The Long Road to Madison, Wisconsin

by Arjun Janah, Brooklyn, February 26th, 2011

In 1959, Wisconsin became the first U.S. state to grant municipal employees and teachers the right to bargain collectively for wages and benefits. In 1967, this was extended to all state employees.  It is perhaps worth noting that the first law was passed under a Democratic governor, at a time when the state Assembly was controlled by Democrats and the state Senate by Republicans. The second law was passed under a Republican governor, with both houses controlled by Republicans.

…we have in place…a global race to the bottom for labor, where the worker must work harder and longer (both in hours per week and years per life) for less, under increasing stress, anxiety and insecurity, and a global “race to the top” … for the wealthiest and their courtiers.

So we see that, by the 60’s, a bipartisan consensus had been reached, at least in Wisconsin (as well as in many other states) about the rights of public workers to have unions and to bargain collectively.

Unions are now at about 12% nationwide, but at around 36% in public sector jobs. So now we see an assault underway against the public sector unions. …we have seen an acceleration of the trend towards increasing income inequality, with the majority of the wealth and income in this country being concentrated…in the hands of a very small fraction of the population.

Now, a full half century later, we see Scott Walker, Republican governor of Wisconsin, attempting to take away public workers’ right to collectively bargain for pensions and other benefits.  He is not content that they have agreed to cuts in these, and to pay more for them, even though the alleged budget deficit can be directly traced to hundred-million-dollar tax cuts given recently by governor Walker to the wealthy in his state. His goal is to accelerate the process of dismantling what is left of the union movement in this country.  In this, he is in active partnership with other Republican governors and their billionaire backers.

Much of the improvements in the lives of workers in this and other western countries can be traced to the rise of labor unions in the early part of the last century. These were brutally opposed, but eventually made headway, with concessions made to labor, and later to the poor and the minorities, by those of power and wealth who were fearful of further radicalization of workers’ movements and of the increasing power and appeal of communism.

Socialist ideals were melded, in diluted form, into the capitalist structure of these states and their economies, allowing for such things as free K-12 (and even, in many cases, free or very cheap university and trade) education of a high standard. While this served the need of industry for an educated work force, it also provided an opening for people of often impoverished origins to advance themselves economically while broadening their intellectual horizons.

It may be argued that much of the scientific and technical progress made by these countries (and by the communist ones to their east) in the past century can be traced to this unprecedented opening up of educational opportunity to (almost) all. The ability of women and minorities to avail of this to its full extent has continued to be an ongoing and complex struggle.

Opposition to unions was very fierce and violent in this country. The Great Depression and the fear and radicalization it generated may have helped in the subsequent rise of unionization. Public sector workers were barred, until fairly recently, from forming or joining unions. Consequently, in this country, they lagged in income and benefits behind private sector workers such as those in the unionized manufacturing sector of around the middle of the last century.

It was only at the end of the fifties, and through the sixties and seventies, that a significant fraction of public sector workers became unionized. Not coincidentally, this was marked by improvements in their wages and, perhaps more significantly, in pensions and benefits, if not in working conditions.

Unions were able to form alliances with Democrats to advance these things, especially in urban areas, as Democrats moved from being largely the party of segregation with its power base in the agrarian South, to court workers, immigrants and minorities in the urban areas.

This took place even as Republicans went from being the party of Lincoln (which had the backing of the northern industrialists and was fiercely federalist) to being the staunchest supporters, not only of its traditional big business base, but eventually of white and conservative reaction to the liberal currents in society and in government. They also became strong supporters of states’ rights and of deregulation.

The Republican Party thus metamorphosed from the party of big government into the party against big government (except in such things as benefits big business — such as the funding of the military- -industrial complex that its own Eisenhower had warned of).

