February 25, 2011

United state

Protests in Wisconsin demonstrate the power of a unified public.

Anyone who heard Dr. Vijay Prashad’s keynote address at the UChicago Student Activist Conference in January is very familiar with its main theme: solidarity. Anyone who has seen the Facebook groups posted out of Egypt should have noticed their common theme: solidarity. In fact, anyone who has been following the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain—really, all across the Middle East—will have noticed the one word which seems to underline them all: solidarity.

And now, anyone following the protests in Wisconsin should notice a very familiar word: solidarity. Clearly the protests in Madison are different from those in the Arab world. But there is an interesting thread we can follow from one to the other.

Many of the protestors in the countries of unrest in the Arab world are calling for “Days of Rage.” This is a familiar name in the U of C’s activism community, shared by protests organized in the late 1960s by the former Students for a Democratic Society. At that time, SDS and the entire so-called “New Left” movement were at odds with organized labor. Now, they are united in solidarity.

Republican Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin and Republicans in the state legislature are attempting to pass a bill to strip state employees of their collective bargaining rights. This is seen as a clear attack on organized labor in the state, and has drawn tens of thousands of protestors to the capital.

Obviously, labor relations are a controversial issue in this country. Ever since the early 1970s, when organized labor lost its grips on the Democratic Party, their influence in the government has steadily decreased. Since their control over local political machines has largely diminished, many people just don’t believe unions to be as important as before. Most recently, the United Auto Workers were even blamed by some for pushing General Motors into bankruptcy during the financial meltdown.

The other issue here seems to be cutting government spending. Republicans surged back into power last November with promises of stopping what they see to be rampant government spending and unsustainable deficits. They are now trying to cut spending on many domestic programs (including NPR and PBS) and, in some states like Wisconsin, on government employee salaries and pensions.

So what are the facts in Wisconsin? Governor Walker cites unsustainable state employee pensions as a crucial contributor to the state’s $3.6 billion budget deficit. To combat this, he and state Republicans are attempting to pass a bill to de-unionize public employees. The plan is that once they no longer have collective bargaining rights, public employees won’t be able to command the same wages and benefits they can today.

Interestingly, the Pew Research Center seems to have a different opinion of the state of Wisconsin’s pension fund. In fact, Pew praised the Wisconsin fund, calling it a “national leader in managing its long term liabilities for both pension and retiree health care.” The fund seems to be healthy—very healthy. The Government Accountability Office set 80 percent as a benchmark for state pension fund solvency. In other words, if all the assets in the fund were sold at market value, a state should have enough cash on hand to pay 80 percent of its liabilities. Wisconsin sits at a robust 99.67 percent.

Wisconsin’s budget deficit simply will not be solved by stripping state employees of their collective bargaining rights. The pension fund can sustain itself remarkably well, and the unions are not being uncooperative. Union leaders have already agreed to cuts in their health care and pensions.

Based on Governor Walker’s past, it may seem that he simply has it out for unions. In 2010, as the Milwaukee County Executive, he tried to replace the unionized security guards at the county courthouse with a private British security firm. He said he would save taxpayer money. Unfortunately, this move was beyond the limits of his power, and the arbitration to reverse his decision ended up costing taxpayers millions.

Despite massive public outrage (tens of thousands of protestors in Madison and a 61 percent disapproval rating), Governor Walker is stubbornly holding on to his position. He has already rejected a compromise proposed by a moderate Republican to only temporarily remove union rights. And now he claims that if the bill is not passed by Saturday, 1,500 employees will have to be laid off, followed by another 6,000 over the next two years.

Based on the actual facts of the Wisconsin pension fund, this just looks like a bully’s threat—a dangerous threat. But the public is responding. Walker’s popularity is sliding rapidly. Republican Governor Charlie Crist of Florida has already denounced Walker’s plans and Republican Governor Mitch Daniels of Indiana decided to ditch a very similar bill that his state had been considering.

In fact, people all over the country are standing up in solidarity. Even UChicago students have been involved. Some current and former students are either already in Madison or heading up at the first opportunity. But reports from activist leaders in Madison say that the front lines have already shifted away from the capitol. This Saturday at noon local time, “Save the Dream” rallies will be held in front of all 50 state houses across the country. This is a chance for people all across the country to express their support not only for organized labor, but also for ending these cheap and quick budget fixes that threaten to undermine the American working and middle classes.

Maybe these domestic protests were inspired by the recent uprisings in the Middle East. They are certainly being supported by them now. A local pizza chain in Madison has received orders to deliver to the capitol protestors from people in at least 15 countries, including Egypt—a country very familiar with solidarity.

Colin Bradley is a first-year in the College.