Public Workers’ Struggle Is Our Struggle
by MARK GABRISH CONLAN and LISA KOVE
Introduction copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
If you’re going to march in the streets or occupy government buildings to protest against an oppressive regime, and you want the national mainstream media to cover what you’re doing, you’re better off if you do it on the other side of the world — like in Libya. Though it’s barely been covered in the corporate press — overshadowed first by the tumult in the Middle East and now by the horrific earthquake in Japan — from early February, when newly elected Republican Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin introduced a bill that essentially wipes out collective bargaining rights for the state’s public employees, there’s been a pitched battle both inside and outside the Capitol building in Madison. The entire Democratic membership of the Wisconsin State Senate left the state for three weeks in an effort to keep Walker and the Republican majority from passing the so-called “budget repair” bill, and protesters occupied the Capitol and also congregated outside.
Their efforts to block the bill were in vain. Under a quirk in the Wisconsin constitution, the legislature needs a larger quorum to pass a budget bill than for any other sort of legislation — so on March 9 Walker simply deleted the budget provisions and sent the destruction of Wisconsin’s public-sector workers’ labor rights to the legislature as a separate bill. It passed easily in both houses with only one Republican Senator voting against it, after a process that opponents charged eliminated even the pretense of public hearings or debate on the motion. Walker presented the bill as a necessary step to cleaning up the state’s budget deficit — for which he and the legislative Republicans were largely responsible since he began his term winning huge tax giveaways for the state’s corporations and wealthy individuals — but his decision to pass the union-busting parts without even the fig leaf of “budget repair” revealed his real agenda: to destroy what’s left of the American labor movement and thereby make it impossible for Democrats to get the money to compete fairly with Republicans in future elections.
If this sounds paranoid, don’t blame me. Scott Fitzgerald, the Republican leader in the Wisconsin State Senate, said as much on Fox News [where else?] when he said, “If we win this battle and the money is not there under the auspices of the unions, certainly what you’re going to find is President Obama is going to have a much more difficult time getting elected and winning the state of Wisconsin.” The intent is not only to cripple Obama’s re-election effort in 2012 and to regain the U.S. Senate for the Republican party, but to fulfill a longer-term strategy devised by then-U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Right-wing organizer and lobbyist Grover Norquist in 1995 called “Defund the Left.” Its objective is to put out of business every institution that might provide money to spread liberal or progressive ideas to an American public increasingly indoctrinated to Right-wing views by powerful media like talk radio and Fox News.
That’s why the current Republican majority in the U.S. House of Representatives are going after public broadcasting — because they don’t want there to exist a media outlet that even hints at a different view of the world than the one coming from the Right-wing propagandists on talk radio and Fox. It’s why they’re seeking to put Planned Parenthood out of business, because they don’t want (straight) American women to know that there are alternatives to abstaining from sex or being slaves to their wombs. And it’s why, having already driven organized labor out of the private sector — the percentage of U.S. workers in unions has dropped from 36 percent in the 1950’s to 12 percent today, and only 7 percent of U.S. private-sector workers are still in unions — they see bills like Walker’s as their opportunity to drive the final stake through U.S. labor’s heart by destroying its ability to represent public-sector workers and collectively bargain for them.
What the American Right wants the U.S. political system to look like is what Mexico’s looked like for the last two-thirds of the 20th century. The formal institutions of democracy will continue to exist, and the Democratic Party will not only be allowed to function but even to win the occasional election — but in practice America will become a one-party state and the Republican Party will be the only one that matters. That’s why moves like Walker’s are being fought tooth and nail by unions, progressives and their allies — including most of the Queer community — because they realize that putting labor out of business means destroying the most substantial source of funding for political candidates who stand in the way of the total domination of American politics by a relentlessly anti-labor, anti-environment, anti-consumer, anti-civil rights, anti-woman, anti-Queer far-Right Republican Party.
