By William Fisher
It’s dangerous to draw too many parallels between the folks who turned out to protest in Tahrir Square in Egypt and the folks protesting outside the State Capital in Madison, Wisconsin.
Both situations are complicated and it’s too easy to fall into a Glenn Beck simplistic, fact-free prescriptive rant about how we got here and what we should do about it.
But there are a few similarities.
In Cairo, you had a brutal dictator, the right-wing conservative Hosni Mubarak, backed by a powerful army, trying to persuade his people yet again that if they just maintained order, and went back to being docile and obedient, his rule would magically bring them all those wonderful things in life denied to them for so long.
In Madison, you have a right-wing conservative governor, backed by wealthy and powerful economic interests, yet again asking the middle class to act against its own economic interests. And they are doing so by trying to persuade these middle class “have-nots” that if they just give up their collective bargaining rights they would magically become “haves” and henceforth be free to pursue their “American Dream.”
Behind the elected officials doing the official persuading were the puppet-masters: the folks we used to call fat cats whose formula for getting richer depends on the rest of us getting poorer.
This is now known as trickle-not economics. In America, trickle-not economic has resulted in the largest disparity in income distribution in our history. We have a tiny slice of the very rich. Then we have all the rest of us. And what used to be the Middle Class is disappearing.
In Egypt, the puppet-masters wore military uniforms; in Madison, business suits.
Even though it was a prank phone call, I think we learned a lot by being able to listen in to Minnesota’s Governor Scott Walker talking to the man he thought was his puppet-master. After all, how often is it we get to eavesdrop on a call from the impersonator of David Koch, the multibillionaire oil guy who, with his brother, has funded much of the right wing’s battle plan? FBI, maybe; ordinary folks, nah!
Two things in particular were revealing. The first was the tone of the conversation. It was clearly puppet-master talking to puppet. And then there was the glee with which the puppet seemed to jump out of the phone to accept the puppet-master’s gracious invitation: “Once you crush these bastards I’ll fly you out to Cali and show you a real good time!”
By the time that conversation took place, the public sector unions had already agreed to meet the governor’s financial demands – but it was clear he was out to take no prisoners. Give up your collective bargaining rights or else!
The trouble with the governor, and with far too many elected officials, is that they weren’t paying attention when American history was being taught to them in grade school. Or they are memory-challenged. Or they just don’t give a damn and want to obliterate their country’s history and substitute their own.
What American history tells us is that without unions, the captains of industry would have rolled over working people like a Thompson CAT. Without unions, we would never have had a middle class in America. And without a middle class, who would have campaigned so tirelessly for so long for better schools, better teachers, better health care, better everything.
When conservatives talk about “family values,” isn’t this what they should be talking about?
The past half-century has witnessed the sharp decline in organized labor, with corporate ownership-management waging an unrelenting campaign to convince working Americans that they’d do so much better if American industry could be more competitive with the rest if the world, and that wouldn’t ever happen if unions were dictating outrageously exorbitant wages and benefits.
Dictating? Maybe Governor Scott Walker doesn’t understand all this, but it was Collective Bargaining that was responsible for wage and benefit restraints from both unions and ownership. Among other benefits, collective bargaining prevented countless strikes.
And, my old boss from JFK days, former Assistant Secretary of Commerce Jack Behrman, reminds me that the National Labor Relations Board was set up in the 1930s to support collective bargaining. It was critical in World War Two in moderating labor's wage demands to prevent inflation, which restriction led the NLRB to permit bargaining for other benefits; these led to donations by companies to health insurance and was the beginning of national health insurance.
But shouldn’t we fault the American labor movement for not doing a better job of educating union members so that they wouldn’t vote against their own economic self-interests and remain quiet while their elected representatives legislated against those very same interests?
Where was the outcry from labor when President Obama acceded to demands to continue George W. Bush’s upper-class tax cut as the Republicans’ price for not raising taxes on ordinary working Americans? It was largely AWOL. And ineffectual.
So, fault the unions? You bet. We should be mad as hell. Just as we should be mad as hell at some of the excesses of the union movement. But in the Great Crash of 2008, it was banks and other corporations who created our economic nightmare. Was our response to throw banks and other corporations under the bus? To abolish them altogether? No, in fact, it was to bail them out.
In his faux phone talk with Charles Koch, it was clear that closing his state’s fiscal gap was a secondary objective for Governor Walker. His primary goal was to break the unions. It had to be, since these teachers, firefighters, nurses and other first responders have already said they would go along with the governor and make the sacrifices necessary to do their part to help close the state’s $6.3 billion budget deficit.
But Governor Walker is still saying he has the same $3.6 billion budget deficit to balance. It was like the union response never happened!
And, by the way, I wonder if the Governor was thinking of that gap when, shortly after taking office, he handed the wealthiest people in his state a generous tax cut.
Does the Governor really expect us to believe that it is public service unions alone that are responsible for that $6.3 billion budget gap?
If he believes that, I have a terrific bridge to sell him.
There are many in Wisconsin who don’t believe the Governor’s budget gap is real. One of them is the Wisconsin equivalent of the Congressional Budget Office, which 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.”
And Jack Norman, research director at the Institute for Wisconsin Future, a public interest think tank, says, “Walker was not forced into a budget repair bill by circumstances beyond he control. “He wanted a budget repair bill and forced it by pushing through tax cuts… so he could rush through these other changes.”
But Messrs. Koch and Walker aren’t listening to Jack Norman. I’m sure Mr. Koch is just tickled pink with how things are going and is keeping busy making preparations to fly Mr. Walker to “Cali and show you a real good time.”