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Madison Wisconsin and the return of mass worker action

Whatever the final outcome of the struggle to maintain collective bargaining for public employees in Wisconsin (a struggle whose mass actions have now spread to Ohio and, to some extent, Michigan), the events of last week mark a significant shift in contemporary American politics. During 2009 and 2010, the disproportionate political weight of far-right tea party rallies led many of us to lament that mass action on the left was at an all-time anemic low. The mass demonstrations in Madison not only outstripped the numeric weight of the astroturf tea party rallies; they also held up a broader paradigmatic vision of politics. Where the tea party rallies’ overriding themes were of hatred, resentment, ignorance, and radical individualism, Madison suggests inclusiveness, solidarity, and the idea that wealth is a social, rather than an individual, social good. We can cautiously proclaim that the American left is back and that the message of labor solidarity resonates with the American people in a way that the tea parties never really did.

Governor Scott Walker’s legislation would strip public workers in Wisconsin of their right to collectively bargain for benefits. So public workers filled the streets and occupied the capitol in Madison, but they were not alone. Students, non-public workers, families, and all manner of Wisconsinites marched and rallied throughout the week, demanding the defeat of this legislation.  The protesters included Republicans. As many as 30,000 people filled the streets over the last several days.

Yesterday, Chris Bowers at Daily Kos reported that the Republican controlled state assembly rescinded their vote to move the bill to final passage. This makes it possible to amend the bill again when the assembly meets again on March 1. Although this is not the victory the people of Wisconsin sought, it buys some time, and it’s a direct response to the mass actions of last week.

Robert Pollin and Jeffrey Thompson wrote a piece published on yesterday’s Nation web site, in which they argue that the attack on public workers is bad economic policy. They write:

If, in a recession, states and municipalities are forced to reduce their spending in line with their loss in tax revenues, this produces layoffs for government employees and loss of sales for government vendors. These cutbacks, in turn, will worsen conditions in the private market, discouraging private businesses from making new investments and hiring new employees. The net impact is to create a vicious cycle that deepens the recession. 

What about the argument that raising state taxes on the wealthiest citizens and corporations will encourage them to leave those states? Our authors answer:

One charge against raising state taxes in a progressive way is that it will encourage the wealthy to pick up and leave the state. But research on this question shows that this has not happened. We can see why by considering, as a hypothetical example, the consequences of a 2 percent income tax increase on the wealthiest 5 percent of households in Massachusetts. This would mean that these households would now have $359,000 at their disposal after taxes rather than $370,000—hardly enough to affect spending patterns significantly for these households, much less induce them to relocate out of the state. At the same time, a tax increase such as this by itself will generate about $1.6 billion for the state to spend on education, healthcare and public safety.

And are public sector workers overpaid? Our authors take on that argument too. Citing John Schmitt of the Center for Economic Policy Research, they write:

…when state and local government employees are matched against private sector workers of the same age and educational levels, the public workers earn, on average, about 4 percent less than their private counterparts. Moreover, the results of Schmitt’s apples-to-apples comparison are fully consistent with numerous studies examining this same question over the past twenty years.

It starts to make sense, then, that Gov. Walker’s legislation is both ill-conceived and disingenuous. The hard economic facts cited above explain why Walker had to cook the books, to basically commit economic fraud, to justify his policy. On Thursday, TalkingPointsMemo reported that Walker “ginned up” the budget shortfall narrative so that he would have an excuse to undercut public sector workers. Brian Beutler reported:

…this broadside comes less than a month after the state’s fiscal bureau — the Wisconsin equivalent of the Congressional Budget Office — concluded that Wisconsin isn’t even in need of austerity measures, and could conclude the fiscal year with a surplus. In fact, they say that the current budget shortfall is a direct result of tax cut policies Walker enacted in his first days in office. “Walker was not forced into a budget repair bill by circumstances beyond he control,” says Jack Norman, research director at the Institute for Wisconsin Future — a public interest think tank. “He wanted a budget repair bill and forced it by pushing through tax cuts… so he could rush through these other changes.”

