Particularly harsh rules are aimed at the teachers in Chicago, who are represented by the Chicago Teachers Union (CTU), the largest and most militant local in the state. Chicago teachers would have to notify management of an intent to strike up to four months in advance (it is now 10 days). And a 75% vote would be needed to approve a strike, as opposed to 50% elsewhere.

This is a cutthroat capitalist strategy to curb the power of teachers as workers. But the biggest outrage is that the union bureaucrats signed on. Leaders of the Illinois Federation of Teachers, Illinois Education Association and the CTU all participated in this shabby deal, and had the gall to declare in a statement, “This is proof education employee unions can and should be leaders in reform.” (Chicago Tribune, April 13.)

While the actions of these union leaders have been more openly treacherous than in Wisconsin, the template of betrayal is the same. In Illinois, the bureaucrats tried to fend off the sort of fight over collective bargaining that Governor Walker in Wisconsin provoked – by proactively supporting the bill slashing union rights. As IEA President Ken Swanson put it:

What we’ve shown is you do not have to have draconian, unwarranted attacks on public employee rights (for) collective bargaining. You can do this through collective bargaining. You can do this through bringing the parties to the table. So Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana, other states, look to Illinois, we’ll show you how to do it the right way. (Illinois Statehouse News, April 15.)

That is, you don’t have to push aside union officials to cut workers’ throats – we’ll do it for you.

Wider Unity Needed

In our statement on Wisconsin we noted that the union leaders failed to carry out a strategy that could have appealed to wider sections of the working class beyond Madison. It is obvious that focusing on the state capitol was necessary, given that the attacks were coming from the governor and legislature. But Madison’s working class is disproportionately white-collar, with fewer factory and manual workers compared to office and other skilled workers. Also, Madison’s working class is largely white, even more so than the state as whole (which has a smaller percentage of people of color than many other states.) If the struggle in Madison was going to realize its potential to inspire broader working-class struggle, it had to overcome its appearance as a protest by better-off workers lacking concern for the more exploited and oppressed.

Instead, because of the conservative approach of the top union leaders, the struggle did not make a serious attempt to spread to other urban centers, notably Milwaukee. It was isolated even from other public workers in the same state, including Black workers. The union leaders made at best token efforts to engage industrial and other private-sector workers in general and Black and Latino workers in particular.

But the union leaders, with their losing strategy of conceding to the cutbacks from the start, were in no position to appeal to the working class at large, including the communities that depend on such services. A leadership that stood for a real defense of the unions would have stood against all the concessions and cutbacks. It would have fought for a massive jobs and public works program, while actively exposing the bailouts to the corporations. There is no guarantee that such a policy would have galvanized a movement beyond Madison. But it would at the very least have established the common ground to make a successful movement possible.

Sentiment for a General Strike

The betrayal of the Wisconsin struggle was not a seamless matter. There was sentiment for more militant action, not only among rank and file members and students but also on the part of local labor officials and activists. Some talked about and made formal motions for a general strike. And Labor Notes, a publication animated by leftish union officials and leftists with years of involvement in union affairs, said: “A one-day Wisconsin general strike April 4 would show employers and politicians there and everywhere the depths of the anger and labor’s ability to organize.” (“What’s Next for Wisconsin,” by Mark Brenner and Jane Slaughter, March 11.)

We can’t say in what proportion these calls were genuine, as opposed to politically calculated comments appealing to union militants. But we do know that Labor Notes has enough influence to have undertaken a serious campaign for a general strike. Its supporters could have taken every opportunity to raise motions in unions in Wisconsin and elsewhere, called for support rallies demanding strike action and used the internet and other media to promote a general strike. That would have stirred up a lot more support than publishing a statement in their journal. It is high time for those who claim they are “putting the movement back in the labor movement” to take a stand in clear opposition to the leadership of the top bureaucrats.

This unserious approach continued after the decline in the struggle. On the first weekend in April, Labor Notes held a “Troublemakers’ School” in Madison. Although scheduled months earlier, it took on an added significance since the mass protests were fresh in the minds of participants. The school was a good opportunity to assess the struggle’s strengths and weaknesses, and to at least start formulating an alternative strategy to that of the union bureaucracy.

