Friday, February 22, 2013 10:21 AM
Faced with widespread
union busting and a feckless NLRB, a more aggressive labor movement is brewing.
The National Labor Relations Board has a long history of
dysfunction, but its job just got a lot harder. In January, a federal appeals
court ruled that Obama had illegally appointed three of the board’s members
while the Senate was in recess early last year. Now, recess appointments are a touchy
subject in Washington,
but Obama had good reason. Republicans in the Senate had threatened to block
any and all NLRB appointments, leaving the president with few options.
(Oddly, there’s no law against deliberately obstructing a vital government
If the decision stands, the
board is toast. With only one remaining member, the NLRB lacks a quorum,
and legally loses all decision-making power. The bedrock of labor law
enforcement would grind to a halt. What’s more, all decisions since the January
4 appointments last year could be nullified—that’s hundreds of rulings on
everything from workers using social media, to who handles union dues on a
This is bad news for organized labor, but not as bad as you
might think. While few doubt the board’s importance in protecting things the
right to organize, the NLRB also has a long history of institutionalizing the
bureaucracy and hierarchy that have plagued American labor for decades. The
board was born during an era of historic labor militancy, and reforms that
established basic workplace protections also went hand in hand with bans on
more militant actions like sit-downs, sympathy strikes, and wildcats. In their
place, the board set up channels like union elections and regulated
negotiations. The new system was more predictable for everyone, but also more
top-down, less democratic, and arguably much less effective for labor.
So, alienated by the rigidity and hierarchy of the NLRB
system, many workers and organizers have begun learning to live without it,
preferring to engage in struggles on their own terms. Indeed, with or without a
functioning labor board, many of the movement’s brightest flashpoints are operating
well outside the system.
One of the clearest of those flashpoints was certainly last
year’s unprecedented organizing effort at Walmart, a grassroots campaign that
united unions, labor groups, and activists across the country. The push began
in September, when workers at a Walmart-controlled warehouse in Mira Loma, California, walked
off the job and began a “Walmarch” to Los
Angeles to demand safer working conditions. Earning
well below a living wage, the Mira Loma workers had suffered 120-degree heat,
inadequate ventilation, and broken equipment—conditions that lead more than 80 percent
to experience on-the-job injuries. They were also mostly part-time workers, and
often relied on a “buddy system” during slower workweeks.
The symbolism of the 50-mile march, inspired by the 1966
United Farm Workers march to Sacramento,
was striking. Like the UFW, the warehouse workers found themselves excluded
from the protection of the NLRB system—the UFW because the board explicitly
excludes agricultural workers, the warehouse workers because of Walmart’s
notorious (not to mention illegal) union-busting. But also like the UFW, where
the warehouse workers lacked legal support, they found an outpouring of
community reinforcement. During some of the march’s hottest days (with temps
climbing above 100 degrees), volunteers set up impromptu clinics to provide
health care to the mostly uninsured workers. A few days later, the warehouse
workers were joined by more than 100 California
farm workers as well as activists from Students
Against Sweatshops, who marched alongside them in solidarity. By October 5,
the marchers returned to work with a guarantee of better conditions.
That extraordinary victory soon galvanized Walmart workers
in other states to more militant action. Within a couple of days of the Mira
Loma strike, workers at a Walmart warehouse in Elwood, Illinois,
presented a petition for safer conditions, consistent schedules, and an end to
forced overtime. When supervisors began firing those who had signed, workers
walked out. On October 1, hundreds of community activists joined the striking
workers, where riot
police arrived and arrested 17 protesters for civil disobedience. But like the
workers in California,
the Elwood strikers quickly won victories on core demands. By October 15, increasingly
under the umbrella of the labor group OUR Walmart, actions had spread to a
dozen cities nationwide.
Such early success had a lot to do with strategy, writes
historian Staughton Lynd in December’s Industrial
Worker. Although they relied on support from recognized unions like the
United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), their grievances, demands, tactics, and
victories were entirely their own. At every step of the way, including the climactic
Black Friday actions throughout the country, Walmart workers operated decidedly
outside the NLRB system of petition and arbitration. Instead of channeling time
and energy into the tedious process of requesting recognition and electing representatives
to negotiate, workers in Mira Loma and Elwood decided collectively to organize
and take action themselves. This direct action approach had a big impact.
