Return of the Class Struggle

Eric Foner · The Protests in Wisconsin

Thanks to the public employees of Wisconsin, thousands of whom have occupied the state capitol building for the past several days, the class struggle has returned to the United States. Of course, it never really left, but lately only one side has been fighting. Workers, their unions and liberals more generally have now rejoined the battle.

As many commentators have pointed out, Governor Scott Walker’s plan to eliminate most collective bargaining rights for public employees’ unions has nothing to do with Wisconsin’s fiscal problems (which are far less serious than those of many other American states). Instead, it represents the culmination of a long right-wing effort to eliminate the power of unions altogether. During the Great Depression, Franklin Roosevelt redefined American politics by forging a majority political coalition that included labour unions, white ethnic minorities (Irish, Italians, Jews), African-Americans in the North, liberal intellectuals, Southern whites and, after the passage of the Social Security Act in 1935, the elderly. The New Deal coalition proved powerful enough to enable Democrats to win seven of the nine presidential elections between 1932 and 1964. One of its key achievements was the Wagner Act of 1935, which gave most workers the legal right to form trade unions.

The Wagner Act did not apply to people employed by state and local governments. Their rights are a matter of state law, and Wisconsin in 1959 was the first to give public employees the right to collective bargaining. The state has a long tradition of political liberalism, dating back to Robert LaFollette, a leader of the Progressive movement of the early 20th century. But Wisconsin was also the home of Joseph McCarthy, and its conservative persona is now in the political ascendancy.

In the past generation, the percentage of American workers who belong to unions has declined precipitously, not only because of concerted attacks by right-wing politicians and the corporations that fund them, but also because of deindustrialisation. Indeed, public employees have been the only group among whom union membership has risen.

Ever since Ronald Reagan destroyed PATCO, the union representing air traffic controllers, the right has had public unions in its sights. The financial crisis has given conservatives the opportunity to blame the supposedly lavish salaries and pensions of teachers, policemen and social workers for the states’ economic ills, even though those ills are just as serious where public employees lack collective bargaining rights.

Sadly, until Wisconsin, leading Democrats have had little to say in defence of unions, even though, despite their weakened condition, they’re still an important part of the party’s base. President Obama has criticised Walker. But he has been far less outspoken about the struggle for democracy at home than he was (belatedly) about events on the streets of Egypt. Representatives of the American black elite, Obama among them, tend to share the free-trade, finance and technology-oriented economic outlook of upper-class whites, in which unions play little part. Like Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton before him, Obama has shown no desire to promote legislation demanded by unions that would make it easier for workers to organise, or to address the problems that defined New Deal liberalism and remain all too relevant today: economic inequality, widespread unemployment and unrestrained corporate power.

So it has been left to grass-roots activists to respond to the latest Republican assault on unions. And despite the recent demonisation of public employees as living lavishly on the backs of hard-working taxpayers, most Americans still respect policemen, firemen, teachers and other public workers. This is one reason the demonstrations in Wisconsin seem to have generated widespread support across the country. Walker has threatened to send in the National Guard to clear the capitol of protesters, a throwback to the days when troops were regularly employed to crush strikes. It will be interesting to see whether the American military, unlike its counterparts in Egypt, is willing to use violence against fellow citizens demanding their rights.


  • 22 February 2011 at 5:45pm
    frames says:
    As a resident of Madison, it's been difficult to separate the facts from the rhetoric during the past week of protests.

    As far as citizens demanding their rights, the joke going around here is that they are demanding "the right to make other people pay for my exorbitant benefits."

    While I sympathize with my union friends who will take a cut to their personal budgets, the have-nots (the non-union taxpayers) just can't shoulder the price tag of union wages and benefits any more the way they used to. It's not class warfare, it's the global economy. So cuts need to be made. And unfortunately, unions have not proven themselves to be generous to taxpayers and take on those cuts voluntarily.

    And sorry, the elimination of some collective bargaining rights do have a lot to do with fiscal realities. By freeing local governments from excessive union requirements, such as only being able to use the teachers union health care plan, they can search out more cost-effective options. Otherwise, taxpayers in municipalities would find their property tax dollars increasingly going to public workers instead of services. Not fair, and not tenable.

    If the unions and their supporters are looking for someone to blame for the demise of their organizations, look in the mirror.

