by Scott Thompson

T]he failure of the Walker recall in Wisconsin is being interpreted as a huge blow to the survival of traditional labor unions. As disappointing as the election results may be to both Occupiers and union organizers, we can learn something vitally important from what just happened in Wisconsin.

The press, liberal activists, and the Democratic party all seem to agree that Occupy would be much more effective if it participated in electoral politics. The traditional labor unions have been participating in electoral politics for decades, and what has it gotten them?

Labor laws explicitly designed to outlaw any proven and effective tactic. Shrinking union membership. International “free trade” treaties championed by Democratic presidents and passed by Democratic legislatures, designed to give corporations a free hand to ship formerly union jobs overseas. Most labor contracts specifically ban the union from calling a strike. General strikes with union support are illegal. Sit-down strikes and factory occupations are illegal.

If “working within the system” is so much more effective than what we do, why has it proven to be virtual suicide for organized labor? If electoral politics is supposedly the only way to affect real change, why has the labor movement’s long history of support for the Democratic Party resulted only in one compromise after another, one retreat from past victories after another?

In the recent Longshoremen’s dispute in California, did the Democrats rush to the Longshoremen’s aid? On the contrary, President Obama ordered armed Coast Guard vessels to defend cargo ships from the perceived threat of direct action by labor protesters, the first use of the military to intervene in a labor dispute since the 1970s. All the media and the politicians agreed—Occupy’s involvement in this dispute could only hurt the workers, it was important for the workers to work within the system, and all the other familiar clichés. Despite this fact, Occupy’s credible threat of massive direct action got immediate results. Management backed down, and the Longshoremen got a contract.

Organized labor won us the eight-hour workday, the weekend, fair wages, and benefits. It didn’t win any of this by working within the system, but by throwing one monkey wrench after another into the inhuman machine designed to funnel money and power from the many to the few. Calling strikes without asking permission. Occupying factories and refusing to leave. Battling the gangsters and thugs sent to break up the strikes. That’s what won the unions a seat at the table. The system got scared enough to give the unions a good deal, making the unions part of the system—and pulling their claws in the process.

Now the unions are the weakest they’ve ever been, and the defeat of the Walker recall is being described as the final nail in labor’s coffin. But maybe it’s something else. Maybe it’s a wakeup call that could bring labor back to life in the USA—as long as the unions stop listening to the discredited advice that they must work within the system.

Can Wisconsin operate at all if the public workers don’t allow it? Can a factory cut worker’s pay and benefits if they take over the building and shut the company down? Can any company in this entire nation function without the cooperation of working people?

Our power is not in labor laws, but in solidarity. The lesson of Wisconsin is to stop placing our trust in the shell game of electoral politics. Stop asking permission. Stop playing along. If unions do what they used to do, we will win in the end. They will compromise with us because they will no longer have a choice. They will give working people what they need to have a decent life, not because it’s the right thing to do, but because working people can shut them down. The only mentality that has any chance of revitalizing labor is the mentality of Occupy: “No satisfaction without direct action!”