The rallies held yesterday in support of the union occupation of Wisconsin’s state capitol were impressive, but not nearly enough. What is needed is a new civil rights movement to defend trade unions and people power in this country. The Republican right wants to legislate collective bargaining out of existence for the benefit of the super-rich, and they know it will take a fight. They have been preparing for this fight for some time.
As Frank Rich explains in today’s NYT, Wisconsin is not the central preoccupation of billionaires like the Koch brothers. On a national scale, the Republicans’ “real goal is to reward the G.O.P.’s wealthiest patrons by crippling what remains of organized labor, by wrecking the government agencies charged with regulating and policing corporations, and, as always, by rewarding the wealthiest with more tax breaks. … [Walker] is merely a petty-cash item on the Koch ledger — as befits the limited favors he can offer Koch’s mammoth, sprawling, Kansas-based industrial interests. Look to Washington for the bigger story. As The Los Angeles Times recently reported, Koch Industries and its employees form the largest bloc of oil and gas industry donors to members of the new House Energy and Commerce Committee, topping even Exxon Mobil. And what do they get for that largess? As a down payment, the House budget bill not only reduces financing for the Environmental Protection Agency but also prohibits its regulation of greenhouse gases.”
The spark that has energized rallies in Wisconsin and across the nation was Wisconsin governor Walker’s attempt to legislate collective bargaining out of existence. But Walker is not acting in a vacuum. He is taking to the extreme the push by many state governors – Republican and Democratic — to slash state workers’ jobs and benefits.
This practice has a 30 year old history. Systematic tax-cutting from the 1980s onwards and reduction in federal subsidies led states to rely on revenue from the housing boom to fund their programs. With the collapse of the housing market, state budgets are sliding into the red. Thousands of jobs have already been cut over the last two years.
Now every state governor is looking to cut or eliminate state workers’ benefits and pensions to get them out of trouble. While the Republicans demonize state workers as a “privileged class”, Democratic governors want to coopt the union leadership in getting the cuts accepted. So Wisconsin is the first battle in a prolonged campaign across the states.
Walker’s budget bill has many detailed proposals, not only to eliminate collective bargaining, but also to sell off state property to corporations by governor’s fiat, and to control state organizations directly from the governor’s office, bypassing the legislature. Now, Walker is not the brightest bulb on the planet, as the fact that he was completely fooled by the prank phone call showed. So he couldn’t have written this legislation himself — who did? And how is Walker getting the support that enables him to stand up to the vociferous resistance of state workers?
The progressive Cap Times noted in December: “Where are Walker and Fitzgerald [state Republican leader] getting these ideas? Not from Wisconsinites. They are jetting off to conferences of right-wing governors (where Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal serve up the policy gumbo) and legislators — including a post-election session organized by the corporate-funded American Legislative Exchange Council. It was not in Wisconsin but rather at an ALEC session in Washington where Fitzgerald says he was “surprised how much momentum there was around that discussion” of enacting right-to-work laws.”
And David Dayen in FireDogLake noted that: “Walker and his conservative allies talked about this plan almost immediately after the election, getting support from southern-state Governors with right-to-work laws in place and the American Legislative Exchange Council, which has stimulated discussion over this idea in several states since November. The bill would strip workers’ ability to bargain over everything but pay, and salary increases wouldn’t be allowed to increase more than inflation. Furthermore, public employees would have to pay more in health and pension costs, contracts would last only one year at a time, employees would have to re-certify the union annually and individual members would be able to withhold dues from their union. Such stripping of protections invariably leads to poor working conditions, as well as low wages and benefits. That’s why Walker put it into a budget bill.”
While the Koch brothers do contribute to ALEC, they are outspent by other major corporations. SourceWatch listed most major energy, tobacco and drug companies as ALEC’s backers. “Corporate membership fees are reported to range between $5,000 and $50,000 with additional fees of $1,500 to $5,000 a year to participate in ALEC’s various task forces. However, corporations spend more than that. For example, Exxon has donated far more than a million including funding set aside for specific projects like “global climate change” and “energy and climate.” The total from Koch stands at $408,000, according to Greenpeace.
It is this unholy alliance of bankers, CEOs, corporations, state Republicans, and other shadowy organizations who are looking to destroy state unions. Wisconsin leads the fight to resist this onslaught on the middle class, and—make no mistake– the struggle will move on to other states. Here are some photos from the rally in Hartford, Connecticut yesterday.