The Sleeping Giant Stirs: The Renaissance of American Labor

Posted February 27, 2011

Beyond any shadow of a doubt, what is emerging across the United States is the most significant upsurge of the labor movement in a very long time. What has begun in Wisconsin is rapidly spreading to other states—even some southern states, traditionally vacuums of labor activity.

To understand what is happening, several things have to be made clear about the United States’ uniqueness among the other great industrial powers in terms of the balance of forces between its labor movement and business interests. First of all, union density is incredibly low in the States in general. At 12.4% now, union density has declined—with few exceptions—every year for many decades, particularly from its peak in the 1940’s and 50’s. During the peak years, roughly 30% of private sector employees belonged to a union compared to roughly 10% of public sector workers. Now, the trend has shifted: of that 12.4% of unionized workers in the States, a significant portion is made up of public sector workers with 36.8% of public sector workers belonging to unions as compared with 7.6% in the private sector.

With those numbers in mind, the strategy of the likes of Governor Walker in Wisconsin and Governor Kasich in Ohio becomes clear: to destroy the collective bargaining rights of public sector employees is to deliver a “kill shot” to what remains of the labor movement as a whole; with public sector unions out of the way, the privatization of public services will lose its principal roadblock and whatever is left of private sector unionism will find itself hopelessly outmatched.

The attack on the public sector is not confined to Republicans, but the severity of the attacks in places like Ohio, Wisconsin and Tennessee (where the only significant union in the public sector is the teachers’ union, which is now facing legislation that will effectively destroy it) also has a partisan angle: the GOP realizes that it is unlikely to hold the reigns of power in state governments on this scale again for a very long time so the time for action is now in order to secure future gains by destroying an important leg of campaign financing for the Democratic Party. Furthermore, it is the labor unions that can be counted on by the Democrats to knock on doors and make phone calls—without the unions, the Democrats become more isolated and elitist in their orientation and public perception. To be clear though, as events in California, Illinois and New York demonstrate in stark relief, this is largely a bi-partisan war on what remains of the labor movement in the United States.

There are several significant elements to keep in mind when trying to understand the nature of the class struggle in the United States. The first to keep in mind is the historic divorce of labor unions and radical politics. A condition of the political and business elite’s acceptance of labor unions was that they purge their membership of people with radical political persuasions—and over time, those without radical politics but who still took militant stances towards questions of struggle. Consequently, the American left has been incredibly weak compared to the left in its nearest point of comparison in Western Europe.

With this divorce from the left has come a subservience to the agenda and interests of the Democratic Party. The Democratic Party is not nor has it ever been a labor party, though it has become the de facto party of people of color, organized labor, women’s interests, LGBTQ folks, etc. due more to the hard right shift of the Republicans than the Democrats’ own defense of these interests. Whatever was left of the Democratic Party’s support for organized labor has deteriorated significantly since the 1970’s, especially under the Clinton and Obama Administrations. The Obama Administration’s much publicized takeover of General Motors gave it a great opportunity to defend the traditional backbone of the labor union forces in the States (the UAW), but it used that leverage to extract brutal concessions from the UAW instead—now, new hires at UAW shops receive ½ of the wages previous new hires received. The basic thrust of most labor unions is to remain virtually silent until elections come around, then they become de facto campaign headquarters for the Party around the country. In some cases—for instance, the teachers union in Tennessee—unions perform virtually no other activities absent raising funds and gathering votes for Democrats.

Further, despite many heroic efforts by reform currents like Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) or the Transport Workers Local 100 in New York City, unions are almost exclusively dominated by their bureaucratic leadership (this we must recognize is not endemic merely in the States but also a characteristic of unions in Western Europe). Many of these leaders receive enormous salaries compared with the people they are representing. The leadership of these forces often borders on the criminal—Hoffa in the Teamsters, Stern in the SEIU—but even without these excesses, the trend of the bureaucracy has been for the past thirty years to assist political and business elites in extracting concessions from working people. This does, however, appear to be changing with the current fight. The attack on collective bargaining rights’ themselves challenges not only the interests of the union membership, it attacks the power and privileges of the union bureaucracy themselves. Consequently, in spite of this enormous upsurge that has the power to defeat any attack on benefits, wages, etc. the union leadership continues to put forward proposals that will allow savage cuts to benefits and wages (not to mention attacks on the undocumented) in exchange for a preservation of collective bargaining rights.