But what the school called “the unprecedented activism of the last month” seemed to have little impact on the attitudes or politics of most of those in attendance – a largely white grouping anchored in a comfortable core of union and retiree officials, professors and left third-party advocates. To be sure, there were elements to the conference that would distinguish it from a run-of-the-mill affair of union officialdom: expressions of dissatisfaction with the Democrats and union leaders, favorable references to the idea of a general strike, even a workshop that asked, “Is capitalism working for the workers?” But though the announced intention was to plot a strategy, little was offered in that direction. There were no concrete proposals or enthusiasm for much of anything, other than positive feelings expressed for the recall campaign (which is in truth a diversion from mobilizing for mass action).

The setbacks and the ebb in the immediate struggle of public sector workers are not fatal indicators of the prospects for working-class resistance. The events in Madison and other state capitals show that working-class grievances are accumulating, and that answers and alternatives are being sought, if tentatively, on a mass scale. New and more intense struggles will arise. But workers, oppressed peoples and their allies will have to mount an alternative to the strategy and betrayals of the union leadership, or far worse setbacks will occur. Capitalism, in the final analysis, demands it. The strategy and leadership to take on and defeat the system must be a revolutionary one.

Wisconsin: A Tale of Betrayal

April 1, 2011

The massive fightback in Madison appeared ready to escalate to a new level of confrontation on the night of Wednesday, March 9, when the Republicans rammed Governor Scott Walker’s union-busting bill through the Wisconsin Senate. Many thousands of angry protesters swarmed to the capitol building and surrounded it. The Senators had to sneak out of the Capitol and out of Madison under the cover of a police escort. The most popular chant of the protesters was “General Strike! General Strike!” Union workers and their supporters around the state were ready to answer a call to militant action to stop the union-busting bill.

But the call to action never came. Not a single union leader called a strike to protest the passage of the bill. Instead of building on the broad public support they had to launch a militant mass struggle to kill the bill, the union leaders told workers to rely on the passive electoral strategy of voting for the Democratic Party and trying to recall Republican legislators and the governor. Meanwhile the unions under attack may well be already busted before the recall process ever gets off the ground or the next election comes around. And the attack by the capitalist class continues across the country.

The union leaders and their Democratic allies have done their best to dissipate the momentum of the unprecedented protests against union-busting and cutbacks in Wisconsin. The occupation of the Capitol, the rallies of up to 100,000, the teacher sick-outs and student walk-outs were a shot in the arm to working-class militants in this country and an inspiration to people around the globe. American demonstrators chanting “We are all Egyptians” expressed solidarity and identification with the struggles of oppressed workers and youth.

The confrontations in Wisconsin indeed reflected a shift in class consciousness: the “one-sided class war” that labor leaders have been lamenting since the 1970’s looked like it could become a genuine two-sided battle in which the working class had the power to win something for a change. Even though defeated, this struggle, like similar actions it has spawned in other states where workers face similar political attacks, shows that real potential exists for building mass working-class actions that could mount serious resistance to the decades-long assault on workers and oppressed people in the U.S.

What Could Have Been Done

Governor Walker has taken the capitalists’ attack to a new level: the abrogation of public-sector union rights to negotiate over anything but small variations in wages. In effect, he wants government bosses to be able to dictate job conditions to destroy pensions and benefit packages without even consultation – out-and-out union-busting. The Republicans’ bill also included cuts to Medicare and other public subsidies. It was temporarily suspended on technical grounds by a judge, but that suspension is not expected to last.

The stakes are enormously high. Sharp lessons need to 1be drawn about this fightback and the labor leadership. The labor bureaucrats teamed up with Democratic politicians to misguide, limit and fritter away the potential of this inspiring fight. In so doing, they are continuing the treacherous role they have generally played in the class struggle and are promising more of the same.

