Part 1: The neoliberal war on unions
Karl Marx observed in 1865 that wage levels can only be "settled by the continuous struggle between capital and labour, the capitalist constantly tending to reduce wages to their physical minimum, and to extend the working day to its physical maximum, while the working man constantly presses in the opposite direction." Indeed, as Karl Marx and Frederick Engels wrote in the opening to the Communist Manifesto, "The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles."
History since they wrote those famous words has validated their observation. Only the enormous strike movements of the Great Depression finally broke the stranglehold of the intransigent corporate class in the United States and legalised the right of workers to form unions and bargain collectively. For decades after the New Deal, corporations accepted the legitimacy of unions in the collective bargaining process, even if they did not welcome their presence.
That era ground to a halt in the mid-1970s, validating the other side of Marx's formulation. When the US economy's long postwar boom began to sputter, US manufacturing productivity lagged behind that of its main competitors, Japan and Germany in particular. Business leaders in the United States united around a strategy to restore their competitive edge on the backs of the working class. As such, they embarked on a long-term campaign to shift the balance of class forces-decisively-in their own favour.
Forming new organisations such as the Business Roundtable and resurrecting the viciously antiunion Chamber of Commerce, they forged a plan to drastically lower working-class living standards. As Business Week summarised at the time, "It will be a hard pill for many Americans to swallow-the idea of doing with less so that business can have more... Nothing that this nation, or any other nation, has done in modern economic history compares in difficulty with the selling job that must now be done to make people accept the new reality." That new reality became known as neoliberalism.
Far from the rule of the "unfettered free market" claimed by its advocates, neoliberalism is actually a system of corporate welfare, which always welcomes government intervention when it is on the corporations' behalf. The bank and corporate bailouts of the Great Recession of 2007-2008 demonstrated this fact vividly: the federal government not only rescued the same Wall Street behemoths whose reckless greed caused the financial meltdown, but has since allowed corporate profits to return to the stratosphere.
Thirty-plus years of neoliberalism have brought nothing but misery to the core of the global working class. This consequence is not the by-product but the intent of neoliberal policies, in a one-sided class war that required the destruction of workers' only means of defending their living standards, labour unions. The elections of Margaret Thatcher in Britain in 1979 and Ronald Reagan in 1980 signalled the triumph of neoliberalism, illustrated by Reagan's firing of striking members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organisation (PATCO), breaking their union within months of taking office.
Ever since then, the US corporate class has enjoyed the support of both political parties in its neoliberal project, as Democrats and Republicans together have enabled an unrelenting attack on workers and the poor. President Barack Obama's decision in December 2010 to extend Bush's tax cuts for the rich is evidence that Democrats as well as their more openly contemptuous Republican counterparts continue to play their part in neoliberal rule. It is no coincidence that levels of class inequality today mirror those of the laissez faire capitalism of Gilded Era of the late nineteenth century, when robber barons enriched themselves by fighting tooth-and-nail against every attempt by workers to organise into unions. Likewise, union-busting has been a central feature of today's neoliberal agenda, with tremendous success. By the mid-1980s, US corporations were spending an estimated half-billion dollars on union-busting firms, which issued texts with promises such as, "In Chapter Two we will show you how to screw your employees (before they screw you) and how to keep them smiling on low pay-how to maneuver them into low-paying jobs they are afraid to walk away from - how to hire and fire so you always make money."
Just as the (false) image of "welfare queens" living it up on taxpayer dollars provided the ideological justification for eliminating "welfare as we know it" during Bill Clinton's tenure as president, the (equally false) image of the grossly overpaid autoworker with "gold-plated" benefits has provided the ongoing justification for demanding pay cuts of union manufacturing workers. As recently as 2008, the New York Times falsely claimed that United Auto Workers (UAW) members were earning an average of $70 per hour, including benefits. When the Times made that claim, the starting wage of a newly-hired union auto worker was $14.50 an hour. Union membership in the private sector has been in a downward spiral throughout this period, covering only 6.9 percent of private-sector workers in 2010, down from 7.2 percent the previous year, according to the Bureau of Labour Statistics.
