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Five Things to Know About Protests in US State Wisconsin

28 February, 2011

US state of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker wasted no time starting a major union-busting effort. Just a month into office, Walker is using budget deficit hysteria as excuse to eliminate public-sector unions by eliminating their right to bargain collectively over wages and benefits.

The firestorm of legitimate protests that has overtaken Madison, the state capital of Wisconsin, has spread to other states, where different legislative measures have surfaced by ultraconservative lawmakers that would unequivocally, and overnight, turn the clock back in America by 80 years.

(The ICEM’s North America Region entered the protests in Madison last week by sending representatives from both Canada and the US to the state, and issued a terse letter to Walker. The letter by ICEM Regional Vice Presidents Ken Neumann and Dave Coles states that Walker has “drawn an ideological, anti-labour and undemocratic line in the sand.” The full ICEM North American letter can be viewed here.)

In Madison, and indeed, throughout the US and in many places in the world, resistance to Walker’s numerous and draconian public spending cuts has drawn an ideological line in the sand. In the early morning hours of 25 February, Republicans who control the Assembly, Wisconsin’s lower legislative chamber, used tomfoolery to pass the cuts.

The regressive measures would have already been signed into law by Walker’s pen had it not for Wisconsin Democrats in the state Senate. Republicans hold a 19-14 in that chamber, but need 20 senators present to take legislative action. All 14 Democrats have left the state in order to prevent a quorum.

The proposed cuts are far more than just the elimination of public-sector bargaining. The 144-page bill contains sweeping cuts to health care for low-income families, it would reduce by US$976 million over the next two years state aid to local units of education, and it would allow the governor to unilaterally privatise any state public utility without soliciting bids and without Public Service Commission consent. And in just one further insult to public employees, the proposed legislation mandates a 5% cut in salaries with that savings going to public-sector pension funds.

The battle in Wisconsin has become a vanguard against right-wing extremism in the US. But why should it matter to the rest of the world? Considering the US is still the world's largest economy, here are five things to understand about the Wisconsin struggle.

1. It is not really about deficits or austerity measures; this is an excuse. Wisconsin was on track for a modest budget surplus of US$120 million this year. However, by taking a worst-case estimate of some real and potential shortfalls in Medicaid, legal aid, prisons, and debts owed to other states, Walker creates the appearance of a US$137 million shortfall.

To put Walker’s budget deficit fabrications into perspective, the American film documentary producer Robert Greenwald points out that withdrawing just 151 US troops from Iraq would save more money than Walker’s trumped-up deficit. Demanding that wealthy individuals and corporations pay a reasonable share of the tax burden would also solve the problem. The earnings of just the top 13 US hedge-fund managers (about US$1 billion each), if taxed as ordinary income instead of capital gains, a US tax loophole, would provide enough new revenue to hire 68,000 teachers.

2. It is not about union intransigence. Public sector unions in Wisconsin have agreed to cuts in wages and benefits. However, they will not agree to permanent removal of their right to negotiate future wages and benefits. That is what Walker is demanding.

3. Public sector workers are not the cause of Wisconsin's problems. However, public sector workers are the last major segment of the US workforce with significant rates of unionization. Resistance in Wisconsin is resistance to a new demagoguery inside the US to destroy public sector unions as the final bastion unionisation strength in America. Wisconsin and Walker and the conservative business-led foundations pressing this assault clearly are using the Midwest state as a test case. A defeat in Wisconsin will mean sweeping attacks on unions elsewhere in the US.

4. To accomplish this, well-funded business organisations and right-wing media outlets have incessantly worked the American mainstream against public sector workers. Their ploy is to direct private-sector worker resentment on the things that they do not have, or have been taken from them like adequate pensions and benefits, towards public-sector workers who still have them. To divide and conquer, and distract from the rich who have sucked up nearly all of America’s wealth, is the name of the game here.

5. Most poignantly, the battle in Wisconsin is about the national political credibility of the US union movement. There are many politicians who do not believe that it is worth their while to pay any attention to union demands. A loss in Wisconsin would cement the view that unions are too weak to matter.

Pure and simple, what is now happening in Wisconsin is nothing less than a class war.

The ICEM is adamant that Governor Walker in Wisconsin must be stopped. A joint letter from the ICEM and International Metalworkers’ Federation (IMF) is here. Write letters of protest to [email protected], for fax to: +1 608 267 8983. And please copy ICEM when you do at [email protected].