    • 22 February 2011 at 7:07pm
      VenetianRed says: @ frames
      Wisconsin public sector employees aren't actually especially well paid:
      And, at least in the dispute under discussion, the state's public sector unions *have* expressed a willingness to accept voluntary cuts:

    • 22 February 2011 at 8:13pm
      cigar says: @ frames
      Well, here's a fact that will help your mind detach itself from one particular fiction:

      "To the extent that there is an imbalance -- Walker claims there is a $137 million deficit -- it is not because of a drop in revenues or increases in the cost of state employee contracts, benefits or pensions. It is because Walker and his allies pushed through $140 million in new spending for special-interest groups in January."

      Walker, like most of his GOP peers and plenty of Democrats and their enablers among the press, academe and online punditry, want a neo-Liberal kind of austerity, in which the working and middle classes get benefit and wage cuts, while the rich get tax cuts and subsidies. This is not austerity. It is class war conducted by sociopaths with the support of bought off politicians, academics and journalists. But you disagree:

      "It’s not class warfare, it’s the global economy."

      But if the global economy we have had so far only benefits plutocrats, why shouldn't it be changed in a way that its wealth reaches a much larger number of people? The global economy, the markets, are not abstract, unchanging Platonic entities that existed before the human race appeared. They are social constructs, and if a majority of people think they have been rigged to benefit a small elite, leading to oppressive inequalities of wealth and so power, then they have the moral right to revolt and change the system.

    • 22 February 2011 at 11:37pm
      frames says: @ VenetianRed
      Even if it's true that Wisconsin public sector employees aren't well paid, how is it relevant? The combined impact of all those wages and benefits is too much for the population to pay for.

      Yes, some of the unions have expressed a willingness to accept cuts, for the first time ever. And only when faced with elimination of some CB rights. If it were business as usual, they would not accept any cuts and just expect the taxpayers to continue paying for union increases.

    • 22 February 2011 at 11:39pm
      Let me clarify. The money would go increasingly less to services such as snow plowing, park mowing, and pothole filling. That is already happening in Wisconsin. The money would increasingly go to paying the ever-expanding cost of health care benefits and pensions - not a value-added situation for average taxpayer. So paying for education does not mean paying teachers. It pays the union healthcare fund, with its expensive fees.

    • 22 February 2011 at 11:55pm
      frames says: @ cigar
      $140M for special-interest groups? No. The bill Walker had passed was to encourage job growth. Companies that relocate to Wisconsin will not have to pay corporate taxes for two years. The law stipulates that the company must move at least 51 percent of the workers on its payroll or at least those who account for $200,000 in wages. Walker also signed into law a bill that gives small tax breaks to companies that create jobs. This bill targeted companies in Illinois who were facing big tax hikes because of their own fiscal difficulties. Luring jobs over the border with tax breaks is not contributing to the problem.

      And we're really talking about the $3.6 BILLION deficit the state is facing in the next biennium. States can't print money, they need to have a balanced budget. Something needs to be done. What do you suggest? We're not a wealthy state.

      Yes, I agree that if the global economy benefits only plutocrats, it should be changed. But change it in a way that is fair to all the taxpayers. Don't just benefit the union workers. In today's environment, unions create an elite group of workers who benefit at the expense of people who are increasingly losing out.

      "...if a majority of people think they have been rigged to benefit a small elite, leading to oppressive inequalities of wealth and so power, then they have the moral right to revolt and change the system." Well, that's exactly what Wisconsin voters did when they elected Walker - they revolted to change the system that was oppressive.

    • 23 February 2011 at 1:02am
      cigar says: @ frames
      "Luring jobs over the border with tax breaks is not contributing to the problem."

      Of course it is contributing to the problem: it is making the deficit bigger by lowering tax receipts. Any workers hired by these businesses will have to pay state taxes though, and since they will most probably get paid a meager non-Union wage, their contribution to the larger economy won't make up for the loss due to the tax breaks.

      "The law stipulates that the company must move at least 51 percent of the workers on its payroll or at least those who account for $200,000 in wages."

      Does that last clause refer to annual wages? Then the contribution to the economy will be quite small: with that kind of money you can barely pay for half a dozen non-skilled workers.

      "In today’s environment, unions create an elite group of workers who benefit at the expense of people who are increasingly losing out."

      I think you have it upside down. Unions defend the interests of workers, who would lose out if they don't stand together to defend their rights before management and the state, going on strike to ensure that their demands are met. They are the people who stand to lose out without collective bargaining, because as individuals they have little chance of negotiating a better package - management can just wait for a more desperate applicant to come and accept whatever they throw at him or her. This is not the case with individual plutocrats such as Charles Koch, who funds Walker's party lavishly.

