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Catching Up on Wisconsin and Elsewhere

09 Mar

With all the events swirling around the protests and capitol occupation in Madison, the mounting protests in Indiana and Ohio, the pent-up ferment starting to be released over proposed steep cuts targeting state budgets and especially public education, and the growing union, worker, and I dare say class-conscious sentiment feelings mounting across the country, simply keeping apace of all of it has been no easy task. This is especially so since, like so many of you, I work multiple jobs, have significant family responsibilities, volunteer at local institutions and, when the occasional moment comes, need to catch my breath. And yet these amazing, largely organic but exceedingly well-organized, and intensely powerful movements against the right-wing assault on political and civil institutions on which everyday people rely so deeply have been so inspiring that, even with such busy schedules, standing on the sidelines or being passive observers simply is not an option. There are many events that I cannot attend due to prior, vital commitments. Some of these, such as co-hosting the Illinois World Labor Hour, thankfully overlap with this pivotal moment in history and therefore allow me and my fantastic co-hosts to comment on and share updates on events virtually as they occur. In part to record some of this history of the moment, in part to inform and thus in some small part shape how people witnessing these events understand them, blogging has joined my personal and bulging list of must-do tasks during this brazen assault on workers, organized labor, and vital public institutions.

I distinguish these three groups both to highlight them as distinct groups under assault and to connect them as imperiled groups and organizations. Yet, as this post will discuss, they share more than positions in the rhetorical and legislative cross hairs of right-wing politicians and their financial and foot soldier Tea Party backers. Increasingly, people within those admittedly broad groups see themselves, their causes (if not specific goals, a problem to address later in the post but sooner in the streets and meeting places), and the causes of their misery as intertwined far more so than in recent memory–mine anyway. They are beginning to connect the vast workings of an economy geared toward war funding, tax cuts for the wealthy that reduce their financial obligations to civil society, and eroding basic measures of security for working people to their often desperate lives, and these draconian measures proposed in Midwestern battleground states. This is to be sure a nascent movement and mindset, not shared by all and fragmented by competing agendas of myriad protesters with different goals, unions representing different workers, some union leaders willing to grant concessions, by state, and by economic sector. However, for the moment and despite their differences and still nebulous goals, they have united behind the goal of stopping right-wing anti-union legislation. They have done so with vigor and anger in protests, but crucially also restraint and creativity in tactics. Just as crucially, they have joined as many hundreds of thousands of people positively fed up with being scapegoated for economic crises not of their making, while those who blame them simultaneously support, if not comprise, those responsible for recent economic failures and for the unparalleled gap between the wealthy and most other citizens in the US.

That is, more and more people are seeing and feeling the class divide and the recent stage of open class war waged upon them–and are doing something about it.

The most obvious examples of this have been the mass protests, particularly in Wisconsin, which have involved sustained gatherings in and around the capitol building, related solidarity protests in Champaign, IL as well as other cities around the country, and also mounting protests in Ohio and Indiana. Crucially, these have involved not just those potentially affected by these drastic anti-union proposals, but have drawn heavily from the ranks of other workers in the private and public sectors alike. The conditions, events, and mindsets differ from some earlier times but, in some key ways, this broad-based solidarity is similar to the types of mass support for the 1877 railroad strikes, for the mass strikes in Toledo’s Auto-Lite plant in 1934, the Flint Sit-Down strike of 1936-1937, and more. Note, too, the common conditions of widespread economic privation prevailing upon people, and the resulting stirs of solidarity in popular unrest.

The big question facing the labor movement in particular is how to draw the active interest of the vast array of mostly non-union, often unemployed, contingent and frequently desperate workers cast aside by the free-market economy. Mary Baldassare of Madison, 59 and lacking employment prospects despite her willingness to work and years of experience, typifies both the quiet desperation of millions of American workers in this era of insecurity, and the difficult prospects for American unions and Baldassare to somehow link up. Despite having been to culinary school and worked throughout the service industry in restaurants and hair salons for much of her adult life, Baldassare has a hard time finding work in Madison in such fields, for younger workers frequently land such jobs that are available. As with so many unemployed in our times, it may well be that long-term unemployed such as Baldassare and her friend Kathy Truesdal face the same obstinacy from employers that shun long-term unemployed workers. Her precarious financial position means that she no longer goes out once or twice a week for dinner, as she used to do with her late husband who passed away in 1999. She poignantly portrays her isolation in terms that reflect how deeply imbued consumerist values are in our society, and the assault on people’s self-worth that results from unemployment and privation. Lacking the ability to eat out now and then–to sustain the very industry in which she finds it so difficult to find work–“makes me feel kind of worthless,” she told Huffington Post reporter Arthur Delaney. The result is a neat juxtaposition of Baldassare’s persistent self-perception and self-worth on the one hand, and a deep awareness of her place, her market worth, in Madison’s economy. “I feel like I’m a little piece of lint on the earth. A little dust bunny,” she said. “I have so much to give.”

It is difficult to find a better summation among any academic of the contradictions and frailties within our teetering economy than that sad, succinct testimony from someone who has worked for so long and connected with so many people in her work–with so little to show for it at her age. A human tumbleweed adrift on a barren economic landscape.

And yet she and Truesdal were not out at the rallies unfolding just a few blocks away, despite these dire economic conditions and despite Baldassare’s professed pro-union sentiment and their shared opposition to Governor Walker’s bills. For all the power and potential in the protests against Walker and his bills, this moment also reveals just how far unions and workers need to go to attract and assist workers like Baldassare and Truesdal who have been shunted to the margins.

More about this, what organized labor can and should do, and possible political implications, in the posts to come.

–Jason Kozlowski

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