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Moving from Protest to Power--Because ‘One Day Longer’ Isn’t a Strategy

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What follows is a short essay laying out some possible tactics and strategies that could be employed to build upon the ongoing resistance to the current attacks on collective bargaining and workers rights in Wisconsin and states across the Midwest. This document is intended to raise some ideas and help move the discussion forward, not to put forward a program or plan for any course of action.

Moving from Protest to Power--Because ‘One Day Longer’ Isn’t a Strategy

What follows is a short essay laying out some possible tactics and strategies that could be employed to build upon the ongoing resistance to the current attacks on collective bargaining and workers rights in Wisconsin and states across the Midwest. This document is intended to raise some ideas and help move the discussion forward, not to put forward a program or plan for any course of action. If you have any ideas or comments I encourage you to share your thoughts in the public discourse and on the websites and e-mail lists that this document is circulating on. If you’d prefer to reply directly, feel free to e-mail the author at patrickjamesyoung@gmail.com

Over the past several weeks, protests of tens of thousands have swept through cities throughout the Midwest and throughout the country. Workers in key battleground states are fighting back against right wing proposals to curb collective bargaining rights for public sector workers, slash state workers’ wages and pensions, and implement anti-worker ‘right to work’ legislation.

Undoubtedly the most dramatic demonstrations have been seen in Wisconsin where Governor Scott Walker and republicans in the State Legislature have been successful in passing key parts of a budget bill that will essentially eliminate public sector workers’ ability to engage in collective bargaining. There, workers and students occupied the State’s Capitol building while Senate Democrats took refuge in neighboring Illinois to stall the devastating bill. But even there the Republican Governor and the Republican dominated State House and Senate moved forward with the controversial bill and on March 11th, Walker signed the bill into law.

In Wisconsin there are plans for legal challenges and an electoral recall directed at six Republican Senators. But even the most ardent proponents of these two courses of action admit that they will not change the political power balance in the state enough to repeal the anti-union legislation.

Many are looking to the 2012 general elections as the opportunity to elect more worker-friendly politicians and hopefully regain some key workplace rights. But even staunch supporters of the Democratic Party must admit that relying entirely on electoral politics is a risky proposal.

Some within the labor movement have energetically advocated a general strike as a tactic in fighting back against the onslaught of anti-worker legislation. Although a political general strike has not been seen in the US in decades, political strikes have experienced considerable success in many other parts of the world. And certainly the heightened level of mobilization we’re seeing in states like Wisconsin, Illinois and Ohio seems to indicated that political strike activity is more possible than any time in recent history.

But a large portion of union members and certainly the vast majority of those in powerful leadership positions in their unions do not seem to be ready to organize for a general strike. Correctly or incorrectly, they argue that there is not enough broad based rank and file support for large-scale strike activity and that the risks are simply too great. Bound by contractual ‘no-strike’ clauses in the private sector and outright prohibitions against striking in much of the public sector, workers engaged in strike activity face a real risk of discharge and in many cases unions advocating illegal strikes can be held financially liable for billions in lost production and other damages.

The rift in the dialogue about how best to fight back against the attacks on collective bargaining seems to be widening. On one side organizers are arguing that we need to continue to hold bigger and bigger rallies and rely on the Democratic Party and the political process to save collective bargaining. On the other side more militant organizers are arguing that direct economic pressure is needed to push back against the right wing agenda and workers must collectively withhold our labor through a general strike. But this two sided, either-or, electoral politics versus general strike debate seems to sell our movement short.

Political recalls and general strikes are tactics, not strategies. And they’re not mutually exclusive, nor are they only arrows in the labor movement’s quiver. Based on the general mood within the labor movement it seems like a recall campaign will happen in Wisconsin and it seems like there will not be a move towards a general strike anytime in the near future. But there are other ways to fight back; there are other ways to raise the political costs for the right; and there are other ways for workers to influence the economy.

The point here is not to put forward a plan or a strategy for fighting back against the right’s attack on workers; the hope is to expand the discussion and explore additional possibilities. We may need to develop new tactics and tools that are specific to the current political moment, or we might want to borrow some tools that workers in other parts of the world have used successfully. At the end of the day the decisions about how to fight will be decided by workers in their communities and through the formal processes of their unions, but the discussion about what works and what makes sense should be broad, it should be open, and it should be critical.

What follows is a brief listing of some tactics and strategies that workers and unions might want to explore in building a campaign to protect and expand workers rights in the United States. To be sure, not all of these tactics are immediately feasible and there are dozens and dozens of other ideas and possibilities out there—all of which should be explored. The stakes couldn’t be higher and we simply cannot afford to do what we’ve always done.

