Wisconsin Governor Walker’s aggressive anti-union budget has finally been passed, after a political decision by the state’s Supreme Court which ruled that Republican manoeuvres to include measures restricting collective bargaining in the budget bill were constitutional. 14 Democrats had left the state in an attempt to prevent the measures coming into effect.
Although the unions are mounting other legal challenges, they are unlikely to prevail. The Republicans have succeeded in using their slim majority in the Supreme Court to line up the legal branch of the state with the legislative branch.
The budget bill, once signed, will take effect July 1. Already school systems are planning layoffs and enforced retirements for teachers, and health centers are feeling the pinch.
While Republicans have sold the plan to their supporters as putting the state on a better financial footing and improving the economy, the budget in fact transfers wealth to big corporations and significant corporate tax cuts will further impoverish the state. Since the state today is such an integral part of economic life, reductions in state employment and effectiveness actually works to contract the economy.
Paul Fanlund in The Capital Times writes that instead of trying to win over independent voters, “Walker and his legislative cronies chose instead to cater to any right-wing interest with deep pockets: Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, charter school advocates, mining interests, payday loan sharks, the Koch brothers, the Club for Growth, social conservatives. The apparent goal has been to raise so much campaign money that Walker and allies can buy their way out of any messy electoral fix.”
Since the Republicans have carried out a budget assault on such a broad front, they have also succeeded in bringing together organizations campaigning on social issues with public sector unions fighting for collective bargaining rights. It challenges the unions to abandon their sectional outlook and take part in building a new kind of civil rights movement. Mahlon Mitchell, the first African-American president of the Professional Fire Fighters of Wisconsin, made that analogy at a rally outside the Capitol building recently. “This is not just about union rights, it’s about workers’ rights, it’s about the middle class,” he said.
But some are critical of the unions’ commitment to social justice issues. Christine Neumann-Ortiz, director of a group which campaigns for immigrant workers’ rights, is reported as pointing out that “some individual unions have a ways to go in embracing the philosophy.”
According to The Capital Times, low-income people of color have not been participating in the protests at the Capitol, despite the impact of Walker’s budget on medical and food assistance programs which directly affect them. The movement has not made their issues central to the fight against the budget cuts and has not effectively reached out to them. The Capital Times quotes Monica Adams, an activist with “Take Back the Land,” a direct action group organizing resistance to bank foreclosures: “To build a collective movement, you have to develop a collective identity, and there’s no collective identity here,” she said. “To achieve that, we’d have to have some hard conversations about race.”
Adams’ criticisms need to be taken seriously. Evictions are not just the problem of people of color, but are a danger to anyone with a mortgage — including state workers now facing the loss of their jobs. The issue has a direct political connection to the budget fight. M&I Bank in Wisconsin gave financial support to Walker’s election campaign and took over $1.7 billion in TARP bailout money while evicting homeowners and promising executives close to $70 million in golden parachutes. “M&I is taking public money and using it to create homelessness,” points out Adams.
Banks across the country are evicting people from their homes even when existing occupiers offer to pay rent, or negotiate a modification of the loan based on changed market valuations. Even though the banks themselves were bailed out with billions of taxpayers’ money, they are intransigent in their refusal to turn foreclosed properties over to the community. They want to keep the fear of homelessness as a whip to prevent people from defaulting on mortgages they can no longer afford. They need to keep extracting repayments so that the revenue stream, which has already been capitalized and sold on, will maintain its nominal value. They could care less about encouraging job creation as a way of resolving the mortgage crisis because they are part of a rentier economy which is the source of superprofits for the rich.
The labor movement must take up this struggle against homelessness and evictions. It can’t rely on electoral activities to restore the social compact which guarantees the right to organize. It should campaign for a new charter of human rights – one which includes the right to a home, a job, education, healthcare, pensions, and citizenship.
The unions need to take this fight into the national Democratic Party. Obama’s administration wants the government to act as a mediator between entrenched interest groups which have an inordinate sway in U.S. politics. But the super-rich dominate and control the Republican Party and are now going for broke. Democrats must be made to validate and legitimize a new mass movement for civil rights.