Rarely have I heard those in the news media discuss what the massive demonstrations and crisis in Wisconsin are really all about. We have all heard about how public employees have it too good, how Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin is faced with a difficult budget crisis, how the Governor is trying to bust unions, how private sector employees lack the benefits of state employees and thus public sector worker benefits must be significantly reduced for better alignment with private sector jobs. In other words, we should all go down the staircase together. On and on it goes. But none of these explanations or the many others that have reached the level of news dialog, however briefly discussed, get at the core of the mission of Governor Walker’s strategy and that of the Republican Party, now firmly intertwined with its Tea Party iteration. Walker has received strong support from organizations initiated by the Koch brothers and their intention is to eradicate unions and fight off regulatory changes. And, there are now more public than private sector labor unions jobs. How many times do you hear a governor listen and plan strategy with one of his donors as Walker did, with the fake call from editor Ian Murphy of the Buffalo Beast, pretending to be David Koch. But how many times have you seen historic moments, like the confrontation going on in Wisconsin, to be treated as part of the “daily news” and not get examined for the long-term consequences of such action and whether this is healthy for future America? What’s going on in Wisconsin is nothing less than a confrontation with the future of our Democracy and we need to hear more than just the daily news reports on the size of the crowds and the simplistic implications of a change in the rules. Wisconsin is a potential game-breaker. We need to understand not only what it means for tomorrow, but what Wisconsin means for the long-term future of the country. The middle class of America was built by labor unions and their declining fortunes over the last thirty years have been paralleled by economic stagnation of the middle class and erosion of their security. How much of a progressive tax reform would it take to restore the public services Walker wants to strip away? There are serious journalistic flaws in the lack of news depth about the events tacking place in Wisconsin.
It is no irony that the strategy to attack union bargaining rights for public employees has ignited in Wisconsin, one of the states that began the march towards progressivism in the early part of the 20th century, highlighted by Senator Robert La Follette, one of the most progressive figures in American history: a victory for dissolving public union power in Wisconsin will be a major victory in a trophy state and will likely never be reversed. Senator Robert M. La Follette of Wisconsin started his own progressive newsletter, which was originally called La Follette’s Weekly. In the first publication he wrote, “In the course of every attempt to establish or develop free government, a struggle between Special Privilege and Equal Rights is inevitable. Our great industrial organizations [are] in control of politics, government, and natural resources. They manage conventions, make platforms, dictate legislation. They rule through the very men elected to represent them.” Have we come full circle? After his death in 1929, La Follette’s newsletter became The Progressive. It is still published today from Madison, Wisconsin. Given the rich progressive tradition of Wisconsin (yes, the state has always been a mixed bag because they also produced Senator Joe McCarthy), the Republicans are hoping that a Walker victory in Wisconsin against public employee union rights will begin a domino surge that moves across the country, destroying unions in the process (One of Walker’s demands is that unionized employees vote each year to determine if they want to stay in a union); we know that other states are considering similar moves and that Indiana has already achieved that objective when the state ended collective bargaining rights for state employees in 2005. But, once again, evidence that the Republican Party is completely out of touch with public opinion comes from a recent NYT/CBS News poll revealing that the majority of Americans support labor unions. This has been true in every major poll going back into the 1930s when crude polling began.
If the Republicans can succeed in destroying bargaining rights for public employees, in the state that helped spawn a new progressive era in American politics, it will be a grand symbolic victory in the march towards the assault of the Republican Party and its Tea Party iteration on the very survival of the Democratic Party. One factor that keeps the Democratic Party in parity with Republicans in fund raising, is the existence of unions and the money and support they can raise and spend on candidates running for public office, particularly since the Supreme Court ruling of 2010, that allows unlimited resources from corporations and unions towards political campaigns. Of course unions, with union membership so depleted, cannot compete with corporate wealth to support campaigns, particularly when one considers the corporate behemoths spawned under Reaganism. The only way out of this conundrum is a constitutional amendment, denying corporations the same rights as citizens.
Unions serve in many capacities other than fund raising. They form the troops on the ground that get people out to vote and often man phone banks and fill other volunteer requests. They form PAC groups and provide transportation to the polls, as they often have the deep organizational knowledge of working class neighborhoods. But, union membership has been hit hard by the recession and it wasn’t doing too well before then. The plan to destroy the bargaining rights of public union employees, granted to them for most of the 20th century, is nothing more than another version of the “Shock Doctrine” described by Naomi Klein; this is part of a general strategy to seize the initiative during a crisis, when people are down, and create further crippling of union support for what are typically Democratic candidates. The election of 2012 is shaping up to be the all time budget buster because of the Supreme Court’s decision to allow corporations and unions to spend unlimited funds on political campaigns. Walker’s attack on public unions is a direct attack on the ability of unions to exist, raise funds and energize support for the 2012 national and local elections. The actions that will set the stage for the all time election budget bonanza are happening right now in Wisconsin, with other states to follow. One can only hope that the events transpiring in Wisconsin today will serve to ignite a new flame of reactionary liberalism that needs to be energized–and now is not too soon. The first weekend after the initial sit-in in Madison, my son and I went to a rally for the Wisconsin public employees at the State Capital in St. Paul, where 2,000-3000 supporters gathered, filling the capital circle, while listening to labor and political leaders passionately address the plight of Wisconsin public employees and the demonstrations going on in Madison; that night the local news media briefly referred to the gathering as a “few hundred.” People are going to have to figure it out on their own what Madison means for the future health of our Democracy. The sudden anger with teachers, who are hardly overpaid, is merely another attack on unions and for the same reason. The passage of the antilabor law in Madison this past week, with virtually no impact on the budget is proof that the fight against the unions in Madison has nothing to do with the budgetary crisis of the state.
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