As citizens of Western countries are inspired by the revolutions in the Middle East — and in particular, I think, by witnessing the unquechable determination of so many people to throw off the shackles of tyranny, no matter the cost — the first battleground to open up in the United States is Madison, Wisconsin, where governor Scott Walker, described in the Guardian by US author and screenwriter Clancy Segal (the child of union organizers) as “a dim bulb but ultra-reactionary and with obvious political ambitions,” is heading “a sustained, coordinated campaign by recently elected and highly pugnacious Republican governors to cripple what’s left of the American labor movement” by stripping public sector unions of most of their collective bargaining rights, as well as imposing steep reductions on workers’ pension and health care benefits.
Walker, like right-wingers around the world (including, of course, the UK), is using the fallout from the financial crisis of 2008 as an excuse for implementing cuts that will impact those who were not to blame for the criminal excesses of the financial sector — and his hypocrisy is clear from the $140 million in new corporate tax breaks that he has handed out, equivalent to the budget shortfall that he expects workers to make up for with the loss of their benefits and, in some cases, their jobs. The bigger picture , however, was noted by Paul Krugman in an op-ed in the New York Times last week:
What’s happening in Wisconsin isn’t about the state budget, despite Mr. Walker’s pretense that he’s just trying to be fiscally responsible. It is, instead, about power. What Mr. Walker and his backers are trying to do is to make Wisconsin — and eventually, America — less of a functioning democracy and more of a third-world-style oligarchy. And that’s why anyone who believes that we need some counterweight to the political power of big money should be on the demonstrators’ side.
Similar campaigns are also underway in a dozen other state capitals –- including Ohio, Indiana and Florida — but it is in Wisconsin that those fighting back have made their first mark, occupying the state capitol building two weeks ago, and, this weekend, attracting over 100,000 protestors against the governor’s plans, wth rallies taking place in almost every other state in support of the Wisconsin occupation.
In a great article for CBS News, entitled, “Cairo in Wisconsin,” Andy Kroll of Mother Jones captured the heady atmosphere of rebellion and solidarity in the capitol building over the last two weeks:
The call reportedly arrived from Cairo. Pizza for the protesters, the voice said. It was Saturday, February 20th, and by then Ian’s Pizza on State Street in Madison, Wisconsin, was overwhelmed.
One employee had been assigned the sole task of answering the phone and taking down orders. And in they came, from all 50 states and the District of Columbia, from Morocco, Haiti, Turkey, Belgium, Uganda, China, New Zealand, and even a research station in Antarctica. More than 50 countries around the globe. Ian’s couldn’t make pizza fast enough, and the generosity of distant strangers with credit cards was paying for it all.
Those pizzas, of course, were heading for the Wisconsin state capitol, an elegant domed structure at the heart of this Midwestern college town. For nearly two weeks, tens of thousands of raucous, sleepless, grizzled, energized protesters have called the stately capitol building their home. As the police moved in to clear it out on Sunday afternoon, it was still the pulsing heart of the largest labor protest in my lifetime, the focal point of rallies and concerts against a politically-charged piece of legislation proposed by Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, a hard-right Republican. […]
I arrived in Madison several days into the protests. I’ve watched the crowds swell, nearly all of those arriving — and some just not leaving — united against Governor Walker’s “budget repair bill.” I’ve interviewed protesters young and old, union members and grassroots organizers, students and teachers, children and retirees. I’ve huddled with labor leaders in their Madison “war rooms,” and sat through the governor’s press conferences. I’ve slept on the cold, stone floor of the Wisconsin state capitol (twice). Believe me, the spirit of Cairo is here. The air is charged with it.
It was strongest inside the Capitol. A previously seldom-visited building had been miraculously transformed into a genuine living, breathing community. There was a medic station, child day care, a food court, sleeping quarters, hundreds of signs and banners, live music, and a sense of camaraderie and purpose you’d struggle to find in most American cities, possibly anywhere else in this country. Like Cairo’s Tahrir Square in the weeks of the Egyptian uprising, most of what happens inside the Capitol’s walls is protest.
In the Guardian, meanwhile, Clancy Segal explained more about what is at stake:
This assault is essentially an ambush of the working middle class. It is openly financed by Big Money, like the hard-right multibillionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, who also fund — courtesy of the US supreme court’s Citizens United decision — the Tea Party groups that supply anti-labour’s ideological storm troopers.
Sensing a possible kill, union-busters are — unlike our side — in no mood to compromise. So, it comes as no surprise when Jeffrey Cox, Indiana’s deputy attorney general, calls Wisconsin public sector workers “thugs” against whom he advocates deadly force. “Use live ammunition,” he tweeted. Reluctantly, his boss fired him. Poor lawyer Cox was merely saying aloud what a whole slew of Republican state governors and elected officials are thinking, but dare not say … yet.
They want to push us back not just to the 1930s, before New Deal labour laws mandated collective bargaining and anti-child labour laws, but to the red-in-tooth-and-claw pitched battles of the 1890s, in which unions were defeated by force of arms – as in Homestead, Pullman and Coeur d’Alene when local and federal governments felt little compunction about shooting down strikers.
To prevent the passage of Walker’s measures, the most extraordinary situation has developed, whereby the entire Democratic delegation has fled the state to avoid a quorum vote and is refusing to return until Walker agrees to negotiate. This, at least, demonstrates some spine on the part of the lawmakers involved, because the stakes involved are so high. As Clancy Segal also explained:
The crux [of the problem], as expressed by America’s most successful investor Warren Buffet: “There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making the war, and we’re winning.” But pushing the case that it was labour unions that made the middle class could get through — because it’s true. When unions were at their height, with 35% of the private sector workforce in the 1950s (now down to 7%), bargained collectively for better wages and conditions, it impacted everybody and made their lives better, union, non-union and anti-union alike.
In Madison, the police announced that they would clear the capitol building by 4pm on Sunday, but as hundreds of protestors refused refused to leave and to allow their protest to fade away, perhaps recognizing, from the lessons of Tahrir Square in Cairo, that it is only by staying put and refusing to go home that their momentum can be sustained, the most extraordinary development took place. As The Understory reported, “Hundreds of cops have just marched into the Wisconsin state capitol building to protest the anti-Union bill, to massive applause. They now join up to 600 people who are inside.” Police spokespeople told the protestors, “We have been ordered by the legislature to kick you all out at 4:00 today. But we know what’s right from wrong. We will not be kicking anyone out. In fact, we will be sleeping here with you!”
Even police chief Charles Tubbs was unwilling to act against the protestors, telling the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, “The people who are in the building will be allowed to stay. There will be no arrests unless people violate the law.” The paper reported that he “announced the decision to let the protesters stay after he saw how they moved aside while work crews went about cleaning the Capitol, including mopping and polishing floors,” and that he explained, “People are very cooperative. I appreciate that.”
From across the ocean, the protestors — and the police — have my support.
Note: Please see below for a video of Iraq veteran Aaron Hughes talking to the crowd in the occupied State capitol building in Madison, Wisconsin. Aaron explained that, in Iraq, he learned that the US military was unable to implement democracy; that, he said, came from people like those occupying the capitol building, and from the recent example provided by the people of Egypt. He also read part of Iraq Veterans Against the War’s statement urging members of the Wisconsin National Guard to resist orders if they are mobilized to repress any forthcoming strikes.