Organized Labor: Agincourt or Waterloo?

Will Wisconsin be organized labor's Waterloo?

In 1415, King Henry V found himself trapped by French forces numbering more than 25,000. Against all odds, Henry’s band of around 8500 managed to route the superior French forces and inflict a 10:1 casualty rate upon them.

Turn the clock forward 400 years to the year 1815. Near Waterloo, Belgium, a similarly sized army led by the Duke of Wellington defeated 69,000 troops commanded by Napoleon Bonaparte. Napoleon spent the last six years of his life exiled on a floating rock known as St. Helena.

Why the ancient history lesson? Jump ahead almost 300 years and look at Wisconsin. Make no mistake about it--the unfolding drama in Wisconsin will determine whether organized labor is fighting its Agincourt or is about to suffer its Waterloo. If labor loses this one, it can’t win anywhere and will soon be as defunct as its ancient roots: the guild system of Henry V’s time.

Only a foolish optimist or AFL-CIO public relations hack would deny that organized labor is reeling. Fewer than 12% of American workers belong to unions and, at present, any industry that is subject to being moved is practically unorganizable (and will remain barring the unlikely event that Congress amends existing labor laws to protect them). The only glimmer of hope has been in public unions and among workers whose jobs can’t be moved: teachers, civil servants, medical personnel, selected service-industry workers…. If Governor Scott Walker manages to strip away collective bargaining rights from these workers, there will be nothing left upon which organized labor could rebuild and the only unionized workers left with clout will be movie stars and professional athletes. (And you can probably start the countdown on their demise as well.)

Is Wisconsin broke? Yes it is. Does Walker truly have no other recourse? That’s a crock of crap and he knows it. Governors always have other options and the fact that he has chosen a battle with public employees must be called what it is: an ideologically driven attempt to smash unions. (One small example. Wisconsin could cut 20% from the department of corrections and save over $200 million.) Budget cuts always involve a choice of which cows will be led to the abattoir and we all know that Republicans want labor to be in that herd (along with publicly funded arts, women’s programs, pensions, social security, and anything that the private sector hasn’t managed yet to plunder).

Okay, so Walker’s a tea bagger sleaze bucket, but let’s not leave the AFL-CIO off the hook either. What we’ve seen in the past four decades is the full bankruptcy of business unionism and the paucity of imagination associated with its brand of craft unionism. The AFL-CIO needs to proclaim a general strike in Wisconsin and bring Walker to his knees. Every union worker in the state needs to be called out. Yes, that would in defiance of existing labor law. In other words, the AFL-CIO needs to treat those laws with the same callous indifference organized capital has been doing for decades. It might get fined and indicted, but it really doesn’t matter. If Wisconsin is lost, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka is headed for St. Helena.

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