For one thing, it meant a much quicker process. Workers in Illinois and California
organized, went public, and won concrete victories within a matter of weeks—an
unheard of timeline for unions sticking with official channels. Eschewing
official recognition also meant sidestepping legal restrictions like no-strike
clauses and bans on civil disobedience, sympathy actions, and boycotts. In California, Illinois, and
across the country, much of the campaign would’ve been difficult under the NLRB
umbrella—from the “Walmarch” in California
to the civil disobedience in Elwood, not to mention the spontaneous way it all took
But most importantly, workers took the company by surprise. For
decades, Walmart has remained union-free by exposing and undermining union
campaigns in whatever way it could. A 2007 Human Rights Watch report found that
the company routinely
breaks US labor law to snuff out labor actions, from spying on workers, to
banning discussions of unions on company property, to firing those who join.
The report added that because labor law in the US is so toothless, Walmart’s
illegal conduct usually results in little more than a “slap on the wrist.”
And if workers can somehow make it over these barriers and
go public with their demands, retaliation can be swift. When organizing workers
at a Quebec Walmart went public in 2005, the company pulled
up roots and left. When a handful of Walmart meat-cutters in Jacksonville voted to
join the UFCW in 2000, Walmart announced it was terminating
meat-cutting operations in 700 stores. And like many big-box companies,
Walmart’s managers have long been
trained to put a stop to organizing efforts before they get off the ground.
One “Manager’s Toolbox” from 1997 urges supervisors to be “constantly
alert for efforts by a union to organize your associates.” It also gives instructions
on curbing unionization at every step of the process, from initial organizing
to petitions to elections and bargaining. The handbook even provides a “Union
Hotline” to alert upper management at the first sign of trouble. Bottom line: Walmart
knows the NLRB process very well, and how to subvert it.
Which is what made last fall so exciting. If workers in Mira
Loma had circulated a petition, signed cards, or went public with demands,
management would’ve been all over it. But there’s nothing in the “Manager’s
Toolbox” about a Walmarch. This is what gives unofficial actions their power:
instead of working through a process stacked against them, workers in Mira
Loma, Elwood, and across the country took up the fight on their own terms. In
so doing, Staughton Lynd argues, Walmart workers revived the tactics and
strategy of the labor movement’s zenith—the heady decades before the NLRB put a
lid on labor militancy in during the Depression.
But as groundbreaking as these victories have been, they’ve
not been alone. Workers in Mina Loma and Elwood are part of a growing trend in
organized labor, one that relies more and more on decentralized, grassroots
action outside the NLRB system—what the American
Prospect’s Josh Eidelson calls “alt-labor.” It’s a method
more radical unions like the Industrial Workers of the World have been pushing
for a long time, and lately, it’s been catching on. Especially in big cities
like New York,
workers in traditionally unorganized sectors have started to organize in a
different kind of way, and it’s led to more than a few concrete victories. From
broad-based movements like Coalition to
Immokalee Workers to local restaurants like Hot and
Crusty, workers, particularly in food service, are winning critical
victories by taking a more militant and creative approach to demanding their
One of the most interesting approaches has been that of the Restaurant Opportunities
Center, a radical labor group based in
New York City. Like
OUR Walmart, the ROC is not a formal union and has no desire to become one. Their
strategy is a familiar one: direct action, unofficial strikes, and building
community support for campaigns. Not only that, with a cadre of lawyers and
worker advocates, the ROC helps educate workers on their rights, and when
necessary, provides legal support against the industry’s worst offenders. It’s
also adept at publicizing ongoing struggles. When food service workers win a
victory on, say, overtime violations, like they did at Mario Batali’s Del Posto
restaurant in Manhattan
in 2012, the ROC labels them a “high road” establishment. To date, the ROC has
won more than a dozen settlements against employers in New York City, along with millions of dollars
in workers’ back-pay.
The ROC has been active in the New York area for more than a decade, but
last year, they were joined by Fast Food Forward, a coalition of community
groups and unions including the SEIU. Unlike OUR Walmart and the ROC, Fast Food
Forward would eventually like to see their workers gain NLRB protection. But
instead of petitioning for recognition and then entering into negotiations with
employers, the group decided to take action in a more direct way. Less than a
week after Black Friday, the group organized a mass walkout in New York to demand
higher wages and greater labor protection. Workers pulled off the largest
strike in fast food history before anyone even signed a union card.
