Protests are erupting across Wisconsin in response to Governor Scott Walker’s proposal to strip public employees of the right to collectively bargain in order to impose a severe austerity package. The focal point of the rallies was the capitol building in Madison where protesters took a page from the Egyptian protest movement and occupied the inside rotunda. These protests may be the first sign that the deepening of the economic crisis that ensued in 2008 may push many more Americans into protest politics not seen in this country since the 1930s.
The Source of the Budgetary Problems
Wisconsin is not the only state in the country proposing serious budget cuts. The Center for Budgetary Priorities (CBP) reports that some 31 states throughout the country are proposing serious cuts to education, health care and other social service programs. The CBP claimed that these cuts are often more severe than the fiscal situation warrants because elected officials have adamantly refused to use other strategies – such as raising taxes on the wealthy and corporations or using reserve funds – to cover deficits.
The State deficits have also been enlarged this year because of the ending of Federal funding from the American Recovery and reinvestment Act. The Act included $140 billion in funds for states to cover their Medicaid expenses and to enhance fiscal stability at the state and local level. Nearly $60 billion in these funds were paid out in fiscal year 2011, but the funding will shrink to $6 billion by 2012. And with no sign that the Obama White House or the Republican controlled Congress is willing to create a new pool of funds, much less a serious public jobs program, states are left with stark decision to tax or cut.
What makes Wisconsin special is that right-wing Governor Scott Walker has heaped the burden of the deficit squarely on the shoulders of public employees. Though other options are available to the Walker administration, he has made the ideological choice to squeeze the benefits plan of public employees by stripping them of collective bargaining rights. This, despite the fact that a recent study produced by the Economic Policy Institute indicates that these public employees may in fact be under-compensated when compared to their private sector counterparts.
And Walker is joined by a whole host of politicians, Democrats and Republicans, from across the country who aim to squeeze public workers. Right-wing Democrat Andrew Cuomo ran his recent campaign for Governor of New York State on a platform of making a war against public employees unions. Similarly, Republican Governor John Kasich of Ohio is only a few steps behind Walker by publicly claiming his intention to “break the back of organized labor in the schools.” This bi-partisan approach to budget cuts represents the last bastion of a market-based ideology of neo-liberalism that has failed spectacularly all over the globe.
The state deficits are, then, the combined result of the economic recession of 2008, the ending of Federal funding and decades of stagnant or lowered taxation of the rich and corporations. And the strategies of how to deal with them come straight out of conservative ideology.
Public Employees Unions – Then and Now
The protest movement in Wisconsin and those developing in other parts of the country represent the best hope for reversing these trends and developing political momentum towards the creation of a new left-wing force in this country. And a remarkable group of people are being forced to rediscover protest politics.
For the last three decades, public employees unions have been known only for displaying a remarkable passivity when it came to broader political issues. Though these unions have done a decent job of carving out small concessions and maintaining a basic union structure that ensured things like equal treatment on the worksite, they lacked the foresight and willingness to fight larger battles.
Instead of fighting, union officials opted, in nearly every case, to use an insider strategy that focused on a seemingly endless and severely low return funding of the Democratic Party. This resulted in a whittling away of the union’s strategic position, produced no alternatives at the ballot box and made public employees easy marks for the likes of Scott Walker.
Now, as protest politics appear to be on the comeback it is important to note that protest requires more than just symbolic acts. The great Civil Rights tradition from which many of the public employees unions were organized entailed exercising serious power on the worksite and in the society at large. Strikes, occupations and non-compliance campaigns paved the way for unionization, for Civil Rights and for a more open university system. Building unions with leaders committed to fighting back will be a struggle carried out on a workplace-by-workplace basis, building up from the local steward level into the national officers. All this should be aimed at creating a new union political culture anchored in protest politics.
