The Role of the unions Part 1: Mac Intosh to IDN


The appearance of Insurgent Notes 3, with a long article on the class struggles that erupted in Wisconsin, and their implications, is especially welcome, and deserves a close reading (which I certainly intend to give it).

For me, the struggle in Wisconsin must be situated in a global context of a savage austerity which capital everywhere is imposing on the collective worker, from Greece to the UK, from California to New York, in which the decades long decline in the living standards and working conditions of labor has reached a new and particularly disastrous point in the midst of a global crisis of overaccumulation for which capital must try to make the working class pay. The public sector unions everywhere in the US are cooperating in this imposition of austerity, and in Wisconsin itself the public sector unions immediately agreed to accept the basic austerity package and drastic cuts proposed by Scott Walker. The issue around which the unions fought,then, was not cuts in wages and benefits, but collective bargaining rights for the union; dues check--off and the monetary and therefore political power which the unions enjoyed (strikes by public sector workers were long ago made illegal). Similar austerity measures by Jerry Brown in California or Andrew Cuomo in NY, elected with the financial and political support of the public sector unions for the Democratic party have provoked no such struggles on the part of the unions, only "negotiations" on the precise size of the cuts and the details of the austerity measures.

There should be no surprise there for those familiar with the history of American capitalism over the past hundred years. Indeed, the best radical histories of American capitalism came out of the University of Wisconsin in Madison as early as the 1960's where the influence of William Appelman Williams propelled Martin J. Sklar and James Weinstein to write their pathbreaking studies of the rise of "corporate liberalism" in America, and the vital role of unions in its development and administration. While Marx did not figure prominently in those historical studies (indeed, The Grundrisse and the sixth, unpublished, chapter of Capital,had not yet been translated), what Sklar and Weinstein were describing was the movement from the formal to the real domination of capital, and the necessary role that the unions played therein. What a difference between the cutting edge analysis of that process by those young Madison radicals 45 years ago, and the mass demonstrations organized by the unions in that same city over the past month: Then, it was the role of the unions in forging the very nexus of corporate liberalism, today it's to defend -- not the standard of living of the workers -- but the legal right of the unions to speak for them and to play a predominant role in the management and control of the collective worker. Madison may be the scene of a bitter struggle, but the question for pro-revolutionaries is whether this is a struggle on the terrain of the collective worker, a struggle against capital and its depredations OR an intra-capitalist struggle, a struggle between competing factions of the capitalist class, with the unions mobilizing the workers in the service of coporate liberalism. Scott Walker and his allies on the right certainly want to break the public sector unions, but those very unions are the mechanism of control that capital itself exercises over the collective worker; a vital component of the real doomination of capital and today of the imposition of austerity in large parts of both the US and the world. The unions in the face of Walker's daring move to impose his union busting legislation, and the failure of their own plan to prevent its legislative passage, have now taken their "struggle" to the courts -- a more congenial place for them than the streets, though a far worse place for the working class to defend itself. Meanwhile the struggle against austerity by the working class can only be fought outside of and against the unions, and it is to that end that pro-revolutionaries must devote themselves.

Mac Intosh

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