Direct action tactics bring success to labor


2019 WLHS Annual Conference. Speaker Dan Kaufman is in foreground.

Unions have failed throughout history in one-sided struggles with managements, but many of those defeats brought positive change for labor and the workers they represent, Dan Kaufman, author and writer for the New York Times, told the 38th Annual Conference of the Wisconsin Labor History Society. 

Some 150 packed into the Madison Labor Temple on April 13 for the event, entitled “How Labor Can Win Again: ‘Direct Action’ strategies of history offer promise for the future, to hear Kaufman, author of “The Fall of Wisconsin,” and other speakers look at historic worker actions and assess their relevance to the future. 

Kaufman’s book discusses how Wisconsin lost its progressive traditions that were born over a century ago with the election in 2010 of Scott Walker and a heavily Republican-controlled state legislature.  It was this election that brought about the passage of the infamous Act 10 that ended collective bargaining for public employee unions and also prompted the 2015 so-called “Right-to-Work” Law and the weakening of construction trades unions.  The book discusses labor’s dramatic 2011 Uprising events, highlighted by the mass rallies around the State Capitol, that rose to fight the anti-union Walker and GOP Legislature. 

Even labor’s mass reaction with up to 150,000 showing up for weekend rallies failed to halt the actions against working people, yet Kaufman said the failures “really energized people” to unite in actions that would restore their power.  He said that the examples of the Wisconsin Uprising  inspired such actions “Occupy Wall Street,” the greater engagement of working people in political action and, more recently, the mass teachers strikes in states like West Virginia, Oklahoma and Arizona. 

“Even in defeat, direct action can be its own reward,” he advised. 

The enactment of the Act 10, he added, “has probably encouraged young people to get involved” as well as to spur greater organizing among white collar workers and inspiring actions by women.   

History has shown that such direct actions require that workers show solidarity and are united in their efforts, Kaufman concluded. 

Successful direct actions told 

A panel discussion, “Direct Action events, past and present” brought together activists who have helped develop winning strategies for workers. The presenters included an organizer for Madison’s “Day Without Latinxs & Immigrants” march; a substitute teacher whose hunger strike won benefits; and a young worker who has found new strategies.   

Moderator Jillian Jacklin, lecturer at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and WLHS Board member, opened the discussion, noting that direct actions, such as street protests, picketing and boycotting, are protected by the U.S. Constitution that guarantees freedom of speech and freedom of association.  In spite of some municipal laws or legal contracts that seek to ban many such actions, she said that likely most direct action tactics “are very legal.”  She said it’s important that activists not be frightened off by threats of being illegal. 

Jaclyn Kelly, president of AFSCME Local 526 representing workers at the Milwaukee Public Museum, spoke about engaging young workers in labor’s struggles.  “It’s tough out there for young workers,” she said, calling attention to the growing gig economy that is often the last refuge for young workers and which pays little.  Other issues include the proliferation of unpaid internships that entrap recent college graduates as the only way to gain jobs in their chosen career fields as well as those issues that affect all workers. 

Organizing young workers is also made difficult because of the decrease in union membership, resulting in the fact that fewer young people grew up in union households and that few have been exposed to labor and its history in the classroom.  Positive signs are that recent polls have shown that young workers view unions more positively than other age groups, Kelly said. 

She described the Young Workers Committee of the Milwaukee Area Labor Council, which has become active, particularly because of wide use of social media.   One of the more interesting practices of the committee is that one of its members is selected to make a presentation to the group on some topic.  Kelly said this is particularly helpful since it will assist the worker in becoming more comfortable and skilled in speaking before groups and being a successful advocate.  She described the function as of a labor “toastmaster’s club.” 

The organizing efforts of groups like Voces de la Frontera that seeks equal rights for Wisconsin’s Hispanic residents regularly involves direct action, as was explained by Mario Garcia Sierra, a volunteer with the Madison chapter.  Among the actions included a demonstration by 40,000 persons against a bill introduced in Congress by Rep. James Sensenbrenner, a Republican, that would have made all undocumented citizens “criminals” in the eyes of law enforcement. 

Sierra also promoted the coming of “A Day without Latinx” rally that was to be held on May 1st in Madison.  The main purpose of the action was to call for repealing the Wisconsin law that prohibited providing drivers’ licenses to undocumented persons.  He noted that most of the workers needed cars to get to and from work and that to be caught driving without a license could bring about deportation.  He noted that recent rallies and actions have been impressive, indicating that “slowly we are taking Wisconsin back.” 

For Alex Brower, president of the Substitute Teachers Union for Milwaukee Public Schools, direct action was personal.  He engaged in a hunger strike in 2018 and he said it worked by bringing attention to the issue that the school system’s health insurance program did not cover substitute teachers, many of whom work virtually fulltime.  The school board liberalized its health insurance policies to include many more substitutes, he said. 

Furthermore, his strike was able to bring public awareness to a proposal to privatize the substitute teachers program, a proposal that was later dropped.  Because of personal financial issues affecting many substitute teachers, he said he felt it would be difficult to stage a major walkout, thus necessitating turning to the hunger strike. 

Brower also cited a direct action done by Service Employee union that was seeking to organize teaching assistants at Marquette University.  A sit-in at the MU provost office prompted an agreement for the university to remain neutral in any union election. 

“Direct action is so important,” he concluded.

Looking to the future

discussion on “Strategies for the Future,” featuring union activists and academic experts, closed out the day. 

Dennis DeLie, newly elected secretary-treasurer of the Wisconsin State AFL-CIO, also championed the use of direct action strategies as “one of the substantial agents to block the actions of the rich and the powerful.”  In 2018, he said nearly half a million workers engaged in direct actions of one sort or the other. 

He noted the “labor is alive and well,” citing a recent Gallup Poll that union popularity was at 62%, the highest level in 15 years.   

Kevin Gundlach, president of the South Central Federation of Labor, strongly urged unions to take a stronger interest in organizing, both internally and externally.  Unions must move away from the “servicing model” to an “organizing model” to survive, he said. 

It was for Sheila Cochrane, retired chief executive officer of the Milwaukee Area Labor Council, to round out the discussion with an enthusiastic plea for getting labor’s story out to the general public and using labor history to stress the importance of unions. 

She said it was critical that union leaders talk to their own members in order to build support from within.  As challenging as the anti-union Wisconsin laws (Act 10, right-to-work and cuts in prevailing wage protections) have become, it forces unionists to continually engage with their members. 

Moderator of the panel was Jon Shelton, Democracy and Justice Studies, University of Wisconsin-Green Bay.