One may indeed have a reasonable debate about the role and the limitations of government, and the unintended, and often disastrous, consequences of heavy-handed government regulation and diktats. When the people who legislate, execute and interpret the laws are far removed from the lives of the people whom these laws affect, having little direct experience of conditions on the ground, and of the effects of these laws on working people, such disasters are inevitable. It is only when they and those who are close to them are not shielded from this that they can genuinely represent working people and work for their interests. \1

We have seen, in this country, the decline of manufacturing, as much of this moved abroad. It is difficult for an American worker to compete against someone in Mexico or China or Bangladesh who is willing to work longer hours for what would be a pittance here, often in miserable and unsafe working conditions, without any hope of pensions or other benefits. \2

It is also difficult for an American worker to compete against an undocumented immigrant who is willing to do the same in low-paid service jobs in this country, or even a documented one who is brought in on a temporary work visa to slave at a software job. \3

One may argue that companies here also cannot compete against companies based in such countries without resorting to off-shoring. One should examine, however, how it is that many European countries have been able to retain much of their indigenous manufacturing and service jobs, without any decline in their workers’ wages and benefits (with unions remaining viable, unlike here).

In the private sector, which had led the public sector in unionization and compensation until around the seventies, we have seen an overall decline in both (measuring compensation adjusted for inflation). The exceptions (as regards compensation, not unionization) have been in the financial sector, and in certain non-exportable jobs requiring very high levels of education and/or skill.

So we see a massive trifurcation underway in society, both economic and cultural. We have, at the top, the owners of capital, which appears to be getting increasingly concentrated in a “winner-take-all” shakeout marked by a relentless level of competition for short-term profits, with constant acquisitions and bankruptcies of corporations. This is, increasingly, a global class, without strong ties or allegiances to any particular locality or country.  Below these are the highly skilled and/or educated workers, who are well compensated. And then, at the bottom, we have the others, who are becoming increasingly marginalized and impoverished, with some working harder and longer than ever before, and others unable to survive without resort to government subsidies.

Some, in lower-end service jobs related to health-care, finance or the remaining or newly created industries (such as “defense”, software and biotechnology) are still making a decent living. The boom/bubble in real estate also provided many jobs in construction and in real estate related jobs while it lasted. But many others are being pushed into poverty and are increasingly restive and desperate.

Small businesses without deep pockets or access to low interest loans are also hurting. Those who work for such businesses, those in sales and others are also in trouble as consumption falls.

Unlike in the 1930’s, if this current economic slowdown gets any worse, there are no family farms or rural communities left to which some may hope to return, as many African Americans and others probably did at that time.

With the private sector increasingly decimated in the manner described, the public sector, with its more equitable hiring practices and job security, has attracted more workers. Among these have been the military and related employers, and other branches of the federal government. But in the states and cities, we see also the workers in the public schools, those in health-care, clerical, accounting, software and inspectoral posts, and, of course, those in law enforcement, firemen and transit workers, plus many others.

Unions are now at about 12% nationwide, but at around 36% in public sector jobs. So now we see an assault underway against the public sector unions. Heading this assault are the Republicans, who have distinguished themselves in their forthright service to the wealthiest, being instrumental in giving them tax breaks and loopholes. So we have seen an acceleration of the trend towards increasing income inequality, with the majority of the wealth and income in this country being concentrated, as never before since perhaps the 1920’s, in the hands of a very small fraction of the population. This country is now an outlier among the industrially advanced countries when it comes to inequalities of income and wealth, having joined the ranks of the poorer countries in this regard.

This is an effective massive transfer of wealth “upwards” that is ongoing. Anything that slows or resists this increasing concentration of wealth is denounced, by the Republicans, as socialist. When Obama offhandedly made mention once of “spreading the wealth around a bit”, he was ferociously attacked.

Indeed, “distribution of wealth” is equated with theft, even when all it may mean is a deceleration of the current high rate of concentration of wealth. If one compares, for example the much reviled capital gains tax with the income tax (rate versus rate) one can see this glaringly clear. Earned income is taxed at a much higher rate than unearned income. Indeed, there are very strong voices for the abolition of the capital gains tax. In other words, labor should be taxed, but profits (often from capital that was never earned by the owner’s labor — but rather inherited or acquired) should not. If there ever was a recipe for transferring even more wealth from those who do the work to those who reap the profits from this work, and so for increasing income and wealth inequality, this would be it. But for those who espouse it, this is as it should be — it is part of their “moral” universe.

For those who do not share this morality (or lack of it) there is the argument that we must do nothing to discourage investment, as this creates jobs, on which all the rest are dependent, and which also generate the tax revenues for government services. This is Reagan’s “trickle down”, once reviled by Bush I as “voodoo economics”.

