Pushing forward: Strategies for a resurgent labor movement

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It’s showdown time for U.S. workers. This year, many state legislatures launched attacks on public and private sector workers, and slashed funding to schools and social welfare programs. This, while continuing to lop taxes on corporations and the rich.

Right-wing demagogues closing in for the kill were shocked when Wisconsin public workers resisted with sustained mass mobilizations, sparking other state protests. The AFL-CIO called for nationwide rallies the first week of April, and over 1,000 events attracted hundreds of thousands of people. The battle marked a quantum leap forward for U.S. workers.

Yet the wholesale assault still rages. Labor activists search for effective means of maintaining — and winning — the fight. How to build a sustained movement able to repel the corporate agenda is a question of survival.

How workers mobilized — and stalled. Wisconsin union officials surrendered concessions right off the bat, in a futile attempt to barter them for keeping collective bargaining rights. But then rank-and-file workers stepped in. A spontaneous sickout by Madison teachers and school employees inspired a statewide strike, student walkouts, and occupation of the capitol. Private sector union and non-union workers passionately backed them. Rallies of more than 100,000 were the biggest in state history.

This flexing of muscle energized and built confidence of rank-and-file unionists and the working public. There were even calls for a general strike to show the real power working people have when they withhold their labor. Educating U.S. workers about the nature and effectiveness of the general strike is vital for putting the class on the offensive (see accompanying article).

But now mass action seems to be waning. AFL-CIO and Change to Win labor federations are focusing the movement on distant November elections. Recall efforts in Wisconsin, and a referendum to repeal anti-labor legislation in Ohio, have replaced the daily occupations of capitol buildings.

To lose momentum is to acquiesce to the anti-worker agenda. Big capital and their hired pols see the concessions and slowdown in protests as an opportunity to step up their aggression.

The assault ramps up. Wisconsin and Ohio passed their union-busting bills. Attacks on public employees continue in at least 10 other states. Efforts to repeal prevailing wage laws that protect the pay of construction workers abound.

The attack is thoroughly bipartisan. In Massachusetts and at least four other Democrat-controlled states, a smorgasbord of barriers to collective bargaining, contract take-backs, privatization efforts and social service cuts are under way. In Congress, both parties refuse to create jobs programs to combat the unemployment faced by 22 percent of the workforce (see www.shadowstats.com).

The valiant defense made so far is not enough to turn the tide. But many workers have a new consciousness that a class war is being waged in which the very survival of the labor movement and decent living standards for working people are at stake. Where do we go from here?

Reinventing a powerful workers’ movement. Some unions are taking new initiatives. The Machinists and Aerospace Workers (IAM) called on the entire national membership to participate actively in defending collective bargaining.

Still, what is most needed to maintain the spirit of Wisconsin is what created it — sustained action driven from below. The labor movement must champion the interests of the entire working class, whether in the public or private sector; whether unionized, non-union, or unemployed. Such solidarity requires going beyond just addressing wages and benefits of a dwindling membership to embrace community issues. It demands defending the women, Blacks and immigrants who are most under attack.

Unified struggles are emerging in local efforts. One example is a coalition of labor and community organizations roused by the labor council of Lynn, Mass. It is working on several job creation initiatives and education on the financial crisis and the capitalist economy.

Another innovation is the Sisters Organize for Survival (SOS) campaign of Seattle Radical Women, which brought together community people and members of many unions to press labor leaders to organize united action against budget cuts and attacks on public workers in Washington state. This led to a rally of 10,000 at the state capitol on April 8, the largest labor demonstration there in years. Valuable support came from the multi-union caucus Organized Workers for Labor Solidarity.

The SOS effort could be a demonstration project for building working peoples’ assemblies, which would bring together unions and community groups fighting on a wide array of issues, forming a more permanent organization than coalitions typically are. To be effective, these must be democratic and inclusive. Such bodies could help build mass mobilizations and campaigns, strikes, and electoral challenges.

Independent political action essential. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka has set a course for all-out labor support to the Democrats in the 2012 elections. But a welcome departure came from the International Association of Fire Fighters when they suspended all federal political contributions. Their president explained, “Our friends have not been willing to stand up and fight back on our behalf with the same ferocity, the same commitment that our enemies have in trying to destroy our members’ rights.” Rank-and-file activists around the country also demand that unions divorce the Democrats and use union resources for organizing.

To provide an electoral complement to mass action, working people need completely independent political action. It can come from running candidates who unequivocally champion a pro-worker platform, such as calling for a 30-hour workweek with no cut in pay to create more jobs, unemployment benefits for strikers, and an immediate end to foreclosures.

Campaigns around such a platform would provide a powerful oppositional pole to the right-wing Tea Party movement and could spur formation of a labor party.

As events are showing all too clearly, the profit system is toxic to working people and the planet. That is why to be a true political alternative, a labor party needs to be frankly anti-capitalist.

To get the ball rolling for 2012, local coalitions could begin now to develop a platform and seek candidates pledged to run on its planks.

Time to crank up the fight! Today’s onslaught from big business interests and the politicians who do their bidding threatens the livelihoods and lives of millions. A business-as-usual response would be catastrophic. Luckily, everyday working women and men are showing they are ready to fight back.

The exciting labor revival begun in Wisconsin can lead to an inclusive, democratic, independent and powerful movement. More proposed demands to build that struggle are in the FSP 10-Point Program, “An answer to the economic crisis.”

With these tools, rank-and-file, grass-roots and radical activists can regain the initiative to defend the working class. Seize the time!

Send feedback to Megan Cornish at FSnews@socialism.com.

Also see: The general strike: What it is and why it’s needed

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