Here Comes Trouble: Stories from My Life

"Outstanding…Moore Triumphs! Publishers Weekly

Mike & Friends Blog

Mike Elk

Mike Elk is a labor journalist and staff writer for In These Times

February 24th, 2011 1:52 AM

Labor Leaders Say Wisconsin Signals 'New Era of Labor Militancy'

MADISON, WIS.—In the past, labor leaders have been hesitant to call militant actions in part because they're afraid they won’t have the support and energy of union members. But after the massive outpouring of rank and file support in Wisconsin during the last eight days—triggered by proposed GOP legislation that would gut organizing rights for public-sector workers—today's leaders are starting to see things differently.

“I think that we have entered a new era of labor militancy,” SEIU President Mary Kay Henry told me the other day after speaking at a rally in front of 10,000 people. “I think Wisconsin proves that the rank and file is willing to take bold steps.”

Many organized labor leaders have been shocked by how a (more typical) one-day protest became a weeklong occupation of the Capitol. Furthermore, they have been pleasantly surprised by the massive community support they have received in this fight from people not traditionally affiliated with organized labor. The protests initially tightly organized by organized labor are no essentially community-driven affairs. “It’s like if we build it, they will come,” said one local labor leader. 

But it will take more than just Wisconsin's uprising to inaugurate a "new era" of militancy.

After the Republic Windows and Doors occupation in December 2008, at the height of the recession, many people following the labor movement—including myself—said the factory occupation in Chicago would mark a new era in which militant actions would become the norm for unions fighting plant closings.

It didn’t happen. In fact, Republic Windows and Doors was an isolated instance in which workers were able to take advantage of outrage over the bailout to shake $5 million out of banks that were hoping to get a second round of $350 billion in TARP bailout money from the Congress. Scores of U.S. factories have closed since then.

The question now is: Will the current level of energy and militancy just be limited to Wisconsin, where the stakes are unusually high for unionists? How much of what's now happening here is a result of Madison being a college town known as the "Berkeley of the Midwest," in a state with a strong tradition of public-sector unionism? (Wisconsin was the first U.S. state to grant public workers the right to bargain collectively.) In other words, will this become the new normal for the labor movement as it fights attacks on states' public sectors throughout the country?

The new energy has clearly already spread beyond Wisconsin's borders. In Ohio, thousands stormed the Capitol in Columbus, causing state troopers to lock down the Capitol out of fear of an occupation. In Indiana, state legislators fled the state when a vote was attempted on a so-called "right to work bill"— denying Republicans the quorum needed to hold a vote (which is why Democratic legislators fled Madison last week). Protests are planned across the nation. Organized labor has shown a willingness to dedicate the key resources. Protesters have shown a willingness to follow spontaneously.

“I think for our generation of labor leaders, this is our PATCO moment,” said United Steelworkers International Vice President Jon Geenen. “We learned the lessons of PATCO and know that we need to instead engage in the type of militant direct action like the type we see in Wisconsin.”

Of course, organized labor's position in U.S. politics is much weaker than it was in the 1980s, when President Reagan busted the Air Traffic Controllers' union. The fact that public-sector workers now make up the majority of all union members in the country—7.6 million people, versus 7.1 million in the private-sector—will surely motivate some.

“Governor’s Walker decision to eliminate organized labor...marks the end of an era of labor relations. We have now entered the era of organized labor extermination,” says UE Political Action Director Chris Townsend. “There are no more negotiations, no more making concessions. Walker wants us to accept our death. Nobody in organized labor is willing to do that. Nothing quite motivates people like extermination.”

This grim new reality raises a deeper question: If organized labor throws significant energies into defending itself from attempted exterminations—which it must—will it ever have the resources to organize new workers? If we have indeed entered a purely defensive era for labor, unions may never be able to grow large enough to make attacks like Walker's what they have been for decades: politically taboo.


You must log in to comment.

You must be logged in to leave a comment. Log in | Register

If you have a moment today, I hope you can read the obituary for my father Francis (Frank) Moore, who died this past Saturday at the age of 92: Francis...

Apr 22nd
6:33 PM
Read More

My father, Francis (Frank) Moore, passed away this morning a few months shy if his 93rd birthday. He was a great dad I am blessed to have had him in my life. I...

Apr 20th
2:58 AM
Read More

Time to put the cuffs on Chris Christie -- not for the bridge scandal, but for this: Chris Christie's $300m pension proposal broke state anti-corruption...

Apr 18th
7:31 PM
Read More

George W. Bush Debuts New Paintings Of Dogs, Friends, Ghost Of Iraqi Child That Follows Him... President Bush has a new hobby -- painting! --...

