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Wisconsin a Waterloo for the working class

By Rick Fantasia, Special to CNN
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Rick Fantasia says situation unfolding in Wisconsin and other states is huge threat to labor
  • He says corporate leaders and GOP trying to gut unions to remove barriers to power
  • He says unions have made concessions Gov. Walker asked for; budget fixing is a ruse
  • Fantasia: Current U.S. worker protections due in large part to unions

Editor's note: Rick Fantasia is the Barbara Richmond 1940 Professor in the Social Sciences and Professor of Sociology at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts. He writes frequently for Le Monde Diplomatique and is the author, with Kim Voss, of "Hard Work: Remaking the American Labor Movement." and "Cultures of Solidarity."

(CNN) -- There should be no illusions. What is unfolding in Wisconsin and a half-dozen other states may be the beginning of the end for American labor.

Both the corporate leaders who are funding these initiatives and their Republican Party valets feverishly trying to push them through state legislatures understand this. The billionaire Koch brothers, for example, have pumped money into the Wisconsin effort; their energy and consumer products conglomerate was a top contributor to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's election campaign.

They must be giddy with anticipation, knowing how close they are to their long-standing goal of removing any significant opposition to their rule in American society. Too dramatic? If anything, it is an understatement.

As anyone following the events in Wisconsin knows, it has not been a matter of public employee unions showing intransigence in the face of a state budget shortfall.

The public sector unions have agreed to the financial concessions Gov. Walker had claimed were necessary to right the fiscal ship. No, the prize he hopes to deliver to his corporate supporters and ideological soul mates is much larger and more important than a simple balanced state budget.

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Shock and awe has been the method employed, but just like in the war through which the phrase entered our national lexicon, momentary disorientation can give way to obstinate resistance, and no one anticipated the counter-mobilization that has galvanized workers in Madison, Wisconsin, and elsewhere.

Union labor recognizes that this is it: a Waterloo for the working class in America. Up to now it has been mostly a one-sided class war as private sector corporations have systematically weakened or destroyed their existing labor organizations, while intimidating and firing their workers when they have sought to organize themselves into unions.

For three decades this war has mostly played out beyond the public radar screen, as corporations and their consultants have turned workplace after workplace across the country into battlegrounds over the rights of workers to have some voice in the conditions of their labor.

When Walker and other governors complain that public sector workers receive better pension or health care benefits than do private sector workers in their states, they may be right, but this is because workers in the much larger private sector -- with unionization rates now at about 7%, down from 35% in 1955 -- have already had their pensions, their health care benefits, and their working conditions gutted. (About 35 % of public sector workers are unionized.)

Until now this corporate assault was not aimed at the destruction of public sector unions and the decent jobs and benefits that they were able to negotiate for workers. Public employee unions have agreed to concessions in the face of state and municipal budget problems across the country, as they have in Wisconsin, but asking them for more -- taking away the right to organize and bargain collectively -- tramples Americans' human rights.

Americans may not fully grasp what is at stake here, but we fail to do so at our peril. Unions have made mistakes, but they are the only defense that workers have.

Without viable unions to serve as a counterweight to corporate power, America's working people and their families are at the mercy of the largest and most powerful economic organizations on the planet.

Ironically, while mobilizing to destroy unions here, U.S. corporations have been somehow able to thrive in foreign countries that have much higher unionization rates and where labor movements have much more influence in society.

Unionization rates are about twice as high in Germany and Canada, for example, and as much as five times as high in the Scandinavian countries, but U.S. companies have been able to do their business quite profitably for decades.

Strong unions in these countries mean that their citizens enjoy high quality health care for all without having to pay huge insurance premiums, free or inexpensive child care for working families, university educations that leave no one in debt, five to six weeks of paid annual vacations, and worker standards of living that are mostly equal to or higher than those of American workers.

Socialism? Hardly. The capitalists of Europe and Canada do perfectly well for themselves, thank you, even though their CEO's don't generally expect salaries and stock options reaching into the stratosphere, like ours do.

If there were no labor movement in the U.S., there would be no social security system, no Medicare or Medicaid as we know them (unions regularly provide power and push-back at attempts to privatize or cut back ), no limits to child labor, or hours worked, or safety standards, or any ability to prevent or respond to unfair or despotic treatment by employers.

Whether in unions or not, American workers hold these protections because of unions. How long will they last if the unions are destroyed? Wisconsin is either the beginning of the end or it's a beginning.

Which side are you on?

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Rick Fantasia.