The final point to keep in mind is the uneven geographic development here in the States. The southern states have experienced a rapid transformation over the past 20 years. Characteristics of this transformation include a shift from rural to urban (and suburban) production as the south has become the go-to place for industrial production, as well as a major shift in demographics with a massive influx of people from the rest of the country (looking for jobs and places to go with no state income taxes), as well as a significant migration of Hispanic workers especially over the past decade. The racial bi-polarity of the south has been significantly transformed over the last 10 years, with a three way white-black-brown division further complicated by a large number of other immigrant populations in places like Atlanta and Nashville (Nashville is home to one of the largest Kurdish populations outside of the Middle East).

This has made the south’s traditional role as the bastion of reaction against the labor movement a very volatile role indeed. The southern states are mostly “right to work” states, or states with laws that forbid closed-shops, thus effectively barring private sector union efforts. One of the more radical attacks on the labor movement in recent weeks was a bill introduced in Indiana which would turn that state into a “right to work” state, a stunning development in the mid-west. Without traditional union bureaucracies to operate as a kind of release valve for discontent among southern workers the prospect for an explosion of labor activity from below continues to rise. A case in point of this potential can be found in the upsurges that created public sector unions in the south in the first place. In the 1970’s, heroic battles across the south were waged by militant workers in the public sector, culminating in the winning of rights to collective bargaining for many public sector workers in a place that had traditionally been a union-free zone. Now, even those gains are under threat.

It is with this context that we must understand the importance of what has emerged from Wisconsin and is now spreading across the United States itself with stunning speed for many of us on the ground. Tens of thousands of people continue to take to the streets of Madison alongside 10,000 who took to the streets of Columbus, Ohio the other day, a state ravaged by outsourcing (to other countries and to the US south).

As an activist based in Tennessee, I have to say that I have never witnessed such strange sights as 300 supporters of organized labor packing a tiny hallway in Legislative Plaza for a press conference (which incidentally became a mini-rally), hundreds of teachers rallying in such unlikely places as Franklin and Johnson City (Franklin is a bastion of reaction that operates as one giant gated community as it is one of the wealthiest counties in the entire country) and finally the arrival of 600 labor supporters for a rally the other day in front of the capitol that was essentially called on Facebook and’s website but which had virtually no other organization (many of us activists who attended expected 30 or so to show up).

The character of this movement is not purely economic, which is to say it is not isolated to the workplace and battles over wages, benefits, working conditions, etc. It is rather a political movement at the onset, targeted defensively at challenges to the very existence of legal unions. While its scale hearkens back to the early days of the 1970’s labor upsurge, its stakes are more akin to those of the 1930’s: whether or not unions will exist in a legal form at all.

Most of the activity has been driven by the rank and file and by supporters of unions, particularly among college-aged youth. The first days of the demonstrations in Wisconsin saw precious few of the mass-produced signs coming out of union-printing presses and instead saw an astonishing variety of creative messages, a significant amount of them referring to Egypt’s recent revolutionary uprising. The mass attention that was brought to the struggle was a result of the de facto two day teachers’ strike (the teachers called in sick en masse, with doctors in solidarity providing medical excuses) which demonstrated the power of workers for a mass audience in the States in a way that has not occurred in a very, very long time. Thousands of high school students walked out of their classes and marched to Madison alongside thousands of college students, creating an inter-generational population that flew in the face of popular conceptions about unions and divides between younger and older political activists.

The attempt to divide the labor forces by exempting the police and firefighters’ unions from the bill (something the legislature in Ohio lacked the strategic sense to do, to their own detriment) has only backfired by showing people the power of solidarity: the mass of firefighters that have supported their fellow workers has displayed the meaning of solidarity in a very public way and now the police have joined protesters in Madison, disobeying orders to disperse the crowds. This police participation is quite unprecedented.

