The event that provoked the protests in Wisconsin was newly elected Republican Governor Scott Walker’s announcement of draconian attacks on public sector workers in his so-called “Budget Repair Bill,” along with proposed massive cuts in education and social services. In order to fully understand why the protests happened, it is necessary to understand how such reactionary measures could be proposed in the first place. This bill had little to do with repairing the budget but had quite a bit to do with attacking workers’ rights. It would effectively decertify the public sector unions, the most densely organized wing of the Wisconsin labor movement. Even the unions able to get past the bureaucratic hurdles that would allow them to continue to exist would have their rights to bargain for their members severely restricted.
Under this bill, public sector workers would face an average cut in income of 7% through reductions to their pensions and health care. The bill would abolish collective bargaining rights for public sector workers over anything other than pay. Pay increases would be capped to the rise in the Consumer Price Index, so public sector workers could only bargain against pay cuts and not for pay raises.
The bill created severe financial hardships for public sector unions. Dues would no longer be deducted automatically from workers’ paychecks and the union would have to collect the dues itself – for instance, through a bank draft that union members would have to sign up for. Also, some workers would be able to enjoy the benefits of the union wages and working conditions that had been won by the bargaining unit without having to join or pay dues to the union themselves.
Public sector unions would be forced to hold annual recertification votes in which 51% of the bargaining unit – not just of those voting – must vote to renew the union. The sum of all these provisions was a naked attempt to destroy public sector unions in the state of Wisconsin. Since Walker gave no warning of these plans in his electoral material, his bill was especially hypocritical.
Walker tried to justify his attacks on public sector workers by pointing to sacrifices made by private sector workers. However, cutting wages and benefits for public sector workers does not benefit working families as a whole. For working people, the only way forward is to struggle to win improvements in wages and benefits in the private sector so everyone has a better life. Considering that M&I Bank, one of Walker’s biggest campaign contributors, received $1.7 billion in federal bailout money, all this talk of shared sacrifice rings especially hollow.
The attacks on public sector workers were part of a wider attack on public services, attacks that affect public and private sector workers alike. The “Budget Repair Bill” also included major cuts in social services, including severe cuts in Medicaid and BadgerCare, Wisconsin’s health program for low-income people. There were also provisions to sell off state-run power plants and wetlands.
Public education came under attack through a massive charter school drive as well as the “New Badger Partnership.” This was an attempt to dismantle and privatize the University of Wisconsin system by separating UW-Madison from the system under a misnamed, privately run “public authority.” These attacks affected all working people, not just those in the public sector. By propagandizing against public sector unions and talking about shared sacrifice, Walker was playing a game of divide and rule, pitting public and private sector workers against each other while he and his corporate backers were going after everyone.
Public Sector Scapegoats
The scapegoating of public sector workers did not come out of thin air. A steady stream of articles in corporate newspapers around the country had already been pointing the finger at public sector unions and workers as too powerful and as “obstructionist” in the policies that they promote. There were similar attacks on public sector workers simultaneously by newly emboldened Republican governors in Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Florida, and other states. The left-wing labor journal Labor Notes reported attacks on public sector collective bargaining in 18 states in early 2011, saying:
With state budgets in the red, instead of crafting legislative handcuffs for the bankers and CEOs who caused the economic collapse, 18 states have bills pending to shackle public sector workers. They include eliminating defined-benefit pensions, setting constitutional limits on the size of the government workforce, and abolishing collective bargaining rights (“Shock and Law: Politicians Push Anti-Worker Bills,” Labor Notes, March 2011).
Nor have the attacks been limited to the United States. The British magazine The Economist headlined its January 6, 2011 issue “The Battle Ahead: Confronting Public Sector Unions.”
The public sector is the most highly unionized sector of the workforce. As of 2010, union density in the public sector stands at 36% compared to only 7% in the private sector (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 1/21/2011). In the first half of the 20th Century, unionism was centered mainly in heavy industries such as auto manufacturing. However, due to a number of factors – including shifts in the economy, outsourcing of jobs, and blatant union-busting like Republican President Ronald Reagan’s breaking of the 1981 PATCO strike – these unions have been dramatically weakened. This assault on private sector workers was further accelerated when Democratic President Bill Clinton passed NAFTA in 1994. However, you can’t outsource public education or snowplowing. The attacks on public sector workers in Wisconsin and nationally were effectively “NAFTA for the public sector,” an attempt to smash the strongest remaining base of organized labor.
Public sector unions are not only a bulwark of union wages and working conditions, they are also the biggest obstacle to the privatization of public services. With the end of the long post-World War Two economic boom, since 1975 world capitalism has been dominated by neo-liberalism, an economic policy based on the pillaging of the welfare state, cutting social services, cutting taxes for the superrich and big business, and driving down wages in order to boost the profits of big business and the richest 1%. Privatizing public services provides an easy way for big business to profit from the destruction of the welfare state.
Behind all these neo-liberal policies is a drive to make U.S. capitalism more competitive with its rivals. As the capitalist system slips into deeper and deeper crisis, each nation is looking to gain a competitive advantage over its rivals at the expense of “its” working class. This is the background to the policies not only of Republican Presidents Reagan and George Bush Sr. and Jr., but also Democratic Presidents Carter, Clinton, and Obama. Following the collapse of financial markets in 2008 and a deepening capitalist crisis, the attacks on workers intensified. A similar scenario of neo-liberal encroachments on the social safety net provides the background to the growing struggles and radicalization sweeping Europe.
