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(Reflections from the 34th Annual Conference of the Wisconsin Labor History Society, April 11, 2015, at Madison’s Labor Temple)

By 1781 after five years of the Revolutionary War, American morale was sagging; the British had won more battles than the Revolutionaries and hopes of winning freedom from the King were bleak.  In October of that year, with the help of outsiders — mainly the French — the tide was turned and the Royal forces surrendered at the Battle of Yorktown, an outcome that recharged the colonists and led to eventual victory.  Thus, the United States was created.

In the year 2015, the American labor movement finds itself very much in the same position as the Americans did in the early years of the Revolution.  Unions and working people have lost far more battles than they have won and the political forces are stacked against labor just as the better trained and armed British were against the colonists.

The question is: Can labor find a turning point to regain its once mighty strength?

For those attending the 34th Annual Conference of the Wisconsin Labor History Society, it was encouraging that a spirit of renewed vigor has infected many unionists.  Not only was that apparent from the record crowd of 140 that attended, but from the comments that came from the floor that working people have it in their power to reverse the current trends.

What was most striking about the six hours of academic presentations, union leader comments and rank-and-file experiences were the frank and pointed observations of what the situation was; there was no glossing over the failures of union leaders and members alike; yet, they all agreed it wasn’t a time to point blame, but rather to begin working together to develop and employ strategies that would  improve the union fortunes.

Several points emerged:

Frame a moral argument for collective bargaining.  Yes, it’s time to tell the world that collective bargaining is a positive good, not only for unionized workers but for Society as a whole.  As unions have spent most of their time and resources bargaining wages and benefits for their members, tending to grievances and defending its own turf, they became easy targets for politicians (usually Republicans) to label teachers, snow plow drivers and public health nurses as a “privileged elite” with benefits and wages that many workers didn’t enjoy.  Unions must demonstrate that collective bargaining is a moral good for all.

As keynote speaker, Georgetown University’s Joe McCartin said: “Empowering workers in the workplace is healthy for democracy.”

Join the fight of others.  A constant theme throughout the conference was the call that unions must proactively join in those causes that call for economic and social justice, such as the current “Black Lives Matter” crusade, the strikes and demonstrations for low-paid fast food and retail workers, and the quest for a clean and healthful environment.  Too often, unions have reached out to other groups only when they were seeking support for their own needs; it’s time for unions to initiate outreach to others in the cause of justice.

“History shows how connected we are to each other,” Will Jones, UW-Madison historian, told the group.

It took the help of the French forces, after all, to bring victory to the Colonists at Yorktown.

Unions can exist under anti-union laws.  Just because a one-sided, anti-union state government passes Act 10 and the so-called right-to-work law, doesn’t mean the death of unions.  It brings into the labor movement an opportunity to work harder to connect with members and to respond to their needs.  Numerous examples were shown as to strategies being done on work sites to successfully represent workers in spite of the new restrictions.  Ken Sagar came from Iowa (he’s state AFL-CIO president) to relate that his 1200 member IBEW local maintains 99% membership in a RTW state, mainly due to the creation of “solidarity organizers” in each department; Luz Sosa, of AFT Local 212 (Milwaukee Area Technical College) has used the same strategy to retain 80% membership among fulltime staff under the more strict regulations of Act 10.

All of the participants acknowledged the difficulties of working under the new laws; it won’t be easy and success will require lots of ingenuity and hardwork.  An audience participant, Adam Schesh, said his time in South America proved that workers under iron-handed dictatorial control there always had hope.  They used “direct action” and that requires the “nitty-gritty work of organizing and winning itty-bitty victories to build self-confidence” to stand up to authoritative bosses and leaders, he said.

It was an enthusiastic conference, thankfully free of much empty rhetoric.  Instead the participants were deeply engaged in the conversation, hopefully reinvigorated to return to their own workplaces to begin the turnaround.  Just as the colonists found their spirits revived at Yorktown in 1781, perhaps the April conference helped to plant the seeds for labor’s own great victory.  In the words of  Joe Hill:  “Don’t mourn, organize.”  — Ken Germanson, May 27, 2015.