Chad Goldberg’s “Lessons of the Wisconsin Uprising” ignited a great deal of discussion here and on my Facebook page. There was a lot of heat. I am posting some excerpts of the high points of the debate today centered on the question of labor unions, with some additional commentary. In upcoming posts the question of electoral politics, the Democratic Party and Barack Obama will be considered. The exchanges were sharp. I hope to illuminate some key issues in hopes of moving the debate forward, inviting deliberate discussion.
On Facebook, the most heat was generated over appraisals of the union movement. Chad wrote his piece with a post Doug Henwood published in his Left Business Observer in mind, quite critical of his attack on labor.
“I have never come across such a bunch of thin-skinned, paranoid, defensive people as those in & around the labor movement, except maybe the hedge funders who were offended when Obama slipped and called them fat cats. If you criticize, you’re embracing the right. Not all are like this – I’ve gotten a lot of support for what I’ve written from rank & file teachers, laborers, Teamsters, and even one SEIU VP. They at least know that telling comforting tales would be suicidal at this point.
Also, how is the fact that 38% of union HHs voted for Walker not an indicator of union failure to educate and mobilize the membership?”
Goldberg in turn replied:
“I do not object to all criticism of labor but criticism that (1) adopts and starts from the assumptions of the right and (2) is too sweeping. To conclude that unions are an ineffective means to mobilize popular support for social justice because Walker survived a recall election is to set the bar absurdly high. He was only the third governor in U.S. history to even face a recall election. Yes, thirty-eight percent of voters in union households (not 38% of union households) voted for Walker. I’m open to constructive suggestions for more effective ways to educate and mobilize our fellow citizens in Wisconsin and elsewhere–that would indeed be a useful contribution–but it’s an insult to the tens of thousands of volunteers who made a million phone calls and knocked on two million doors in the largest GOTV effort in Wisconsin’s history–and this after the severe blow that Act 10 dealt to union resources–to suggest that unions made no attempt to educate and mobilize.”
This point was amplified by Anya Paretskaya:
“To begin with, I also find Doug Henwood’s post that Chad Goldberg takes issue with problematic and on some points plain misinformed. It would do Mr. Henwood good to get some of his information not from twitter but at least from Wisconsin local media, if he couldn’t come observe things first hand. First, the recall effort was carried out by United Wisconsin, a grassroots organization not affiliated with “the unions” (yes, WI AFL-CIO and individual state unions provided support of various sorts both during the signature collection and the campaign); none of its leadership are union members, even though the one public employee on the board could have joined his university’s faculty and academic staff union. And as Chad just pointed out, Tom Barrett – I agree he was a terrible choice to run against Walker – wasn’t “the unions’” choice candidate: some of them supported another candidate in the primary and tried to dissuade Barrett from entering the race.
Second, a dispatch in another WI publication illustrates the point that both Chad and Jeff make about the educational and organizing potential of electoral campaigns. This story (to my knowledge barely reported outside of WI) is about a completely grassroots recall campaign against the state senate majority leader. The progressive challenger, Lori Compas, lost in this very conservative district. But I think this should be the takeaway from this electoral strategy: “…before the recall effort started, most of [her supporters] had felt alone, as progressives in a firmly Republican district. ‘There were several people who didn’t know a neighbor a block away was just as involved and just as engaged as them until they were canvassing on a street corner together,’ one Compas support[er] said. ‘And strangers became friends quickly.’ ‘I think a lot of us felt very isolated seven months ago, felt like “I’m the only one in my town who has concerns, or I’m the only one in my town who’s paying attention,’” Compas said. ‘And now we see no, they’re everywhere.’” Compas herself, a total newcomer to politics and largely apolitical before last year, plans to remain engaged particularly with the issues of money and transparency in government.
What I and many other members of the labor and progressive movements can agree with Mr. Henwood on is that the Democratic Party isn’t always the best ally for unionists and progressives – although I am far from suggesting that DP and GOP are one and the same (just remember the 14 WI Democratic senators who left the state to delay, as they couldn’t really prevent, the passage of the anti-union bill and their firm opposition since to most of Walker’s legislative initiatives from the environment to healthcare to pensions). Labor, the progressive left, and the country as a whole would certainly benefit from the end of the two-party system. But given the institutional constraints it is not clear just how to achieve it in the near future.”
“Anya Paretskaya: I love the emerging consensus of the defense. You can’t talk critically about labor unless you’re an organizer yourself, and you can’t comment on Wisconsin unless you’re there. Well that really opens things up.
John Nichols, who is not unfamiliar with Wisconsin, told me that the unions were the ones who decided on the recall strategy and led it at every step.
Yeah, I’ve heard all about the educational potential of election campaigns. In this case, this defeat has greatly strengthened Walker and the war on labor nationally.
If labor/progressive forces want to stop losing they’ll have to start asking some serious questions of themselves. This sort of defensive fog is damaging.”
Henwood clearly is making a couple of crucial points: not only insiders have the authority to judge the Wisconsin events, especially since they have significance that goes way beyond Wisconsin borders, and it is crucial to ask serious and critical questions about the state of the labor movement, its role in Wisconsin and more generally.
Yet, I fundamentally agree with Paretskaya and Goldberg. Although far from perfect, the labor movement has contributed significantly to a more just society on many issues. As they have weakened, the struggle between capital and labor has shifted in favor of capital, against not only union members but the less advantaged as a whole. The leadership of the labor movement may need reinvigoration, its direction may need correction, but it has played a crucial role in the struggle for social justice. The Republicans want to re-write history by taking labor out, as we have observed here. Progressives should not aid in this enterprise.
After the fall of Communism, the strength of the left is its diversity, its turn away from dogmatism. Understanding what different actions, movements and institutions contribute is crucial. Dismissing potential allies a bit too enthusiastically, as I believe Henwood does concerning labor, and others do concerning the Democrats and especially Barack Obama, consolidates conservative power. More about that in my next post, in which Paretskaya’s point about the educational and organizing potential of electoral politics will be addressed, as will her concerns about the two-party system. A key to my concerns: the need to act politically in way that takes into account real political constraints and limitations, looking for openings for creative action, not imagining openings that don’t exist.