Feb 21, 2011
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s plan to cut public workers’ wages and benefits and break their unions has exploded into massive protests that have shut down school districts across the state and brought the capital in Madison to a standstill.
Walker’s proposal calls for requiring government workers to contribute 5.8% of their pay to their pensions, and to pay at least 12.6% of their health care premiums, more than doubling the amount they now pay.
It also limits the unions’ collective bargaining rights only to the issue of wages, and even then forbids total wage increases to exceed the official inflation rate – that is, the grossly undercounted rate.
Finally, it prohibits employers from collecting union dues; and requires yearly votes to recertify the unions.
Whatever the reasons union leaders had for calling these protests (and they probably had a lot to do with protecting the unions’ dues income), they called on their memberships to make a statement: we refuse to be the scapegoats for your mess.
But once they put out the call, they got a flood of a response from all over the state: 10,000 showed up one day, then 20,000 the next, then 30,000. Not only public workers and teachers, but students and parents heeded the call. Inspired – many of them said – by the protests in Egypt, they packed into the State Legislature building and refused to leave. Their chanting and drumming reached the noise level of a buzz saw. They made it impossible for the legislature to carry out its business.
Smaller but still sizeable protests have taken place in Ohio and Indiana, where similar attacks are being pushed.
We’ve been hearing for decades that workers no longer have the means to fight, or even that workers are not willing to fight. No, it’s not that workers wouldn’t. The fact is that up until now, the leaders of the only large-scale organizations of the workers – the unions – have refused to organize a fight like this.
But the massive protests in Wisconsin have finally broken down the dam. Not only will workers fight – these demonstrations hint at the real force workers can have when mobilized.
Now what? It’s obvious workers can’t depend on the Democrats, who proved in the past two years that they are just as willing as Republicans to push through attacks when they are in the majority, and only begin objecting when they’re in the minority. In fact, Democrats lost the majority in states like Wisconsin and Michigan because they WERE supporting attacks on their workers. In states like Illinois and Maryland, where Democrats are still in the majority and holding the Governor’s seat, they are pushing through attacks every bit as ugly as those in Wisconsin.
Obama may say he supports workers in Wisconsin – but he just cut federal workers’ pay and proposes to cut Social Security.
Finally, how can we depend on the union leaderships – including those who called these protests against Republican governors? They continue to campaign for Democrats who have attacked us and even defend – as less bad – the attacks the Democrats carry out on us.
What counts now is that workers in Wisconsin have felt what it means to bring their forces together, and the rest of us have seen that strength – even if only at long distance.
The only force workers can depend on to protect themselves is their OWN forces. And the massive mobilization in Wisconsin is showing us just how many want to use those forces.