The Nation: Lessons From Wisconsin

Bill Fletcher and I were talking about the analysis and the coverage of labor’s defeat in the Wisconsin recall effort. After we each read some back and forth in The Nation, we decided to jump into the fray to call out the central issue of the lack of radical political education inside today’s unions.

Read the Nation Piece online. What follows is my and Bill’s writing from the article.

Lessons from Wisconsin

One: Unions need to invest in mass participatory education. And two: they need to stop focusing on union rights.

by Bill Fletcher and Jane McAlevey on June 26, 2012

Before Wisconsinites voted down the attempt to recall Governor Scott Walker, and certainly since, principled progressives inside and outside of unions have disagreed on whether or not the campaign should have happened. In fact, between the two of us, we don’t fully agree about whether or not the recall was the correct tactic. But with the defeat in the rear view mirror, two clear lessons can be drawn from Wisconsin: unions need to reinvest in mass participatory education—sometimes called internal organizing in union lingo; and, unions need to stop focusing on “collective bargaining” and actually kick down the walls separating workplace and non-workplace issues by going all-out on the broader agenda of the working class and the poor.

Once you get past the reports that Walker outspent the Wisconsin workers by 7:1, the next most startling fact is that 38 percent of union households voted to keep the anti-worker Governor. That’s slightly more than one third, and had the pro-recall forces held the union households, Walker would no longer be Governor. With major media outlets drubbing us with the 38 percent number, the liberal political elite seem stuck on a rhetorical question: why do poor people and workers vote against their material self-interest? Actually, in our own experience, the poor and working class don’t vote against their self-interest—but there’s a precondition: we have to create the space for ordinary people to better understand what their self-interest is, and how it connects with hundreds of millions in the US and globally.

Participatory education can best be carried out within unions through an on-going organizing program. We know from years of experimenting that adults learn best through taking direct action. Actions themselves are often transformative. And how to calibrate the learning and action dialectical is the work of good organizers—paid and unpaid. But today’s unions have all but abandoned organizers, educators, organizing and radical, participatory education. Why?

First off, many union leaders, despite their rhetoric, do not believe in the critical importance of worker education. Instead they believe in “PowerPoint.”  They invest truckloads of money into pollsters who perfect their quick and fancy presentations with graphics which all too often aim to dazzle rather than educate.  They believe that worker education cannot be quantified and does not necessarily translate into a specific, tangible outcome, thereby making it worthless.

A second reason for the anemic internal education is the legacy of the Cold War and McCarthyism. “Big Picture” education that truly examines the roots of the current economic crisis and the nearly forty year decline in the living standards of the average US worker leads to a fundamental critique of capitalism. This conclusion scares many leaders who fear being red-baited, or may even harbor a fantasy that that they will at some point be re-invited to the ruling circles of the USA.

A third reason is that an educated and empowered membership can be unpredictable. They may start asking questions that many leaders wish to avoid. They may start suggesting different directions. And, horror of horrors, they may actually run for office in the unions themselves.

The second big lesson from Wisconsin is that we can’t do it alone. While the attack by Walker was a frontal assault on women, people of color, workers, the poor and more, unions all too often kept the focus on collective bargaining. When unions allowed the battle in Wisconsin to go from mass collective rage over the excesses of the One Percent to a battle for union rights, it was all but game over. Criticism of Democratic candidate Barrett’s refusal to go along with labor’s messaging on collective bargaining is beside the point—in our opinion, the campaign was lost before the May primary. Reassured by polls showing a majority of Americans (61 percent) support the “right” to collective bargaining, union leaders failed to anticipate the power of a barrage of wedge messages about over-paid government bureaucrats, taxes, union bosses, the unfairness of why public sector workers get pensions and so-called private sector ones don’t and much more. Walker had the apparatus of the state and he had bought the media—he essentially turned Wisconsin into one big captive audience meeting, subjecting Wisconsites to the kind of unbearable pressure that workers in private sector union elections are all too familiar with. We don’t poll in elections where workers are going to vote as to whether or not to form a union because we understand polling is useless in a hotly contested, deeply polarized fight.

In union elections, the sophisticated union busters want to ratchet the tension up so high that everyone associates the new tension in their life with this thing called “the union.” And the boss drives a message that if the union goes away, everything will go back to normal. And normal, which wasn’t OK before the campaign, suddenly sounds good because the venom and hate feel much worse. To have any chance of beating these kinds of campaigns, the campaign can’t be about “collective bargaining” or “the union.” It has to be about a bigger fight for dignity and economic justice that can deeply appeal to a much wider audience.