On February 26 there was a nationwide call for rallies in support of the Wisconsin state workers and the Democratic state senators who left the state to try to stop the passage of Walker’s bill. The San Diego Alliance for Marriage Equality (S.A.M.E.) endorsed this demonstration, partly out of solidarity with labor’s support of the No on Proposition 8 campaign in 2008 and partly because, as the old union slogan says, “An injury to one is an injury to all.” I wrote the following statement and read it at the rally; fellow S.A.M.E. member Lisa Kove offered valuable input and her work is reflected in the final draft below.
— Mark Gabrish Conlan, Editor
“What improves the circumstances of the greater part can never be regarded as an inconveniency to the whole. No society can surely be flourishing and happy, of which the far greater part of the members are poor and miserable.”
— Adam Smith
“An injury to one is an injury to all.” It is in the spirit of that famous slogan of the labor movement that the San Diego Alliance for Marriage Equality (S.A.M.E.) unequivocally condemns the attempt of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and the Republican Party majority in the Wisconsin legislature to wipe away 52 years of collective bargaining rights for most of the state’s workers and effectively destroy organized labor in Wisconsin’s public sector. We equally strongly oppose any attempts to pass similar legislation, including drastic cutbacks in workers’ health and pension benefits, in any other U.S. state or city, including San Diego City Councilmember Carl DeMaio’s proposed elimination of defined-benefit pensions for new city workers.
We support the mass protests and other demonstrations against these cutbacks in Wisconsin and other states in which they are being considered. We also support the courageous actions of Democratic state legislators in Wisconsin, Indiana and other states where anti-labor bills are being considered to leave the state rather than allow a legislative quorum to convene for the purpose of passing bills that trample on state workers’ rights. Many political executives and legislators federal and state are wealthy and cannot relate to the middle class. They are “out of touch.” Wisconsin is our middle-class’s “Alamo” and we will never forget.
We call on the public-sector workers of Wisconsin to stand firm on both their right to union representation and maintaining their current health and pension benefits. We reject any so-called “compromise” that would retain workers’ collective bargaining rights at the cost of being forced to give back the gains they won under those rights. We recommend that all oppressed workers and their allies stand tall and be obstacles to voracious power mongers.
We call upon the governor and legislators of Wisconsin to repeal the $117 million in tax giveaways for businesses, including so-called “job-creation incentives” that are not in fact creating jobs, that Governor Walker and his party’s legislative majority pushed through in his first days in office and are now telling the state’s workers that they must pay for through reduced pay, benefits and pensions as well as the loss of collective bargaining rights.
To those working people in the private sector who say, “Why should public-sector workers get defined-benefit pensions while I’m stuck in a 401(k)?,” we say they should instead be asking, “Why am I stuck in a 401(k) and can’t get the benefits and pensions public workers get?” We call on them to organize and demand that their state’s and their nation’s corporations, which are making record profits despite the misery they are inflicting on their workers through layoffs and speed-ups, pay them decent wages, health benefits and pensions.
As a people who have directly experienced oppression, including bigotry, hatred, publicly supported discrimination, physical violence and psychological harassment which has often driven us to suicide, we know intimately what it is like to be made into scapegoats. We are appalled at the ongoing media propaganda and disinformation campaigns that are portraying public employees as the villains who are driving state and local governments into bankruptcy, when the real parties responsible are corporations ceaselessly demanding to pay little or no taxes despite the value they extract from the economy, legislators who go along with them and voters who fail to realize that taxes are the price we pay for civilization.
Just as we applaud the courageous protesters in Tunisia and Egypt who stood up to their country’s dictators and poured into the streets to demand democracy, and those who are doing the same in Libya, Yemen and elsewhere in the Middle East and North Africa, so we strongly support the citizens of Wisconsin and other U.S. states who are marching and using nonviolent resistance to challenge and fight back against political and corporate leaders who aim to fatten their own swollen bank accounts by destroying America’s middle class and impoverishing most of its people.
This declaration by the economic top 1 percent to force the middle class into a reduced station of being the working poor is economic violence at its worst. There are more of us than there are of the top 1 percent. We will win in Wisconsin, the nation, and the world. Stay strong as you speak for all of us that have experienced economic and other forms of oppression.