March 10, 2011- With the latest turn of events in Wisconsin, Republican state senators have circumvented the need for a quorum vote on Scott Walker's budget bill by leaving out the fiscal clauses and passing the new laws curbing collective bargaining rights for state and public employees. This dubious tactical manoeuvre strips away the pretence that Walker and his GOP allies have hitherto maintained that the legislative package was necessary to close the state's budget deficit: Walker's objective is, as protesters in Madison have argued all along, to break the last vestige of organised labour strength in the US – the power of public sector workers to organise and negotiate collectively. Stated or not, Walker's ambition is to complete what Ronald Reagan began 30 years ago.
But the legislative chicanery in Madison's Capitol smacks of desperation. It may yet prove that the right in the US has overreached in its attack on public sector unions, provoking the left/liberal base of the Democratic party, a popular uprising in Wisconsin and elsewhere, and a backlash among the public. The latest Rasmussen poll shows Wisconsin voters disapproving of Governor Scott Walker by a margin of 57% to 43%, with 48% saying they "strongly disapprove". But there are also some positive lessons that American progressives and liberals could learn from the right's political strategy.
It is not just that these rightwing governors like Scott Walker and John Kasich (Ohio), and other Republican leaders, are willing to take risks and fight for what they want. It is also that they fight for structural reforms – reforms that change the political terrain so that it will be more favourable for the next battle and for the "long war" to which they are committed.
Undermining and destroying collective bargaining rights is one of the most important structural reforms that any rightwing government in a developed country can win. And it is not just because, as has been widely noted, that unions contribute money to the campaigns of Democratic candidates. It is much deeper than that. Organised labour is relatively weak now, but for more than a century, it has been the most important force for positive economic reforms in the United States, from the eight-hour work day, to health insurance and Medicare, social security, pensions and minimum wages. The labour slogan, "Unions: the folks who brought you the weekend", is a true but vastly understated historical reality in America.
Ronald Reagan understood this very clearly when he fired 12,000 air traffic controllers soon after taking office in 1981 to break their strike and begin a new era of labour suppression, in which private sector workers all but lost their rights to organise unions. His agenda was so radical that it scared many conservatives – which was one reason he lost the 1976 Republican nomination. Even after he won the presidency in 1980, much of the business class was not convinced that it was possible to revert to 19th-century labour relations – until Reagan did it. Unions were 20% of the private sector labour force when Reagan was elected; they are 6.9% today.