The confrontation between labor and politics at the Wisconsin Capitol was just starting as workers in Egypt who left their jobs and took to the streets toppled a government, and it wasn't long before activists in Madison began invoking the spirit of that uprising. "Fight like an Egyptian" emerged one cry as picket signs cheering the people's revolt half a world away were raised in protests on the Capitol Square.
Thousands have thronged the Capitol daily since large scale demonstrations began Feb. 14. Madison school teachers called in sick for several days to protest and on Feb. 21, the Madison-based South Central Federation of Labor took the unprecedented step of endorsing a general strike among its 45,000 members if Gov. Scott Walker's controversial budget repair bill is made law.
Could such a radical action get off the ground here?
Local labor leaders are careful to point out that no strikes have been called; the federation does not have the authority to call a strike and several union leaders stressed that job actions would be individual workers' decisions. But students of labor point to a confluence of circumstances in Madison with dramatic potential.
It is just possible, they say, that it could happen here.
General strikes have been very rare in the United States. Strikes widespread enough to interrupt general commerce date back to the Great Depression of the 1930s when longshoremen in San Francisco, autoworkers in Toledo, Ohio, and teamsters in Minneapolis touched off protests that helped establish industrial unions.
And while the labor struggle in Madison is unfolding in the context of budget deficits exacerbated by the severest economic downturn since the Depression, labor activists say the real conflict is over union power and partisan political influence.
It is dissatisfaction with the political system, not economic desperation, that sets the stage for a general strike, says Reza Rezazadeh, a professor emeritus at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville who has studied revolutionary strikes against repressive regimes in his native Iran and elsewhere. In the United States, he says, activists are challenging a political system that, despite freedom of the press and freedom of speech, is shaped by the influence of the economic elite and corporations.
Walker's challenge to union power is part of an established movement by the Republican Party to cripple unions, the most influential funding source for Democratic candidates and causes, say analysts of the showdown in Wisconsin. Aside from increasing contributions by employees for pension and health care costs, Walker's budget repair bill would also sharply restrict the power of most public unions to bargain with their employers. "It is viewed nationally and correctly as a decisive turning point for the future of labor nationally and for the Democratic Party more broadly," says Harley Shaiken, a labor expert and professor at the University of California-Berkeley.
Whether a general strike would be an effective tool for labor, local leaders will have to decide, Shaiken says. But the likely public reaction to any widespread job action would be an important consideration, and polls show a majority are opposed to stripping public workers of collective bargaining rights, he points out. A nationwide Gallup poll released last week found 61 percent of respondents opposed to an erosion of collective bargaining rights among public unions, and even a Wisconsin poll funded by the conservative-leaning Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity found 56 percent in favor of public unions' collective bargaining powers.
To mount a general strike, labor unions would have to take a more unified stance than is usual, with truck drivers and food service workers finding common cause with public sector workers, says Gene Carroll, director of the Union Leadership Institute at the New York City campus of Cornell University. To gain public support to allow it to be effective, an even more embracing class perspective would need to take shape, he says. "In Wisconsin, to the extent that people who are not in the public sector begin to understand that the designs of the government to break collective unions' bargaining rights are in fact an attack on the economic and political rights of anyone working for a living - the possibility of a general strike is conceivable."
On the other hand, a strike that does not win public support can be a public relations disaster, says Don Taylor, an assistant professor at the School for Workers at University of Wisconsin-Extension. But in Madison, where the battle over collective bargaining is centered, circumstances favor support for widespread job actions, he says.
Not only does the area have many public workers whose families have a direct interest in the issue, but it also has many other residents who are sticking up for their rights. "A lot of people not connected to the labor movement have a strong progressive outlook on issues of people's rights and social justice," Taylor says.
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"Do I anticipate every worker in and out of a union would walk off the job? No. Could a strike be large enough to have significant leverage? Yes," he says.
Even the prospect of such an action might unnerve business leaders and other citizens, prompting them to call the governor's office and say "fix this thing," says Taylor.
The political standoff over workers' rights continues into a third week, but some of the urgency for labor unions locally has been relieved by the actions of their public employers. The Madison School District delayed until May the issuance of pink slips for teachers despite looming state funding cuts; the Madison City Council met in special session on Feb. 17 to approve outstanding labor contracts.
Nonetheless, David Poklinkoski, president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 2304, says area labor is more united than it ever has been. Meetings of the Labor Federation -- which covers 97 labor organizations in six counties -- can be tense over competing interests, he says, but the vote to endorse a general strike was unanimous. "The breadth and depth of solidarity in the labor movement right now is unbelievable," says Poklinkoski, whose union represents employees of Madison Gas & Electric.
"We know the private sector is next," he says of efforts to strip workers' rights. "Local unions are trying to figure out what to do if the governor doesn't change his mind and work out a reasonable solution to this." That includes studying general strike actions of the past, as well as the budget repair bill's impacts beyond collective bargaining.
"The local union will not call a general strike - it would be each person's individual decision," he says.
Leaders of Local 60 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which includes many city of Madison and some non-teacher Madison Metropolitan School District employees, are asking their members to think about a general strike.
"We've been asking people to think about what they would do," says President Donald Coyier, so that if the union calls for a job action, they are ready.
Idling transportation is a key element of general strike efforts, Rezazadeh says, but there's no sense yet if that could happen in Madison. Teamsters Local 695, the union that represents Madison bus drivers, is not a member of the Labor Federation. Recording secretary Gene Gowey says union members are protesting and transporting other protesters to the Capitol Square, but as to a strike, he says his members are "attempting to address issues in a peaceful, law-abiding way."
The stakes are high for strikers. State law restricts strikes by public employees, but job actions in protest of proposed legislation might not be considered a "strike" under state law. Private sector workers might not be protected by federal law in general strikes not related to contract provisions or unfair labor practices, meaning that they could be fired.
Meanwhile, some Madison residents are beginning to meet and talk about how the community might respond to a general strike. One of them, union supporter Judith Zukerman-Kaufman, recalls how during a 1960s parent protest that kept Chicago schoolchildren out of classrooms, alternative schools were established. Creating similar set-ups to teach children about civil rights or labor history is one thing people are starting to talk about here, she says. "There are seeds of some ideas."
Madison teacher Susan Stern says that the focus of her union continues to be legal protest. "But people are starting to ask: ‘What if?'"