It is true there’s been an uptick of unions declaring the importance of building allies and  “working with the community,” but still the community is too often treated as if it’s a separate species from “the workers.” The workers are the community, and yet union leaders act like ‘the community’ is some foreign land that requires visas, formal paid ambassadors and a Rosetta Stone language learning kit. The reason most labor leaders don’t understand the community is because they stopped trying to understand their members and the unorganized workers who live side by side in every union member’s house. The way back to winning big majorities of Americans to the cause of labor is for labor to take up the causes of the majority. This isn’t rocket science, it doesn’t require pollsters or power point—it requires thousands of meaningful conversations with tens of thousands of people. It requires rebuilding our organizing muscle.

But the phrases, “organizing doesn’t work, it’s too slow,” or the variant, “organizing doesn’t work, it’s too expensive,” have become like a mantra in union headquarters (and the offices of foundations). And yet for our entire adult lives, almost every time we have seen workers and poor people given the opportunity to stand up and fight back, they did.

What about the recall? Wisconsin was a wicked short timeline—unions and their supporters were trying to overcome forty years of no real education or organizing among the rank and file. The recall failure has led to an open season on unions, but this isn’t just a problem with unions. Multiple institutions have failed workers for decades, starting with the Democratic Party. And if that’s not enough, there’s our public school system—including universities and legions of intellectuals—that fail to teach students how to understand the actual power structure in our country or what unions are or have done. And, corporate owned media that have long distorted the real story of unions.

The reason that unions themselves, not front groups, need to take up the key issues facing their base when they aren’t at work is because this model of community work helps to develop even more worker leaders—it provides an ongoing action-learning program for the members when their contract has been settled. And, pedagogically, it helps the members to better understand all the forces keeping them down. “The boss” becomes the economic and political system rather than simply the swing shift supervisor or the foreman or the CEO.

There are plenty of important structural issues that the rank and file could be engaging, including the on-going housing, credit, climate, public transportation, and child care crises. And there’s the matter of bringing the worker’s sons, daughters, nieces, nephews, brothers and sisters home from unwinnable wars of aggression. The very best way for unions to build real alliances with non-union groups is via their own members—the very people who make up “the community.” If unions expanded their issue work by engaging their own rank and file, we could develop even more skilled leaders, not simply ‘worker faces’ for a press conference. The organizing-education model assists people in creating better lives for themselves, rather than relying on paid professionals to do the work for them. And the results are that we build mini social movements, not special interest groups.

Organizing is incredibly hard work. And it’s messy work. And the liberal elite, including most union leaders, are constantly investing in everything but deep organizing. The real reason we lost in Wisconsin is the same reason that progressives have been on a four decade decline in the US: it’s because of a deep and long-term turn away from organizing and education and towards something that more resembles mobilizing. Organizing expands our base by keeping our energy and resources focused on the undecideds, and on developing the organic leaders in our workplaces and communities so that they become part of an expanding pool of unpaid organizers. Mobilizing focuses on the people who are already with us and replaces organic leadership development with paid staff. That and the split between “labor” and “social movements” account for the failure of progressive politics, the loss in Wisconsin, the ever shrinking public sphere, and the unabashed rule of the worst kinds of corporate greed.

The work we are describing isn’t an election 2012 program, it’s not a 12 month program; it must happen every day, every month and every year. It’s ongoing. Workers are every bit courageous enough and smart enough, but they experience a lifetime of being told they are not worthy, not smart, and not deserving. In other words, sit down, shut up and listen. Unions have to challenge this paradigm, not reinforce it. When conservatives suffered their own strategic defeat and lost the election in 1964—by much larger margins than the recall in Wisconsin—they didn’t say, “well, no point trying.” They instead built for the long haul and in 1980 it paid off with Reagan.

And with the Supreme Court edging eerily close to a ruling that will make all of America governed by “Right-to-Work” laws, unions have to start acting like they are already operating in a “right-to-work” environment. The education-organizing program outlined here is the very same program unions will need to survive let alone thrive under the current Roberts Court. The sooner unions stop acting like a special interest and start behaving like a social movement; the closer we will be to making lasting, positive change.