Posted by: Doug Henwood | June 7, 2012

Wisconsin follow-up

Follow-up to yesterday’s post on the Wisconsin recall (“Walker’s victory, un-sugar-coated”).

I’ve been amazed at some of the tendentious misreadings of the piece that have made the rounds, mainly from left labor people. My favorite is that I just wasn’t aware of all the door-knocking and retail campaigning that union forces were doing over the last few months. Two points about that. One, months isn’t enough. I’m talking about years of education, organization, occupying. Face-to-face talk, direct action, all manner of things. And two, all that actually existing door-knocking was subsumed to a stupid electoral campaign—one whose defeat has only elevated Walker’s status and power. All those resources are now doubtless going into the Obama campaign—Obama, who did no more than tweet support for Barrett at the last minute!

Which reminds me of another thing—a pervasive, macho tendency in union culture to dismiss anyone who isn’t “in the trenches” as a pansy or an out-of-touch pointy-head. Outside analysts just don’t know all the great work they’re doing! Well, you know, it’s not really working out so well. Maybe all that time in the trenches just leaves you with a mouthful of dirt.

Another reaction was to think I don’t care about workplace issues. Of course I do. Workers, especially in private companies (though the post office isn’t much better) live under an authoritarian regime that offends their dignity every day. Unions can be a crucial defense against that. But the heavy emphasis on the contract and the workplace has led to a narrowing of vision, and to a perception among the 88% of the workforce that’s not unionized that unions don’t give a damn about them.

In other countries, unions are about more than contracts, and have done a lot better job fighting for broad public benefits, like pensions and health care. Our unions look too much like they’re fighting to defend their own private welfare states and not fighting to expand the public ones. They look like that because they all too often are. There’s no more disgraceful instance of this than the behavior of the Service Employees International Union around health care. SEIU’s former president, Andy Stern, dismissed single-payer as a Canadian import—while making common cause with then-Walmart CEO Lee Scott to try to craft a more distinctively “American” scheme. As one SEIU staffer told Liza Featherstone  (“Labor Head Andy Stern Has Some Unusual Corporate Bedfellows”) [disclosure alert: she’s my wife], Stern “doesn’t hold social democracy in high regard.” Also, as Bob Fitch argued, unions typically take their cue on political matters from their employers. SEIU represents a lot of health care workers—and health care providers would hate single-payer.

The Wisconsin results overshadowed voter approval—by wide margins—of public sector pension cuts in San Diego and San Jose. Sad to say there’s not much of a sense of solidarity in America these days. Seeing generous retirement and pension provisions, the masses don’t say, “I want those too!” Instead, they say, “They can’t have them either!” It’s not clear that pouring more resources into fights to defend pensions will yield any good results against a 65–70% consensus on that.

Regardless of what I think about contracts and benefits, though, the old model is dead. Private sector unions are virtually gone, and those that remain are negotiating concessions. Public sector unions were safe for a long time, but now they’re on the chopping block. Dems will chop more slowly than Reps, but they will chop nonetheless. A lot of what I hear from even good union people amounts to an intensified dedication to the status quo. But that won’t work. Unions have to shift their focus from the workplace to the community at large, from private benefits enjoyed by a few to public benefits enjoyed by everyone, or they’re doomed.

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Responses

  1. Your last paragraph is 100% correct.

  2. Here here!

  3. I wonder how many will actually be able to take that to heart. My suggestion to the unions might be to re-focus on stuff like funding/subsidizing onsite daycare and other employee services.

  4. Great stuff Doug! Too many union people don’t know the history of their own movement…history, as Marx said is certainly repeating itself, this time as something beyond farce…the idea that a leader of a union could not be that into ‘social democracy’ just says it all!

  5. Excellent piece. My only criticism is about this: “SEIU represents a lot of health care workers—and health care providers would hate single-payer.” Why would health care providers hate single-payer insurance? I’m in Canada, and health care providers are among the biggest defenders of our universal health-care system – which achieves greater efficiencies by virtue of its universality, single-payer character. (Canada spends less % GDP on more and better health care for all – although the system is facing funding and cost pressures, it still benefits greatly from this structure.)

  6. yesss.

