By Michael Meranze
Updated Below: (1), (2), (3) (4)
The Labor and Protest actions continue in full force in Wisconsin. On Friday the 18th, a reported 40,000 people crammed themselves in and around the capitol in Madison to oppose Governor Scott Walker's efforts not only to roll back the wages and benefits of public workers but to deny them collective bargaining rights. Unionists, teachers, students, allies, and even professors from the University of Wisconsin have converged on the capitol to demand that the Republicans back down from their plans.
Walker claims that he is being forced to cut worker pay and benefits due to budget deficits this year and anticipated over the next several years. But as with other budget deficits it is debatable how much union contracts have actually contributed to the actual deficit. Walker and the Republicans had no problem in passing new corporate tax breaks in a special session--breaks that will increase the deficit by millions over the next several years. Union leaders (and Wisconsin Democrats) have made it clear that they are willing to sit down with the Governor to negotiate cutbacks in the interest of the state's overall heal. No, the real issue here is the attack on collective bargaining. Walker and Wisconsin's Republicans are using their control of both the executive and legislative branches to destroy the ability of Wisconsin's public workers to negotiate on their own behalf.
If Wisconsin is in the news--in part because of the opposition it has generated--it is not alone. Walker is only one of a series of new breed Republican governors who are deploying their political power to use the Great Recession as an opportunity to destroy public sector unions. Governors in New Jersey, Ohio, and elsewhere have made attacks on unions--especially public sector unions--their main political tactic and strategy. Jeb Bush and New Gingrich are actively campaigning to change the rules for state bankruptcy explicitly to destroy worker pensions and benefits. The decades long Republican campaign (with the assistance of the DLC wing of the Democratic Party) to destroy unions may be reaching its climax.
In part, the Republicans see their opportunity because of the long-term decline in private sector unionization, the decline in real wages and earnings for most Americans, and the extreme distress brought on in the Great Recession. The labor movement as it exists today has its greatest strength in the public sector. If the Republicans are able to leverage popular resentment toward public sector workers into a successful destruction of their collective bargaining rights, what little resistance to the power of corporations and the growth of inequality in the country will disappear.
If the developments in Wisconsin seem far afield from higher education in California they are not. Had Meg Whitman been elected last fall we would be witnessing a similar effort (and we may yet through the initiative). But more broadly the attack on collective bargaining rights for public workers is an attack on the public sector, indeed on the idea of shared public good itself. As these fights are fought in Wisconsin they will shape our future as well; if they are lost they will simply embolden the opponents of the public sector elsewhere--including in California.
But the efforts to defend worker's rights in Wisconsin should not be overlooked. The Republican efforts have provoked a popular and wide reaction. What is striking is that the opposition has not been limited to the workers affected by Walker's attacks. Instead, activists have brought together an alliance of people who are seeing beyond their normal sectoral interests in defending a larger vision of the public good and basic equity in society. They suggest one possible path for articulating a rejuvenated public that might push back against the efforts to remake society into a series of gated communities surrounded by a mass of disposable laborers.
As we move ahead we need to try to think of ways to learn from that.
There is a petition circulating for Scholars in support of Collective Bargaining in Wisconsin. You can find it here.
Update: Bob Samuels has posted a first-person account from a UC-AFT member at Changing Universities.
Update 2: Eric Foner has offered a historical commentary on the situation in Wisconsin in the LRB Blog.
Update 3: A View from the University of Wisconsin.
Update 4: Walker's Latest Move.