It was not the union leaders but protesters, workers and students, who sparked the mass struggle by occupying the capitol building. After that the local labor leaders played a more active and leading role in the resistance, but at the critical moment they failed to act. Among the protesters, to be sure, there were illusions in pacifism, in the Democrats and in working within the system, plus going along with flag-waving and anthem-singing patriotism that covered over the class gulf between the workers under attack and the capitalists’ hireling politicians. But there have also been much anger and a sense of class solidarity, which could have been the basis for turning back the legislation. Large sections of workers were ready to follow a militant strategy – if one had been presented and backed by an organized leadership.

It was especially heartening to witness the growing sentiment for a general strike around the Wisconsin events. For example, a February 21 resolution by the Wisconsin South Central Federation of Labor endorsed the idea of a general strike. A South Carolina labor leader, Ken Riley of the Charleston local of the International Longshoremen’s Association, announced: “I don’t see any other way than a general workers strike. I would actually want to have a call for a general strike before the bill is passed.” Such militant talk was well received in the growing crowds, making all the more glaring the betrayal that no union leaders went beyond rhetoric to take the bold step of actually calling a strike or fighting for a general strike when the moment was at hand.

We note that some police organizations endorsed the Madison protests. We warn our fellow workers that cops are not workers – they are agents of the capitalist state. The temporary support that some of them display must not be allowed to fool anyone. When push comes to shove, they will be ready with tear gas and worse. Any kind of alliance with or reliance on the cops or correction officers could literally be a death trap for the workers and youth.

It is significant that few Black people were involved in Madison, a reflection in part of the demographic structure of the area but also of the narrow strategy of the leaders – not reaching out to other layers of public sector workers in cities like Milwaukee which have more Black and Latino working-class people. As the attacks on workers, especially public-sector workers, deepen, more and more Black workers will be at the center of resistance. And given the history of cop-enforced racism in this country, it is safe to say that the cops will not treat them so gently.

Bureaucrats and Democrats: Buddies in Betrayal

A union leadership serious about defending its members and other workers would have provided leadership, to focus and mobilize workers’ will to fight for their interests by relying on their power as a class. A strike movement starting with the teachers and other public workers under Walker’s gun could have been the rallying force for the demands of other workers, the poor and the oppressed. A united working-class strategy is not only the best immediate defense. It also reflects the reality that what is at stake was not only union-busting but also social service cuts that would devastate above all the worst-off layers of the population.

But the union bureaucrats suppressed all this potential for a united resistance. Teachers were herded back to work after their brief sick-out. Proposals for a general strike at the decisive moment were discouraged. Even isolated strike action was considered too extreme. What the bureaucrats played up was working through the “political process.” This meant channeling the protests into forums for Democratic Party politicians and phasing out militant demonstrations in favor of electoral campaigning. As one speaker put it at the 100,000-strong demonstration in Madison on March 12, it is time to “trade your rally signs for clipboards” in order to collect signatures for the recall of Republican senators and to get out the vote for the Democrats in 2012.

The union officials were apparently animated only by the attack on bargaining rights that they saw as a direct threat to their role as labor brokers. While rank-and-file workers were absolutely right to resist this assault on collective bargaining, it was equally necessary to defend their past gains and stop the cuts. That did not happen, because the union leaders and the politicians who claim to support unions conceded all of Walker’s wage and benefit cutbacks without a fight. This was not only a blow to their members’ immediate interests; it also meant not reaching out to the rest of the working class and poor by championing their needs for quality education, health care, and other essential services as well as jobs.

The Democratic politicians offered nothing but legislative games as a way to stop the bill, and the union leaders went along as usual. This template for “struggle” is being used in other states where public workers are being targeted, but without the overwhelming mass resistance of Wisconsin. In Ohio, another eye of the same storm, the union leaders refused to carry out the kind of mobilization that would have been necessary to stop the attacks by Governor Kasich. Instead they are telling workers to focus on gathering signatures to get the just-passed bill repealed by a referendum in November. And in Michigan, Governor Snyder signed a bill giving “emergency financial managers” unprecedented powers to tear up union contracts and privatize city services. Republicans in Indiana, Tennessee and Florida have also launched similar assaults on public workers and the poor.