  7. The National Nurses Union has advocated for safer patient/nurse ratios, for a financial transaction tax, and for single payer health care. But they can’t do it on their own.
    I think you’re absolutely correct in saying that this electoral campaign was squandered resources, squandered opportunity.

  8. It’s pretty simple, most people in this country act like selfish morons. Whether the issue is union benefits or welfare, the crowd says exactly what the article states- “They can’t have them either!”. We would rather deny than try to lift all boats.

    It is true that energy would be better spent recruiting EVERY working person to the labor movement in general, not necessarily to join a union, but to defend their rights as workers and citizens. At the same time, Walker provoked the unions in Wisconsin. Maybe their reaction was not well thought out, but I find it hard to blame them.

    There has been a 100 year campaign to paint any organizing of labor as anti American, only for the purpose of benefiting the employer. Enough people have now been convinced to act against their own interests. Unions are now so small, they can’t leverage what should be their strength – their members. So as it the article points out, old thinking will not work. Labor (any working person -union or not) needs to be monolithic to battle the cubic money from the other side.

  9. There should have been a general strike during the lead-up to the illegal invasion/occupation of Iraq by President Bush. There should have been a general strike after the 2008 economic fallout. There should have been a general strike after Gov. Scott Walker eliminated collective bargaining in Wisconsin. Now, it’s too late for collective action. The AFL-CIO and Change to Win leadership have basically negotiated the funeral of organized labor in the U.S.

  10. “Unions have to shift their focus from the workplace to the community at large, from private benefits enjoyed by a few to public benefits enjoyed by everyone, or they’re doomed.”

    I agree with this, with the caveat that one of the problems with our labor movement is precisely not fighting back in the workplace. Millions are spent on Democratic politicians while such strikes as still take place wither on the vine. During the recall, a machinists strike(my intl) went down to defeat in Wisconsin. What if some of that energy, or all of it, had gone to making sure that these workers won?

    I highly recommend to one and all Joe Burns book “Reviving the Strike” for a detailed account of the problem.
    http://www.revivingthestrike.org/

  11. [...] left, but also a lot of useful head-scratching on how it could have come about. In two excellent articles, Doug Henwood pointed out that American unions are losing not just numerically, with ever fewer [...]

  12. Workers have been tied to the notion that there’s such a thing as, “a fair day’s wage for a fair day’s work” for decades now. As such, they are almost totally unconscious of the fact that they have opposing class interests with their employers. Is it any wonder that the employing class is constantly whittling away union membership. Why have a union when the union tells you, you have interests in common with your employer in the marketplace for commodities? Wouldn’t it be better to be a cooperative with your employer, as opposed to paying some pro-business, overpaid bureaucrats get something from your boss?

    Oh…and by the way, don’t even try to grasp what Marx was on about when he consistently called on workers to organise as a class to struggle for shorter work time, more control of working conditions and the eventual abolition of the bosses’ wage system. Nope. Instead, “shake hands with your boss and look wise.”

    Activism is a form which has to be filled with class conscious praxis or it’s just about playing political pawn in the capitalist game. Content determines form, not vice versa. Nothing personal, you understand. It’s just business.

  13. [...] Henwood on unions and Scott WalkerBob Morris, on Jun 8, 2012, 5:45 amThe old model is dead. Private sector unions are virtually gone, and those that remain are negotiating concessions. [...]

  14. While I think a lot of docs could live with, or even support, single-payer, the hospital industry would hate it. It would put a squeeze on payments.

  15. I think this clarification, along with the original post, fundamentally is mistaken. It points to the left in the direction of an irresponsible utopian anti- union leftism. Feels good but is a prescription for a right wing hegemony in this country. Chad Goldberg,Vice President, United Faculty & Academic Staff (UFAS), AFT 223 and Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I think well describes a telling alternative position. http://www.deliberatelyconsidered.com/2012/06/lessons-of-the-wisconsin-uprising/

  16. [...] This post by Doug Henwood on the recent recall election in Wisconsin, the end of which argues that once a [...]

  17. [...] a privileged subset with membership cards. Wisconsin Follow-Up By Doug Henwood, June 8, 2012 http://lbo-news.com/2012/06/07/wisconsin-follow-up/ I’ve been amazed at some of the tendentious misreadings of the piece that have made the rounds, [...]


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