Despite inspiring and massive rallies and protest campaigns, the two most visible attacks on America’s working class – the anti-union bills in Wisconsin and Ohio – have both been signed into law. While the attack on public sector unions is, in itself, just the latest salvo in an ongoing class war, its effects will go far beyond the workers directly involved. These bills will lead to restructuring of a variety of public services, from education and home health care to government offices and police stations.
Over the last 30 years, many of the economic battles have been fought on a local or regional level, and in many cases, only the most-directly affected workers got involved. In Ohio, for example, struggles over deindustrialization and organized labor occurred primarily in steel and auto factories in the northern part of the state, making statewide organizing against economic restructuring difficult because many workers were not directly impacted.
But things might be different this time. In most states, new limits on public sector bargaining will affect people in every city and town, as well as people in very different situations – workers, students, the elderly, families with young children, and others. That creates opportunities for organizing cross geographical boundaries. Similarly, these bills create potential new constituencies as students, younger workers, women, and people of color recognize that they will be disproportionately impacted. While blacks comprise 15% of all adult workers, they are 18.5% of the public sector workers, and Ohio Policy Matters found that of the 700,000 Ohio public sector workers more than 400,000 are women. Women comprise an even higher percentage of teachers in K-12 education, especially in traditionally Republican suburban areas. As Natasha Vargas-Cooper noted in yesterday’s New York Times, this attack helps create the potential for coalitions that will link the traditionally weaker unions representing female service workers with the more respected safety workers unions, dominated by men.
The latest battle in the class war may even draw some unexpected allies. In Youngstown, one the nation’s fastest growing technology firms, Turning Technologies, has withdrawn from the Regional Chamber of Commerce in protest of its support of SB5, as have two other local companies. All of which is to suggest that mobilizing around public sector ballot initiatives and recall campaigns could be both wide and deep.
Getting thousands to show up for rallies or write letters in the fever of the initial public sector skirmishes hasn’t been that hard. Over the last two months, people have been angry, and they wanted to take action. And while making the drive across the state to be part of a crowd of tens of thousands is a significant commitment of time and energy, it’s also exciting. As the videos showing witty signs and costumes remind us, protesting can be fun and even aerobic.
But now is the time for on the ground organizing, and the work ahead will be less dramatic and in many ways much harder than showing up for a protest or writing a letter. Going door-to-door to get signatures can be thought of as hand-to-hand combat where individuals have to be informed and ready to perform in a sometimes hostile environment. But it’s also essential to the political process, especially given the amount of money corporations and conservative business interests will be spending on political advertising to defeat repeal/recall initiatives.
To make matters worse, organizers will have to overcome the effects of the dashed hopes of the Obama presidency. As Chris Hedges writes in The Death of the Liberal Class, progressives understand that the party they once counted on to advance their interests has sold out to the big money that controls so much of the political process. Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson review the political and policy decisions of the last few decades in Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer – And Turned Its Back on the Middle Class, tracing how corporate influence has pervaded Democrat Party politics and caused growing inequality in America.
At the end of their book, Hacker and Pierson suggest several key elements for changing the trend toward inequality, including “facilitat[ing] broader participation among those whose voices are currently drowned out” and “encourag[ing] the development of groups that can provide a continuing, organized capacity to mobilize middle-class voters and monitor government and politics on their behalf” (303). For decades, working people – including those who did not belong to unions – counted on the labor movement to fulfill both of these functions.
With shrinking numbers and new legislation limiting its capacity, the labor movement can’t do this on its own. Nor should it. While the laws being passed now focus on public sector unions, the war won’t end there. In Ohio, bills are being proposed to ban overtime and institute “right to work” rules. State budgets across the country and the House’s proposed federal budget all undermine support for working families and the poor, while refusing the challenge subsidies to business or to hold banks accountable for the financial crisis. As we wrote last month, the working class is under attack on multiple fronts, and we need to stand together to fight back.
We need to build a movement that crosses boundaries – between public- and private-sector unions, the traditional working class of industrial, blue-collar workers and the new working class of retail and service workers, between the working class and the middle class, cities and suburbs, and among diverse types of organizations. We need community organizers, churches, students, and others to work together. In Youngstown, the Mahoning Valley Organizing Collaborative has organized its 44 neighborhood groups together with labor unionists, community faith-based groups, local non-profits and social service agencies to form a revenue coalition to fight state budget cuts.
And much of that collaborative effort must focus on the political process. In Ohio, opponents of SB5 have to collect more than 230,000 signatures to get a referendum on the ballot, and then we need to do everything possible to get people out to the polls. We need to mobilize the kind of engagement in the political process that put Barack Obama into office. As a popular T-shirt from 2008 stated, we need to “be the change.” Neither Obama nor the Democrats have done it for us. It’s our turn.
We also need to take a page from the Tea Party. Their efforts have contributed significantly to blocking the progressive possibilities of the 2008 election. They succeeded by channeling their anger and fear into significant pressure on politicians. We need to do the same. That means we have to find the energy and commitment to keep on protesting, to challenge our elected officials – even those we think are most on our side – to truly represent us, and to get our share of the media spotlight. We also need to keep in mind that despite the infusion of thousands of dollars from wealthy contributors, the Tea Party engaged in plenty of grassroots organizing. We have to do that, too. We need to be out there knocking on doors, talking with friends and relatives, gathering signatures for ballot and recall initiatives, and doing whatever it takes to put pressure on our elected leaders to support workers and our communities.
Here’s one place to begin: the National People’s Action “Showdown in Ohio,” May 16-17, to demand that businesses like J.P. Morgan “clean up their own mess.” Join us in Columbus to show the world that the American working class isn’t going to back down. And then go back to your neighborhood, your church, your gym, wherever it is you talk with anyone who might not be convinced, and tell them the story of how the rich are getting richer and the rest of us are losing our grip on the American dream. Better yet, tell them your own story of how the war on the working class is making a difference in your community.
Sherry Linkon and John Russo, Center for Working-Class Studies