Thus, it seems especially important to report Andy Kroll’s piece on Friday in Mother Jones: Scott Walker is bought and paid for by the multi-billionaire Koch brothers, who also funded most of the tea party movement, and who are determined to reduce America to a despotic, capitalist-totalitarian regime.

According to Wisconsin campaign finance filings, Walker’s gubernatorial campaign received $43,000 from the Koch Industries PAC during the 2010 election. That donation was his campaign’s second-highest, behind $43,125 in contributions from housing and realtor groups in Wisconsin. The Koch’s PAC also helped Walker via a familiar and much-used politicial maneuver designed to allow donors to skirt campaign finance limits. The PAC gave $1 million to the Republican Governors Association, which in turn spent $65,000 on independent expenditures to support Walker. The RGA also spent a whopping $3.4 million on TV ads and mailers attacking Walker’s opponent, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett. Walker ended up beating Barrett by 5 points. The Koch money, no doubt, helped greatly. The Kochs also assisted Walker’s current GOP allies in the fight against the public-sector unions. Last year, Republicans took control of the both houses of the Wisconsin state legislature, which has made Walker’s assault on these unions possible. And according to data from the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, the Koch Industries PAC spent $6,500 in support of 16 Wisconsin Republican state legislative candidates, who each won his or her election. Walker’s plan to eviscerate collective bargaining rights for public employees is right out of the Koch brothers’ playbook. Koch-backed groups like Americans for Prosperity, the Cato Institute, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and the Reason Foundation have long taken a very antagonistic view toward public-sector unions. Several of these groups have urged the eradication of these unions. In Wisconsin, this conservative, anti-union view is being placed into action by lawmakers in sync with the deep-pocketed donors who helped them obtain power. (Walker also opposes the state’s Clean Energy Job Act, which would compel the state to increase its use of alternative energy.) At this moment—even with the Wisconsin uprising unresolved—the Koch brothers’ investment in Walker appears to be paying off.

So the stakes in this fight are explicit, material, and direct. Opposing Scott Walker, and opposing public sector union-busting, means directly opposing the agenda of the Koch brothers–an agenda that is not merely “pro-business,” but ultimately corporatist. Those who still hold to some belief in the viability of the free market will not find allies among the Koches or Walker. What they want is crony capitalism–something that libertarians as well as those in the center and on the left should oppose with every fiber of our being. 

But the events in Wisconsin shocked and terrified the corporatist contingent. Mainstream media began pouring out weak-minded, but good-sounding “economic analysis,” such as that published yesterday at CNN Money. In defense of Walker’s aims, the decidedly biased CNN report cites budgetary shortfalls in many states.  These shortfalls, however, occurred because of wasteful, patronage-based spending, and the failure of state and federal government to make the wealthy pay their fair share of taxes.  They resulted from ill-fated property tax reform schemes beginning in the 1970s, facilitated by the de-industrialization and anti-worker policies of Democratic presidents like Carter and Clinton. They are the result of the Reagan-era tax cuts. They are not the fault of the working class, and it’s unjust –and bad policy– to make the working class pay for them. 

What Walker, and other state officials around the country are trying to do, is dodge the responsibility to negotiate with legitimately elected representatives of the working class, to be able to make unilateral decisions (which they will undoubtedly make by consulting big business and conservative accountants, hardly “neutral” advisors). 

Even after all the stunning mobilization of last week, the legislation will probably pass. But as I said, this is a turning point. We haven’t reached the mountain top yet, but the working class counteroffensive has begun, and if you doubt that, you need only read and listen to the mainstream, big business and conservative media. They’re scared witless, angry, and confused. This is refreshing and inspiring. It should serve as a new springboard to action.

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About Matt J. Stannard

Policy Director for Commonomics USA, longtime writer, speaker, and legal & policy consultant on economic justice and public deliberation.