Our lives begin to end when we become silent about things that matter
- Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
We’re not sure we attended the same day of mass protests in Madison, Wisconsin reported on by the Chicago Tribune two days ago (I am writing on the morning of Monday, February 21st, 2011). We were in Madison on Saturday to witness and participate in the fifth day of historic labor protests occurring there – protests the editors of the “liberal” New York Times did not see as worth mentioning in the “Week in Review” section of their Sunday paper. This remarkable labor resistance was sparked by Wisconsin ’s hard-right governor Scott Walker, who is trying to ram through a “budget repair” bill that would significantly reduce the medical and pension benefits enjoyed by the state’s public sector workers and effectively strip those workers of their collective bargaining rights.
We drove up to our old home away from home – Madison, the birthplace of progressivism – with two friends from Iowa City, Iowa, on Saturday to see and add our voices to the pro-union force there. We did so knowing that our own state could be next. Along with the right wing governor in Ohio, Iowa ’s Republican governor Terry Branstad is readying a bill very much like Walker’s.
Here is Tribune reporter Dan Hinkel’s account two nights ago, in an article titled “Wisconsin Budget Battles Continue”:
“In opposing rallies…an estimated 60,000 demonstrators surrounded the Wisconsin State Capitol on Saturday…
“State workers and pro-labor activists have filled the streets of downtown Madison to oppose Gov. Scott Walker’s attempt to force Wisconsin employees to contribute more for their health care and pensions and to strip them of their collective bargaining rights.”
”With activists flying in from around the country, those protests were countered Saturday by a smaller but equally strident crowd of supporters of Walker ’s state budget measure.”
"The Capitol rotunda echoed with drums and chants while pro-labor protesters outside chanted ‘Kill the bill.’ The Tea party-led activists responded with chanted slogans including ‘Do your job!’”
“…'This is where we’re gonna start,' said tea party organizer Melvin Timm of Neenah , Wis. 'This is gonna set the tone.’”
“The Walker supporters rallied at one end of the Capitol, while union boosters surrounded them with a march around the square. The groups mingled and could sometimes only be differentiated by the signs they carried.”
“…Both sides seemed ready for an even longer fight. ‘This is an existential battle,’ said conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart, as he took the stage before the pro-Walker protesters. ‘It’s the battle of our times.’”1
A Workers’ Rights Battle
Contrary to the title of Hinkel’s article, we did not witness a “budget battle” in Madison . We beheld and joined in a workers’ rights struggle. Wisconsin ’s public workers and their unions are ready to negotiate on benefits and more. The main question for them is labor rights. The most provocative issue – the core source of popular and labor anger – is that Walker and his Republican cohorts in the state legislature are using the state’s “budget crisis” (itself exaggerated and largely a result of massive tax breaks to corporations) to attack hard-won collective bargaining rights. Their “repair” is an act of destruction. It contains a provision that would end the state’s government workers’ right to collective bargaining on anything other than wages and prohibit unions from winning wages in excess of the inflation rate x unless approved in a local referendum (imagine the outraged business response to a bill that denied the right to enjoy a rate of profit increase exceeding the increase of the Consumer Price Index!). Workers could not negotiate their benefits and working conditions under Walker ’s bill. Unions could not force their workers to pay dues, and would face a vote every year to remain certified.
The bill would already have been passed but for the decision of 14 Democratic state senators to leave Wisconsin . This denied the state legislature the number of sitting representatives required to hold a session and opened the door for large scale protests that have involved activists sleeping in and around the Capitol building and huge popular meetings in the Capitol’s assembly.
“ Wisconsin is Open for Business”
Walker, the Wisconsin Republicans and their corporate backers from within and beyond the state are not content merely with business as usual – with balancing their state budget on the backs of working people and the poor while handing out tax cuts to rich folks. Hell, Democratic and moderate Republican governors and legislatures can do that. As right-wing extremists of the Tea Party variety, they see an opportunity to really make capitalist history by breaking the back of public sector unionism. Having pushed private sector union density (the share of workers enrolled in unions) well below 10 percent, the right wing business class has launched a major campaign to destroy labor power in the pubic sector. Using the need to “repair” deficits as their pretext, Republican governors and legislators and from New Jersey to Iowa see a chance to gratify their business backers by inflicting an historic defeat on the last bastion of union power in the U.S. : government employment.
