Before laws were passed in the ‘30s and ‘40s that institutionalized labor unions, the most effective organizing tactics avoided formal union recognition and automatic dues check-off. Unions were less of a faceless service provider and more connected to the shop-floor.
Solidarity unionism affirms the central role of rank-and-file initiative in workplace change. It stands in opposition to what has been termed “business” or “service-provider” unionism: the idea that a worker joins a union to obtain material benefits in exchange for monthly dues payments, much as the worker might buy an insurance policy.
In solidarity unionism, workers carry out their own organizing. There are three fundamental principles: 1. Rank-and-file control (every worker has an equal say in the positions/actions of the union); 2.Direct action; 3. Members carry their union membership with them, regardless of majority status, when they move on to other jobs.
With the end of formal collective bargaining, solidarity unionism may be the only route public sector workers have to address grievances in the workplace. Sit-ins, confronting management in large numbers, slow downs, work-to-rules, pickets, “quickie strikes”; these are all successful tactics that were used by Flint auto workers in the 1930s and continue to be used by Starbucks workers today. These tactics, up to and including a general strike, can help us to rebuild the working-class solidarity that will be necessary for us to eventually defeat the anti-union bills being imposed on us.
Who Should Organize and How
Public-sector workers are the primary targets of Walker’s bill. If we allow him to strip them of their rights, it will destroy the power of one of the last group of workers in the U.S. who have been able to maintain a decent standard of living by resisting cuts during the economic upheaval of the last thirty years. Additionally, the consequences of Walker’s actions will affect anyone who uses public services. That is why we must fight back. The protests in Madison gained significant momentum after the “sick-out” of the Madison teachers. If all public-sector workers take action, they can inspire the rest of the state to move with them. Try to identify people who are sympathetic to the idea of collective action. Form mobilization committees and link up with like-minded groups or individuals. Build a contact list. Discuss strike preparations at your local, but be prepared for opposition from the international. Organize mass meetings with your co-workers, regardless of which union they’re in, so that you can strategize together.
Private-sector workers are being told that our economic problems are a result of ‘greedy public employees’ defending their health care and pensions. These ideas are being pushed in order to divide us; with workers pitted against each other, we are all weaker, and Walker knows it. Instead of blaming each other, we should be united by our common interests. We should all have decent health care, living wages, and a dignified retirement – and we can, if we fight together for these demands. Unionized workers can mobilize at their local to support a collective action, and all private-sector workers should begin meeting with their co-workers to discuss their own demands and strategy. With all of the public discussion of unions and workers’ rights, non-unionized workers have a perfect opportunity to organize at their own jobs – especially if they use the “solidarity unionism” tactics discussed above, rather than the legalistic strategies that have led us to the current mess. This is an important moment in history; let’s seize this opportunity to go on the offensive. Unionized workers can build their power and show that they are a force to be reckoned with. Non-unionized workers from any sector, industry, or company can organize and demand the living wages, rights, and benefits that so far have been denied to them.
Students can play a vital role in mobilizing for working-class solidarity. The economic crisis is shortening the gap between students and workers — many students are also workers, and prospects for graduates are becoming bleaker. Already, Wisconsin students have taken direct action across the state. Students must continue their support in order to protect our teachers, our university staff, our families, and our futures. Our tuition and tax dollars fund the universities, so let’s reclaim the campus for ourselves! We should begin organizing for student strikes, build connections with co-workers where we hold jobs, and prepare to walk picket lines in solidarity. It is us, the young people, who have to live with the future consequences of today’s cuts, and for that reason alone, we MUST step up with all workers.
Unemployed workers will be targeted by Scott Walker and his allies as potential scabs during any strike. Unemployed workers should prepare for this: there is a lot to lose if the bill passes, and a lot to gain if we defeat it together. During the Great Depression unemployed workers in Toledo organized themselves to support factory workers who were striking against overtime, forcing the company to hire more workers. Unemployed workers and public employees could fight together for things that would reduce unemployment and benefit everyone, for example to double the number of teachers in Wisconsin, or for a campaign to repair Milwaukee’s infrastructure.
Agricultural communities have much to lose under Walker’s proposals, as many farmers and farmworkers now stand to lose the BadgerCare that they rely on. Similarly, slashing state education funding will destroy many smaller schools that are the very heart of rural life. Wisconsin farmers have a history of collective action, such as the 1933 milk strike, and they have already shown their solidarity with Wisconsin workers through the Tractorcade at the Wisconsin Capitol on March 12. We must continue our work to bridge the gap between the urban and rural workforce.
Everyone – union and non-union workers, students, unemployed, farmers, retirees — is affected by Walker’s budget, and we can all begin preparing to support collective action in other ways. Religious communities can prepare plans for “Freedom Schools” in the event of a teachers’ strike or kitchens to feed strikers. The skills that many people learned during the Capitol occupation can be shared widely. People should also begin organizing mobilization committees within their communities and make plans to support eventual picket lines, in order to show any scabs or police that strikers have community support.