Is it Libya? Egypt? Tunisia? No, it’s the USA. It may have been overlooked amongst rioting and protests of a much bigger scale in the middle east, but there’s been a battle raging in Wisconsin between the State Government and its own people. Police were ordered to force demonstrators out of the State Capitol building yesterday, but instead of driving them out defected to the side of the protesters.
The occupied Wisconsin State Capitol
One of the police said “We have been ordered by the legislature to kick
you all out at 4:00 today. But we know what’s right from wrong. We will
not be kicking anyone out, in fact, we will be sleeping here with you!”. For a State to lose control of it’s police force is unprecedented in recent history, and a sign that the Wisconsin demonstrators are now winning groups to their struggle who, to put it mildy, are not generally associated with trade unions and radical struggle.
The origin of these protests lies in an attempt by the Tea Party supported right-wing Republican Governor Scott Walker to destroy the power of the unions in Wisconsin. Walker wants to remove the rights of unions to collectively bargain with the Government over all other issues apart from pay – ie, holidays. pensions, benefits etc.
Walker claims that this is necessary to deal with the state deficit, but the reality is that – just like the Tories in the UK – the Tea Party and it’s allies want to use the national debt as an excuse to do all the things they’ve wanted to do to Trade Unions but didn’t have an excuse to do. It’s the Shock Doctrine for Wisconsin – terrify people into accepting horrendous “reforms” whilst they’re scared of a financial crisis. Whilst attacking collective bargaining for Unions and attacking their members pensions and healthcare, Walker’s budget proposes tax cuts for the richest in the State.
Walker’s plan is summarised quite well here, as a three pronged attack on the unions.
“In part one, their ability to bargain benefits for their members is reduced. In part two, their ability to collect dues, and thus spend money organizing members or lobbying the legislature, is undercut. And in part three, workers have to vote the union back into existence every single year. Put it all together and it looks like this: Wisconsin’s unions can’t deliver value to their members, they’re deprived of the resources to change the rules so they can start delivering value to their members again, and because of that, their members eventually give in to employer pressure and shut the union down in one of the annual certification elections
And because the Unions provide large donations to the Democratic Party, as well as neutering class struggle in the State it also removes finances from a political opponent – OR it forces the Democrats to seek funding from non-union sources, like millionaire businessmen. This means either the Democratic Party loses funds, or has to shift more and more to the right to win the money of big business – shifting right on to a territory the Republican Party already hold. It’s a Machiavellian plan to fundamentally change the political terrain in Wisconsin in favour of the ideas of the Right and business.
The Unions in Wisconsin responded with a protest on February the 15th, as the joint finance committee in the State would hear ALL speakers who wanted to speak in favour or against the bill. Exploiting this loophole rather spectacularly, the Unions managed to rally thousands of people to come to the State Capitol building to testify against the bill.
Given the vast number of citizens who opposed the bill, unsurprisingly there wasn’t enough time to hear them all. Instead of leaving though, the protesters stayed overnight in the Capitol Building and have remained there for two weeks – with thousands more coming to join in their occupation and to protest outside the building.
This militant defiance of union busting by the Labour movement in the USA has even, dragged the Democratic Party in the State leftward. In both the Assembly and the Senate of Wisconsin the Democrats are a minority – having lost out to the Republican Party’s gains in the midterms. They cannot vote to defeat Walker’s proposals.
But instead the Democratic Party’s Senators have gone into a kind of political exile to Illinois. It sounds mad but is actually an inspired counter-move. The Republicans have 19 Senators in the state compared to the 14 Democratic Senators. But in order for any law to pass, there must be a quorate of at least 20 senators – so the Republicans have been unable to pass this law because the Democrats have fled the state! The Democratic Party are effectively acting in defiance of normal parliamentary practice to stop the Republican Party from crushing the Trade Union movement.
Walker has of course found allies from the Tea Party, who have organised counter-demonstrations against the Unions. But they have been massively outnumbered by the pro-Union rallies, which are the biggest demonstrations Wisconsin has seen since the Vietnam War. In a national poll over 60% of Americans opposed Walker’s plan being enacted in their own states, and even contributors from Fox News have realised that Walker’s argument is “malarkey” and that it’s all about union busting.
These protests show that while the USA isn’t normally seen as a hotbed of class struggle, when it happens they don’t mess about. The struggle in Wisconsin is reminiscent of other mass mobilisations of workers in US Labour Movement history – like the Bonus Army, who set up an illegal camp in Washington DC in protest at the President’s refusal to pay them their bonus after fighting in WW1. The US Army was eventually brought in to clear the camps, which it did at the point of bayonets and the use of chemical gas.
Of course this time round, if Walker wants to use the State’s security forces to clear the State Capitol he won’t have the support of the Police. What remains to be seen is if other parts of the State will obey his orders – he’s already declared his willingness to use the National Guard to bust Unions, a tactic that Mubarak would have been happy to use. State Troopers have even been dispatched to try and drag the Democratic Senators back to the occupied Capitol Building, to try and facilitate a “democratic” process through state sponsored kidnapping.
The struggle in Wisconsin shows that the Left in the USA are starting to fight back after being left in the shadow of the Tea Party and Obama’s failures and betrayals. Along the way, they are winning mass support and a few unusal (but not unwelcome) allies to their cause.