Many campus progressives and union activists in New Jersey have in recent years felt isolated and frustrated in the face of the unyielding attacks on public education, on teachers and their unions, and on our wages and benefits. The resolve with which the powers-that-be in our state have gone about balancing the budget on the backs of workers has been remarkable, matched only by the tenacity with which they have thus far fended off union outrage.
By the end of the Fall semester, it seemed that the rhetoric of “austerity” and “shared sacrifice” had inserted itself firmly into the commonsense of our campus culture. Thanks to various poll results that circulated among coworkers, we wrung our hands at the evidence that the “public” did not support the “public sector” or unionized workers.
We knew, of course, that this had been part of Chris Christie’s strategy all along: to pit private-sector, and unorganized workers against public-sector, and unionized workers. This had, after all, been laid out in so many words in his Transition Team reports before he took office. Nevertheless, we were unprepared for Christie’s sledgehammer approach, largely, I would argue, because we had willingly offered up our necks for Corzine’s scalpel in prior years.
In the months following, as we focused our attention on the intensity of the PR campaign launched by Chris Christie and his corporate buddies, it was understandable to continue to think of ourselves as an embattled minority fighting not only a state bureaucracy but also a hostile public. It was understandable, in other words, to see our glass as half-empty (and soon to be drained completely).
Today, however, such pessimism is not only unproductive, but out of kilter with the mood in the labor movement in the U.S. For in the opening months of 2011, we have seen the return of social struggle on a scale that we haven’t seen in decades. I am referring here not to the Tunisian or the Egyptian Revolutions, but the struggle in Wisconsin that has emerged in opposition to Scott Walker’s attacks. The significance of the uprising (no, that isn’t hyperbole) in Wisconsin has, however, been lost to many of us in the “TCNJ bubble.”
Don’t take my word for it. Here are two videos of a speech that the head of the AFL-CIO, Richard Trumka, gave on March 10 this year:
Now, it is a mere truism to say that NJ is different from Wisconsin, and that Walker is different from Christie. But this truism hides a deeper truth: that while Walker and his emulators in Ohio and Indiana might be the leading edge of this assault on workers’ rights, they represent the interests of a corporate class that hopes to generalize this assault across the board. There are many states hoping to achieve similar goals, even though each might take a different path.
But if you’ve been following this blog in the last week or so, you know that this one-sided assault is fast morphing into a two-sided fight. The labor movement is finally beginning to stand up again, and it is finding its feet among the hundreds and thousands of worker-activists who have been energized by the struggle in Wisconsin. Public opinion, thanks to this struggle, has shifted quite dramatically in our favor; i.e., in favor of public-sector jobs, and of bargaining rights.
If we think that Trumka is right when he says that we know now that “the American public” agrees with us, then it is incumbent upon us to think about what to do with that knowledge. What can we do to “channel this midwest uprising” into a movement that can give us “bold ideas” about “transforming America”? Trumka gives us a clear next step: to mobilize for a nationwide rallies and demonstrations on April 4:
Our next opportunity is April 4th, when we recall how MLK gave his life in support of collective bargaining for public workers. This struggle erupted over collective bargaining, but it’s about more: immigration rights, safety on the job, education, retirement security, health care and the American dream that all of us deserve to have.
I promise you: the labor movement will fight to create that and keep fighting until all of us do have it.
It would be remiss of us to not heed this call to fight to rebuild the union movement from the grassroots, drawing upon the lessons we’ve learned from the struggle in Madison, WI.
Of course, Trumka asks us to “turn this movement into a tidal wave in the 2012 elections,” with no mention of the fact that the Obama administration has acceded to the demands to reign in public-sector workers by imposing a three-year wage freeze on all federal employees. And in NJ, few of us have forgotten that the assault on the public sector began under Jon Corzine. So I say let’s be wary of this electoral humbug (I’ve written about this elsewhere), and focus on where our real power lies: in mobilizing and agitating, on the streets and in our workplaces.
Filed under: Views and Personal Stories, Voices | Tagged: AFL-CIO, AFL–CIO, Chris Christie, Jon Corzine, new jersey, Richard Trumka, TCNJ, Wisconsin | 1 Comment »