Now, at first glance, the fast food strike doesn’t make a
lot of sense. Historically, big unions like the SEIU have not been fans of acting
outside the NRLB system. Even during the Depression, when wildcat actions and unofficial
strikes broke out in hundreds of cities nationwide and labor’s power was at its
height, large, established unions like the AFL and CIO urged moderation. The
difference today, argues Labor Notes
reporter Jenny Brown, is that the moderate strategy hasn’t
worked. If labor was at its militant height in the 1930s, today it’s at an
historic low. Faced with employers like Walmart that regularly violate the law to
impede organization, and an NLRB system that offers few prospects for victory, some
labor leaders have started to rethink and retool. The result has been a labor
movement that is more grassroots, more democratic, and more about action.
And it seems to be working. The last few years have seen a
wave of unprecedented achievements, often in industries long thought impossible
to organize. Numbers are still small, but activists and strikers in New York, Mira Loma, and
across the country have shown an energy and creativity that’s been hard to
ignore. Whether supported by established unions or not, this new militant wing
of organized labor has in many ways brought the movement back to its roots—rank
and file workers, organizing themselves democratically to fight for their
rights in direct and meaningful ways. If the campaigns spearheaded by OUR
Walmart and the ROC can continue this trajectory, it will have much more to do
with their unique vision and spirit than whatever ends up happening at the
Above image, of a Fast Food Forward/Occupy/RiseUpNY day of action in July 2012, by Katie
Moore. Used with permission.
Wednesday, December 05, 2012 11:49 AM
This post originally appeared at WagingNonviolence.org.
Mahoma Lopez, a long-time restaurant worker in New York City, it came down to a decision
between fight and flight. Last fall, his boss at the cafe on the Upper East
Side where Lopez had worked for years began cutting hours and screaming at his
employees, withholding overtime pay and threatening to fire anyone who
complained. Being Mexican-born and with halting English, Lopez had been in this
position before. Time after time, he’d quit; to be a proud man in his industry
required a fair number of employment changes.
and Crusty —” Lopez said, smiling as he began the story of his most recent
employer, one in a chain of cheap, 24-hour eateries sprinkled across Manhattan. Lopez leaned
back in the flimsy chair of the pizzeria a few blocks from his Queens apartment. With his large stomach thrust forward
and his wide cheeks covered in a trimmed beard, the 34-year-old looked stately,
December, the campaign began underground,” he said.
Last month, Lopez and his co-workers
at the Hot and Crusty on 63rd St.
won a suspenseful and highly atypical 11-month labor campaign. The battle
pitted 23 foreign-born restaurant workers, supported by a volunteer organizing
center and members of Occupy Wall Street, against a corporate restaurant chain
backed by a multimillion dollar private equity investment firm. The campaign
itself was filled with enough twists, betrayals and finally triumphs to be the
subject of an upcoming documentary,Cafe Wars (check out the trailer, below). Yet the story of Mahoma Lopez’s own
year-long evolution from an employee to an organizer exemplifies the new,
dynamic direction of the U.S.
labor movement that appears to be on the brink of resurgence.
has a friendly disposition, which he employs in conversation to smooth over
whatever difficulties have come his way. Crossing the Mexican-American border
with a coyote — a smuggler of migrants — was no big deal, he says, even though
the coyote was detained and imprisoned at the border, leaving 18-year-old Lopez
in charge of the rest of the group once they reached Texas. Lopez also talks about his father’s
early death deftly, explaining that it left him a good job as a gas station
attendant, which Lopez assumed when he was 13. His relaxed demeanor didn’t
inure him to things like chaotic protests; as a boy growing up in Mexico City, he was
generally against marches.
thought: The people are crazy,” he remembered.
aversion to chanting crowds doesn’t mean that Lopez can’t be rash and impulsive
in his own life. “Me enojé” —
which means “I got angry” in Spanish — is frequently his answer for why he made
various life decisions, from quitting unpleasant jobs to immigrating to the
U.S. But what Lopez sees in himself as recklessness, labor organizer Virgilio
Aran sees as the type of pride and steadfast character that can make someone a
very disciplined, that’s one of the most important qualities,” said Aran, who
became involved in the Hot and Crusty campaign at the end of 2011. “He has been
developing throughout the campaign, but I think that quality came with him
before I met him.”
