Sunday, 20 February 2011

Mike’s Letter from America: Cairo, Manama, Madison

Mike’s Letter from America: Wisconsin rising.

The ruler has given himself powers described by his critics as ‘dictatorial’. He is attempting to virtually outlaw government workers’ unions, and threatens to use troops against strikers. Opposition leaders have fled across the border and gone into hiding. Tens of thousands of protesters are camped out in the capital city.

No, this is not a Middle Eastern despotism. This is Wisconsin, in America’s Midwest. The ‘dictator’ is not Mubarak, Bin Ali, or Sheikh al-Khalifa – it is Republican governor Scott Walker. This week, he announced big increases in public employees’ pension and health insurance contributions (equivalent to a 7% pay cut), and proposed legislation that would ban collective bargaining for most state workers on anything but base pay. In other words, all but the most minimal right to unionize would be stripped away. To top it all, he has threatened to deploy the National Guard (the state militia) if public sector workers go on strike.

To be poor, a leftist, a trade unionist, woman or a minority is to feel like a punch-bag right now, as a vengeful hard-right Republican Party pushes its pet projects in Congress and the state legislatures. Fortunately, the people of Wisconsin do not share the pessimism and feeling of powerlessness that afflicts much of the American left. Day after day, thousands of union members and their supporters have poured into Wisconsin’s capital, Madison, and laid siege to the Republican-controlled state legislature as it has tried to push through the anti-union law. As of Wednesday (Feb 16), 30,000 people were in or outside the Capital building.; Responding to the pressure put on them by the protestors, Democrats in the state senate walked out, denying the Republicans the quorum needed to pass the law. Then events took a surreal turn, as the Democratic senators left the state for ‘a secure, undisclosed location’ to avoid being tracked down by state police and ordered to return to the senate.

Parallels with the revolution in Egypt have not been lost on anybody. Republican congressman Paul Ryan called the peaceful protest a ‘riot’ and complained that ‘Cairo has moved to Madison’. Protesters have carried Egyptian flags, sung ‘march like an Egyptian’ and called for the overthrow of ‘Hosni Walker’. Reports on TV and social media reflect the sense of excitement and self-empowerment among the protestors. Teachers in Madison, defying threats of the sack, phoned in ‘sick’ and descended on the Capitol, forcing the city’s schools to close. Hundreds of school and university students have also walked out. Members of unions unaffected by the ban – notably the fire fighters – have joined the protests regardless, understanding that this is an attack on all unions. Another echo of Cairo can be seen in the totally peaceful nature of the protests, and the impressive level of solidarity and self-organization. Websites and social media pages representing the protesters are full of requests for – and more importantly, offers of – support, food, water, blankets, warm clothes etc. While the protesters have stopped short of storming the senate chamber, they are essentially in occupation of the Capitol.

The backdrop to these events is an all-out Republican assault on anything even vaguely progressive. The Mid-term elections saw a landslide - albeit on a very low turnout – for the Republicans, not only in Congress, but also in state legislatures and governors’ mansions. The recession has left both the federal and state governments with huge debts, and the Republicans – now dominated by the far right– are using this as an excuse to attack everything that smacks even vaguely of socialism, from Public Broadcasting (funding threated with the axe) via Planned Parenthood (funding cut off) to the unions.

Walker’s actions in Wisconsin expose the lie that this is about balancing the books. The anti-union law is being promoted as part of a budgetary measure, but the state’s deficit of around $130 million is almost identical to the amount ($140 million) given away last month in tax cuts for business.

The pattern is repeated across the country – in my home state of Michigan, the new Republican governor just announced $180 million in cuts in public sector pay, just after commissioning a rigged survey that claimed (wrongly) that public employees are better paid than workers in the private sector. The assault on public-sector workers is not just (or even mainly) about cutting spending, it is an attack on a highly unionized part of the workforce.

The Wisconsin protesters have dubbed Madison ‘Ground Zero for the labor movement’, and they are not exaggerating – the stakes are that high. If Walker succeeds, this will be a massive blow to the basic human right to organize unions. However, the huge and rapid groundswell of opposition was clearly the last thing the governor expected. The Republican union-busters have been completely wrong-footed, and the Democrats who have been happy to accept union support while offering nothing in return have been forced to find a backbone. Events in Madison have captured the imagination of the whole movement across the United States, as the deadening feeling of pessimism that has hung over the left since the Reagan era is lifting like fog on a sunny morning. Maybe we are being too optimistic, maybe this is just a last, glorious, defiant gesture. But I don’t think so - it looks and feels like a turning point. The fight-back starts here – the American working class is back.

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