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Wisconsin, the fight for Unions (continued)

(Paul Pechter interviewed by Elizabeth Fattah from the Green Politics Print Collective.)

EF: How would you describe the failed strategy and tactics of the past?

PP: Just after I became involved in my union in 1980, Ronald Reagan fired unionized air traffic controllers who went out on strike over contract bargaining issues. Many union activists were pushing for a broad united front of all unions to take decisive action and build for a general strike. This call was rejected by our union leaders and the air controllers not only lost the strike, they lost their jobs. I, along with many others, were disappointed and discouraged to witness such a devastating capitulation by the leaders of the U.S. labor movement. This loss was devastating not only for the air controllers, but for all U.S. workers because the capitulation emboldened our class enemies to go on the offensive with a program of concession bargaining backed by the threat of permanently replacing workers who chose to strike in response. The strike as a weapon became a museum piece along with annual wage increase. But this was only a prelude to the failure I’ve referred to. Organized labor, in response to the business offensive of takeaway bargaining, refurbished the union toolbox. They all but discarded organized job actions as a means to resist attacks by employers, and instead heavily funneled union resources into a new strategy of becoming a big player in the electoral arena. Building political power at the voting booth became the touted antidote to the shrinking power of the U.S. working class. This shift is what I refer to as the failed strategy.

EF: Can you talk a little more about the failure of this strategy?

PP: In a nutshell, the strategy contained a fatal flaw – it transferred the economic class struggle between workers and capitalists from the point of production and other workplaces to the electoral political arena. This was fatal because in the electoral arena the capitalist class is the clear master. In U.S. elections money talks and union resources are no match for corporate wealth. The change essentially meant trading the real/concrete economic power that workers’ own, their ability to withhold labor power, for a promise of sharing political power, owned, for the most part by the capitalists not workers. Some argued labor could do both, but events have shown otherwise. Not only can a case be made that the huge input of resources poured into electoral and legislative lobbying over the past few decades by organized labor has achieved none of its major legislative priorities, but also that during this period, the dominance of capital in the political arena has reached new heights. One could conclude that not only was the switch in strategy a failure in the political arena, but it also oversaw a decline in its power in the workplace. Today, a mere 7% of private workers are organized. This means 93% of private workers toil in atomized environments, powerless and vulnerable to the dictates of the class that appropriates their labor. It appears organized labor has failed on both fronts – it has not increased its political power, and it has seriously weakened its economic strength within the workplace.

EF: Aside from the failures of the Union leadership were you encouraged by the workers’ actions?

PP: The occupation of the Wisconsin state capitol building was a breakthrough – a sustained direct action, not just your usual protest where folks come together for a few hours, march, listen to speeches and trek on back home having had little or no meaningful impact on the grievances that brought them there. This action was sustained for weeks, with rank and file union workers, students and activists taking over the capital building, self-organizing an orderly occupation day after day, exchanging ideas and transforming themselves into a powerful fighting force. The question that consumed my thoughts from the beginning was how would this evolving force be nurtured and utilized when the defining moment arrived – that moment when the corporate dominated Wisconsin legislature inevitably found a way to pass the bill rescinding collective bargaining for public workers. Here is my take on what followed the realization of this moment. There was a groundswell of calls for a general strike from the bottom up, coming from those actually participating in the occupation. An alternative call surfaced for a recall drive against those legislators voting yes on the bill. This alternative was supported by most of the union leadership who were players in the Wisconsin action. Right after Governor Walker signed the bill, AFSCME Council 48 Executive Director Rich Abelson went on television and said there's no talk of a general strike by public employees to protest the changes to collective bargaining Gov. Scott Walker has signed into law. Instead, public employees will redirect their energy to the recall of eight GOP state senators. I took this as a clear statement of the continuing dominance of the failed electoral strategy within organized labor. It shot down another opportunity to take advantage of favorable circumstances to develop a strong and united working class capable of taking the offensive against the continuing and progressively draconian attacks by capital. It was clear to me that this capitulation put the lie to past excuses given by labor leaders for not fighting because the workforce wasn’t ready to fight – Wisconsin workers, students and activists were ready to fight, but they were abandoned by their leaders. This suggests that for most of the union leadership strata, cooptation is preferable to struggle and confrontation. Taking this view a step further, it is this failed electoral policy which in the past hampered and constricted the growth of the working class consciousness essential for battling successfully in the class war imposed by capital. This policy was again evident in the derailing of the Wisconsin uprising.

EF: What should the unions have done differently?

PP: Unfortunately, for organized labor to have acted differently in Wisconsin, they would have had to have started the process of transforming themselves well before Wisconsin erupted. That did not happen before going into Wisconsin, so it certainly wasn’t bound to happen during Wisconsin. Unions, therefore, had little choice but to repeat the failed strategy they still cling to – funneling the righteous and rebellious anger of their members into the U.S. corporate dominated electoral political arena, where it is co-opted, beaten, and disappeared. Different means learning again how to focus that anger directly at the real enemy, class exploitation.

EF: The unions have supported the Democratic Party. In the Wisconsin case, the Wisconsin Democrats left the state so that Republicans were denied a quorum to pass the anti-union legislation. (It was passed anyway through manipulation of legislatives rules. The legislation is now being challenged in the courts.) Should unions continue to give their time and money to the Democratic Party or do they need to redirect their energies to build their own?

PP: My answer to the first part of the question should be obvious given my answer to previous questions. I see it as a fatal error for U.S. unions to rely on elections and lobbying to the degree they do. As for building a labor party that runs candidates, it makes little sense to do so as long as our political system mandates the “winner-take- all”, “two-party” electoral system, so easily dominated by corporate money. It would only make sense in a political system utilizing a more democratic “multi-party”, “proportional representation” electoral process.

To Be Continued.