Madison Is Our Cairo

With the Koch Brothers footing his campaign, Scott Walker assumed the governorship of Wisconsin on January 7, 2011.  Walker’s first action as Governor was obeisance to the corporate class that put him in office: he gave $140 million in tax breaks to businesses, including WalMart, and then screamed “budget crisis!”  This move allowed him to introduce his “Budget Repair Bill,” which would require state workers to pay $5,000-$7,000 a year towards their health insurance benefits and pensions.  Uninformed, public sector-bashing Walker supporters see this as an overdue comedown in public sector workers’ unfair advantages.  But the scope of Walker’s bill is much broader than public sector wages, benefits, and unions.  It is a salvo in the broader Republican war against working people and all unions, proposing radical positions in the Right’s plan to create a permanent underclass of non-unionized workers: 1) reduce public employee collective bargaining strictly to wages; 2) prohibit all public employee strikes (the National Guard is on stand-by in Madison); 3) eliminate automatic deductions for union dues; 4) limit collective bargaining contracts to one year; and finally, 5) require union members to vote each year to “re-certify” bargaining units.  Of course, the bill also proposes cuts in public education and public services.  And right behind Walker’s “Budget Repair Bill” is an additional bill to make Wisconsin a “Right-to-Work” state, which would severely limit the powers of private sector unions.  The one-two punch.

Giddy with the alignment of Republicans behind him in the House and Senate, Walker called a special session to demand immediate passage of his “Budget Repair Bill.”  Simultaneously, he sent a letter to every state worker warning that there would be no extensions of current contracts beyond March 13 — a decree which would eliminate collective bargaining.  He declared all of this non-negotiable.

Five states have deprived teachers of collective bargaining rights.  The ranking of their students on the ACT and SAT scores are:

South Carolina 50th

North Carolina 49th

Georgia 48th

Texas 47th

Virginia 44th

Wisconsin currently ranks 2nd.

Walker has gotten a lot more than he refused to bargain for from the good people of Wisconsin.  Resistance started with students at the University of Wisconsin who asserted their right to affordable public education.  On Valentine’s Day, a thousand students marched to the Capitol and delivered cards reading: “Have a Heart.  Don’t Tear UW Apart!”  Private sector and public sector union activists met in a forum the next day, committed to standing together, and called for public protests.  By mid-Valentine’s Week, tens of thousands of teachers and other public employees called in sick and headed to the Capitol, joined by thousands of high school and university students.  Even public employees who had been spared the changes of the proposed bill, such as fire fighters and police, joined the demonstrations.  The ranks of protestors swelled from 20,000 on Wednesday to 35,000 on Thursday and an estimated 50,000 on Friday.  Signs expressed their anger — “Kill the Bill!” — and also reflected their awareness of international citizens’ frustration with the “austerity” measures preached by the hoarding guardians of global capital: “I Went to Iraq and Came Back to Egypt,” “Walk Like an Egyptian,” “Let’s Negotiate Like They Do in Egypt.”  In a rare display of legislative backbone, fourteen Democratic state legislators went AWOL and have been hiding out of reach of Wisconsin state police, denying the legislature the quorum it needs to conduct business.  On the day Walker expected to be signing his bill, with 50,000 campers in the Capitol rotunda, the legislature announced its adjournment.  Inspired surely by the hundreds of thousands of ordinary people standing up for regime change in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, and elsewhere, Wisconsinites had shut their government down.

America needs to remember who public sector workers are.  Public sector workers are not on the dole: they are the worker bees of this Democracy, of the agencies which provide crucial services (roads, parks, schools, law enforcement, etc.).  In 1935, during the Great Depression, when the U.S. Congress passed the Wagner Act (also known as the National Labor Relations Act), which guaranteed workers the right to unionize, three categories of workers were kept outside the law’s reach: farm workers, domestic workers, and public employees at all levels of government.  While millions of private sector workers would organize for increased wages and benefits over the next two decades, positioning themselves to benefit from the economic growth of the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, public sector employees fell behind.

