Monday, February 28, 2011

Wisconsin: the return of trade unionism in the United States

After the disappointment of Barrack Obama, nothing could be more inspiring than the recent protests in Wisconsin and now across the US in support of public sector unions. I hope this marks a turning point in US trade unionism.

After the collapse of the US economy in 2008 due to wild financial speculation (otherwise known as gambling), the US political leaders and media have tried to scapegoat public sector workers in the face of massive government deficits. Public sector unions are a convenient group to blame, as they are the last remaining substantial unionized sector of the US economy. Using divide and conquer tactics, they blame the public sector workers by comparing them to private sector workers, many of whom are struggling in low income jobs with little or no benefits. This strategy deflects criticism from where it belongs - the fat cats on wall street still taking in million dollar bonuses after wreaking havoc on the world.

On Saturday, the largest demonstrations in Wisconsin since the Vietnam war took place in the state capitol. Of note, police joined the demonstrators and refused to order them to vacate the building, despite themselves being ordered by their superiors to have the protesters vacate ( This marks the first time since the crash of 2008 that we have seen large scale sustained protests actively voicing pride in unionism and pointing the blame back to corporate America as the real problem.

It is interesting to note the many parallels between the great recession and the great depression, with respect to union representation. Not since the early thirties and the depths of the great depression has union membership in the US been so low. Mass unemployment of up to one third of US workers devastated gains made in the early twentieth century. The US corporate elite in those days used the divisions between black and white workers and craft and industrial workers to divide the trade union movement.

And yet it was from the late 30's to the end of the second world war that union membership rebounded and skyrocketed, peaking in the fifties. The impact of the depression and the adaptation of labour to organize previously unorganized sectors led to a fantastic rise in unionization rates.

Wealth and income inequality in the US has reached unprecedented levels ( The union movement is the antidote needed to return some sanity to a system completely skewed in favour of a very few at the expense of the many.

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