Having conquered the private sector, policymakers and media pundits have more recently taken aim at public sector workers as an ideological battering ram, using the image of the "overpaid and incompetent" public sector worker as the scapegoat, while slashing social spending. With a unionisation rate of 36.2 percent, it is (falsely) claimed that public sector unions, along with Social Security and Medicare, are responsible for swelling government deficits, concluding that union bargaining rights must be dismantled to balance state budgets. "Wisconsin is one of 41 states where public employees earn higher average pay and benefits than private workers in the same state," claimed USA Today on March 2, in a transparent attempt to pit private and public sector workers against each other.But coming so soon after the 2008 bank bailout, millions of workers who continue to face long-term unemployment and falling living standards well into the "recovery" phase of this business cycle have been unreceptive to this latest ruling-class maneuver.
Wisconsin: the future in the present
The battle to defend Wisconsin's public sector unions that erupted in February unleashed the broadest and most determined outpouring of class solidarity in many years. More than 100,000 protesters turned out at various points in the struggle, while thousands of workers and students loudly occupied the Capitol building in Madison for a period of weeks. In a clear identification with the Egyptian revolution that had just ousted dictator Hosni Mubarak, Wisconsin workers carried signs such as, "Fight like an Egyptian" and "Hosni Walker," while the rotunda occupation itself bore more than a passing likeness to Tahrir Square. Chants of "General strike" filled the Capitol rotunda as the occupation continued, while workers and students debated strategies and tactics for moving the struggle forward, in a show of democracy rarely seen in the US labour movement. The Wisconsin workers' struggle likewise inspired protesters in Cairo, illustrated by a February photo of a Tahrir Square protester holding a sign reading "Egypt Supports Wisconsin Workers-One World, One Pain."
Union workers and their non-union supporters alike recognised that the survival of Wisconsin's public sector unions required defeating Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker's legislation that stripped them of their most basic collective bargaining rights. Moreover, Walker's attack was by no means isolated, but represented a concerted strategy-spearheaded by Republicans in Ohio, Michigan, and Indiana, but echoed in states dominated by Democrats, including Governor Andrew Cuomo in New York-to attack public sector workers simultaneously, state by state. As the battle in Wisconsin was unfolding, a New York Times/CBS News poll showed that public opinion on a national scale opposed weakening the bargaining rights of public sector employees by a margin of nearly
Wisconsin's public sector unions had already agreed to all of Walker's wage and benefit cuts and readily announced that they were fighting only over the attack on collective bargaining rights. Unions were prepared, however, to mobilise their members by the tens of thousands to protest in Madison, and even some unions unaffected by the legislation, most notably firefighters, were enthusiastic participants in the Capitol occupation. Key union leaders launched workplace action early on. Although public sector strikes are illegal in Wisconsin, the Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC) called on teachers to call in sick on February 17 and 18 and instead join the protests in Madison, shutting down dozens of school districts. The AFT-Wisconsin (formerly the American Federation of Teachers) followed suit-giving confidence and hope of victory to Wisconsin workers.
The human material clearly existed to broaden workplace action-if anything, the anger and scale of the protests were self-propelling the struggle forward. But even as the protests grew massively, union officials seemed unsure whether to escalate or retreat-and ended up doing both. By Monday, February 21, WEAC president Mary Bell had ordered teachers back to work. Soon thereafter, Wisconsin's South Central Federation of Labour (SCFL), the umbrella organisation for unions representing 45,000 workers in the six-county area around Madison, posted the following statement on its website: "The SCFL endorses a general strike, possibly for the day Walker signs his 'budget repair bill.'" This statement strongly suggested a coming escalation on the part of unions, but none materialised. Indeed, union leaders remained paralysed on March 11, the day that Walker signed the bill into law.
Republicans successfully rammed through the anti-union measures, not only in Wisconsin but also in Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio. It would be mistaken, however, to regard this recent episode of class struggle as merely a flash in the pan before class relations return to business as usual. Rather, it has the potential to mark the opening battle in a new era that lies ahead. Although no strikes took place at all in Wisconsin throughout the month of February-the mass character of the struggle in Wisconsin brings forth images of some of the great historic high points for US labour. Indeed, the struggle is far from over in Wisconsin, evidenced by the 15-20,000 protesters who again amassed at the Madison Capitol building on May 14 to declare, "This Fight Is NOT Over!" Several Wisconsin court rulings struck down the constitutionality of the passage of the new laws, as the case winds its way to the Wisconsin Supreme Court.
