Race, Class Struggle, and Organized Labour in the “Age of Wisconsin”

Madison, Wisconsin, may have given organized labour – or the labouring classes – a hint at the possibility of resistance in the streets of America. Or should the credit go to the children of Caliban ((Caliban is a character in Shakespeare’s The Tempest and is the epitome of the demonized Other in the Western literary imagination, political economy and imperialist project. While Prospero is the superordinate, privileged and cultured counterpart, who is the giver or representative of “civilization” and progress.)) in the streets and squares of Egypt? Can you imagine the role reversal implied by the prospect of the children of Caliban’s teaching those of Prospero, the great civilizer, the art of being human or striving for moral autonomy…collective personhood?

Many commentators have asserted that if there had been no revolt in Egypt, and no forced departure of the pharaoh-like Hosni Mubarak, there would not have been mass protest action in that oh-so-white of a state, Wisconsin. It is simply amazing to think that the fair citizenry of Wisconsin would require an external political stimulus to challenge their exploitation; the racialized section of the United States’ working-class has been bearing the brunt of the racist, sexist and capitalist battering of the welfare state structures since the 1980s without much sympathy from their white working-class counterparts.

But predominantly-white Wisconsin is up in arms when the chicken comes home to roost in their own backyard! Martin Luther King was quite right when he declared, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” We can only hope that white workers come to realize that white supremacist beliefs and practices only weaken the working-class – to the advantage of the small capitalist elite.

The political and economic elite in the United States is ruthlessly using the aftereffects of the Great Recession as a pretext to further weaken the economic, social and political conditions of the working-class. It was the actions of the captains of industry and commerce and their politicians that were responsible for the massive job losses, near-collapses of major financial firms, housing foreclosures (which largely affected racialized urban communities) and overall ‘bust’ of the capitalist business cycle.

One of the effects of the preceding events was a massive reduction in revenue flowing to the coffers of the different levels of government. It should be noted that prior and ongoing tax cuts – granted by the political class to corporations, wealthy individuals and high income earners – were also critical factors in the deficits now faced by state governments.

But it is the working-class in the public sector and the members of our communities who are dependent on public services that are being called upon to sacrifice their already tenuous or precarious standard of living to slay budgetary deficits across America. From the federal government under the pied piper leadership of President Barack Obama to two-bit governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin to multi-millionaire Governor Rick Synder in Michigan, tax-cuts to the well-heeled, disciplining of the working-class and social programme spending reduction are the preferred policy options. ((Ford, G. (2011, March 2). Wisconsin: The end of Obama-ism. The Black Agenda Report; Fletcher, B. (2011, February 21). Modern-day Pirates: Republicans vs. the Public Sector. Classism; Moore, M. (2011, March 15). Michigan governor pushing unbelievable anti-democracy measures; Join the fight Wednesday. AlterNet.))

Hopefully, this bitter medicine from the neo-liberal or monetarist black bag will alert workers to their true class identity and interests. The fox (capitalist class) and the chickens (workers) cannot have a community of interest. It is in the nature of the former to desire the latter for breakfast, lunch or dinner.

Many members of the United States’ working-class have been mislabeling themselves as middle-class as a result of the relentless ideological and social conditioning by the combined forces of the media, school, family, politicians, religious institutions and even union bureaucrats.

The capitalist or corporate elite are also implicated in the mental slavery or false consciousness of workers. According to Funiciello, the capitalist elite, in its capacity as bosses of the wage-slavery regime, plays a critical role in keeping workers distracted or servile:

Here in America, it has been difficult for rank-and-file Americans to see their own yoke. That’s how sophisticated is the hand of the very small elite that has controlled how many jobs we will have, where we will live, whether we will have a house or an apartment, how our children will be educated (or mis-educated?) and, even, what and how much we will eat.

The consolidation of power over the people by that small elite has occurred over several decades, but just now the minions of Corporate America are coming out into the open and trying to administer the coup de grace. The minions are Republicans and, unfortunately, they have had help from many Democrats. ((Funiciello, J. (2011, February 24. The rising of the American people (or at least some of them). The Black Commentator. ))

However, the current state-sponsored legislative initiatives aimed at destroying collective bargaining rights, decent wages, workplace benefits and the ability of unions to financially support political activities – along with union-crippling “right to work” laws – should disabuse workers of their middle-class illusions. ((Rogers, J. A view from the battlefield Union busting times!: Public sector workers under attack. (2011 February 24). The Black Commentator. )) If you sell your labour and do not exercise substantive control over the organizing, managing and directing of work or the labour process, you are a member of the working-class, period!

One may be forgiven for thinking that the pulse of resistance had disappeared from the body of organized labour in the United States. Other than participation in the farce that is electoral politics (politricks?), organized labour has been, for the most part, absent from political struggles against white supremacy, sexism and capitalism.

With the attack on public sector unionism in Wisconsin and other states and the tentative fight-back posturing of the labour movement that has begun to emerge in response, a curious observer may be excused for wondering aloud: “Has this Lazarus now risen from its deathly sleep and re-discovered its historical mission?” Has Lazarus, the working-class, finally remembered that its principal role ought to be the battle to free society from social oppression? We will know the answer in the fullness of time.

The assault on collective bargaining rights of public sector workers by Governor Walker could be an undisguised gift to social movement activism. It has certainly been a long time since labour and its allies have mobilized tens of thousand of people into the streets over point of production or workplace issues.