Indeed, in the global, unfettered capitalism that is increasingly ascendant, capital can indeed flee almost instantaneously (as it is no doubt doing, what little remained there, out of Egypt as we speak) to safer and more profitable locations, while labor is far less mobile, being hobbled by local ties and obligations to family and community, by localized, non-transferable pensions and health benefits for those who have these, and by national and even provincial and municipal boundaries, in addition to linguistic, ethnic, educational, vocational and other restrictions.

In other words, labor remains essentially local and serf-like, tied to a particular place and a job for survival, whereas capital is increasingly global and free. No one asks, of a digital or even paper dollar, its social security number, green card, or educational and work experience or license.  Nor does it have a skin color or sex, or other attribute that a worker cannot alter.

So we have in place, at least for now, a global race to the bottom for labor, where the worker must work harder and longer (both in hours per week and years per life) for less, under increasing stress, anxiety and insecurity, and a global “race to the top” (to steal a phrase from Obama and Duncan) for the wealthiest and their courtiers.

Unfortunately for workers, there is no globally or even nationally organized resistance to this campaign. We have no alternative vision on which we have a commonsense consensus, and so no counter-narrative. The media constantly sell, either directly, or implicitly, the premises on which the Republicans move increasingly aggressively. All logical debate based on these premises cannot help us shed light on the dubious nature of the premises themselves, and so must lead us towards what are, from a worker’s viewpoint, deeply flawed, erroneous conclusions.

Democrats have been, by and large, complicit or yielding in this campaign to deprive the workers of their hard-won rights, despite their reliance on labor to help them get elected. Barack Obama and Bill Clinton are leading examples of this. They may have ideals that diverge from those of the Republican right, but they play by the Republicans’ playbook. There is no other that is currently available.

So their actions on our behalf are weakly defensive at best. The better educated Democratic politicians find much to admire in the “social democracies” of Europe and so try at times to play catch-up with them, as Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama did with healthcare — but are either defeated (as Hillary was) by vested interests, or compromise and yield to them (as Hillary learned to do, later, and as Barack did from the start).  Rarely do we have Democrats who rose from humble origins and experienced, and remember, what it is like. They learn to ally themselves with wealth to gain power and to remain in power, exploiting labor and the minorities to do so. And they are no longer able or willing to pay them back as they once were.

The radical elements in the unions were largely purged in the 1950’s and through the 1960’s. The leadership that remained became increasingly collaborationist, with a well-compensated leadership that had little in common with the ranks, and played, increasingly, the role of facilitator and enabler for the employers, be these private or public. There have been exceptions, but these have not lasted. The capitalist framework has grown stronger, and those who challenge it in the slightest are crushed.

The public workers, who were last to unionize, lost their right to strike and take other work actions, and so also their ability to resist. The private sector workers lost ground with the export of manufacturing, and even the remaining unionized sectors (such as the auto-industry) were forced to accept even further givebacks and disempowerment following the recent government bailout that brought far more howls of public protest (led by the media) than the far more expensive rescue of the financial institutions whose crimes created the current economic crisis.

But while the auto workers have had to accept even more givebacks, including those that adversely affect pensions and health-care, Wall Street firms and banks bailed out by taxpayers are reporting multi-billion dollar profits and paying out billions, literally, in bonuses.

The workers are also disunited, often lacking in communication and camaraderie between professions and even within a profession. This makes it easy to play them against one another, and the media are used to brainwash workers into accepting false stereotypes about other workers. And so it is that a teacher in Brooklyn may think poorly of the auto-worker in Detroit, and vice-versa, being ignorant of both the history and the current realities in the other place and profession. More unnervingly, the security guard, teacher and custodial worker working in the same building for years may find little in common and have little regard for the difficulties faced by the workers in the other professions. Indeed, we also have college professors, high school teachers and those who teach junior high and elementary school showing little regard for each other, as may also be the case for older and younger teachers. There are, of course, the perennial divides of ethnicity and economics.

And so it is that we saw the spectacle of a transit workers union that dared to even mildly challenge the framework being ground down here in New York City, as our teachers union local, the UFT, basically stood by and watched. Should we expect the transit workers to support us when it is our turn?