Union activists have embarked on recall campaigns to remove the same Republicans who so zealously jumped on the union-busting bandwagon. And at the time of this writing, union activists and supporters have set up a tent city outside the Capitol building, named "Walkerville"-modelled after the "Hoovervilles" of the Great Depression-vowing to remain throughout the state budget process.
Part 2: Marxist theory of labour unions under capitalism
As activists seek to rebuild the labour movement from the bottom up, the Wisconsin battle demonstrates both the great potential and the enormous limitations of trade unions. The struggle in Wisconsin emerged out of a crisis for the US labour movement, decades in the making. The number of strikes fell to their lowest point on record in 2009 and to the second lowest in 2010. These figures demonstrate the extent to which labour leaders have been unwilling to use labour's most effective weapon, the strike, even as union membership plummeted to just 11.9 percent of the US workforce in 2010, down from 12.3 percent a year earlier-and 24.1 percent in 1979. Decades of concessionary bargaining-at first, claimed to be a temporary phenomenon-have made wage and benefit cuts routine aspects of union negotiations, thereby enabling the deterioration of working-class living standards.
History has shown that the rate of union membership corresponds to the rise and decline in the level of class struggle. If the current balance of class forces can only be reversed through a revival of class struggle, then the key challenge facing union activists is how to transform their unions into fighting organisations. For Marxists, this necessarily entails, step by step, strengthening the fighting capacity of workers in general, and union workers in particular.
The contradictory character of unions
Unions are workers' front line of defense against their employers under capitalism. But as vehicles for struggle, they are also crucial to the future self-emancipation of the working class. But there is also a contradiction: unions both negotiate the terms of exploitation of workers under capitalism and also provide the vehicle for struggle that can prepare the working class for revolution. Marx and his lifelong collaborator, Frederick Engels, were able to articulate unions' contradictory role in the revolutionary process while capitalism was still in its infancy. "Divide and conquer" has long been the watchword of the ruling class. Capitalism forces workers into competition with each other-native vs. foreign born, skilled vs. unskilled, and so on-exploiting every opportunity to keep workers divided. Organising into unions, which present the opportunity for collective struggle against the employers, thereby reduces competition between workers. In 1845, Engels argued, But what gives these Unions and the strikes arising from them their real importance is this, that they are the first attempt of the workers to abolish competition. They imply the recognition of the fact that the supremacy of the bourgeoisie is based wholly upon the competition of the workers among themselves; i.e., upon their want of cohesion.
And precisely because the Unions direct themselves against the vital nerve of the present social order, however one-sidedly, in however narrow a way, are they so dangerous to this social order. Although Marx and Engels expected the revolutionary process to advance much more rapidly than history has proven, they identified not only that reducing competition between workers by organising into unions was the key to advancing working-class struggle, but also that capitalism propels workers back into collective struggle even after periods of setback. As they wrote in the Communist Manifesto, "This organisation of the proletarians into a class, and consequently into a political party, is continually being upset again by the competition between the workers themselves. But it ever rises up again, stronger, firmer, mightier." Socialist historian Hal Draper likewise remarked, "To engage in class struggle it is not necessary to 'believe in' the class struggle any more than it is necessary to believe in Newton to fall from an airplane.
There is no evidence that workers like to struggle any more than anyone else; the evidence is that capitalism compels and accustoms them to do so." In this context, the battle in Wisconsin demonstrated how capitalism could once again propel workers into struggle, opening the door to rebuilding the labour movement on the basis of collective struggle. There is much work to be done, since neoliberalism has so successfully forced workers to compete in a race to the bottom on a global scale over the last three decades. The potential, however, exists.
*Sharon Smith is the author of Subterranean Fire: A History of Working-Class Radicalism in the United States (Haymarket, 2006) and Women and Socialism: Essays on Women's Liberation (Haymarket, 2005).