      "Well, that’s exactly what Wisconsin voters did when they elected Walker – they revolted to change the system that was oppressive."

      And what about those thousands of people protesting against Walker? Aren't they also protesting against a system, or rather regime with dictatorial tendencies, that seeks to use armed force to subdue dissent and to get around established democratic practice?

    • 23 February 2011 at 11:57am
      Joe Morison says: @ frames
      Wisconsin may not be a wealthy state but the USA is an extremely wealthy country: the trouble is that all the new wealth since Reagan has gone to the very richest leaving the rest of you no better off or poorer.
      If you were to tax the rich like we do in Europe (not that we are equal enough), and invest in a decent national health service and social safety net, there would be more than enough money for all of you to live well.

      The workers of the US need to join together into nation wide union movement, and come together with other like minded people to form a progressive social democratic impetus for change. But for some reason incomprehensible to us Europeans (a bit like your weird belief in gun ownership as a human right), there seems to be no chance of this happening in the foreseeable future.

      In The Spirit Level Wilkinson and Pickett have proved that the more equal a society is the more happily it functions, yet the in the USA inequality seems to be a desirable end in itself. It's tragic that what should be, and in so many ways is, the greatest country in the world is so hellbent on the wrong the course.

  • 22 February 2011 at 10:38pm
    loxhore says:
    Conservatives believe in the inherent justice of the prevailing order, and in the virtue of the transiently strong, as items of ideology.

    Conservatives, as an item of ideology, believe too in the profit motive as the best and soundest fuel of human effort.

    But there need be no explanation for this grander than that they are bad people.

    They become pernicious when, acting as though it were true because they depend on its so being and need that, they inflict their ideology on a world whose sedate intractability refuses it.

  • 23 February 2011 at 6:13pm
    jack says:
    What is particularly distressing after thirty years of Reaganism is how many American workers have apparently just given up expecting to live a decent life with a decent job with good wages and benefits. Not only that, but in their distress they have adopted the Republican ideology that selfishness is a virtue, or as it may be more properly phrased, "misery loves company."

    We all pay in part for the living conditions of others. It just may be more obvious in the case of public workers where their wages and benefits largely come from our taxes. But some part of the price of all goods and services that we purchase goes to the wages of those who make and provide them. We are all responsible for the welfare of everyone in our community. When people make higher wages and are more secure in their personal lives the more they can purchase the goods or services you provide, thereby making your life more secure.

    Racing to the bottom is not the answer; it will just end as in some sci-fi post-apocalyptic film, with a small, incredibly wealthy, autocratic, gated elite living apart from the vast mass of poor, starving folks, who fight one another for every scrap and for the right to serve the super-rich.

    Unions have been one historically successful model for overcoming such a bleak scene and ensuring democracy. [And remember, they are composed of ordinary people who are no more saintly or corrupt than anyone else.] Unfortunately, the union movement in the US has as a whole been at something of a lost as to how to respond to the post-Reagan pressures it has encountered [maybe becoming true "internationals" is the answer] but until they do we must support the organized workers, not only for helping them keep themselves and their families solvent, but also because by supporting unionized workers we support ourselves.

  • 24 February 2011 at 5:30am
    mendelsefarim says:
    Good article by Foner. Clearly stated but dumb responses by Frames, who misses the logic of the argument. It is not the fault of teachers and other government employees that non-union workers and middle class people have had their work loads increased and their benefits withheld. Frames is hurting because the rich do not pay their fare share of taxes and have convinced too many ordinary Americans that fat unions and lazy minorities on welfare are squandering their hard earned taxed wages. The idea that a wealthy nation can not afford decent health care and retirement benefits for its citizens is absurd. What we can not afford is loss of jobs to poverty stricken nations, loss of unionized workers who fought hard for a 40 hour week, a minimum wage and above all, for the right to sit down and TALK to their employers (and that's all collective bargaining is) Non public employees have the right to strike. In the end, public employees have the right to starve if after bargaining they can not secure satisfaction. The idea that employers must reason with their employees sticks in the craw of right wing ideologues. They want a powerless. pacified brainwashed citizenry who can be manipulated by stale bread and circuses. And that's what the governor of Wisconsin wants.

  • 24 February 2011 at 1:37pm
    Joe Morison says:
    As so often, Michael Tomasky hits the nail on the head in today's Guardian.

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