Recently, a liberal blogger carried out a prank call on Governor Walker’s office that proved to be very eye-opening. Pretending to be one of the billionaire Koch brothers (the 3 and 4th richest men in America whose money has been behind the construction of most libertarian organizations over the past three decades as well as various forces associated with the Tea Party), the blogger called Walker, who was fooled by the ruse. Among the revelations that were then broadcast out to a large audience in the United States (including on National Public Radio, which has more listeners than many right wing cable news providers) was that Walker understood that this had nothing to do with balancing the budget and everything to do with an attempt to “change the course of history” by delivering a deadly blow to organized labor. Walker also revealed that he had considered planting “troublemakers”–agent provocateurs—in the crowds in Madison in order to discredit the movement. The fallout from this event has yet to register, but there is talk of opening criminal proceedings against Walker, especially after representatives of the police forces learned of the agent provocateur issue.

It is these kinds of diffuse, creative actions, coupled with mass demonstrations and strike actions (however few and weak) that characterize this revitalization of the workers’ movement in the States. For the first time in many, many years thousands of everyday working people are rallying, chanting slogans like “the people, united, will never be defeated!” and associating with political radicals, reading their literature and inquiring about their meeting times. Though very little has been done in an official capacity, de facto alliances between radicals of various persuasions (Maoist, Trotskist, etc.) has become commonplace, especially among the younger members of these organizations.

The effect has been felt by the more mainstream left-liberal movement-oriented forces, culminating in Saturday’s mass actions across the US called by former Obama Administration member Van Jones (who was pushed out of office by Republicans via a well-coordinated red-baiting campaign) and, a kind of opportunist movement-oriented organization that swoops in when masses of people start to take action in order to channel those efforts into votes. Over 100,000 rallied in Wisconsin (a shocking number for a state capitol mind you) alongside over 50,000 around the nation, including some surprises like the 600 in Nashville.

This effort has helped galvanize a sleeping public who, in spite of their general lack of political activity, continue to rate job creation far above reducing the deficit as the principal national priority. A recent NY Times/CBS poll shows that just 14% of Americans rank the deficit as their highest priority, as opposed to 43% who cite job creation as the national priority. A lot of wind has been taken out of the Tea Party sails—who are already suffering from a decline in popularity due to their recent Islamophobic and anti-immigrant excesses—with this movement. In Madison, over 70,000 rallied one day for workers’ rights while a counter-protest by the Tea Party numbered barely 2,000. In Nashville at the MoveOn/Van Jones rally, the Tea Party counter protest that had been widely announced never materialized.

In fact, a significant amount of Tea Party grassroots participants continue to shout “hands off my Medicare” and “hands off my Social Security” much to the horror of their political leaders, who understand that part of their focus is to destroy these popular government entitlement programs. In fact, a large amount of participants in these programs—in a testament to the lack of political education in this country—are not even aware that they are participating in government programs, a fact hitherto exploited by the right wing media but which is now beginning to turn around as these items come under threat at the federal level.

In short, the mass labor activity now spreading from Wisconsin to Ohio to Tennessee to Georgia and beyond threatens the status quo for the business elite, for the labor bureaucracy, the Democratic Party, the Tea Party and the vast majority of the population itself. Defeats in Wisconsin and Ohio in the near future could smother this infant movement in its womb, but many activists are preparing for either eventuality: how to capitalize on this upsurge if there is a win in Wisconsin or if there is a loss seems to be an emerging trend in conversation amongst labor and radical activists across the country. The fact that workers’ are making their presence felt in some southern states has enormous consequences for the prospects of rebuilding a national labor movement and for transforming a hasty defense of public sector unions into a battle to unionize the private sector itself (this is, admittedly, not on the immediate agenda). Coupled with these efforts is an upsurge in activity “from below” which is resulting in more participation by new (and many younger) union members in the day to day proceedings of their unions, which bodes well for democratic reform currents within the major unions themselves.

Attempts to co-opt this movement have so far failed, but not without lack of effort. Democratic Party, AFL-CIO and SEIU staffers are flooding into Wisconsin, trying to gain some grasp over the democratic upsurge so that their privileges are not the next victim of this awakened giant of American labor. Let us hope that their efforts prove unsuccessful in the face of a united front of democratic unionists.

If a serious new labor movement grows across the United States, the repercussions for politics here—and indeed in the whole world—will be tremendous. This is a very exciting time for all of us; may we not squander this unprecedented opportunity to build a new face of democracy in our country.