Scott Walker has lost the thread in Wisconsin. This documenting of 20 lies he’s told in the past couple weeks is going viral. A new poll from a conservative-leaning think tank in Wisconsin shows that voters want Walker to compromise by a 2-1 margin. Commentators from across the political spectrum have come to the conclusion that Walker is sunk, and not just in the near term.
Should Gov. Walker accomplish his goal, he will have stoked a level of union anger that I very much suspect will become a key driver in an Obama victory in 2012. He will also have prompted the nation’s unions to work together for a common objective– a feat that would have seemed impossible just one month ago.
If Walker loses his fight, he will have reminded the unions of the importance of fighting back against their enemies, reminding them of how life was for their forbearers who fought to establish the modern union movement. This will ignite the passion for battle while reminding those union folks who have been voting republican of the importance of sticking with the party that sticks with them.
There’s no question about this, to the extent that even the traditional media has begun to pick up on it. America’s last living labor reporter for a major newspaper, Steven Greenhouse, gathered a bunch of quotes from labor leaders, eager to turn this moment into a movement. And importantly, they’re working on converting anger and protest into traditional organizing:
At the A.F.L.-C.I.O.’s winter meeting in Washington last week, labor leaders were laying plans to enlist some of the thousands of union members who have protested in Madison; Indianapolis; Columbus, Ohio; and elsewhere to work in the campaign by the Communications Workers of America to unionize 20,000 T-Mobile workers.
Similarly, union leaders want to harness some of this activism as well as the newfound cooperation between private sector and public sector unions to get hundreds of organizers to help unionize 45,000 airport security employees.
And the Service Employees International Union is seeking to channel the spirit and energy of Wisconsin into its immense new campaign in 15 cities, including Chicago, Detroit and Houston, to unionize tens of thousands of low-wage private sector workers as well as to get them to fight foreclosures and budget cuts. Mary Kay Henry, the S.E.I.U.’s president, said she hoped the protests in Wisconsin and Ohio would give a particular lift to her union’s efforts in Milwaukee and Cleveland.
This new movement obviously will have an electoral component – it’s easier for a broader group of people to participate in that – but I’d argue that the organizing component is that much more important. We’ve seen in Wisconsin the power of solidarity, and the near-universal recognition of fundamental collective bargaining rights. Unions have been pushed back to the point of near-irrelevance over the last 50 years, as Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson have demonstrated, and the best way to capitalize on this moment is to increase their ranks, at a time when workers could be more favorable to such organizing. Unions in this fight are expressing a broader desire for a voice for the middle class, a rebalancing of the US economy, an end to the pillage of the worker by elites and rampant income inequality. This needs to translate into tangible gains. As Hacker and Pierson write, “labor continues to be the only large-scale membership organization consistently representing Americans of moderate means on pocketbook matters.”
The best story about the revival of labor after Wisconsin comes from Mike Elk, who also recognizes that organized labor has a more favorable image than it has in decades as a result of this battle, particularly among the young. Labor has become a symbol of a new voice for everyday people. But it has to expand beyond these rearguard actions.
Among many young people, the most popular profile image on Facebook has been a map of Wisconsin overlaid with a solidarity fist; some have gone so far as to tattoo the symbol on their bodies, a symbol of their lifelong commitment to the labor movement. At night, you can spot veteran union organizers in the state Capitol sharing stories about workplace struggles with students who a week before had never considered being involved in a labor struggle.
But the surge of pro-union support and activity pales in comparison to that of previous decades: Around the height of the labor movement in 1952, 33 percent of the workforce was unionized and there were 470 major strikes involving 1,000 workers or more. In 2010, only 12 percent of the workforce unionized, and there were only 11 major strikes involving 1,000 workers or more.
While polls showing that young people — the bellwether for the future of the labor movement — are more supportive of organized labor than they were just a few months ago, the real question will be whether organized labor can use the current momentum to create sustainable alliances among young people who have grown up largely without the presence of a vibrant labor movement. Win or lose, the battle in Wisconsin has started the ignition.
And this has to happen on two tracks – not just deposing anti-union politicians, but organizing workplaces to expand membership. Rates of unionization will be the best place to look to see if this revival is real.