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Enter Governor Scott Walker. A month into office, he was keen to establish himself as the new sheriff in town by reprising in the state of Wisconsin a simulacrum of Ronald Reagan’s presidency. Painting by numbers, Scott Walker, following Reagan’s first stroke, took on labour. But Walker’s Patco moment (the busting of the Air Traffic Controller’s union) has proved an overreach. Walker, who presents himself in a way that could be right out of Frank Capra’s central casting, may find that following Reagan’s recipe produces different results today. After 30 years of economic decline, workers in the United States are recognising the bankruptcy of these policies and are fighting back.
We have all seen the figures. While the American economy has grown the past three decades, labour has taken it on the chin. Meanwhile, CEOs and those in the FIRE sectors have seen their incomes grow by multiples, often subsidised at taxpayer expense, even as their reckless actions have left economic chaos in their wake. The whole while, labour has been repeatedly lectured that they are to blame for the country’s economic crisis and that the rich must capture ever more rents for the economy to prosper. Even if you don’t like it, workers are told, invoking Margaret Thatcher, “there is no alternative.”
This past week, however, public workers surprised everyone, including themselves and their union leadership. The rank and file took the lead in these demonstrations and forced their often conservative teachers’ union leadership to follow. Last Tuesday, teachers in the capitol announced their intention to hit the streets and take their students with them. In Milwaukee, Wisconsin’s biggest city, teachers defied calls from school administrators and their unions to stay on the job. They marched on Madison last Wednesday in such numbers that their union leadership was forced to follow. Thus, 35 state school districts closed, as teachers and other public workers trekked to Madison in the thousands.
Frankly, most protests the past few decades, while led by well-intentioned organisers, have been tedious. We turn out for good causes, but would rather be somewhere else, and we have secretly (and sometimes openly) doubted the effectiveness of the whole exercise. Not this time. For veterans of protests in recent decades, this had an entirely different vibe. The scene has been simultaneously creative, good-humoured, joyful, peaceful, yet angry. There were no spokespersons for this movement. People organised themselves, made decisions on the ground, and acted on them – with their actions and instincts proven right by subsequent events.
The scope of the movement is broad. Students and teachers and other public employees have been joined by firefighters and cops – whose collective bargaining rights are not, in fact, under immediate threat and are therefore there out of a remarkable solidarity. Together, they have embraced each other in a new alliance that has put the history of these 1960s antagonists aside. In this new world, cops deliver food and coffee to student protesters on the floor of the Capitol rotunda. Firefighters, arriving in their soot seasoned gear or Scottish kilts, bellow on their bagpipes and sound their support for their public employee and student brethren. Wrapping themselves in the flag – and who else can do it without looking cynical or silly? – firefighters have returned this powerful symbol to organised labour.
By Saturday, the numbers had swelled to over 60,000, while the governor’s Tea Party supporters could muster only a few thousand. This despite having billionaire financiers like the Koch Brothers creating astroturf websites, such as “Stand for Walker”, imploring Wisconsinites to hit the streets in support of the governor.
For all this good energy and success, however, all is not well. Labour is seriously divided. The political right has invested heavily in turning private sector employees against their public sector counterparts. And, it has worked. After three decades of war on private sector unions, only 7% of non-public workers are protected. Predictably, this has translated into an almost complete erosion of their previously held health and pension plans they once enjoyed.
Today, US private sector workers have been reduced to Japanese-like long hours. Their health plans consist of HMOs providing substandard care, often having to navigate numbing bureaucracies, only to be told “coverage denied”. They no longer have employer-paid pensions. Most are now on their own when it comes to retirement. Or if lucky, they may have a generous employer that gives half towards a 401k plan that merely feeds traders on Wall Street, while never delivering enough returns actually to fund their retirement.
In short, it has been a return of the mean season. Briefly, in 2008, this frustration was directed against the Republicans. Yet, the Democrats delivered no tangible gains for labour since taking power then, and now, the right has helped steer working-class anger away from Wall Street and back to Main Street’s teachers and public employees. Deftly executed, private sector workers without benefits now blame workers who do have them as the cause of their deprivation. Instead of seeing the gains unions can deliver, private sector workers now take the lesson that these gains have somehow been taken at their expense – all the while ignoring the trough-feeding that continues unabated on Wall Street.
The new class war, as it is actually perceived, is not between workers and capital, but between private and public sector workers, with the fires generously stoked by the billionaire Koch brothers and rightwing money generally. One can only imagine Mr Burns of the Simpsons hatching such a scheme in caricature of capital; but this is real, and few seem to recognise the irony as they play out their scripted parts.
Monday’s public holiday was likely the last of the big protests this week. Protests in the tens of thousands are not sustainable. Public workers are under pressure from their employers and teachers’ unions to return to work. If Governor Walker refuses to compromise, the only weapon left in labour’s arsenal is a general strike. Nobody knows if sufficient resolve exists to launch one. This movement began with Scott Walker’s actions and will likely end with them. Whether labour takes this next step toward a general strike depends on his actions in the coming days and whether he will seek compromise or further inflame workers by attacking their democratic right to organise.
Walker, the son of a preacher, has always been blind to shades of grey. His past actions suggest a fundamentalist path ahead.
JEFFREY SOMMERS is an associate professor of Africology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. He can be reached at: Jeffrey.firstname.lastname@example.org.
This article originally appeared on the Guardian’s website.