Nevertheless, from personal experience, I can say that many of these artificial barriers are crossed on a daily basis — we would not survive otherwise, given the unforgiving pace and pressures many of us face at work, without this collegial support. And yet, it is these same pressures and pace that work against pausing to reflect, understand and work towards solidarity, resolution of difficulties and meaningful progress.

To sell the reduction of taxes for the wealthiest, the Republicans had to give tax cuts to all — no matter that the gains by working families were insignificant compared to what was reaped by the wealthiest. They also started two hugely expensive, misguided and counter-productive foreign wars.  \4

During wars, there is usually a call for austerity and savings as the belligerent nation attempts to finance its war effort. Taxes usually are raised for this, and bonds sold. None of this occurred. Instead, Americans were advised to consume more and save less.  And tax cuts were announced by a Republican President, Bush II, who also declared premature victories.

Then we had the shenanigans by the investment banks and the banks in the real estate and related financial sectors. This was not confined to the U.S. But we were at the epicenter.

So a large budget surplus (under Clinton) was turned into a growing deficit (under Bush II). Obama had to deal with it, and he was inclined, from the start, to play Republican lite. So he was blamed by the right for whatever he did, while transferring even more of the load and debt onto the backs of the workers who had supported him. But, in doing this, he gained the all-important “center”.

So now we have to deal with the deficits. The federal government can print money, but the states and cities cannot. As raising taxes is now verboten, they have to cut services. This provides an opening for the longstanding Republican agenda of attacking the public sector and what is left of the unions.  Using their strategy of “divide and conquer” (used successfully by Reagan in the South to gain the support of whites who had been Democrats) they are now attempting to pit private sector workers against those in the public sector. The deficits, both real and fictitious (or overstated) are being used, as Republicans don the garb of fiscal austerity after being (at least at the federal level) the cheerleaders and perpetrators of the most extreme forms of fiscal irresponsibility.  The arguments are also being used to attack Social Security, Medicaid — and all else that assails the Ayn Randian morality (or amorality) that many Republicans espouse.

And so we have a concerted, well-financed effort underway, under Republican governors — from Christie in the Northeast to Walker in the Midwest, to reverse what workers had gained through many decades of hard struggle. Which brings us to what is happening in Madison, Wisconsin.

But Democrats are still divided about this, as we see here in New York as Andrew Cuomo allies himself with big business in order to take on what is left of the unions here.  And the union leadership, at the national level, is weak and far too ready to play, yet again, their comfortable roles of “compromise, accommodate and enable” for the powers that be. \5

In the midterm elections, we saw a conservative wave sweep the heartland, with Republican governors gaining Republican majorities in the state assemblies and senates. Cash from wealthy magnates such as the Koch brothers had been funneled into these campaigns in the billions, tapping into the public discontent as jobs grew scarce and small businesses failed. The protest that manifested itself in the conservative “Tea Party” phenomenon was also manipulated and funded by these magnates and the media they own and control.

It is against this background that we have seen this concerted effort to use this public discontent, along with the deficits created by the Republicans own fiscal sins — the tax breaks that enriched the wealthiest, the unfunded wars, and more — to scapegoat the public sector workers and so to attack the residual, weakened remnants of the union movement in this country.  In Indiana, Ohio, Wisconsin, and even here in New Jersey and New York, we see a well-financed effort to target public workers and their unions.

And it is against this bleak background that we must recognize the courage of those who have been braving the cold and the pay cuts to stand for two weeks at the state capitol in Madison, Wisconsin.  We have seen, in North Africa and West Asia, a democratic upsurge, from Morocco by the Atlantic across the southern coast of the Mediterranean Sea to Yemen by the Indian Ocean and Bahrain in the Persian Gulf.  Young men and women of diverse professions and faiths have marched, united, against corruption and despotism. Many have died. Let us hope that none will have to die here, in these United States, to retain the basic rights of workers, won in long hard struggles in the last century — in which many did, indeed, perish.

Today, Saturday, the twenty sixth of February, people are gathering in all the state capitals to declare their solidarity with their brothers and sisters in Wisconsin and elsewhere.

