Saturday, February 16, 2013

When Labor Awoke—Wisconsin Governor’s Overreach Set off a Firestorm

Note—Two years ago this week in the opening gambit of what turned out to be a tsunami of attacks on working people, labor, and democracy itself, Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker also triggered a new people’s movement.  That movement would spread to other states—Ohio, Michigan, Indiana among others. 

A few months later the Occupy Movement would spread a people’s movement in the streets across the country.  Together these actions and these events dramatically changed the political and social conversation in the nation that had been almost completely dominated by the radical right and its Tea Party sock puppets.  The national media entranced by that shiny bauble, was slow to understand what was happening.  But in less than two years it was clear that the American people had rejected austerity, punishing the poor and working class, unrestrained looting by the wealthy and powerful, stripping government of every authority save that of closely regulating women’s bodies and life choices.  Barack Obama owes his re-election as much to this sea change as his vaunted organization or the disarray of the Right.

 Everything is not well.  Walker and the other Republican governors in the Rust Belt states backed by heavy majorities in their gerrymander legislatures generally were able to pass most of their draconian legislation over sustained protests.  Often the courts have blocked the worst of the provisions.  In fact the avalanche of horrible legislation was brought on by the Right’s realization that they might have only a short time to set their “reforms” in concrete before they are swept away.  That’s all that the paymaster behind them wanted anyway.

The left has hardly understood what has happened.  Many in the Occupy Movement seem perplexed and disappointed that their demands for radical and fundamental change seems to have translated into votes for Democrats who they find cowardly and hardly less creatures of the oligarchy than the Republicans.  And that is true as far as it goes.  But it was the people rising up and using the weapon of defense—the vote and using it in defiance of every plot and scheme to prevent them from exercising it.

Much more needs to be done.  Defense must shift to offense.  The battles must be fought on our terms, as the Chicago Teachers’ Strike last fall show.  We will need to take again to the streets.  And most importantly we will have to forge new organs, new organizations, new alliances that employ fresh ideas and tactics suitable for the age of Twitter and Facebook.

But history is will look back to what happened in the snows of Madison two years ago as the tipping point. 

What follows is my blog post exactly two years ago today, written as events were unfolding.  Let’s refresh our memories.

Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker is a hero in his own mind.  He sees himself as a swashbuckling avenger taking down the “sacred cow” of public employee unionism.  Elected along with rabid Republican majorities in both houses of the state Legislature in the Tea Party Tsunami last November he believed he had a mandate for revolutionary change in a state with a long and proud Progressive tradition and a healthy Labor Movement.

Wisconsin, like many states, was undergoing a fiscal crisis as the Recession-that-will-not-die-no-matter-what-the-economists-say simultaneously sapped tax revenues and placed new demands on human services and safety net programs.  The crisis would have to be addressed.  Tax increases, like those just adopted in neighboring Illinois, were off the table, not even to be considered by tax allergic Republicans.  Every one knew big budget cuts were coming.  The question was who would get hit, and how bad.

Typically, Walker and the Republicans focused on social services and “entitlements”, seeing an opportunity to shrink government.  But Walker dared go further—he declared war on the state’s own employees and did it with strutting bravado.  His base eats that sort of thing up.  He may have even imagined that his actions could catapult him overnight from a nationally obscure freshman governor to a new hero of the Right.  Maybe he could leap over New Jersey Governor Chris Christie the darling get-tough executive, Sara Palin, or Michele Bachman to the top of red meat and hair-on-fire ranks.

Walker’s plan was nothing if not sweeping and radical.  He did not even bother to offer to meet with public employee unions.  He declared, there will be no negotiations.  Instead he advanced a plan that would slash or virtually eliminate public employee pensions and shift almost all of the cost of health insurance onto employees.  This was necessary, he said, to balance the budget without massive layoffs.  Because “rationalizing” the state’s work force would naturally reduce the number of workers needed any way, Walker decided to skip the hassle of negotiating changes in job descriptions, work loads, and conditions by stripping public employee unions of the right to bargain over any issues other than base salary.  He would also gut grievance procedures giving him and agency heads carte-blanche to ride roughshod over individual employees. The public employees were not just state employees either--they included county, municipal, school, and other local government workers.

The Governor sensed that his might not go over too well with government workers.  He attempted to split them by exempting local police and fire employees and State Patrolmen from the harshest provisions.  Some of those unions had actually foolishly supported his candidacy.  Besides, he had the feeling he might need that police protection.

In retrospect, I wonder if Gov. Walker wishes he had picked a better moment to announce his plan.  He picked the very day Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was being toppled by Cairo street demonstrators.  Maybe he thought it would get lost in the shuffle.  But he boldly stepped up to microphones and announced his sweeping plan.  He also declared that Republican majorities in both houses were sure to rapidly adopt the necessary legislation with out as much as disturbing a comma of his proposals.  Oh, and by the way, he said, if public employees dared protest or “cause disruptions” he was fully prepared to mobilize the National Guard.  In fact, he said, he had already consulted with Guard commanders about the possibility of deployment.

Threatening military action against his own employees before the fact may just have pushed the envelope a bit too far.  Word of the threat spread like wildfire.  The words were hardly out of his mouth before he was being compared to Mubarak and workers were planning their own demonstrations.

These days with Facebook, Twitter, and blogs it does not take long to organize a response.  Even before top labor leaders could call outraged news conferences, public workers were making their own plans to descend on the Capitol.

Yesterday, tens of thousands did just that surrounding the public spaces around the Capital and jamming the corridors inside.  Chants compared Walker to Mubarak and called for his ouster.  Many carried homemade signs say “I’m Not Afraid of the Guard.”  Hundreds of firefighters marched to join the demonstrators lending their support despite the preferential treatment that their union had received.  In Milwaukee thousands protested outside the Governor’s home and teachers walked off the job to join the protest causing some schools to close.  In Madison and elsewhere high school students walked out in support of their teachers.  Unionized private employer workers joined the fight as well.

Last night hundreds, led mostly by university teaching assistants and other staff, occupied the capital building over night demanding to be heard in public hearings being held.  Hundreds who signed up to speak at the hearing refused to leave until they were heard.  Shortly after 2 AM Republican legislators conducting the hearing left the Capitol by a side door to avoid being seen by the crowds.  Democrats kept the committee hearings in session all night as angry testimony continued.

Today the throngs around the Capitol have only grown.  Madison schools were officially closed due to a massive teacher sick-in.  Students from the nearby University of Wisconsin campus have been joined by high school and even middle school students supporting the workers.  Progressive, liberal, and radical organizations of all stripes and their members have joined a united stand against this naked power grab. 

Reports on the scene indicate that the mood of the crowds is buoyant and determined.  Everyone declares a willingness to stay “as long as necessary.”
The governor has been lying low, but issuing defiant statements.  So far he has called for no police action nor alerted the Guard.  Perhaps he realizes if he does so the powder keg might literally explode.
The nation is just now becoming dimly aware of what is happening.  The major media, as always barely aware of developments in “flyover” country have been slow to pick up the story.  That is beginning to change.  Workers in Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Minnesota—all states with huge blue collar communities—are keeping a close eye on developments as their own governors have been making noises similar to Walker.  This could spread rapidly if they make good on those noises.
It you are in Wisconsin today, or can get there, I urge you, drop what you are doing and find a protest to join.    

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