Economy Labor

Reflections on the “Emergency Labor Meeting”

By Benjamin S.

On March 4th and 5th, Cleveland, Ohio saw a diverse gathering of Local Union Presidents, former and current union staffers, and a sprinkling of politically driven rank and file activists descend down her snowy streets and gather at the Laborers Local 310 Hall to hold an “Emergency Labor Meeting”.  The ’emergency’ in question being the massive act of class war unleashed by unscrupulous area politicians, and the ‘meeting’ being an opportunity to discuss how labor can best mount a “militant and robust fight-back campaign”.  Though the meeting came with the descriptor ’emergency’, it appeared as though discussion of mounting that much needed militant response had to resign itself to the back seat while plans for an “in the event the bill passes” political payback on the Republican Party, and calls for easily controllable “days of action” got to sit right up front, riding shotgun.

Weeks before the meeting even convened, rank-and-file union members, working-class union supporters, and students appeared to sense the urgency of the situation, and promptly put up their dukes in the streets, carried out a lengthy occupation of the Capitol building, and started having that all important ‘what next’ conversation with fellow union members, and new friends.  Days before, and around the time of the Emergency Labor Meeting, solidarity demonstrations began manifesting in state capitols around the country, even sleepy Helena Montana saw a demonstration of several hundred that made headlines around the state.  Along with expressing solidarity with the Wisconsin protesters, many of these demonstrations also addressed local issues including the fight against their own states austerity measures and opposition to a whole host of Republican sponsored anti-working class legislation.  With all this energy and action erupting in the streets, the ‘Emergency’ suddenly seemed to become a trade union leadership embroiled in a game of catch-up with the mood and ideas of the rank-and-file workers, rather then the all-out class-war offensive recently launched by the mercenaries of the elite.

Big talk of “We are all Wisconsin” and “grave-danger” can be found right along side arguably defeatist plans to spend dues and donation money mounting recall campaigns against offending politicians and calls to expend energy lowering ourselves to marble floors for yet more knee-bruising begging at the feet of the federal government. The hope being that, with enough tears, the foot soldiers in this war against the working-class can be convinced to switch sides, and start giving a damn about those who have to work for a living.

Despite all the radical wind blowing off top-hats and the heavy masonry roofs of public buildings, the report back failed to even mention the word ‘strike’ once.  That is not to say that talk of a strike, even one that could be ‘general’ in character, was not brought up at the meeting.  On the eve of his departure to attend the meeting, President of I.L.A. Local 1422 (of Charleston 5 fame) Kenneth Riley was quoted as saying, I don’t see any other way than [proposing] a general workers strike, I would actually want to have a call for a general strike before the bill is passed.” With that kind of sentiment expressed by a participant on his way to the meeting, it is almost certain that a call for a General Strike was heard before it at some point.  It seems unlikely that discussion on the matter went very far, when one considers that the strongest language used in the report back consisted of, “movement-wide dramatic actions” and turning April 4th (the anniversary of the death of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.) into a day for “not business as usual”, certainly a day that should never be ‘business as usual’.  Though these actions, are not to be simply written off as so much ‘catching up’, the wording appears to suggest purely political protest, rather than even tiniest flexing of the economic might of labor.  Along with calls for political protest, a fourteen point “Perspectives’ document was adopted that basically outlined the issues at hand, re-affirmed positions held by trade-unionists for years (such as a rejection of racism and sexism), and offered yet more suggestions for the federal government to come to the rescue. Though it’s likely that calls for economic action where presented before, but not taken seriously, at the meeting, other labor groups, closer to the threat of attack seemed to take things all the more seriously.

The South Central Federation of Labor (a Wisconsin labor group of 97 unions) passed an endorsement for a general strike days after the Emergency Labor Meeting put forward a plan to lobby the government to tax the rich and create jobs.  A plan that comes off all too starry eyed and perhaps even foolish considering that the government has historically, and most certainly at present, happily takes payment from the elite to act as a hit-man on working-class movements.  The Wisconsin AFL-CIO appears to be gearing up to mount a recall campaign in the event Walker puts his pen to this foul bill.  Such campaigns rarely come without a high cost in dollars and in this authors’ opinion, that cash should probably be directed towards efforts to get on an offensive footing, organizing the un-organized, and insuring health and well-being to any worker who may be victimized by this legislation.  Thankfully, the mood on the streets doesn’t appear so willing to except a defeat just yet and more states have begun to experience the “Madison” effect of both state austerity and a movement of working-people willing to fight against it.

In this race against the bill, rank-and-filers have so far been in the lead, dust raining on the heads of union leadership.  The “Emergency Labor Meeting” certainly gave the appearance that labor leaders are taking action, even if discussion seemed centered on how best to reduce acute swelling of the eye after workers weather a hard right jab.  A nice cold steak held over the affected area is what we’d be in need of anyhow, not millions in dues and donations thrown at inherently unwholesome electoral politics.  The bell hasn’t rung yet, and the fighters are still in the ring, lets just leave the towel sit for now.

While certain labor leaders appear to be actively preparing for defeat, calls for a General Strike seem to be reaching ever more receptive audiences.  It seems as though this could signify an uptick in the militancy of the labor movement, but a  certain uneasiness surrounding the talk of pulling out that big gun seems to exist among the membership of the public sector unions..  Memories of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (PATCO) and her membership’s brave but ultimately unsuccessful battle with the now entombed Reaganot likely still lingers.  From what Walker has shown himself capable of doing thus far, the threat of mass-firing is likely viewed as a harsh reality amongst the membership.  This author finds it unlikely that any ill-feeling harbored by rank-and-file union members about moving towards General Strike stems from the actual meaning and history of that great weapon of the working-class.  Instead it likely sprouts from a lack of confidence in a union leadership that, with the results of this meeting, has shown itself to be unimaginative, and with it’s checkered past, unreliable even in the best of times.

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