“We stand up and we fight back!” “We stand up and we fight back!”
With that rousing refrain, Keynote speaker Larry Cohen (photo, above) brought 150 unionists, academics and others to their feet as he ended his speech at the 36th Annual Conference of the Wisconsin Labor History Society in Madison on April 8.
Cohen, retired president of the Communications Workers of America and current board chair of the Our Revolution organization, said that the difficult challenges facing workers and the decline in union membership is when it’s time to figure out how to overcome the misfortunes. “Out of these horrible
experiences, we figure out how to organize in better ways, how to organize on the job, politically, in the community – what I call movement-building – we can come out of it stronger,” he said.
The conference attracted the largest group of attendees in the Society’s 36 year history, and despite the loss of union membership in recent years there was a spirit in the room that labor was coming back.
There was no lack of reality, since union membership in the country covers less than 11 percent of all workers and less that seven percent of those in the private sector.
Historian Jon Shelton from the University of Wisconsin – Green Bay noted that for American working people, these may be the “darkest times” in our history. In tracing worker history, he said, “we are perhaps facing the most existential threat to American democracy and working people, maybe since the American Revolution. And that’s not hyperbole.”
Labor faces a two-fold challenge, the reactionary politics of Trumpism and the more serious structural issue of “50 years of class warfare from above” that has victimized workers, he said.
He offered two strategies for overcoming these challenges, based on history.
First, collective action has worked best when it has developed creative tactics to mobilize forces. Second it has been at it has been at its best when it offers positive change, rather than merely negative criticism.
Even if labor’s fortunes may be down, they’re not out, as testimony from three panelists told how unions and working people are fighting back.
Dave Boucher, of UAW Local 833 at Kohler, outlined how the local went on a four-week strike in early 2016 and succeeded in making gains in lessening the effect of the two-tier wage system and winning other benefits. The story of the strike shows that strikes against an industrial giant can still be a winning strategy if a local union prepares its members through education and works to win community support.
With Wisconsin construction unions facing new laws aimed at destroying their membership levels, they are working in great solidarity to fight back, according to Kent Miller, deputy business manager for Wisconsin Laborer’s District Council. “A lot of the issues have revolved around politics,” Miller said. He cited the 2015 passage of the right-to-work law, the taking away of the prevailing wage system for municipal and county construction jobs and the end of the use of project labor agreements (PLAs). In the face of these challenges, “solidarity is strong among the building trades, he said. There have been meetings between the various trades unions to build a consensus to fight back.
Though West Bend is located in the heart of Washington County (the most-Republican county in the state), the teachers union in the school district has found ways to gain greater protections. Tanya Lohr, in her 21st year as a high school social studies teacher and president of the West Bend WEAC unit, said that the union has remained strong, even now, six years after the state’s passage of Act 10 that stripped most of its collective bargaining power. She said the union took its case to the citizens of her district, eventually winning school board elections that have helped to mitigate some of the impact of Act 10.
Further evidence that workers and unions can succeed in difficult situations was reported by Nan Enstad, a University of Wisconsin – Madison history professor, who told how black and white workers at a North Carolina tobacco plant overcame racial enmity to win strong contracts. She said the black workers organized within the community to win support in a strategy she named “movement-building,” in which the African-American workers won dignity both at the workplace and in the community.
Messages of hope that the labor movement and workers have the tools to fight back successfully to reverse the anti-union trends of the present day were offered by speakers on the panel, entitled: “Where Do We Go from Here?” at the 36th Annual WLHS Conference.
But success for working people won’t come, warned Wisconsin State AFL-CIO President Phil Neuenfeldt, if workers and unions don’t concentrate of organizing around issues that affect most ordinary people.
“We need to keep our eye on the prize,” he said. “When we talk about the issues, we win.” Neuenfeldt urged that persons not get sidetracked by the “crazy times” caused by President Donald Trump, which he characterized as a “diversion created by Trump as they’re screwing us.”
Neuenfeldt cited evidence the American people support the issues of organized labor by large margins. Recent school funding referendums that were supported by the unions won in nine out of twelve elections in Wisconsin. Furthermore, the labor-supported candidate, Tony Evers, handily won the state superintendent election in 2017 while labor-backed candidates won in 131 of the 159 local elections held this spring.
The labor movement and the progressive movements need to work together, Robert Kraig, executive director of Citizen Action Wisconsin, said in leading off the panel. As the nation moves deeper into an economic state where inequality between the rich and poor grows, he said “The only possible counter-balance to all that is democracy itself. We still have the votes despite all the rigging (of elections), despite the gerrymandering and everything else.”
Kraig said it is critical to recognize the need to re-structure the economy, noting that the economy is man-made and is not a creature of natural forces. “If you can rig it (the economy), you can un-rig it, or you can re-rig it on behalf of workers, and that’s what we need to be talking about,” he said.
In order for working people to win support of issues that would bring about a better life, he said it’s necessary to construct a movement that goes beyond labor so that workers have equal leverage against the billionaires.