Tunis, Cairo, Madison?

By Lynn Koh
Apr 10, 2011

The workers' movement in Wisconsin is, for youth of my generation, the first time that the collective action of hundreds of thousands within the US has felt like a shift in the direction of history. The closest thing, in my experience, was the huge anti-war demonstrations leading up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003 which -- wrongly, in my opinion -- is now experienced more as disappointment than success.

Does Wisconsin mark a true turning point in US politics?

Our starting point is the 2008 economic crisis, which has defined mass engagement with politics for the past three years. The crisis is over for capitalist class for some time. In 2009 the top 150 Silicon Valley companies had sales down 5.8 percent, but profits increased by an unbelievable 88 percent; they achieved these record numbers by laying off over 60,000 workers worldwide - squeezing the remaining workers harder - and cutting back investment in R+D and other areas.

Nevertheless, the ruling class still must deal with some problems in maintaining the social-political order. These are problems in the short-term (conjunctural problems), with the long-term structural problems such as the environment and the global economic order looming in the background and largely unaddressed. I consider the main problems to be:
1. fiscal problems (at state level, at federal level relative to funding needed to maintain US dominance) -- due to lower taxes on rich and corporations, military budget
2. lack of profitable investment opportunities
3. increase in raw suffering and despair

The general response from economic and political elites to these problems has been an austerity strategy -- cuts to services and public sector workers. The strategy, in different forms, has been adopted on both sides of the political aisle: Cuomo campaigned against public workers; even the head of the NJ State Senate who is also a labor leader has attacked public workers. Obama's call for a federal wage freeze, 2011 administrative appointments, and his subsequent emphasis on revisiting the tax code and business regulation has signaled his willingness to take up aspects of this strategy.

The right-wing variation on this theme is of course, quite dangerous -- in their political program, austerity is linked to an all-out attack on democratic rights, focused on unions and communities of color. The Wisconsin law which sparked the fightback attacks public workers but also undocumented immigrants on health care assistance, and the right-wing state government also passed bill against tracking racial profiling, and another requiring voter ID.

Wisconsin, Ohio, Indiana -- these places have emerged as the sharpest struggles against the right-wing program. Let me first list some of the most positive factors of these movements.
-a broadening of groups involved in mobilization and movement (students, teachers, farmers, people of color, police and fire, Walker voters)
-an organic linking of attacks on public services and public workers; the demonstration of labor's capacity to mobilize to other sectors of the progressive mvmt
-the sense that progressives have retaken streets (from Tea Party mobes) and now represent the Middle America working class and the so-called 'middle class' in popular imagination
-a healthy dynamic between rank-and-file/masses and institutional leaders: the Capitol occupation was driven 'from below', as well as the initial demand for recall and the call for general education around a general strike

Finally, the big question is whether these defensive struggles against the right-wing program has the potential to develop into a struggle that projects a progressive politics as an alternative to the overall push for austerity. What are prospects for this, and what would it require?
-a consolidation of the progressive wing of the mvmt. This would likely have to take the shape of coordination between community orgs and the labor rank-and-file or CLCs. The main effort here has been the 'kill the whole bill' coalition, anchored by the nurses and mobilizing 7,000 at its peak; unfortunately it seems defined by its opposition to AFT/AFSCME leaders' willingness to offer economic concessions, and thus will have a tough time broadening.
-utilization of the recall effort. On what basis will candidates in the recall elections be chosen -- on the most narrow basis (anybody that is for collective bargaining), or is it possible for insurgent candidates to run in competitive but difficult races? What ways can independent or community forces sway the politics here?
-broadening worker activity - something short of a general strike but reaching beyond public sector strike activity will open a space for organizers to explain the current crisis for labor in terms of the overall context.

Let's hope that the wave of '11 continues.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of the entire War Times project

Lynn Koh is a long-time activist in the anti-war movement, and is a labor organizer in the Bay Area.

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