At the recent convening of the Conservative Political Action Committee, Grover Norquist, the anti-tax crusader and founder of the anti-union Center for Worker Freedom, led a panel discussion titled “On Wisconsin! Turning Blue States Red.” There, panelists gloated over Governor Scott Walker’s 2012 victory and focused on Wisconsin as a case study in right-wing tactics for busting public sector unions. As panelist Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee, emphasized, the glory did not belong exclusively to Scott Walker. He went on to list an array of right-wing extremist groups that provided essential support to Walker’s anti-labor legislative initiative. To this Norquist warned his CPAC colleagues, “They’re not dead – they’re in decline.”
On the front lines of the confrontation between corporate-controlled politicians and Wisconsin’s public employees is the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, District Council 48, which represents public workers not in the police and fire services. In spite of legislative setbacks, the leadership of DC48 remains optimistic. During an interview with Boyd McCamish, the new executive director of DC48, “our best days are still ahead of us.” He argued that Walker’s attack is part of a highly ideological agenda to “restore aristocracy in America.” However, McCamish holds that the initiative is criminal and therefore unsustainable. Specifically, he likened the Walker administration and it’s “corporate masters” to an “organized crime syndicate” that uses government like “Al Capone’s Used Furniture Shop.”
In spite of heated rhetoric on both sides of the argument, there seems to be a common question asked by both corporatists – like those in attendance at the CPAC conference – and union leaders: Where do we go from here? On the corporate side, busting public sector union will require fundamental changes to national legislation to restrict labor’s ability to compete with big business politically. Policies and legislation collectively known as “National Right to Work” are examples of this initiative. To achieve the necessary reforms, anti-union forces have relied on what McCamish describes as “shock doctrine” tactics that outpace labor’s ability to mobilize an effective defense or organize an effective counterattack. Recognizing this, the challenge facing labor, as McCamish points out, is an organizing challenge. Can labor leaders regain their footing and refocus their efforts in time to mobilize rank-and-file members to prevent national right-to-work initiatives? Chances are the answer is: no.
The recent successes of anti-union forces are the product of a grand strategy laid out over 30 years ago, as is pointed out in The Main Street Moment by AFSCME presidents Gerald McEntee and Lee Saunders. This strategy, crafted by right-wing ideologues and financed by corporate tycoons like Coors and the Koch family, sought to shift the ideological perspective of the nation rightward as a primer that would enable corporations to essentially buy the U.S. democratic process. This has already been achieved at least in legal terms with the Supreme Court’s ruling on Citizens United in 2010, which allows corporations to flood political campaigns with unlimited private contributions. This has enabled U.S. corporations to install politicians beholden to companies – not voters – throughout government, making a national Right-to-Work law very plausible.
But would a national Right-to-Work law mean the end of public sector union in the U.S.? Not necessarily. In Oklahoma, the “reddest of the red states,” AFSCME has not only survived Right to Work, it has grown. In small towns like Enid, OK, grassroots, community-driven support for the city’s organized workforce enabled unions to succeed in passing an amendment to the Enid City Charter that upholds collective bargaining rights as law. What the Neoconservatives and New Right ideologues of the CPAC also fail to address is the uncomfortable fact that over 80% of the union workers in existing Right-to-Work states are registered Republicans. These ambiguities and seeming contradictions are causing corporatists, labor leaders and rank-and-file union members to give consideration to a post-partisan future for America’s unions. Already the conventional divide between Republicans and Democrats is inadequate for determining popular political sympathies. As wealth and power become centralized into fewer and fewer hands, more middle-class voters, both conservative and liberal, are being forced into the working class, leaving them feeling betrayed by both parties. McCamish puts it bluntly, stating, “there is no middle anymore.” As more American’s continue to find themselves cynical about politics in a post-Citizens United U.S., this polarity will become more and more determined by class alignment over ideology. As one rank-and-file AFSCME member recently remarked in response to partisan comments on the CPAC conference, “a pox on both their houses.”