Austerity Attacks and Union-Busting

Democrats are also a critical component of the anti-union attacks. Governors Cuomo in New York and Brown in California have played high profile roles in the wave of cutbacks. And the leadership comes from the top Democrat: President Obama’s hostility to teachers’ unions – including his Race to the Top campaign and the championing of non-union charter schools – and his freezing of federal workers’ wages are measures that have provided cover and encouragement for the anti-worker attacks on the state level.

All the politicians justify their attacks on the grounds that state budgets have been crimped as a consequence of the world economic crisis. Indeed, the Great Recession since 2007 and the threat of an all-out Depression is real, even though Republican and Democratic politicians have worsened the budget deficits by granting tax breaks to the rich and corporations, on top of the huge bailouts to Wall Street. World capitalism has been stagnating for four decades; gains in profit rates have been achieved only by deepening the exploitation of workers in the economically advanced countries like the U.S., as well as expanding the imperialist super-exploitation of workers, peasants and poor people in the rest of the world.

The nationwide attack on public-sector workers is a classic divide-and-conquer technique. It aims to convince workers in the private sector, as well as other beleaguered sectors of the population, that public workers, not the capitalist system, are the root of the problems with state and municipal budgets, the quality of education, etc. The capitalist class and its politicians hope to set back public-worker unions and wield that precedent to take back more from private-sector workers and other sectors. Walker & Co. also want to crush unions as defensive organizations of the working class as a step in a longer-term effort to further slash the wages and conditions of all workers, union and non-union.

Break with the Democrats!

The Democratic politicians (and some Republicans) understand that the current union labor leadership is totally loyal to the capitalist system and can be depended upon to keep the rank and file upsurge within limits that don’t rock the boat. They want to keep the union leaders in their “seats at the table” in order to protect the image of fairness. They fear the class explosions that could occur, both as an immediate response to union-busting and in the future, if the union bureaucrats are unable to control the ranks. Of course, they also want votes and political support – and they figure that their mild support for collective bargaining is a relatively safe and cheap way to get it. The long record of Democratic Party betrayals of unions, workers and oppressed people tells the real story. (See for example A Dialogue on the Democrats in Proletarian Revolution No. 70.)

What enabled the right wing to go for the kill in Wisconsin, Ohio, etc. was not only the economic crisis but also the refusal of the working-class leadership – union officials and the heads of social justice organizations – to mount a mass resistance against the anti-worker attacks, highlighted historically by Reagan’s smashing of the air traffic controllers’ union, PATCO, in 1981.

The decades of sellouts by union leaders over contracts and other issues are rooted in their support for the capitalist system, in particular their loyalty to the Democratic Party. Rather than seeing themselves as champions of the workers and oppressed people, they play the role of labor brokers, go-betweens whose social position is based on bargaining with the capitalists and the government on behalf of the workers – often enforcing givebacks and preventing more profound struggles that could threaten capitalist rule.

Revolutionary socialists have always held that the working class needs to organize its own political party, independent of and in confrontation with the capitalist Republicans and Democrats. We in the LRP believe that this party must be a revolutionary party, that workers’ socialist revolution is the only solution. It is not just spineless or greedy politicians but the operation of the capitalist system as a whole, which requires deeper exploitation of all workers. It uses racism and anti-immigrant chauvinism to divide and conquer the working class at home, along with imperialist wars to maintain the super-exploitation of workers and the domination of oppressed nations abroad.

For a General Strike!

Since our founding in the mid-1970’s, the LRP has been widely known for advocating the need for a general strike against capitalist attacks on the working class. This demand has received attention in the Wisconsin struggle in a way that has not existed for many years.

A general strike in Wisconsin would likely have been started by public workers, but it would be essential to reach out to the private sector as well as unemployed workers and youth. There is truth to the argument that public-sector workers get pensions and benefits that others don’t have. The private-sector unions have been decimated – Obama, for example, dealt a crippling blow to the UAW, once the forerunner in winning gains for workers on the U.S. scene, including Black workers. Many non-unionized workers, especially immigrants, get few if any benefits on top of their sub-standard pay.