Such developments also need to find a political expression at the polls. Simply put, there is a no need for a burgeoning protest movement to drag the dead carcass of the Democratic Party along when election time comes. Doing so will prevent this movement from growing. You simply cannot vote one way in the streets only to reverse course in the ballot box. It is time to move forward and develop the political instinct to vote for the politics and the future you wish to see. This will mean support for serious electoral campaigns being waged by Socialist and Green candidates that offer left-wing programs for transforming the country.
Seeing the Local and the National
Another critical point for any new protest movement is to recognize what political issues can be resolved locally and which ones require national and even global movements. For instance, recent measures taken in Illinois and Oregon demonstrate that a different short-term policy is possible to deal with local budget deficits. Both of these states opted to increase tax rates on wealthy individuals and corporations in order to cover the debt. In the case of Oregon, this decision was confirmed through a referendum process in which the choice of increased taxation on the rich or budget cuts was placed on the ballot. Not surprisingly, a majority of voters opted for the taxation to cover the deficit.
A place like Wisconsin is ripe for such a proposal. The state has not had an increase in corporate tax rates since 1972. As a result, corporations contribute less of a percentage of the total tax revenue than they did in 1978. Pushing the corporate tax rates higher so that companies make contributions equal to 1978, would entirely cover the current deficit. Additionally, state income taxes for the rich flatten to 8 percent for over $225,000 in personal income. Creating a higher rate for those above this level, something akin to the 11 percent paid by residents of California, Hawaii and Oregon, would also help fill the gap. Finally, Wisconsin has a tradition of tax surcharges, the most recent of which was conducted in 1983 when a 10% surcharge was imposed. Creating a targeted surcharge for those earning above $225,000 and corporations would also go far to resolve the deficit.
Simultaneously, it should be recognized that some of the local issues related to budgeting can best be resolved on the Federal level. This is particularly true of the ever intensifying healthcare crisis, which has placed a massive burden on state and local budgets. The creation of a single-payer National Health Insurance Plan would free up billions of local dollars while also ensuring that every person who needs it, receives medical care. The single-payer group Healthcare-NOW! puts the local savings at $70 billion annually. They are encouraging activist groups to present local and state legislatures with resolutions demanding the creation of such a national health plan.
Each of these proposals amounts to class war – to attempts by the majority of folks in the state and the country to take back some of the massive wealth accumulated by the rich and corporations over the last thirty years. Only an uncompromising protest movement able to make clear demands for change can achieve a much need victory. This will require the organization of independent protest groupings on campuses, in unions and in communities throughout the state. It may also spark a long overdue revival of democratic socialist politics as protesters search for a broader vision of how society might be organized.
A New Era of Protest
Madisonmay mark the opening of a new moment of protest politics in the US. If so, all of our energy must be placed on reviving our dead trade unions, carrying out new organizing in a variety of spaces and in spreading a new sense of optimism built on the idea of carrying out a political struggle aimed at making a world with a little more peace, justice and solidarity. Let Madison be a sign – Americans are about to join the global wave of people power protests demanding democratic rights in the face of governments organized to protect the wealth of elites.
Billy Wharton is a writer, activist and the editor of the Socialist WebZine. His articles have appeared in the Washington Post, the NYC Indypendent, Spectrezine and the Monthly Review Zine. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Become a FAN on Facebook.
[DS added the video.]
Uprising in Wisconsin: Tens of Thousands Protest Anti-Union Bill, as Wisconsin Lawmakers Leave State to Stall Vote
Feb. 18, 2011
Some 30,000 students and public sector workers rallied at the Wisconsin State House in Madison Thursday to oppose Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s bid to eliminate almost all their collective bargaining rights and slash pay and benefits. Public schools in Madison are closed for a third day in a row today as teachers continue to protest. A vote on the measure was delayed after Democratic senators refused to show up and fled the state—leaving the Republican-controlled State Senate without quorum. We speak to John Nichols of The Nation magazine, Madison teacher Susan Stern, and Wisconsin Democratic State Senator Chris Larson.[includes rush transcript]