They can be seen and heard at  http://moveon.org

Paul Krugman has written, in the NY Times, an insightful commentary, from an economist’s viewpoint, on what is happening in Madison :


Arjun Janah 2011 February 26th, Sat. Brooklyn


1. One must bear in mind, however, the history of unregulated capital markets in the past and in recent times, and of what happens when sectors of the population are denied access to basics such as education, housing, jobs and the right to participate fully in the democratic process. This last includes not only the right to vote but also to form unions and other associations to further collective interests.The average person has little recourse as an individual fighting alone against concentrated wealth and the power it can buy.

2. Eventually, one hopes that the lot of workers in these countries will improve on all these things — and indeed, we have evidence of movement in this direction. The formation of independent labor unions is one essential step in this process. Who can best fight for workers’ rights but the workers themselves, collectively?

3. One must bear in mind, however, that economics is not a zero-sum game. The immigrant, by his/her labor, adds value. And wages are used, in large part, for purchases made in this country, including basic necessities. So the population gets cheaper goods and services and the money earned is cycled back, in large part, into the local economy, employing others here.

While many immigrants try to send some money back home to their families, much more is sent abroad when citizens here buy foreign goods, as they now avidly do. The solution to the “problem” posed by immigrants will come not so much from harsher laws but from organization of labor, both of the immigrants here and those who continue to work in their native countries. Wages and job protections need to rise for all, rather than spiral downwards. For this, labor has to organize and push back.

4. This followed the unprecedented attacks on the U.S. homeland in 2001 by criminal Islamists, whose leaders, such as Bin Laden, were financed, armed, aided and ideologically nurtured  by the U.S., Saudi Arabia and Pakistan for short-sighted strategic reasons. The  Republicans used this to advance their own global agenda, using fabrications (evident even then, and since then widely exposed) to attack secular Iraq, a country that had no ties to the Sunni fundamentalist attackers, and was in fact high on their hit list — as Shia Iran still remains — as it does on ours!

In Iraq, we unleashed Islamist and sectarian violence that has still not abated, and which resulted in Islamists gaining political power, with Christians (who had no past history of persecution) forced to flee. In Afghanistan, we replaced the terror of the Taliban (once supported by us and used against Iran) by the corruption of Karzai and his cronies and the regional warlords, with the Taliban reviving and growing stronger as attention was diverted to Iraq by Bush II and Cheney. This attention did finally return, under Obama, but too late and in too misguided and violently counterproductive a fashion.  Obama’s understanding of Afghanistan is as flawed as his understanding of what really goes in the schools in this country.  In this, he is not that different from his predecessors.

These wars were extremely costly, both in human lives, mostly Iraqi and Afghan, but also of U.S. soldiers, and financially — for the U.S., and, even more so, for the countries where the wars were waged. They effectively destroyed the economy, along with civil society, in Iraq, and further damaged what was little was left of these in an Afghanistan already laid waste by several prior decades of intervention by the superpowers — both Soviet and U.S. — and their local proxies.

5. The billionaire Jon Corzine, former CEO of Goldman Sachs, had won office as a Democrat, first as a senator and then as the governor of New Jersey, spending record amounts of money that matched that spent by the billionaire Bloomberg, across the Hudson, in his campaign to become, and remain, mayor of New York City. Bloomberg was able to (barely) hang on but Corzine lost, as the recession took its toll on jobs in this region. He was unseated by a Republican, Christie, a businessman with a radical pro-business and anti-union agenda.

Bloomberg may have abandoned, for now, his ambitions to be President. But Donald Trump, New York’s real estate heir and tycoon, known for his ego and his hairstyle, has declared his (possible) intention at a conservative convention in which Ron Paul (who is opposed to all but minimal government and so wants to get rid of Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid) was declared the popular favorite.  His son, Rand Paul, who shares his father’s domestic agenda, but has not declared his opposition to our empire abroad as his more consistent father has done, has been elected Senator from Tennessee. In a recent TV interview, he talked about the “violent unions”.  This lie was not even contested.  What violence?  I have personally witness violence against union members, with the union passive, rather being even minimally protective.

Here in New York State, a loony Republican candidate went down, as expected, to the Democrat Andrew Cuomo, who declared, on the eve of the election, that he would seek to forge alliances with business, reduce corporate taxes and “go after” the health benefits and pensions of public sector workers and retirees.  This won him the endorsement of Rupert Murdoch’s New York Post.

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