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New York ’75 and Wisconsin ’11: The Lessons of Austerity

Written by some friends offering suggestions learned from a similar anti-austerity struggle in New York in 1975.

All across the country, eyes have been set upon the struggles of Wisconsin’s public workers against the imposition of austerity and the abrogation of collective bargaining rights. The solidarity shown by broad segments of Wisconsin’s working class—from teachers to firefighters, from steelworkers to clerical workers—has been an inspiration. As of this writing, workers in Ohio have begun to mobilize against similar proposals by the Governor of their state. It is clear that the militant actions of Wisconsin workers are having, and will have, a resounding effect upon how others across the country react to savage attacks on public sector employees.

The situation in Wisconsin has reached an impasse. The most militant force in these protests, the massive wildcat sick-outs by rank-and-file teachers, has been reigned in by union officials. It is unclear if the momentum of the protests in Madison can be sustained as Democratic Party representatives essentially filibuster the ‘budget repair bill’ by refusing to attend the legislature. There are conflicting tendencies within the labor union leadership: on the one hand, officials have already consented to sweeping concessions on pay and benefits; on the other hand, the South Central Labor Federation has endorsed a call for a general strike in the near future.

The lives of tens of thousands of Wisconsin workers are in the balance. But it is not merely these workers and their families who will feel the consequences of this brutal offensive by politicians in the service of capital. The workers of Wisconsin are on the front lines of an assault that affects us all. Indeed, history has shown that attacks on public unions are an attack on the entirety of the working class.

After all, union participation in the private sector continues to decline, while concessions by labor leaders and service cutbacks are commonplace across the country. States like New York, New Jersey and California face even bigger budget deficits than Wisconsin. For this reason, the developments in Madison are a test case for what will happen across the country.

Fortunately, history provides important lessons on how to fight back against austerity. In New York City, in the mid-1970s, municipal workers faced a similar assault and, despite the heroic response of the rank-and-file, they failed to stem the tide.

What can we learn from their struggle?

And how can we use that knowledge to arm ourselves against this current onslaught in Wisconsin and beyond?

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