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Opinion: Wisconsin Conversations

Poli Psy


Published March 2, 2011 at 7:34 a.m.


Major labor crises — such as the Triangle Waist Company fire in 1911, the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization strike in 1981 and the showdown in Wisconsin — are precipices. Pushed to the edge, labor can either take off and soar or tumble to grief. What provides the updraft? Everyone else, unionized or not, employed or jobless. But there’s no chance of soaring, or even surviving, if backs are angrily turned against labor.

Exactly 100 years ago, when the Triangle factory went up in flames with hundreds of workers locked inside, the world recognized the event as more than a human tragedy. The press described the fire with explicit class consciousness. “The victims who are now lying at the Morgue waiting for someone to identify them by a tooth or the remains of a burned shoe were mostly girls from 16 to 23 years of age,” read the New York Times the next day. “Most of them could barely speak English. Many of them came from Brooklyn. Almost all were the main support of their hard-working families.”

Other workers knew where to point the finger. “[Fire] Chief [Edward] Croker said it was an outrage,” the article continued. “He spoke bitterly of the way in which the Manufacturers’ Association had called a meeting in Wall Street to take measures against his proposal for enforcing better methods of protection for employees in cases of fire.” Hundreds of thousands joined the funeral procession for the 146 victims.

And soon, scores of state and federal labor and safety regulations became law. Among them was the nation’s first state Workmen’s Compensation Act — in Wisconsin.

In 1981, when the air traffic controllers struck, sympathy was not so widespread. Indeed, when Reagan fined the union, jailed its leaders and fired more than 11,000 workers, many Americans applauded the new president’s decisiveness. Thanks to decades of union battles — and the sacrifices of the likes of the Triangle seamstresses — the controllers had good wages and benefits, and that status distanced them from other workers whose prospects were dimming. Nineteen eighty-one was the first of two years of recession.

But then, 1911 saw a recession, too, which historians attribute to a Wall Street panic ignited by new antitrust laws.

This time, the story could go either way. Sixty-one percent of respondents to a USA Today poll support collective-bargaining rights. Solidarity rallies are springing up nationwide. Well-wishers are sending pizzas to the Madison Statehouse. High school students and doctors are joining the fight. For a change, Democrats are behaving like Democrats. In Vermont, Gov. Shumlin warmly addressed the pro-union rally on the Statehouse lawn.

And, after the Egyptians’ message of solidarity reached Wisconsin, support poured in from Grenada, Kenya, Germany, Ireland — the list is long and lengthening.

On the other hand, comments such as the following — made by readers of a Detroit Free Press piece on a planned protest against anti-union proposals in Michigan — express other feelings (original errors uncorrected):

“The unions are of no benefit to the taxpayer.”

“Unions cost the taxpayers too much money. Why? Because of the power to strike and shut down decent businesses who are smart enough to be in business. Why doesnt apple, google, or other types of newer business have unions? The president of ascmfe makes $500,000.00 per year out of the pockets of his union workers. They all make big bucks and they are trying to protect their own pocketbook more than worrying about their people.”

“Let’s pray for freezing rain!”

Some of the hostility seems to spring more directly from people’s own misery, and that is harder to witness. A Wisconsin church preschool teacher tells the Times that her wages and benefits don’t compare with the public school teachers’: “I don’t have any of that. But” — unlike the unionized teachers, she implies — “I’m there every day because I love the kids.”

An occupational therapist blames the unions for the near collapse of her husband’s Chevy dealership when General Motors declared bankruptcy. Now her wages and retirement contributions have stagnated. But, rather than organizing to gain power at work, she resents those who have some. “I don’t get to bargain in my job, either,” she says.

The smart, concerted, richly corporate-funded campaign of anti-union propaganda that’s bombarded Americans for decades has worked.

The campaign is not just about unions, either, notes Kim Fellner, who’s worked in the labor movement for close to 40 years. “Unions provide a lot of the infrastructure for progressive action in this country,” including Obama’s election, she says. The right-wing corporate strategy is “a major effort to wreck the progressive sector’s capacity to be an effective voice in politics.”

This latest fight — which pits taxpayers against public-service workers — fits elegantly into that strategy, says Eve Weinbaum, associate professor and director of the Labor Center at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. “It’s perfect for Republicans. They can attack unions and government at the same time.”

But the problem has another side. The Right’s story about unions — corrupt labor bosses; greedy, lazy, revenue-sucking workers — is virtually the only one in circulation. Not the Democratic Party, nor the Left, nor even labor itself has put the money and brains into an alternative narrative. “We haven’t been very good at messaging,” laments Vermont organizer and Progressive Burlington City Council member Emma Mulvaney-Stanak. I’ll say.

But why?

For one, education hasn’t been a labor priority. Most unions shut down their education departments years ago — so even their own members don’t learn about class or labor history. Furthermore, says Bob Master, legislative and political director of the Communications Workers of America in New Jersey, “Articulating a different analysis requires a kind of ideological clarity that most of labor doesn’t have” and doesn’t feel it has time for. “When you work for a union, you have an obligation every day to deliver to the people who pay your dues. Too many labor people thought they could protect their members without the support of the general public,” says Master. Especially with only 7 percent of private-sector workers represented by unions, “it turns out you can’t.”

Labor is starting to get it. Fellner is with Working America, the community affiliate of the AFL-CIO that organizes people who aren’t represented by unions around economic and workers’ rights. They knock on doors; they call people — and they have more than 3 million members. “You can’t just do it with media,” says Fellner. “You have to have conversations. That takes lots of time.”

Conversation, yes: an exchange not just of ideas but also of feelings. Conversation promotes mutual recognition, sympathy and identification — and finally, perhaps, solidarity. And that changes people’s moods.

“People have been angry and scared and feel really powerless,” says Weinbaum. “They are looking for somebody to blame who doesn’t make them feel even more powerless.” Wisconsin voted for Obama, she says. “They believed something could change.”

It hasn’t, much. But the culprits — corporations, billionaires and Republican governors — “seem untouchable. It’s not surprising that people turn against their neighbors who are doing a little bit better than they are.”

Now, however, those neighbors are turning toward them. Their faces and bodies and handmade signs are telling a different story:

Chapter 1: The public sector is not an aristocracy. It is composed, largely, of women and people of color, janitors and childcare workers. Chapter 2: Unions care about more than their paychecks. “No one (not even the Koch brothers),” reads one sign, “is allowed to amass excessive wealth while others lack basic necessities — [a] Catholic Teaching.” Chapter 3: Collectively, people get things done. In the Statehouse, the Wisconsin protestors have childcare and cleaning crews, yoga, hip-hop, and (reports Weinbaum) the hokey pokey. Not to mention, they’ve restarted the engines of the Left.

It’s enough to give a person ... hope.

To win this fight and the bigger ones ahead, labor had better get better at “messaging.” But the first task is asking people to listen. The Wisconsin workers have begun the conversation.