As the old phrase states: Extraordinary times require extraordinary measures. These are indeed extraordinary times in Wisconsin. The Budget Repair Bill that was passed by Governor Scott Walker and State Republicans will strip public employees of the right to collectively bargain and threaten the very existence of unions in the state.
Despite the severity of these measures, Democrats and sections of the Trade Union leadership have chosen to pour resources and direct energy into a campaign to recall Walker and other Republicans. Easy call, since the Democrats seem sure to cash-in on Republican overreach and win any recall election. Yet, a recall falls short of the extraordinary measure quotient – workers are ready to move now in Wisconsin and a general strike is the best tactic to respond to Walker’s assault on democratic rights.
Stripping workers of collective bargaining rights rolls back the historical clock to a time when there was no legal guarantee of getting a union contract. At the turn of the 20th century, American Employers denied, repressed and ignored claims pressed forward by workers. The question was one of force – could working people force their bosses to concede to demands for justice or would the bosses be able to exert more power?
And the critical weapon in this struggle was the strike. Well before the now famous Sit Down Strikes that led to the organizing of the car plants in Michigan, workers carried out mass strikes. The greatest tool in their possession was the general strike. The best example of the power of such a total shut down of labor came in Seattle in 1919.
Here, shipyard workers made a strike to defend the gains in pay and benefits they had made during World War I. At first, the strike was limited to the shipyard workers. But then, more than 110 other unions realized that their fate was dependent on the victory of the shipyard workers. They struck, the city was shut down and for five glorious days the city of Seattle was run by the General Strike Committee.
Though the business friendly national labor leadership bent to the will of the bosses and forced the strike to end, the point was made clear. Not only could labor strike back against attempts to take back gains, but working people held the capacity to run society themselves. Those who created the wealth were also able to administer it.
While Wisconsin 2011 is quite a different place from Seattle 1919, Walker and the Republicans seem intent to roll back the clock. Working people might take a cue from them and reach back for a weapon that can be used defensively and offensively – the general strike.
An argument must be won before this can be accomplished. Focusing solely on the Recall Walker and the Republicans campaign will take energy away from the effort to organize a militant response from working people. The old Democratic Party line of “wait for the next election” just won’t do anymore, even if that next election comes sooner rather than later. The time for waiting is over – the very existence of unions is on the line here.
Wisconsin can draw on a long history of socialist and other radical organizing and become the place where a new left-wing movement for the 21st century is born. The time to act is now!