The fallout from Gov. Scott Walker's elimination of workplace protections for public employees continues with a decline in union membership. It is not a situation unique to Wisconsin.
"The labor movement in this country is in deep, deep trouble," says Jim Cavanaugh, former president of the South Central Federation of Labor. "And what we've been doing lately isn't working to turn things around."
Cavanaugh and others turned out Thursday, July 17 to the Madison Labor Temple on Park Street for some guidance and inspiration. Joe Burns, author and labor activist, was in town to discuss his latest book, Strike Back, which charts the growth of the militant labor movement of the 60s and 70s. His goal, he said, was to identify actions that could help today's labor movement.
Cavanaugh liked what he heard, calling Burns' ideas "pure gold."
"We need to get these ideas out to public employee union activists and hold these discussions," he says. "If we can recapture that spirit of rebellion, we can turn this around and rebuild our unions."
Burns said those behind past labor uprisings exhibited a sense of rebelliousness and refused to follow the law.
"We do the opposite today," he said. "We try to be very pragmatic, we try to function within the existing labor laws, we try and work around the edges and we don't really confront and endlessly rail against the injustices of the existing system of labor control."
Burns also said the use of strikes and workplace organizing were what made unions strong. In 1958, strikes nationally led to a cumulative 7,000 lost work days for public employees. Twelve years later, he said that number had reached 2 million.
"We need to rediscover the effective strike," he said. "If you study past conditions, as activists you can help pave the way for the future."
Burns said what he took away from the 1960s is a "great hope" for the movement today.
"It's very rough out there but what we can learn from these periods is that when an idea takes hold and workers begin to believe in it and believe in themselves, great things can be accomplished."
Cavanaugh says this perspective helped him remember that Wisconsinites are not alone in the battle.
"We tend to think of ourselves here in Madison as somehow unique, the victims of Scott Walker and Act 10,” Cavanaugh says. "But a look at our history shows that we're all a part of something a lot bigger."
Cavanaugh says he was "standing in line" to get Burns' latest book after having read his first.
"[He] says the kinds of things many of us have been saying for a long time," he says. "What's different is that he does it a lot better and he backs up his opinions with good historical research."
Burns, a graduate of the University of Minnesota and New York University, is known for his two books on public union activism, as well as his work as a labor lawyer. His first book, Reviving the Strike, came out in 2011.