  • Building the Threat of a General Strike—One of the biggest impediments to calling for or organizing a general strike is uncertainty about who would actually participate. In other movements organizers have circulated ‘pledges of resistance’ asking people to commit to taking some sort of aggressive action if their grievances are not addressed. In this case workers and local unions could be asked to take a ‘pledge of resistance’ promising to engage in a general strike if one were to be called. This has the dual effect of making the threat of a strike real and helping union leadership assess the movement’s capacity to actually mobilize a general strike.
  • Fighting on the Shop Floor—Local Unions and International Unions can take the fight to the shop floor using traditional tactics like following all of the rules or procedures for a particular job (work-to-rule efforts), engaging in rolling sickouts, or filing mass grievances.
  • Making Donors Pay—Many unions and federations have already started strategically targeting the companies and individuals who have funded the election campaigns of anti-worker politicians. While this type of activity is not particularly likely to change the attitudes or opinions of any currently seated politician it will likely have a chilling effect on donors funding rogue, anti-worker candidates.
  • Citywide Shutdowns—Withholding our labor is not the only way to shut things down. In other countries, an effective way of shutting down commerce in a city has been to establish blockades of key intersections, at during morning rush hour. Usually these are advertised well ahead of time so other workers and businesses are not surprised by shutdown. Often businesses will preemptively choose to close on that day either in support or in recognition that no one is going to show up anyway.
  • Clogging the Veins of the Economy—Raw materials need to get from the mines and fields to the factories, manufactured goods need to get to market, and service workers need to be able to get to work. Shut-downs of the modes of transportation, either by a selective work stoppage by transit workers or through civil disobedience on the roads, rails, and train and bus stations can bring an effective halt to significant portions of the economy.
  • University Occupations—In social movements around the world, Universities have been central organizing points for popular struggles. In the fight for public sector workers, State Universities have become ground zero as teaching assistants and university service employees fight to save their collective bargaining rights. Supporting occupations of universities can be an important aspect of a working class resistance to attack on workers’ rights.
  • Blocking the Political Process—In Wisconsin and Indiana, Democratic legislators delayed anti-worker legislation by leaving the state. Unions, students, and community activists followed up by occupying the Capitol for weeks. This tactic can be replicated and followed up on by similar quorum-busting and filibustering tactics as well as popular takeovers of legislative chambers and the offices and other working spaces of anti-worker politicians.

All of the above mentioned tactics are tools for mobilizing and leveraging worker power. But some states facing aggressive anti-worker legislation still need to do a significant amount of capacity building. Indiana and Ohio, for instance, have both seen large and energetic demonstrations at their state capitols, but those mobilizations fall short of engaging workers and capturing public attention in the way the occupation of Wisconsin’s capitol galvanized the American labor movement. So in addition to exploring and preparing for confrontational tactics, workers in those states and others on the right wing’s chopping block should explore capacity building and mobilizing tools that will fill the joint purposes of engaging and energizing an army of activists and putting policy makers on notice that working people are ready to fight back.

  • Town Hall Meetings and General Assemblies—Town Hall meetings can be incredibly effective tools in doing public education, defining and messaging important issues. Expanding the discussion beyond identifying the problem to exploring what we can do about it can help spawn local activism and give people an opportunity to collectively decide how they want to respond.
  • Solidarity Camps—Encampment protests (outside state Capitols in battleground states) can provide an energetic nucleus for organizing and coalition building. In many other campaigns and social movements across the US and around the world encampments in public space have helped to energize and inspire activists, improve collaboration, and provide a physical rallying ground for emerging campaigns and social movements.
  • Public Art and Counter Propaganda—Images, art, and literature have always been incredibly useful in building momentum and cultures of resistance. We saw this during the 2008 Presidential campaign with Shepard Fairey’s iconic red and black ‘HOPE’ poster with Obama’s image. We’re seeing an increasingly widespread usage of the ‘Wisconsin Fist’ image. Of course there is no telling which images will take off but quickly mass producing stickers, posters, t-shirts and other pins could be incredibly helpful in making union members and supporters feel like they’re part of a movement that’s bigger than ourselves.
  • Coordinated, Multi-City Days of Action—While mass actions are costly and logistically difficult, simultaneous demonstrations in multiple cities across a specific state or across the country can play a big role in capacity building. They show our opponents that we have reach and capacity and it gives us an opportunity to engage people who would drive to city hall for a demonstration but might not be able to take time off of work to participate in a national or state-wide action hours away.
  • Support Work for Workers in Wisconsin and Other Embattled States—It’s clear that what happens in Wisconsin, then Indiana and Ohio, will have a major impact in what plays out in about a dozen other potential battleground states across the country. Supporting workers in those states, either by organizing delegations to actions in those states, organizing local solidarity actions, or putting together fundraisers for defense funds in those states, not only helps to support those struggles, it helps unions and workers in states like Pennsylvania, which have not yet seen the anti-worker proposals, start early, stepping up mobilization and educating people about the impending attacks.

The decisions about what to do and how to fight are going to happen at several levels. The AFL-CIO Executive Board will lay out a broad union wide strategy and perhaps even call for specific actions like the April 4 ‘No Business as Usual’ day of action. On a state-by-state basis State Labor Federations will play a major role in crafting unified strategies that respond to the conditions on the ground. Local labor councils and local unions will be responsible for planning actions and organizing resistance in their communities.

While it might be convenient to think of a strategy for fighting back against the right’s attack on workers as something to be developed at the top levels of the AFL-CIO, the reality is that our strategy for our resistance (or compliance) will be charted by the thousands of impacted local unions, community groups, and local labor councils as well as the millions of people who will be impacted by the wave of cuts. Some tactics like general strikes and other industrial action make the most sense with broad based institutional support. But many other tactics like citywide shutdowns and solidarity camps can be taken up by local labor communities. And even more tactics like public art, road shows, campaigns against donors and university occupations can be taken up by local unions and community organizations.

The current attack on workers is more aggressive and comprehensive than anything we have seen in recent memory. For decades the labor movement has been in retreat and for the first time in many of our lifetimes it seems that a real resurgence of progressive workplace organizing feels possible. There are a whole world of possibilities for fighting back against the right and building the labor movement. We can’t afford to sit on the sidelines and, as we’ve seen in Madison, working people facing attack are not willing to stand by while their collective bargaining rights are stripped away.

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Moving from Protest to Power--Because ‘One Day Longer’ Isn’t a Strategy | 1 comments | Create New Account
The following comments are owned by whomever posted them. This site is not responsible for what they say.
Moving from Protest to Power--Because ‘One Day Longer’ Isn’t a Strategy
Authored by: Pathology on Wednesday, March 16 2011 @ 04:43 PM CDT

Great article! Spread the word and repost!

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