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Working In These Times

Tuesday, Feb 22, 2011, 3:04 pm

Presidential Ambitions Behind Wis. Gov. Walker’s Unionbusting Stance?

BY Roger Bybee

Could his intransigence catapult him to national fame, a la George Wallace?

MADISON/MILWAUKEE, Wis.—A 21st-century version of Alabama Gov. George Wallace's infamous 1963 stand in the entrance of the Univeristy of Alabama seems to be playing out right now in Wisconsin, as new Republican Gov. Scott Walker battles to destroy the ability of almost all public-employee unions to function.

Just as Wallace used his segregationist views to catapult himself to national fame and repeated presidential runs, Gov. Scott Walker has seen his political stock rising so fast among conservatives that he could emerge as a presidential candidate after less than two months as governor, some political observers argue (here and here, among other places).

There is another parallel between Wallace and Walker: each relied on a thin pretext to justify their hostility. In Wallace's case, it was toward African Americans, and in Walker's, unionized public employees. Wallace maintained that his stance was based on a resolute belief in "states' rights." Walker, for his part, is claiming a severe and urgent budget crunch leaves no room for recognizing public union collective-bargaining rights as they now exist, except for three unions (firefighters, police and state troopers) that endorsed him in the 2010 election.

As I reported last week, Walker has proposed rules that would eventually suffocate public-employee unions. Walker and his allies, such as the Club for Growth, have maintained that the legislation should also impose higher benefit costs on workers (estimated at 6.8% to 11% of takehome pay).

However, after the largest public employee unions proposed a bargain whereby the unions would accept the lower take-home pay in exchange for maintaining bargaining rights, Walker's lack of concern for budget issues was exposed. Walker stuck to his hard line, maintaing, "There is no room for compromise."

But unlike the popular reaction (among white) Alabamans back in 1963, Walker's hardline stance against what citizens view as basic rights is not viewed favorably:

The poll of Wisconsin voters, conducted by Democratic pollster GQR Research for the AFL-CIO between Feb. 16 and 20, shows public feelings toward the union supporters versus the Republican governor are vastly different.

Sixty-two percent of respondents to the poll said they view public employees favorably, while just 11% said they had an unfavorable view of the workers whose benefits packages Walker says are breaking the state budget.

Meanwhile, just 39% of respondents had a favorable view of Walker, while 49% had an unfavorable view of the freshman Republican governor. Voters are split on his job performance, with 51% saying they disapprove of the job Walker has done.

Since the protests began, Governor Walker has seen real erosion in his standing," the GQR pollsters write in their analysis, "with a majority expressing disapproval of his job performance and disagreement with his agenda.

Gov. Walker's plan—which has been sharply criticized by Madion Mayor David Ciesliewicz and County Executive Kathleeen Falk, along with the Madison and Shorewood School Boards—ran into an unexpected bump when the Greater Madison Chamber of Commerce called up Walker to engage in a more deliberative process.

"Unlike the out-of-state backers of the union-busting, the local Chamber of Commerce represents busineses who would actually be hurt by workers' loss in buying power," observed Jim Cavanaugh, president of the South Central Federation of Labor.

SOLIDARITY FROM ALL CORNERS

Moreover, resistance among the union movement and supporters continues to be strong, and support--material and symbolic--is coming in the Eygptian trade movement, the faith community, the Super Bowl-winning Green Bay Packers, students, retirees and out-of-state unionists.

The protesters are continuing to get ready for more bold and unconvential forms. The South Central Federation of Labor based in Madison, is "now preparing for all eventualities," including a general strike, said SCFL President Jim Cavanaugh.

The SCFL, which represents about 100 unions and represents 45,000 workers, will be considering a call for the strike if Walker's bill is passed. General strikes in the U.S. have been a rarity in comparison to Europe, occurring most memorably in Seattle in 1919 and Oakland after in 1946.

The SCFL backed two resolutions Monday night, reading in part:

The SCFL endorses a general strike, possibly for the day Walker signs his 'budget repair bill,'  and requests the education committee (of the SCFL) immediately begin educating affiliates and members on the organization and function of a general strike.

The SCFL goes on record as opposing all provisions contained in Walker's 'budget repair bill,' including but not limited to, curtailed bargaining rights and reduced wages, benefits, pensions, funding for public education, changes to medical assistance programs and politicization of state government agencies.

The SCFL's preparations for escalating the struggle will give the corporate leaders belonging to the Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, at whose annual gathering at Monona Terrace, Gov. Walker is the star guest, a little something to think about.

GRASSROOTS IGNITED?

From all indications, both Gov. Walker and his cororate allies imagined enacting a swift and paralyzing blow to public unions within a week, coordinated with ads from the Club for Growth. But as the struggle stretches out and the public seems to be turning against Walker's unwillingness to compromise, the potential costs for Walker and his corporate cronies are rising.

The crowds have kept growing, cresting at a remarkable 55,000 to 70,000 Saturday, and capturing almost hour-by-hour coverage from national media outlets. (A rival Tea Party rally held Saturday in support of Gov. Walker drew only about 2,000, and was out-numbered 30-1 or 35-1, a fact that most media outlets neglected to mention.)

Union pride and solidarity deeply engrained in Wisconsinites has obviously been a central feature of this story. At the same time, I believe that the massive response from Wisconsin, around the nation and even the world has transcended the Walker bill and touched a deeper, widely-held fear that we are moving towards a de facto corporate dictatorship.

A surprising number of people I know with who are not particularly active politically and possess absolutely no connection to labor are streaming to Madison because of the threat to democracy they perceive.

Grassroots liberals and leftists—whose primary political identity might be as feminists, civil rights advocates, environmentalists, peace activists and other parts of the often-segmented progressive movement, are all perceiving the same danger—and after a long string of disappointments after the Obama election, a chance to exert political power.

The underlying spirit animating the huge pro-worker rights crowds was expressed by Rev. Jesse Jackson to tens of thousands of listening Friday night outside the Capitol in the frigid, damp air. Jackson thundered,

Don’t let them make you ashamed of being a liberal! This nation was built on 'give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses'…This land was made for you and me.

Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer and University of Illinois visiting professor in Labor Education. Roger's work has appeared in numerous national publications, including Z magazine, Dollars & Sense, The Progressive, Progressive Populist, Huffington Post, The American Prospect, Yes! and Foreign Policy in Focus. More of his work can be found at zcommunications.org/zspace/rogerdbybee.

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