With corporate-sponsored Tea Party-friendly Republicans in control of both its executive and legislative branches, Wisconsin is a natural ground zero for that assault. Its recently elected governor is just the man to launch the assault on labor rights. Telling Fox News yesterday morning that he is not fazed by six days of remarkable pro-union protest in and around the Capitol, Walker predicted that Wisconsin will trail-blaze “conservative” policy for other states by weakening unions, much like it did with so-called welfare reform (the abolition of poor families’ entitlement to public family cash assistance) and the advance of school privatization vouchers in the 1990s.2 When he took up his position as governor earlier this year, Walker hung a sign on the doorknob of his office that read “Wisconsin is open for business.” He rejected $810 million in federal money that Wisconsin was getting to build a high speed train line between Madison and Milwaukee, turned the state’s Department of Commerce into a “public-private hybrid” in which workers had to re-apply for their jobs, and joined with other Republicans to grant $117 million in tax breaks to businesses and others. Walker is a dedicated capitalist ideologue who believes that collective bargaining is bad for business.3
The main problem with Hinkel’s article is its drastic understatement of the disparity in turnout between labor and the tea party. We saw little “mingling” between the groups. What we did see was a seemingly endless sea of smiling, chanting, whistling, drumming, joyous, clapping, hooting, and diverse pro-labor humanity surrounding a comparatively tiny group (500-1,000 people tops) of angry Tea Partiers stuck on the eastern side of the Capitol. The pro-Walker Tea Party group was organized by Americans for Prosperity, a leading right-Republican outfit dominated by the arch reactionary billionaire capitalist and arch-polluters Koch Brothers (Charles and David Koch) – leading sponsors of the Tea Party from the beginning. 4
It was quite an understatement for the Tribune to call the pro-Walker rally “smaller but equally strident.” The Tea Party contingent was outnumbered by at least 60 to 1 by our up-close and panoramic observation – something that went unreported in Chicago evening news broadcasts that depicted the day in Madison as pitting two roughly equivalent protests against one another. It is revealing that Hinkel included in his report two quotes from right wing activists but not a single quote from a labor supporter. This is consistent with the dominant mass media’s pronounced tendency to view the corporate-crafted and top-down business-backed Republican “Tea Party” as a legitimate and worthy social protest movement. By contrast, those media commonly treat actually popular social movements and resistance as what might be called “unworthy protests,” hardy worth serious and respectful coverage and commentary.5
“Vive La Cheddar Rebellion”
It wasn’t just size that differentiated the two sides from on another. Equally significant was their comparative spirit and mood. The billionaire-backed Walker forces were sour and haughty, seemingly irritated at the requirement to gather collectively and make noise – the stuff of social movements. They did not seem to be enjoying themselves very much. They spewed jealous accusations at the supposed reckless “socialism” of “radical left” big government Democrats like (the center-right) Barack Obama and the state senators(dubbed the “Fab 14” by some labor supporters) who “fled Wisconsin .” Their mean-spirited message was clear to the workers and professionals who teach the state’s children and plow its highways and clean the bathrooms of its state, county and municipal buildings: “shut the Hell up, go back to work, and be thankful for whatever we see fit to pay you and indeed for having any kind of job at all.”
One of us (Street) went up to a Tea Partier holding a poster depicting Obama as a Communist and asked him if he really believed that the president of the United States – the savior of Wall Street – was a Marxist. The rightist looked at his questioner with disgust and turned away in stone silence.
By happy contrast, the progressive, pro-labor mass of surrounding and the dwarfing the Tea Party group was a model of festive good humor. There was music and street theater, including a pro-union Fife and Drum corps in colonial-revolutionary garb (take that Tea Party), a man dressed as “Darth Walker,” and the impressive bagpipes of kilt-wearing members of the Firefighters’ Union. Joyful and supportive conversation was free and easy between and among participants, who laughed and took pictures of each others’ many hand-made posters and signs, crafted to combine struggle with good humor:
This Cheese Does Not Run