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A Few Thoughts On The Wisconsin Civil Service Protests

Started by GREGORYABUTLER, February 19, 2011, 10:39:43 am

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A couple of things, from a seasoned labor activist (18+ years as a dissident in the United Brotherhood of Carpenters, 13 of those as a shop steward).

Civil service workers represent the majority of union members in America today, thanks to 30 years of retreat and surrender by private sector unions that have allowed much of manufacturing, trucking and construction to be deunionized pretty much without a fight.

Now, the unionbusters are coming after the public sector unions and, it seems, the leaders of those labor organizations have decided to make a stand in Wisconsin. That kind of makes sense - Wisconsin is the cradle of civil service unionism (America's largest public sector union, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees [AFSCME] was founded right there in Madison in 1932) and the first state to give public sector workers the right to collective bargaining (1958).

Wisconsin is also a very liberal state with a long history of public sector unionism.

Also, Wisconsin is a very White state. Outside of the large Black and Latino neighborhoods in Milwaukee, and the few pockets of Mexican and Laotian Hmong immigrants in some of the second tier cities, the state is overwhelmingly Caucasian. This is very different than many other states, where the civil service workforce is largely workers of color.

This is relevant because, in a state like New Jersey, when Governor Christie talks about cutting civil service wages and benefits, he's basically telling White taxpayers that he's going to put "those people" in "their place" by taking away their relatively high wages and good benefits. Governor Walker can't use those racial codewords in Wisconsin, because the state workforce looks just like the suburban taxpayers, so racial resentment is not a factor.

In a lot of ways, the Wisconsin protests, as inspiring as they are, are also a revolt of the downwardly mobile labor aristocracy.

The core of the rally have been the teachers, reinforced by police and firefighters. Those three civil service titles are the most privileged aristocratic section of the civil service workforce, with wages and benefits far better than the clerks and laborers who make up the rest of the public sector labor force.

However, like all aristocratic workers, their privileged status is always tenuous and temporary under capitalism. A generation ago, over the road teamsters and workers in construction, the auto industry and the steel mills had a similar status - today, those workers have been pushed far down the economic ladder, in many cases (particularly in construction and trucking) by outright deunionization, in other cases by retreat and surrender by the unions.

The imminent loss of those privileges is what those cops, firefighters and teachers are fighting.

It's not an accident that their picket signs talk about "saving the middle class" - these privileged workers are fighting to preserve their middle class status and avoid being pushed back down into the general ranks of the working class, where wages have been falling for 40 years and pensions and benefits are unknown.

That doesn't mean that these protests are reactionary at all - it's always good to see workers fighting back, and generally privileged workers are more in a position to resist (for one thing they're more likely to be unionized) and privileged workers have something to lose so they have more cause to fight than the rest of the class.

The problem is, the fact that privileged workers have something to lose is also a double edged sword.

Remember, the last big strike by a relatively privileged group of civil service workers (the New York City Transit strike of 2005) was broken by the threat of very high individual fines - that's a big threat to workers who have tens of thosuands of dollars in IRAs and 401(k)s and who own $ 500,000 houses (and that's a typical home price in the working class neighborhoods of NYC and it's suburbs) -they have just enough money that those fines are collectable, at the cost of confiscating their life savings.

For this to be a winning struggle, I think we have to take this fight to the point of production.

That is, the best way to counter this attack on public sector workers is to re unionize the private sector workers - particularly the non union workforce in the industrial core of the economy (construction, trucking, factories, the building service industry)

Those workers tend to be disproportionately Latino immigrant (and to a lesser extent African American) and they are just poor enough that the threat of fines for an illegal strike are pretty much meaningless (hey, if you live in a rented room in somebody else's apartment and you don't have a bank account, what exactly is the court going to seize if you don't pay the fine?)

Also, those workers are at the strategic core of the economy - if they strike, the whole economy shuts down.

That kind of social power in motion can (and has) toppled governments.