Have you heard about Wisconsin? This Saturday crowds estimated at up to 100,000 descended on the state capitol of Madison to protest the most earth-shattering attack on unions and the middle class since Reagan fired the Air-Traffic controllers in 1981. Support demonstrations numbering in the tens of thousands were held in cities across the country. But you would be forgiven if you missed the news.
As protesters streamed into Madison and a Deputy Attorney General in Indiana helpfully suggested the police “use live ammunition” to get rid of them Mainstream media outlets such as the Globe and Mail and Montreal Gazette were silent.
Perhaps they thought the news was of little import to us here in the frozen white north, certainly not as important as the story on who Liz Taylor is rooting for at the Oscars. (Spoiler alert: it’s the King’s Speech)
I’m more inclined to believe that their corporate masters are loath to show unions or their support in anything approaching a positive light, but it could also be explained by the paralyzing incompetence caused by the decimation of newsrooms over the last few decades.
Either way, in case you’ve missed it, here’s a primer on what’s happening in Wisconsin, and why it matters (Full disclosure: I currently work for a labour union):
The ruckus got rolling when newly elected Republican Governor Scott Walker, a Tea Party darling and recipient of oodles of Koch Brothers cash, proposed a bill that would strip public sector unions of their right to collective bargaining. The bill would also prohibit the employer from collecting union dues and force a vote each year on continued membership in the union.
He argued that this unprecedented assault on the very existence of unions was necessary to control a budget “crisis” in the form of a 137 Million dollar deficit (small potatoes, as these things go).
Of course the unions in question had already agreed to massive cuts in pay and benefits (which he rejected) and his bill exempted the Police and Firefighters unions who have the most generous pay and benefits plans, and who not so coincidentally were major supporters of his campaign.
Paul Krugman, in the New York Times this week, explains it best, citing Canadian Naomi Klein’s book The Shock Doctrine:
From Chile in the 1970s onward, [Klein] suggested, right-wing ideologues have exploited crises to push through an agenda that has nothing to do with resolving those crises, and everything to do with imposing their vision of a harsher, more unequal, less democratic society. Which brings us to Wisconsin 2011, where the shock doctrine is on full displayâ€¦ Gov. Scott Walker claims that he needs to pass his bill to deal with the state’s fiscal problems. But his attack on unions has nothing to do with the budget. In fact, those unions have already indicated their willingness to make substantial financial concessions â€” an offer the governor has rejected.
What’s happening in Wisconsin is, instead, a power grab â€” an attempt to exploit the fiscal crisis to destroy the last major counterweight to the political power of corporations and the wealthy.
What’s going on in Wisconsin is a Republican Governor, heavily funded by major corporations, attempting to “take out” the pesky unions who work to elect Democrats and fight for fair wages and working conditions (thus cutting into corporate bottom lines). And he’s using a largely manufactured crisis to do it.
If he succeeds, and as I write this the only thing standing in his way is the decision by all Democratic State Senators to flee the state in order to block the Republican dominated Senate from reaching quorum, it will be the beginning of the end for organized labour in the U.S.
Union membership has declined from over 50% in the Fifties to less than 12% today, and the right wing propaganda machine has been so successful in convincing Americans that their woes are not the fault of the banks on Wall Street or the corporate funded crooks in Washington – but are instead caused by greedy unions – that the non-unionized, who once looked to union workplaces as an example to emulate, now wish to tear down union workers to their level. “If we can’t have good working conditions then they shouldn’t have them either.”
Across the country right-wing governors are looking to Wisconsin as a role model, and if Walker’s attack on unions goes ahead you can bet the farm on seeing a flurry of such assaults from New Jersey to Delaware and beyond.
But if so few Americans are members of unions, why is this such a disaster for the middle class? Because virtually every gain made by ordinary workers, starting with the weekend has been won by unions, and then spread to non-unionized workers. In fact, the right to bargain collectively is such a fundamental one that it is included in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Without unions, as Krugman says, we have lost the only remaining counterweight to corporate power. You know, the corporations who move their manufacturing overseas to benefit from 14 hour days, 7 day work weeks and no minimum wageâ€¦
If the republicans succeed in eviscerating the power of unions (which they have already succeeded at in a number of states with so-called “right to work” laws) it won’t take long before Harper and his acolytes try a similar stunt up here. One could even argue that the lack of media coverage of the happenings in Wisconsin is a result of the corporate media’s desire to keep us from worrying our pretty little heads about what an assault on unions would mean for us.
What happens in Wisconsin matters for us all, unionized or not, and if you care about your working conditions, your salary or your basic rights then do something about it. Wisconsin may be a tad far away to road-trip down to with a groovy protest sign and a lemon juice soaked bandana, but you can start by making sure your friends and family know what’s going on, and why it matters. You can read more and educate yourself on the topic. Hell, if you want to organize a solidarity protest I’ll even help you out!
Wisconsin is ground zero in a battle we cannot afford to lose, let’s make our voices heard!
Check out this recording of a Buffalo Beast blogger impersonating David Koch and spending almost twenty minutes chatting with Walker about how they plan to “crush” unions: