‘Where movements go to die’
The Wisconsin recall was billed as one of the most important elections of recent times in America — as a showdown between financial and political might of capital against the sole bargaining chip of labour, its unions. The results are indeed gloomy and are seen by many as a glaring example of how elections can now be ‘bought’ in a post Citizens United America, writes Farhan Ahmed
BEFORE the Occupy movement even began in Zuccotti Park in New York, Wisconsin was witnessing its own protests in various cities of the state, as early as in February 2011. Some analysts claim that these were the seeds that gave rise to the countrywide Occupy movement in September that same year. The protests were in reaction to the passage of a state-level bill called ‘Wisconsin budget repair bill’ or 2011 Wisconsin Act 10, by the Republican governor of the state, Scott Walker. Governor Walker’s declared plan was to reduce the state budget by bringing in line the ‘labour union thugs’ in the public sector, who were allegedly misusing their collective bargaining power and wasting state budget funds, by taking too much as ‘compensation, retirement, health insurance and sick leave’. Act 10 obliterated all collective bargaining rights of labour unions, essentially rendering them powerless, and was thus seen as a decisive assault on labour in an economic system that pits labour against capital, with disproportionate advantages to the latter.
Supporters of Walker’s bill pointed to abuses of power by labour unions — an aspect of the debate that cannot be ignored either. Edmund McCaffray, a student in Arizona, says: ‘Is the situation different in the public sector? Maybe. I might be coming to agree with Walker and the Republicans on this one. There are abuses by unions in the United States — big salaries and lots of benefits that really do make it difficult or impossible for various companies to compete.’ On the other hand, McCaffray also admits that doing away with union rights is not the answer either, as ‘obviously collective bargaining is at the core of what a union is. That’s the only way workers can negotiate on remotely even-footing against capital.’ In fact, a New York Times editorial, on June 6, claimed that Walker’s bill had nothing to do with cutting state budget, but had a more devious design ‘to break the unions by demonizing their “bosses,” ending their ability even to collect dues and removing them as a source of money and energy for Democrats.’
The bill passed, the protests began and Wisconsin’s political stage was in turmoil. The mass uprising that followed could not to be ignored by state authorities, sometimes numbering in the hundreds of thousands. It was not only labour union members that were crowding the streets, but also Wisconsin residents who imagined a more just and fair society, where workers are not at the mercy of political and financial power elites. They saw this assault on labour rights as setting a dangerous precedent in American society and a decisive blow to America workers.
Seeing an opportunity to undermine the Republicans in their own state, and also owing to their historical ties with left-leaning labour unions, the Democrats joined in on the side of the protestors. It was here, some analysts claim, that the essentially apolitical movement was hijacked by the polarised US political machinery. As soon as the movement became about Democrat vs. Republican, it was lured into fit with the pre-existing political structures and, one million petition signatures later, culminated in recall elections for a number of state senators and Governor Walker himself. The Democrats were to provide alternative gubernatorial candidates, to run against Walker in a recall election scheduled for June 5, 2012. They finally decided on Tom Barrett (the Milwaukee mayor who had lost to Walker in 2010), only a month before the election, leaving him little time to campaign. Barrett’s campaign also completely underplayed the issue of collective bargaining rights. President Obama seemed to completely avoid the race, not making any endorsements for the Democratic candidate. Meanwhile, Scott Walker’s re-election campaign was running strong, raising close $30 million as campaign funding, compared to a paltry $3.5 million raised by Barrett. In the end, Scott Walker won the election, making history by being the first-ever governor to survive a recall in American politics.
The Wisconsin recall was billed as one of the most important elections of recent times in America — as a showdown between financial and political might of capital against the sole bargaining chip of labour, its unions. The results are indeed gloomy and are seen by many as a glaring example of how elections can now be ‘bought’ in a post Citizens United America (Citizens United being a Supreme Court ruling that allows political candidates to accept unlimited campaign finances from undisclosed sources). Meanwhile, the re-election of Walker is also seen as the fateful axe to the power of labour unions across America, which now puts the future of labour rights at stake.
Look beyond the veils and the story looks even more tangled. It would almost seem like both the Republicans and Democrats played a role in quashing this labour movement that was apolitical from its outset — the Republicans by challenging labour in the first place, and the Democrats by pulling them into elections and almost helping them lose it. The mass movement, which began with strong principles and widespread popular support, ultimately lost when it was dragged to fight the battle on the political stage, with a representative candidate who completely avoided the core issue. A post-election commentary, by Bruce Dixon, read ‘Political campaigns are pretty much where movements go to die, get betrayed or are stillborn’. In this case, the labour unions seemed to be essentially betrayed by both the Republicans and the Democrats.
The fate of the Wisconsin movement also demonstrates why the Occupy movement has so far stayed away from the political stage. Many have claimed, about Occupy, that to make any difference in America or the world, it should actively partake on a political platform, prop up a candidate (leader) and set out a concrete political agenda. However, Wisconsin demonstrated that the dynamics of the age-old two-party dance on the American political stage is set in stone, and is now secretly ‘brought to you by’ every major corporate and political interest in the world. It showed that it is, by no means, a platform conducive to something like the Wisconsin labour movement or the countrywide Occupy movement to convey their values, with honesty, and survive the manipulation and coercion by powerful forces. It would seem that when mass movements move out of the streets and into the airwaves of TV and radio as political campaigns, they are forced to compromise on their values, and the race becomes not about the principles of the movement but about settling for the candidate that ‘sucked the least’.
The Wisconsin story raises questions about the fate of labour unions, not only in America. Their necessity in today’s globalised economies cannot simply be dismissed as inflammatory left-wing political rhetoric. The truth is that labour unions are the only platform available to workers to resist the crushing force of capital in a profit driven capitalist system, which is, by nature, constantly searching for the lowest per unit production cost. The effects of this tendency are blatantly visible in our garments sector, as Bangladesh has come to be the winner of what is called ‘a race to the bottom’, by which capital, jobs and resources move to the lowest bidder (See Globalpost article, ‘Bangladesh’s garment workers brave deadly fires to make luxury American clothing’ by Maher Sattar, May 1). Bangladeshi garments workers are the cheapest in the region (if not the world), willing to work in inhumane conditions, and have nowhere to turn to with their woes, for lack of functioning labour unions that can bargain for their rights.
When the US condemned, in strong words, the murder of Bangladeshi labour rights activist Aminul Islam in April, many who believe in worker rights and the importance of labour unions heard the condemnation with much appreciation and hope. We were told by US secretary of state Hillary Clinton that the murder of Aminul Islam, simply because he stood up for workers’ rights, was unacceptable, thus alluding to the fact that labour had undeniable rights that were to be upheld by unions. However, as events in Wisconsin codified how a labour uprising is ultimately rendered powerless by the political machinery, many are led to wonder where the US stands on the issue. If labour unions are under attack in ‘the land of the free’, what hope do they have here?
Farhan Ahmed is an editorial assistant at New Age.
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