Apr 17th
7:28 PM
Read More

Big new story from David Sirota and Pando on top Christie adviser and appearance of corruption at New Jersey's pension fund: REVEALED: Gov....

Apr 17th
12:41 PM
Read More

FBI Uncovers Al-Qaeda Plot To Just Sit Back And Enjoy Collapse Of United States WASHINGTON—The FBI announced today that it has uncovered a...

Apr 15th
3:28 PM
Read More

Revealed: Rahm Emanuel's top donor bought stock in Marriott just before it was awarded huge contract As schools are closed and pensions cut,...

Apr 9th
2:00 PM
Read More

I'll be at First Time Fest today in New York City at the screening of my first film, Roger & Me. Loews Village 7 at 12:30 pm. Come see it on the big...

Apr 5th
9:48 AM
Read More

Revealed: Rahm Emanuel cuts public pensions, diverts money to benefit campaign donors If you've read the financial news out of Chicago the last...

Apr 4th
2:19 PM
Read More

Please take a moment today to think of Casey Austin Sheehan, son of Cindy and Patrick, who was murdered by U.S. foreign policy in Sadr City, Baghdad ten years...

Apr 4th
2:00 PM
Read More

ICYMI - I've joined this "thunderclap" to support the Connecticut legislators who voted yes on last year's Act Concerning Gun Violence...

Apr 3rd
7:38 PM
Read More

I've joined this "thunderclap" to support the Connecticut legislators who voted yes on last year's Act Concerning Gun Violence Prevention...

Apr 2nd
8:27 PM
Read More

I am opposed to the death penalty, but to every rule there is usually an exception, and in this case I hope the criminals at General Motors will be arrested...

Apr 1st
3:55 PM
Read More

How Long Some in the US Will Survive Under New Health Law Donna Smith Those who must access care to live and can afford it are not...

Mar 31st
10:13 PM
Read More

Last night, The Good Wife on the East Coast started 40 minutes late due to the overrun of the NCAA basketball game. If you had your DVR set for the show, you...

Mar 24th
5:41 PM
Read More

Watching films today, looking for the ones I'm going to pick for my film festival this summer. I (and a whole bunch of others!) have this thing we put on...

Mar 23rd
4:48 PM
Read More

When the U.S. Health Care System Keeps Killing, Who Cares Enough to Fight? Donna Smith We have largely forgotten that people are at...

Mar 21st
5:56 PM
Read More

Tell the White House not to give up on Dr. Vivek Murthy's nomination as Surgeon General despite the ferocious opposition from the NRA: Don't give...

Mar 21st
5:38 PM
Read More

This criminal would never see a jail cell, nor would his cronies. In fact, they'd later be rewarded with re-election: Presidential Address on War with...

Mar 19th
9:40 PM
Read More

The crime of the century -- our invasion & slaughter in Iraq -- started 11 years ago tonite in this 7pm (ET) hour, March 19th, 2003: CNN Coverage of...

Mar 19th
9:08 PM
Read More

Washington’s Back-to-the-Future Military Policies in Africa Nick Turse Nick Turse is an award-winning journalist, historian,...

Mar 17th
4:59 PM
Read More

"I think democracy is the most revolutionary thing in the world." -- Tony Benn, 1925-2014 Tony Benn in 'Sicko'

Mar 14th
10:07 AM
Read More

RIP Tony Benn, one of the UK's greatest leaders: Tony Benn, veteran Labour politician, dies aged 88 Former cabinet minister died at...

Mar 14th
9:53 AM
Read More

Please read this important story from K. Ford K.: Am I the Face of the New American Middle Class? I began to feel I had slipped so low...

Mar 13th
2:24 PM
Read More

Yesterday Dianne Feinstein revealed that the CIA has been spying on the Senate Intelligence Committee. This is all about the report the committee has produced...

Mar 12th
6:48 PM
Read More

Health Care for All Colorado has brought Mercy Killers, a show written and performed by Michael Milligan about our murderous for-profit healthcare system, to...

Mar 10th
1:08 PM
Read More

Health Care Dramas that Sting and Why We Have to Watch Donna Smith The realities Milligan has written into the show cut deep into...

Mar 10th
1:02 PM
Read More

Did you know the Lehrer Newshour on PBS has been produced for 20 years by a company owned by conservative cable billionaire John Malone? Me neither. After...

Mar 7th
8:39 PM
Read More

Mr. Obama, if int’l law is so damn crucial . . . | The Russian intervention deserves criticism. But let’s be clear. The...

Mar 6th
1:21 PM
Read More

Subscribe to Mike's Blog RSS

Click here to suggest an article

Mike's Blog

See More Blogs

Vew the archives

View older articles