who co-founded the Laundry
along with his wife, Rosanna Rodriguez, first heard about Hot and Crusty when
he received a call from one of Lopez’s co-workers, a man named Omar. At that
point, the campaign was in its “super-secret” infancy. It consisted only of
Lopez and two others, Gretel Areco and Gonzalo Jimenez, encouraging trusted co-workers
to call the city Labor Board’s anonymous hotline. This, at first, was about as
radical an action as Lopez was willing to take against his boss’s threats and
frequent tirades. Omar hadn’t yet been vetted, and his unsolicited offer to
call Aran put Lopez in a panic.
moment was one of Lopez’s first brushes with the heart-racing anxiety that can
come with organizing. By the end of the campaign, it would become a frequent
it turned out, Omar was trustworthy, and Aran was one of the city’s best
unaffiliated labor organizers. The newly-formed Laundry Workers
Center was looking for
its first campaign — although, as the group’s name implies, Aran had been eying
the city’s notoriously exploitative laundry industry, not the low-wage
restaurant business. Aran began an eight-week political education crash-course
for the Hot and Crusty workers, and Lopez became his most curious and
determined pupil. As the New Year approached, few could expect what was on the
horizon — both for the Hot and Crusty campaign and on the national scene.
the labor movement, 2012 began with all the paralysis of an election year,
combined with the gloomy disappointment of the failed
Scott Walker recall campaign in Wisconsin
six months earlier. To many grassroots activists, organized labor was too
lumbering and bureaucratic; to nearly everyone else, it was a pension-hungry
special interest group that no longer belonged in today’s economic reality.
the end of the year, however, labor had re-established itself through the
strike in Chicago, the first
successful strikes at Walmart stores and warehouses in its 50-year history,
the world’s largest private employer, the airport workers’ Thanksgiving Day
walkouts at LAX, and the
beginnings of an ambitious campaign to unionize employees at McDonald’s,
Wendy’s, Taco Bell and other fast-food chains in New York City. The movement
seemed invigorated, bursting with new leaders — and nowhere was this rapid
transformation happening faster than at the fringes of the labor world, where
the organizing could be focused on worker empowerment rather than continually
being constrained by restrictive labor laws.
places I see [exciting organizing] happening most consistently are on what we
would call the margins of the former labor movement,” writes
Jane McAlevey, a labor organizer and author of Raising Expectations (and Raising Hell): My Decade Fighting for the
Labor Movement. This, she explains, “is in a lot of the immigrant
a blistering cold day in late January, smack in the middle of Manhattan, Mahoma Lopez and his small cadre
of co-workers and volunteer organizers went public with a 50-person march to
his Hot and Crusty store, where Lopez delivered a list of demands to a stunned
me, that was one of the most incredible moments,” Lopez remembered. He
confessed to being so nervous that, nearly one year later, he couldn’t quite
believe that it had been he who delivered “la
carta de demandas.”
to the scale of the teachers’ strike or the snowballing Walmart walkouts that
would erupt less than six months later, the Hot and Crusty fight was minuscule.
Yet, the backdrop — the Manhattan
food-service industry — was a microcosm of today’s highly globalized and highly
unequal economic system.
the city’s tens of thousands of restaurants net an annual profit of more than
$12 billion, according to the New York State Restaurant Association. Inside the
sector’s hierarchy, however, this wealth hardly trickles down. The majority of
the jobs the industry produces are low-wage, no-benefit positions that are
overwhelmingly held by immigrants, about a third of whom are undocumented.
According to a 2005
study, 60 percent of surveyed workers reported their bosses violating
overtime laws, and one-third reported being verbally abused at work.
workers like Mahoma Lopez often endure the most exploitative conditions.
According to a 2010 New York Times investigation,
Mexican men are more likely to be employed in the restaurant industry than any
other ethnic group, including American-born workers, in part because fear of
deportation and desperate economic need makes them unlikely to report
below-minimum-wage pay or workplace abuse.
this addiction to cheap labor drives down wages throughout the industry,
investors and private equity firms end up accumulating much of the resulting
profits. The chain that includes Lopez’s Hot and Crusty is owned by Praesidian
Capital, a $700 million company with a white South African operating partner
named Mark Samson. To the Hot and Crusty workers and supporting organizers,
Samson — living in a high-rise around the corner from the restaurant — became
the symbol of the industry’s power imbalance. Rumors flew about his investing
practices and his numerous chains of restaurants. But the bottom line that
sparked the labor struggle wasn’t jealousy over Samson’s and other investors’
tax filings — it was their labor practices.