Obama and the Tea Party
In 2008, many hoped that Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama would bring positive change. The hope of many workers was that he would take on the banks responsible for the 2008 financial crisis, put the unemployed back to work, pass the union-friendly Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA), end the wars, repeal the Bush-era attacks on civil liberties, and establish universal health care. On this basis, Obama was able to ride the words “hope” and “change” to victory.
But Obama did not deliver. Backed by funding from Wall Street and other powerful sections of Corporate America, Obama, once in power, followed a pro-capitalist, big business course. Along with Republicans, he carried out a massive bailout of the banks and the auto industry while auto workers and foreclosure victims were left in the lurch. EFCA never saw the light of day. Instead of single-payer health care, we got “Obamacare,” which will force people to buy health insurance from private HMOs.
Obama’s and the Democrats’ failure to deliver bred disillusionment that resulted in gains for the Republicans and the newly formed right-populist Tea Party. The Tea Party presented itself as “populist” in that it claimed to represent “the people” and to oppose “the elite.” This allowed it to gain support from many working people who were angry at the bank bailout and Obama’s health care plan. Despite the populist faade, the financial backbone of the Tea Party came from big business groups such as Americans for Prosperity, led by the billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch.
The classification of public sector workers as “the elite” and big business as “the people” shows that the Tea Party used extremely skewed definitions of those terms. In effect, the Tea Party’s broader support was strongest among small business owners who wanted “smaller government.” By pretending to stand up for the little person, the Tea Party diverted anger at big business into support for policies that were promoted by, and for the benefit of, big business.
A serious left-wing challenge to Obama could have directed that anger toward a revival of the labor movement. Unfortunately, no such challenge existed, as the labor leaders and the leaders of progressive social movements continued to back Obama. This situation left a political vacuum that the Tea Party was able to partially fill.
Meanwhile, Obama himself, rather than challenging the Tea Party ideology, began to increasingly echo it by calling for cutting government spending.
Republicans Sweep the 2010 Elections
All this contributed to Republican and Tea Party gains in the 2010 midterm elections, with disillusionment keeping many supporters of the Democrats from voting. In Wisconsin, the failure of two-term incumbent Democratic Governor Jim Doyle led to the election of Walker and the Republicans. During the years when Doyle was governor, public sector workers also faced attacks – although nothing as wholesale as Walker’s agenda.
Under Doyle, health premiums more than doubled. He reduced pay increases and required state employees to take 16 unpaid furlough days over two years, which amounted to a 3% pay cut (“Former Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle says he imposed tougher cost controls on state employees than any previous governor,” Politifact.com, 1/11/2011). The former governor even bragged: “I’ve made deeper cuts than any governor’s ever made and I’ve had to impose tougher cost controls on state employees than anybody’s made.” (“Doyle ‘Surprised’ State Contracts Not Approved,” WISN-TV, Upfront with Mike Gousha, 12/20/2010)
In the Wisconsin gubernatorial election, Walker was running against Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, a close ally of Doyle. The Walker campaign focused on the closeness between Barrett and Doyle, arguing that a Barrett victory would effectively mean Doyle’s third term. Beyond attacking Barrett and Doyle, Walker’s campaign was based on a promise to create jobs. Many people who voted for Walker did so not out of support for Walker’s anti-worker agenda but out of anger at the incumbent Democrats who had failed to stop the big drop in workers’ living standards.
Many workers recognized the danger posed by Walker. However, without any genuinely pro-worker candidate to vote for, many felt compelled to hold their nose and vote for Barrett as the lesser of two evils. Others just stayed home. With a voter turnout of just under 50%, Walker beat Barrett 52% to 47%. This means Walker won on the basis of 26% of the voting population, on the promise of new jobs; hardly a mandate for Walker’s anti-worker, pro-corporate agenda.
Absent from his electoral campaign were his impending assault on state workers and their unions and the harsh nature of his attack on public services. Once the attacks began, voters signaled their opposition. A survey of 768 Wisconsin voters conducted by Public Policy Polling from February 24-27, 2011 – at the time of the protests – found that 52% of respondents said they would vote for Barrett if the election were held today. Only 45% said they would vote for Walker. When polled on the issues, respondents gave Walker’s policies even less support. Nonetheless, Walker was able to get away with nearly his whole agenda.
Big business’s domination of both major parties, Democrats and Republicans, gives dissatisfied voters no viable alternative at election time. There is no party that represents the interests of the working class and the poor. The result is a “democracy deficit,” as voters are constantly forced to choose between two corporate-backed candidates. When one of those choices fails, people feel forced to vote for the other one.
It is vitally necessary to build an independent political party that can represent workers, young people, and the poor. Such a party should be based on the interests of working people and in opposition to the agenda and interests of big business. This can not only offer a clear political alternative to the warped logic of both parties and the mass corporate media, but also help bring workers together in struggle and provide an alternative to the big business Republicans and Democrats at election time.