Andy Kroll, a writer and an eyewitness at the protest actions against this potentially game-changing legislative attack on public sector unionism, states that “within a week there were close to 70,000 protesters filling the streets of Madison.” ((Kroll, N. (2011, February 27). “This is a magic moment”: Will Wisconsin change America? AlterNet.)) The writer was so moved by the spirit of resistance in the occupied Capitol building in Madison and events in the street that he declared, “Believe me, the spirit of Cairo is here. The air is charged with it.” ((Kroll, N. (2011, February 27). “This is a magic moment”: Will Wisconsin change America? AlterNet.))

While the protests on the scale in Madison, Wisconsin may bring into motion forces that represent radical or revolutionary demands, I am not among the commentators who are overly impressed with what I have been seeing and reading. I am reminded of the instructive refrain of the African Jamaican dub poet, “A revolt ain’t revolution.” A revolution ought to be guided by revolutionary ideas and demands. It would be a stretch to even think that the preceding condition exists in Wisconsin, or even Egypt. We are currently at such a low level of movement activism or upsurge that even a ripple of protest may inspire fantastic declarations and expectation.

However, Larry Pinkney of the online publication The Black Commentator has a more sobering assessment of the Wisconsin protest than Kroll, which runs counter to the euphoric pronouncements that I have read in alternative spaces:

While it is certainly heartening to see some people making and taking a stand in Madison, Wisconsin, this does not mean that Wisconsin has somehow become Egypt. It has not. There are numerous inherent contradictions that have yet to be forthrightly addressed in Wisconsin, U.S.A., and which strongly impact the most economically and politically dispossessed and despised of people in Wisconsin and throughout the United States. ((Pinkney, L. (2011 March 3). Class struggle: Don’t get fooled again! Keeping it real. The Black Commentator.))

Pickney is raising questions about the oppression of the racialized working-class, inclusive of those with and without jobs. Their material interest does not garner substantive or broad sympathy from white union bureaucrats and rank-and-file members.

Where were the protests when Reagan and Clinton assaulted the working-class by changing “welfare as we know it” and demonized African Americans and the poor in the process? Where was the howling from organized labour when Clinton proudly declared his intention to put 100,000 additional cops on the streets of America ((Chapman, S. (2001, November 12). Invisible COPS: How Clinton’s plan to field 100,000 new police turned into pork barrel as usual. Slate.)) and dramatically increase the number of Africans, Hispanic and poor whites in the prison-industrial complex or penal colonies? Where was organized labour when affirmative action was being savaged for merely trying to weaken white supremacist employment and other structural barriers in the workplace and the wider society?

Organized labour is willing to move when it is faced with self-evident existential threats. Stephanie Bloomingdale, Secretary-Treasurer of Wisconsin’s AFL-CIO, seemed to confirm the preceding assertion when she noted, “[o]ur very labor movement is at stake and when that’s at stake, the economic security of Americans is at stake.” ((Cited in Kroll, This is a magic moment.)) I wonder whether her visual image of “Americans” looks like the people on Fulton Street in Brooklyn, New York. On the contrary, when the “slings and arrows” fired at the racialized working-class provoke even the slightest bit of racial animus, union bureaucrats and white workers, through their inaction or silence, tend to support the initiatives of the ruling-class.

White supremacy has been a reliable tool, used to set white workers against Africans and other racialized workers in the United States, from the days of chattel slavery up to our current period of wage-slavery. Marx’s 1867 assertion remains valid today: “In the United States of North America, every independent movement of the workers was paralysed so long as slavery disfigured a part of the Republic. Labour cannot emancipate itself in the white skin where in the black it is branded.” (emphasis mine) ((Wikiquote. Attributed to Capital, Volume I, Chapter 10, Section 7, pg.329. ))

The class struggle and a united working-class movement in the United States (and Canada) will remain “paralysed”, deformed and underdeveloped, if the commitment to the elimination of white supremacy does not become a strategic goal of the organized labour and the general working-class. Would the outpouring of solidarity with Wisconsin workers be the same if the target was a group of largely racialized public sector workers?

Ford captures the issue at stake – the role of race and white supremacy in limiting the class struggle in the United States:

Wisconsin is, in a sense, a near-ideal terrain for a showdown with the Tea Party brand of Republicanism. The actors in the drama are overwhelmingly white, putting the raw class nature of capital’s aggression in stark relief. With relatively few Black scapegoats to complicate the issue, white folks must confront the bare facts of the way late-stage capitalism tramples ordinary people as it careens from crisis to crisis.

Or, maybe not. White supremacy is a dynamic ideology that has always been central to the domestic functions of American Exceptionalism, distorting not just race relations but all other social relations, as well. Once the foundational Nigger has been invented and given life in the public mind, with all his purported logic-bending and society-polluting defects, his[/her] characteristics can be imputed to other targeted groups – a ready-made demonization kit. Public employees in general and teachers in particular now find themselves Niggerized as lazy featherbedders, no-count malingerers, fellow travelers with welfare queens and other human malignancies that must be excised so that the free market can work its wonders. ((Ford, Wisconsin: The end of Obama-ism.))

The task facing us class struggle and anti-oppression advocates is to be “ruthlessly” frank and firm in our commitment to challenge and eradicate white supremacy within the labour movement, the general working-class and the structures of the wider society. It was encouraging to know that the question of race and centring the interest of the racialized working-class surfaced within the conversations of the Madison resistance – albeit in a fairly marginal space. ((Connor. (2011, March 15). Taking stock and moving forward in Wisconsin: Reflections on a struggle. Solidarity.)) The objective reality facing organized labour and the working-class in general is the full integration of a principled anti-racist practice into the heart and mind of the resistance against capitalist domination.

Ajamu Nangwaya, Ph.D., is an organizer, writer, and lecturer at the University of the West Indies. Read other articles by Ajamu.