Public employees realized the value of organization, and their membership in unions increased tenfold between 1955 and 1975.  At key points in this period, public sector workers brought their lower-wage status to public attention, despite actually lacking the legal right to do so.  In Memphis, Tennessee in 1968, municipal sanitation workers earning poverty wages struck.  They provoked a civil rights upheaval which brought the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., to Memphis — where he was assassinated.  In 1970, tens of thousands of postal workers, some living on food stamps, struck in New York state.  Their actions inspired other postal workers to strike across the country, which forced the government to reorganize the U.S. Postal Service and increase wages, recognize postal workers’ unions, allow them to bargain contracts, and institute grievance procedures and seniority systems for promotions.  Public sector workers’ pressure on big city and state governments for new labor laws, recognition, and collective bargaining rights was increasingly successful.  Federal employees, the outer, less-mobilized tier of public sector workers, also gained new status and rights thanks to the activism of their state and municipal counterparts.

By the late 1970s, though, the “social contract” between employers, labor, and the government was breaking.  “Stagflation,” fiscal crises, and deindustrialization undercut first the manufacturing workers who made up the base of the labor movement in the private sector, and then ate at the gains of public sector workers.  When Ronald Reagan fired more than 11,000 federally-employed air traffic controllers in 1981 for striking without the right to do so, he sent a signal that times had changed for all workers.  Soon, deregulation, privatization, globalization, and contracting-out threatened the economic security of workers in both the private and public sectors.  This new political economy, called “neo-liberalism” because of its credo of the supremacy of the market, replaced the demand-driven Keynesian approach which had been foundational to the political economic policies from the New Deal onward.  Employers increasingly turned their focus to cutting costs (energy, materials, taxes and overhead, and, especially, labor), while government, the public sector itself, became the target of media punditry and right-wing political hostility.  Private sector workers faced permanent replacement if they dared to strike; strike activity declined.  In reports on “large” (more than 1,000 participants) strikes, the U.S. Department of Labor noted a drop from 300-400 strikes per year in the early 1970s to 25-35 per year in the 1990s; the current figure is less than 10 per year.  Private sector employers increasingly have blocked union organizing efforts.  The percentage of the U.S. unionized workforce shrank from over 30% in the 1950s to about 10% today.

The public employees and their supporters defying Governor Walker by sitting in the Capitol rotunda in Madison are crucial to our understanding of the stakes for workers in this moment and for the future.  Public workers’ rate of unionization — 36% — is much higher than their private sector counterparts’ — about 7%.  Public workers today make up more than half the ranks of organized labor.

Media and political advocates of neo-liberalism have encouraged more and more of the general public to think of ourselves as the “employers” of public employees rather than the recipients of the services they provide.  Public workers’ compensation is derided as a drain on citizen’s taxes.  Public employee unions’ bargaining strategies of deferring wages for improved benefits allows demagogues to paint these workers as the recipients of “Cadillac benefits.”  As under- and unemployment grind so many in the general population down, with the attendant real fears of losing homes and dignity, the seemingly stable jobs in the public sector, with myths of inflated wages and benefits spun endlessly through the 24-hour news cycle, grate and gall.

Unions are “the anti-theft device for working people” as the saying goes — and bashing them has been central to the right-wing neo-liberal agenda in the U.S. since Reagan and PATCO.  In Madison, the grassroots campaign to “Kill the Bill” is showing the world the ready alliance of all working people (95% of us) with unions, community-based organizations, faith groups, and students.  The Wisconsin conflict is being closely watched in Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, and Indiana, where emboldened governors have introduced bills which would undercut public employees’ rights as well as their wages and benefits.  Social networking sites reveal that people all over the world are watching Madison.  One report on Monday, February 21, notes that supporters in 12 countries and 38 states have purchased more than 300 pizzas from Ian’s on State Street, to be delivered to Madison demonstrators.

The throngs in Tahrir Square stayed and swelled until Mubarak left the country and Suleiman stepped back from the podium.  Egyptian people know they have just begun their pursuit of regime change and democratic process.  In fact, it is the union movement in Egypt which now joins with the youth to propose the structure of long-term change.  Yesterday, a Cairo demonstrator displayed his sign for all on Facebook and Twitter to see: “Cairo and Madison: One World.  One Pain.”  Through ingenuity and vision, the truth is coming out of Libya, despite a complete information blackout.  The right-wing spin on Madison as hippies trashing the Capitol is refuted hourly by images of the volunteer crews of teachers gathering recyclables and the widely-circulated Madison Police Department’s thank you to the citizens for decorum in pursuit of their right to protest.  These new alliances made in the streets and rotundas are unions — spontaneous versions of the structured unions which gather workers’ concerns and advocate for them so workers can do their jobs safely and sustainably.  From Madison to Cairo and beyond, as dis-organization organizes, working people are feeling their common cause and asserting their majority rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Peter Rachleff is a Professor of History at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota.  He can be reached at

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