America’s war to the death - Wisconsin’s just the start
Alexander Cockburn: Why Wisconsin is seeing the biggest public rallies since the Vietnam war protests
There's a life and death struggle being fought here in the United States, more sedate certainly, in but in terms of human welfare every bit as momentous in the long term as the dramatic rebellions in the Middle East.
The epicentre right now is in Madison, Wisconsin in American's upper Midwest. But tomorrow it could as easily shift east to New Jersey, or west to California. The struggle concerns the future of the labour movement and beyond it, the economic vitality of America's middle class.
The union demonstrators who have been filling the State Capitol building in Madison with roars of protest this week represent a goodly slice of middle-class America's active or retired federal and local government workers, firemen, cops, prison guards, teachers, and students.
These days middle-class Americans are frightened people. They're being kicked out of foreclosed homes; they can't afford decent health care; they have no adequate pension, and in retirement they can be one illness away from destitution and sleeping in a church shelter.
But amid this collective fear there are vast differences in the likelihood of ruin or severe poverty. A privately employed worker has a 20 per cent chance of being fired or laid off in a given year; for a publicly employed one, the chance of being fired or laid off is seven per cent. Four out of five public workers have decent health coverage and traditional pensions plans; in the private sphere far, far less.
Small wonder that in recent years the rising curve of public employees joining unions has been the brightest spot in the drear twilight of organised labour in America. One in three is in a union. Only seven per cent of privately employed workers are in unions, down from 20 per cent in 1991.
Ever since the economic crash of 2008, every state and major city has been facing seas of red ink. Money is more expensive to borrow; tax revenues have slumped. Many states plunging into debt come up hard against laws requiring them to balance their budgets.
Now add into the mix the Republicans' triumph in last November's elections. Many incoming governors are Tea Party types, viscerally anti-labour, eager to lay their states' fiscal agonies at the door of the public unions who are allegedly bankrupting state after state with their burdensome pensions and health plans.
Wisconsin's new Republican governor Scott Walker speedily declared war on the public unions, announcing that Wisconsin is bankrupt and demanding state workers kick in more in health and pension contributions – amounting to an eight per cent wage cut. The unions had no problem in agreeing to negotiate, even to concede on these points. What has produced the biggest rallies in Wisconsin since the Vietnam war is Walker's intent to end collective bargaining by many public employees in the state.
This is a declaration of war to the death. Back in the 1930s Wisconsin was actually the first state to pass an unemployment insurance law, in 1932, and the first, in 1959, to give workers the legal right to bargain collectively. Today, right behind Wisconsin, Republican governors of states like Michigan and Indiana, fiscally ruined by collapse of rust-belt industries, are similarly trying to destroy collective bargaining, the all-important weapon of the labour movement.
It's not just a declaration of war on labour, it's a dagger pointed at the heart of the Democratic Party, hugely dependent on unions for its grass-roots organising. Labour unions threw $400 million behind Obama and the Democratic Party in 2008. If the current Republican onslaught on collective bargaining gathers momentum across America, the Democrats - already reeling from the lifting last year by the US Supreme Court of all restraints on corporate campaign expenditures - would see their campaign war chests implode.
It's for this reason that Obama, usually careful to avoid any displays of public enthusiasm for the labour movement, made haste last week to denounce the Republicans' assault on collective bargaining as breaching a fundamental human right. Having said this, he promptly fell silent. His strategy over the next two years is to corral labour support and hence organisers and money, then to woo slabs of the electorate delighted with anyone trying to cut the public unions down to size.
Talk to workers, unionised or not, in the private sector and you'll hear plenty of derisive anger at the cushy privileges of local, state and federal employees. In their sights is the incompetent teacher who can't be fired, the cop who retires at 50 on a full life-time pension and benefits, the prison guards union in California which has a vested interest in harsh sentencing, since this means more prison construction, hence more guards.
Jerry Brown, now governor of California, is a Democrat. Yet he, as vociferously as Wisconsin's Walker, says public workers' contracts have to be renegotiated, otherwise California will be mired in bankruptcy forever.
It is indeed a recipe for a red-ink future if public workers in California continue to have the right to retire at 50, get a job in the private sector, yet still pull down full state health and pension benefits. Why not deny these benefits at least until the former state worker reaches the age – over 62 – when Social Security can kick in?
The tragedy is that private sector workers averaging $45,000 a year are denouncing federal government workers averaging maybe $65,000. Yet $65,000 doesn't get you that far in today's America. Republicans would like to get the middle class down at the $45,000 level with nothing much in the way of health benefits, and with a privatised social security system, not kicking in until 69 or 70. The public unions stand in the path of this plan.
When Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, almost his first order of business was to destroy PATCO, the union of the air traffic controllers, which had actually endorsed him over Jimmy Carter. Reagan fired them for breaching laws forbidding them to go on strike. It was the green light for a renewed war on labour which continues to this day, part of the great leveling-down inflicted on working people.
In Tahrir Square in Cairo, there was a young Egyptian man with a sign stating: 'Egypt Supports Wisconsin Workers: One World, One Pain'. In Madison, Egypt's revolution has been frequently evoked. Two dollars a day in the colony, or $45,000 a year in the heart of the Empire: at both ends people are being pushed over the edge.
The war in Madison signals the onset of a new Republican onslaught on labour – with the implicit aim of destroying organised labour in America. The stakes are very high. ·
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