doesn’t matter how rich you are, it matters what type of situation you’re putting
the workers’ lives in,” said Diego Ibanez, a volunteer organizer who worked
with Lopez and Aran to plan actions throughout the Hot and Crusty struggle.
that first freezing march, the escalation on both sides was fierce. The employees
organized and won an independent workers’ association recognized by the
National Labor Relations Board in May. They received tens of thousands of
dollars in back pay, only to learn that the company decided to close the store
in retaliation against the newly formed workers’ association. At that point,
the legal handbook went out the window, and Lopez’s impulsiveness became
indispensable. Far from being against a noisy protest, Lopez now hungered for
like to joke about the most radical things we could do, and he always liked
those conversations,” said Ibanez. When we joked about occupying the workplace,
and he’d be like, ‘Yeah, we’re going to do that.’ He liked the possibilities of
August 31, the day the manager came to inform Lopez that the store was to be
closed — a decision made weeks earlier — Lopez, his co-workers and a handful of
community members rushed into the restaurant and prevented its closure by
holding a workers’ assembly. The action resulted in multiple arrests and kicked
off a picket line and a week-long sidewalk cafe that, fittingly enough, opened
for (free) business on Labor Day.
back-and-forth continued. Finally the company relented, only to reveal that
unpaid rent had soured the relationship with the landlord, who wouldn’t renew
the lease. The workers’ picket stretched into its second month, straining
finances and spreading fatigue. Still, Lopez remained a bedrock of the
one point, his financial situation had become so precarious that Virgilio Aran
found Lopez — who has a wife and two sons to support — a part-time job, which
kept him away from the picket line for the first time since it began.
first day that he went to the part-time job, one of his co-workers stayed at
the picket line himself,” said Aran. “Mahoma called me that night and he said,
‘I won’t take the job. That was my first and last day.
here in the struggle for the victory, and the picket line is more important
than getting some type of income,’” Aran remembered Lopez saying. “That’s his
in late October, the company ceded to the workers’ demands — agreeing to reopen
the store, recognize the workers’ association and sign a collective-bargaining
agreement that included paid vacation and sick time for the workers, required
wage increases, a grievance and arbitration procedure, and a union hiring hall
that gives the association the power to hire new employees. That night, after
Lopez learned that he had finally won, he sat down and called every single
organizer and thanked them.
next week, as he waited for the store to reopen, Lopez became the newest
volunteer organizer with Laundry Workers’ Center. According to Aran, Lopez is
now one of the lead organizers on another underground labor campaign.
like any seasoned organizer, if you ask Mahoma Lopez about the new campaign, he
won’t reveal a word.
Photo by Workers of Hot
and Crusty. Used with permission.
Cafe Wars Trailer from Robin Blotnick on Vimeo.
Tuesday, November 20, 2012 2:32 PM
This post originally appeared at Waging
are standing up to live better,” say Walmart’s retail workers, playfully
twisting Walmart’s slogan of “live better” into a rallying
cry for better conditions and treatment. In a taste of what the nation’s
largest retailer can expect on Black Friday, frustrated Walmart workers have
again started walking off their jobs to protest their employer’s attempts to
silence outspoken workers.
from both the retail and warehouse sectors of Walmart’s supply chain have
called for nation-wide protests, strikes and actions on, and leading up to,
next Friday — the busiest shopping day of the year. In the past week, wildcat
strikes in Dallas, Seattle and the Bay Area saw dozens of retail workers — from
multiple store — walk away from their shifts, suggesting that the Black Friday
threats are to be taken seriously.
Dan Schlademan, Director of the Making Change at Walmart campaign,
said in a nation-wide conference call organized for media on Thursday that
Walmart can expect more than 1,000 different protests, including strikes and
rallies at Walmart stores between now and Black Friday.
to organizers working with the Walmart retail workers’ association, OUR Walmart, stores around the country —
including, Chicago, Dallas, Los Angeles, Miami, Milwaukee, Washington D.C. and
others — can expect workers to go on strike. Specific dates have not been
announced yet out of concern to minimize chances for Walmart to preemptively
silence workers’ voices.
are expecting a wide variety of activity — strikers right in front of their
stores, demonstrations, flash mobs, rallies and people working to educate
customers — I think it’s going to be a very creative day.” said Schlademan.
“Brave strikers are seeing a huge amount of support from community allies.”
