This is the first time in many years that Wisconsin has had Republican control of the government—the Senate, the Governorship, and essentially, the Supreme Court. In the past, we've had this rather schizophrenic politics. We're basically a purple state; a closely divided state in many presidential elections.
Currently, what's happened, in some respects, is we've had an extreme right wing, fully empowered without any checks and balances. And, unlike the Democratic Party, which controlled all three branches of government the last two years, this Republican majority is intent on using its majority to achieve something like a kind of Karl Rove vision of permanent power.
These aren't standard fare Republicans, these are hardcore corporatists. In addition to the assault on public workers and collective bargaining, Governor Walker has unleashed a full-fledged assault on local control and the ability of local governments to make decisions.
Many of you know about the collective bargaining rights being rescinded, the flashpoint that led to some of the uprisings, and the spontaneous uprising at the Capitol, but what's actually being proposed is much more far reaching. What Walker has proposed in his budget is:
· $834 million in cuts for K-12 public education (which will lead to 5,000 teacher layoffs)
· $250 million in cuts to the University of Wisconsin higher education system
· privatizing the University of Wisconsin-Madison in order to raise tuition
· $147 million cuts in shared revenues to local governments, which have helped keep property taxes down
· $72 million in cuts to technical colleges
· $53 million in cuts to corrections
· $505 million in cuts in subsidies for health insurance and income support for low-income families
· $284 million in cuts to programs for seniors and people with "disabilities"
· $104 million in cuts for child care
· $49 million in cuts for transit
The Governor says he needs to do this because the State is in deep financial straits. Like many other states around the country, Wisconsin does have a budget deficit and this has become a pretext for assaults on workers, on the poor, and on our very way of life. This is also the playbook for Governor Christie in New Jersey, Governor Kasich in Ohio, Governor Snyder in Michigan, and others around the country.
Of course, Walker can find deficits in the state budget in order to attack the poor, but it's not so poor that he can't give away some money to his friends. He's proposed a $400 million hike in money for new road construction. The road building lobby is one of the most important Republican lobbies in Wisconsin. Basically, they want to pave the entire state and turn everything into sub-divisions where everyone has to listen to AM radio as they drive 40 minutes to work. He's also proposed $115 million in corporate tax breaks, $36 million in tax breaks for investors, and $49 million in tax breaks for health savings accounts.
It is this full-fledged assault that resulted in the recent uprisings. In one of the largest demonstrations on March 12, 100,000 people protested, starting with hundreds of farmers from all over the state and dozens of tractors being pulled around Capitol Square. One of the best things about what happened was the incredible diversity of this coalition—students, workers, farmers, and suburbanites. The other thing is that these right-wing attacks have radicalized the people of Wisconsin. One of the most popular banners at the rally was the IWW's with the wildcat graphic. "General strike" was the watchword of at least half the crowd and has continued to gain mainstream traction.
Capitol Building occupation and protest in Madison, February 19—photo by Mark Danielson
There have been incredible demonstrations of democracy and solidarity. The entire city of Madison is saying, "This is what democracy looks like." There have been smaller rallies across the state and thousands turned out in Washington, DC to protest Wisconsin's Republican Senators when they showed up there for a fundraiser. There are active recalls against state Senators. There's litigation against legislation that is in violation of open meeting laws and challenges to other anti-democratic actions taken during the protests—for example, they shut down the Capitol, the people's house. Currently, the Walker administration has been found in violation of the Constitution for the shutdown.
Not since 9/11 has there been so much security because of all these "scary" teachers and nurses demanding their rights.
It's an exciting time. Hopefully it is infectious. There have been rallies in New York, Columbus, Indianapolis, Lansing, Trenton, and elsewhere. Hopefully, it will keep building. If we lose this fight, my family will probably lose their house, and that's true for tens of thousands in Wisconsin. This is a serious fight and that's why people have become so mobilized.
Austin King served as president of the Madison, Wisconsin City Council, is an organizer for SEIU Local 150, and national director of the ACORN Financial Justice Center. This is an abridged transcription of his talk at the Left Forum.
Madison protest, February 19—photo by Mark Danielson