For years, leaders of the AFL-CIO have been unable to inspire their members to become involved in reversing the Federation’s continuing decline in numbers and bargaining strength. In fact, the effort to revive the AFL-CIO was, at best, half-hearted, because national labor leaders enjoyed their unchallenged, privileged position and saw no need to risk it by mobilizing their rank and file and creating potential rivals, Having little opportunity to participate in elections or policy decisions, a majority of the members became passive and disinterested in union affairs except at contract time.
So it is ironic how unionists became energized and in a fighting mood by the actions of a first-time Republican governor of Wisconsin, who proposed legislation to deprive public employee unions of such traditional rights as collective bargaining. The massive protest movement against the Walker attacks swelled not only through Wisconsin, but reached into Indiana, Ohio and other states, joined by students, fair-minded citizens and unionists in the private sector, as well as firefighters and police, who were not directly affected by the Walker measures.
The Wisconsin upsurge is clearly one of the finest examples of a bottoms-up, independent labor revolt in our nation’s history, and it erupted so quickly that it caught AFL-CIO’s top leaders by surprise. Who would have thought that a hundred thousand people would turn up at a rally in Madison, Wisconsin to vent their anger at the blatant Walker aim to cripple unions? (For more details of the Wisconsin story, read Jane Slaughter in the April issue of Labor Notes).
The labor rallies are continuing to draw large crowds. On Saturday, March 28, about 20,000 working people marched through downtown Los Angeles, vowing to fight any attempt to impose a Wisconsin-like attack in California. With its new slogan, “We Are One,” the AFL-CIO and its affiliates are working on a gigantic CWA-sponsored rally on April 4 (built as a “Day of Action”), in which each of the state and local bodies will hold events that will emphasize labor’s new fighting mood. As one labor activist put it, “It is our job now, as local labor movements, to take that energy and passion and turn it into action!”
After the Rallies, What’s Next? Is There a Game Plan?
At some point, we will have to deal with the sobering fact that our uphill fight to save our unions has just begun. We face a nationwide, corporate-financed campaign, composed of conservative Republicans and right-wing zealots, that is aimed at destroying the American labor movement as a force in American life.
And where are we? How do we defeat the statewide campaign of Republican governors and their submissive legislatures? We need a strategic plan that will enable our members to meet the challenges in each state by developing a series of counterattacks on their enemies.
The AFL-CIO leadership has been largely silent on strategy, focusing its attention on the April 4 march and day of events. Besides, Executive Council members played no part in the Wisconsin struggle and have no connection with the rank-and-filers in that state.