Waging Nonviolence has previously reported,
the historic wildcat strikes are invigorating a new form of labor organizing of
non-union labor. By drawing on the support of community allies — particularly
from religious and student groups — workers are finding it increasingly easier
to resist their employer’s abuses.
addition to joining striking workers at rallies at Walmart stores, supporters
are able to donate
to Making Change at Walmart to help the striking low-wage workers make up lost
wages. In the form of food gift cards, the community support organization
Making Change at Walmart is providing concrete ways for others to be in
solidarity with Walmart’s workers. Thus far, $25,000 has been raised.
this kind of grassroots support pales in comparison to the revenue and capital
at Walmart’s disposal. Some Walmart executives are making upwards of $10
million a year while full-time retail workers struggle to make ends meet. Sara
Gilbert, a customer service manager at a Seattle Walmart, makes only $14,000 a
year to support her family.
work full time for one of the richest companies in the world and yet my
children are on state healthcare and we get subsidized housing,” said Gilbert
who joined other OUR Walmart associates in Seattle’s walkout on Thursday. Walmart posted
almost $16 billion in profits last year and recently announced changes to
employee healthcare premiums that could raise the cost for workers as much as
back in the struggle against Walmart are its warehouse workers. On November 14,
the Inland Empire, Calif.,
warehouse workers — who are privately contracted through the logistics company
NFI but move 100 percent Walmart goods — resumed their strike due to
retaliations against outspoken workers. The workers were part of the 15-day
strike in mid-September that re-ignited workers’ efforts to change
Walmart’s treatment of its employees.
Garcia, a warehouse worker from Southern California who took part in the first
strike, was recently terminated for speaking out against unsafe working conditions
and broken equipment. According to Elizabeth Brennan, an organizer with
Warehouse Workers United with whom the NFI workers are affiliated, about three
dozen workers have had their hours cut while others have been demoted and
suspended in retaliatory efforts from Walmart’s contractor to curb organizing
been tough,” said
Garcia. “My kids need food, school supplies and an apartment to sleep in at
night, but right now it is difficult to provide them these basic things.”
Thursday, six community supporters were arrested for blocking a major
thoroughfare to the Walmart-contracted warehouse. The two dozen striking
warehouse workers returned to work on November 16.
Inland Empire strike, which still demands an
end to unsafe working conditions, retaliatory practices and poor wages, comes
during a crucial time when much of Walmart’s supply chain is moving into high
gear. It remains unclear whether the strikes and walkouts will generate enough
pressure to force Walmart to systematically change how it treats its 1.4
million employees, but the Walmart workers movement seems to be spreading and
Action Network is hosting online activism for supporters as well as
publicizing some of the events planned at Walmart stores for Black Friday.
While some activists for workers’ rights and just wages advocate boycotting
Walmart and shopping on Black Friday in general, Making Change at Walmart has
not called for boycotts but affirms all efforts that support workers’ rights to
assemble and speak out.
Fletcher, a Walmart employee in California
plans to go on strike to emphasize her message that Walmart is not listening to
its workers. Fletcher and her husband both have to work Thanksgiving Day for
Walmart and will miss spending the holiday with their two young children.
Complaints have alleged that Walmart’s scheduling practices have made it very
difficult for families to spend time with each other on holidays like Thanksgiving
when Walmart plans to open its doors to shoppers that evening. Fletcher wants
Walmart executives to know that Walmart’s employees are just as important as
are going to make the ultimate sacrifice,” said Fletcher who is also a part of
OUR Walmart. “By going on strike on the busiest shopping day of the year, we
hope to send a message out to Walmart that we are not a small percentage of
workers who are struggling and that we mean business.”
Image by Walmart Corporate, licensed under Creative Commons.
And check out this video from OUR Walmart, "Why Are We Standing Up to Live Better?"
Wednesday, June 06, 2012 3:33 PM
There’s been a lot of talk
today about what Scott Walker’s victory means for progressives. There are a lot
of potential takeaways. The Citizens
United decision allowed Walker
outspend his opponent, mostly from out-of-state donors and independent
expenditures. Unlike the RNC, national Democrats (and the president) were conspicuously absent during the race, indicating that Obama may be unwilling
to take a stand on workers’ rights during an election year. Turnout
yesterday was unusually
high for Wisconsin,
which says a lot about how contentious the election really was. And other
Republican governors, who have watched the race closely, may now be planning
similar policies in their own states.