The answer is not to lower the living standards and rights of public workers but to fight together to raise everyone up. A general strike in Wisconsin surely would have inspired further struggle in other states and caused other governors and legislatures to think twice about pursuing the similar actions that are now taking place in Ohio, Indiana and elsewhere. Thus the LRP advocated a general strike to stop all of Walker’s attacks: “For a General Strike to Stop Union Busting and Cutbacks – Kill the Bill!” And we believe that as the class struggle intensifies, the general strike will more and more come to be on the order of the day.

The Way Forward

A demand that some union officials, liberal politicians, and leading activists are raising in some states is “cancel the tax cuts for millionaires.” This slogan is deservedly popular, since the top capitalists and bankers have been bailed out hand over fist and have been handed outrageous tax breaks, contributing to the budget deficits for which workers are now being asked to pay. But despite the claims by some economists like former Labor Secretary Robert Reich, rescinding the tax breaks for the wealthy would decrease but not resolve the immediate budget problems. Nevertheless, it is shameful that the union officials and Democratic liberals would not seriously fight for a demand that they claimed to favor so strongly.

On a broader scale, some labor leaders and activists on the left have raised “Tax the Rich” as a road to reversing the decades-long trend that has poured higher and higher proportions of wealth and income into the hands of the super-wealthy, and funding the huge public spending needed to address the vast economic and social disasters that capitalism is delivering. But again, there has been no attempt to build a movement around this demand. As revolutionary socialists, we certainly favor far-reaching transformations to deal with these crises. But the tax increases being proposed are a drop in the bucket compared to the trillions of dollars of bank bailouts handed to Wall Street, and even more insignificant compared to the massive public spending required to meet the working class’s urgent need for improved social services. Moreover, for as long as the capitalists control the economy, they will be able to dodge taxes and continue to drive the system into crises because of their pursuit of private profit.

In the big struggles that lie ahead, workers need to confront head-on the lie that our class has to sacrifice to pay off the huge debts to the banks and Wall Street. We need to reject the policy of handing out trillions in bailout money, and continually paying massive interest costs on the public debt. Workers’ demands should be “Nationalize the Banks!” and “Repudiate the Debts to Wall Street!”

Such sweeping changes are not going to be won by legislative campaigners armed with clipboards. The real solution can only begin to be fought for through a massive social upheaval where workers come to see that our class has the power to win what we really need – including quality education and nationalized healthcare for all, a national universal pension plan, equal rights for all immigrant workers, and a major jobs program providing good wages and benefits and the right to unionize.

The struggles for such demands will begin and develop under capitalism, but in order to be won fully and permanently they must go beyond the boundaries of this system. Revolutionary workers would unite with those who think major reforms under capitalism will be sufficient, demanding that the leaders of labor and oppressed people fight for such measures but always championing our view that a revolutionary solution is necessary.

The economic assault on workers and the poor will continue as long as the capitalist state rules our society. Only a workers’ state created by the workers’ overthrow of capitalism can be counted on to act in the interest of the working class and oppressed people. Such a state would overcome the crises and miseries of capitalism by seizing the banks and key industries from their profiteering owners. It would end the imperialist wars. And it would start a massive public works program to carry out the vitally necessary work that capitalism neglects – rebuilding the decaying infrastructure, rescuing the environment, building and staffing the housing, schools, hospitals, etc., that people need – and ending the racist treatment suffered by Blacks, Latinos and immigrants.

The deepening and spreading of the movement that opened up in Wisconsin could be the start of the biggest class-struggle movement this country has seen in over half a century. Through intensified struggle, we expect that more workers and youth will come to understand that revolutionary goals are necessary, and that creating a society without union-busting, unemployment, racism, imperialist wars and all the other miseries of life today is impossible within the system of capitalism. Those workers and youth who already see the need for socialist revolution have to join together to build the revolutionary working-class party that can lead the working class in the upheavals ahead and advance its consciousness to make such a revolution possible.