The air grew cold as the sun made its descent in the early evening, and before the sky darkened, the soaring sides of Oakland’s downtown buildings took on a golden hue. But however cold it got, it wasn’t, the small crowd that gathered at the corner of 15th and Clay could tell itself, anywhere near as cold as in Madison, Wisconsin.
Because that, of course, was why we were there. To show solidarity, in however small a way, with beleaguered public sector workers in Wisconsin whose collective bargaining rights are being targeted by a Republican governor in an action that has become impossible to read as anything other than an all-out assault on organised labour in the United States.
The scale of Republicans’ assault on rights that generations of workers fought to obtain can be gauged by the spending of national anti-labour organisations in attacking Wisconsin’s public sector unions, and the promise that’s come from other Republican governors eager to emulate Walker. These people are engaged in that most sordid of practises—dividing the workforce, on which our economy depends and to which we owe our prosperity, against itself.
Republicans, in waging class warfare on behalf of their affluent benefactors, are appealing to people’s basest instincts. They are suggesting that, rather than working together to improve the condition of all workers—private and public sector alike—we should concentrate all our efforts on reducing all labour to the lowest common denominator. Rather than ensuring that employers in the private sector should be bound to provide healthcare, retirement benefits, job security and working conditions of a certain elevated quality, they encourage private sector workers to simply aid them in destroying the benefits that public sector workers have accrued.
It has become common for people to suggest that the Republican Party is trying to drag the country backwards...to take us back to an age in which people had but very little control over the work that they did and the compensation for which they did that work, however hard it proved, and in whatever strenuous conditions it was done. But really they are doing something altogether more disturbing. They are trying to destroy the very idea of social democracy, any viability of the mere notion of socialism, and to completely erase the gains made slowly and painfully over many lifetimes...gains which not only immeasurably improved the conditions in which people live, but fundamentally changed (I believe for the better) the way in which people think of themselves in relation to society as a whole.
But if Republicans achieve their truly frightening goals, it will be against the stiff opposition of people like those gathered in Oakland. Long-time union members, community organisers, people with no union affiliation at all stood up and proclaimed their support for workers in Wisconsin. Their voices were fired by something—it was hard to tell whether it was hope that labour is on the cusp of mobilising in a way that it hasn’t for many years in the U.S, or fear that what mobilisation comes will be too little, too late.
It must have looked, in some respect, a lonely little gathering, just a few hundred people on a street corner, their passionate calls for action just a small flicker, their voices in danger of being swallowed up in the bowels of the city, amidst the tumult of traffic and the din of daily life. But it is our responsibility to think a bit longer and harder on what, at root, the attack on labour means for us all, in terms of our democracy, our society, and our livelihoods.