All that may spell big
trouble for workers across the country. But there’s another lesson we may be
forgetting: organized labor’s campaign against Walker was its largest and most significant
in decades, and Tuesday’s results are only a small part of that. Historically, elections have been a pretty minor part of most social movements—especially
labor. And activists in Wisconsin
know this history very well. When the state legislature cut
off citizen testimony on Walker’s
budget proposal early last year, their response was not a petition or an
official complaint, but an occupation. As Allison Kilkenny points
out in TheNation,
Alienation from the traditional leftist institutions was the cause of the
original occupation of Wisconsin's
state capitol, followed by a slew of occupations all across the country, and
the world. Burnt by the Republicans and abandoned by the Democrats, protesters
turned to nontraditional forms of protest, including camping in public spaces
and refusing to leave.
Until the recall campaign
officially began several months later, those nontraditional forms of protest
made up most of the progressive response to Walker. Citizens sent sarcastic
valentines to the governor’s office, closed
public schools, and revealed Walker’s
baser intentions in other creative
But by far the most significant action was the occupation of Wisconsin’s state
capitol, which connected the struggle both to Arab Spring demonstrations, and
later to the Occupy movement it helped inspire. There's also its
connection with labor history—it was hardly the first time citizens occupied
the capitol in Madison.
In 1936, more than a hundred WPA workers and their families camped
out at the state house to protest low wages and inconsistent pay. That
year, sit-down strikes (“occupations” in 2012-speak) erupted in dozens of
factories, plants, and workshops across the country. The next year, there were nearly
Then as now, a stalled recovery threatened a double-dip recession, and many
Americans wanted to see more action from a divided government in Washington. (This was
less than a year after the Supreme Court declared the National Recovery Administration unconstitutional.) Wisconsin even had a
leftwing governor from a radical third party, but like many people throughout
the country, the WPA workers still chose to work outside the system. Last year
we saw a similar (and somewhat smaller) wave of organizing and action in dozens
of cities, including Madison,
and it’s hard to know exactly where all of that will end up.
The recall in Wisconsin gives us some
idea of that, but not a complete picture. The Tea Party is still clearly an
important political force, and many ordinary people remain suspicious of the
intentions and tactics of organized labor. But the situation is far from black
and white. Last night’s numbers make it easy to claim a resounding defeat for
organized labor, but the last 16 months seem to show the opposite. It would be
a shame, for instance, if the recall vote overshadowed recent labor victories,
like when Ohioans voted overwhelmingly to restore
collective bargaining last November. And let’s not forget that Dems
took the Wisconsin senate yesterday in another recall, which may create
some hurdles for Walker’s
more conservative planks.
But even more than that, with
or without a successful recall, the fight in Wisconsin was a significant step forward for
organized labor. Unions have been steadily losing strength for decades, and its
mobilization in Wisconsin
was pretty unprecedented. Writes
For those who see democracy as a spectator sport with clearly defined
seasons that finish on Election Day, the Wisconsin
results are just depressing. But for those who recognize the distance Wisconsin… and other
states… have come since the Republicans won just about everything in 2010, the
recall story is instructive.
Walker’s February 2011 assault on union rights provoked some of the largest
mass demonstrations in modern labor history, protests that anticipated the
“Occupy” phenomenon with a three-week takeover of the state Capitol and
universal slogan “Blame Wall Street Not the Workers,” protests that both drew
inspiration from and served to inspire the global kicking up against austerity.
And that kicking up is far from over. As
Peter Dreier points out in Common Dreams,
Walker spent 88 percent of the money
in yesterday’s recall to get 53 percent of the vote. In 2010, when Walker faced the same
opponent for the same office, his campaign spending was a small
fraction of what it was this year. In Wisconsin, as in many other parts of the
world, austerity may require much more convincing than it did two years ago. In
spite of the recall results, Wisconsin
may represent less an end than a beginning.
Institute on Money in State Politics.
Image by WisPolitics.com,
licensed under Creative
Want to gain a fresh perspective? Read stories that matter? Feel optimistic about the future? It's all here! Utne Reader offers provocative writing from diverse perspectives, insightful analysis of art and media, down-to-earth news and in-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.
Save Even More Money By Paying NOW!
Pay now with a credit card and take advantage of our earth-friendly automatic renewal savings plan. You save an additional $6 and get 6 issues of Utne Reader for only $29.95 (USA only).
Or Bill Me Later and pay just $36 for 6 issues of Utne Reader!