Two Lessons from Wisconsin
As a long time leftist it’s all too easy to take the usual lessons from the current struggle in Wisconsin over the governor’s attempt to break the collective bargaining rights of the public unions. This is, many say, just one more example of the ruling class trying to weaken workers. Over the last 4o years or so the concentrated economic power of the top 1% of the population has grown dramatically; overall union influence and membership has declined dramatically; and with the now sustained Republican attack on “the damn government” as the source of all our troubles, there is less and less to stand between the ordinary citizen and the power of the corporations. As good progressives (liberals, socialists, social justice types, nice people, etc.) we must stand with the unions. And this is especially true because the attempt to split the working class into public vs. private workers is part of a familiar pattern of breaking us up by race, gender, or nationality.
Resist the union busters! Solidarity forever!
That’s Lesson One. And it’s not that I disagree, but it is that I think it’s sadly incomplete.
For we also need to think about Lesson Two, which is that the behavior of unions in this country over the last forty years has often been narrowly self-interested: protecting jobs for poorly performing workers; demanding wage increases without thought of the consequences for other workers; seeking just as many privileges as one could, regardless of the long term effects; turning a blind eye to military aggression and ecological damage to “protect jobs.”
The unions had great solidarity with themselves, but often not very much with others. That is why they fell into an easy support for Reagan and the Right, why they were so offended by Affirmative Action for women and racial minorities without offering their own programs to deal with sexism or racism; and why they could be picked off, reduced, and weakened one after another.
The heart of Lesson Two is that there is no substitute for a much broader, more compressive solidarity—an ability to think about the effects of one’s actions on the whole society, not just one’s own narrow group. As a long term loony leftist I’ll always side with the workers against the bosses. But this is a different question. It’s about workers of all classes finding some kind of human solidarity across race, gender, and nationality; about resistance to war and environmental damage; about a moral, political and spiritual commitment to justice—which in the end will be the only guarantee of a decent life for society as a whole.
Justice for all—or continued and increasing power for the very few. That is the Lesson of Wisconsin. It’s an old one, but until we learn it we are in for more and more really hard times.