Perhaps the craziest and most wonderful thing about the union activity in Wisconsin (see Harry Brighouse‘s posts at Crooked Timber for some good reporting and analysis) is that it’s happening now. In a moment when nearly 10% of people who want a job can’t get one, the employed are doing things that put their livelihoods in peril. This runs in the face of a general rule of labor history: the labor movement prospers during booms and scatters during busts. When capitalists are desperate for workers (1920s, 1950s), they will bow to union demands; when the pool of reserve labor fills up (Depression, 1970s-1980s), capitalists set workers against each other and destroy solidarity. Unions have made gains during bust-times only when the government has stepped in to assert and protect workers’ rights (like during the New Deal). But here we have a situation in which Wisconsin workers are surrounded by leagues of the unemployed and desperate, but instead of turning on each other and doing whatever the Man says to save their own asses, they have made themselves vulnerable by heading into the streets. It’s a remarkable display of courage.
Whence this courage and strength to not only put your job on the line, but to buck the trends of history? It must in part come from a sense that enough is enough; that workers — public or otherwise — can’t be pushed much farther before they fall into poverty and despair. In this way, the strength of the Wisconsin movement comes from precisely that source which, judging by historical precedent, should be weakening solidarity: the shitty employment situation. But instead of turning on each other, Wisconsin workers are turning to each other. I don’t want to get carried away and say that this represents a watershed moment in the history of the labor movement (okay, I do want to get carried away), but you have to admit that this seems pretty special.