The pro-public union protests in Wisconsin over the past month have marked a major turning point in the American political debate over an elite-backed austerity agenda, declares Frances Fox Piven, perhaps America’s foremost authority on social protest movements.
Piven is a longtime activist for welfare mothers and the poor (earning her an unending stream of diatribes from Glenn Beck, resulting in a rash of death threats) and the author of several classic books on social protest, including Poor People’s Movements and Challenging Authority.
“We are on the cusp of a great movement to resist and roll back that corporate domination by banks, energy companies and war profiteers,” Piven and fellow activist/academic Professor Cornell West write in The Nation. They believe that the Wisconsin model of resistance against the elite agenda of endless cutbacks for working people, undertaken in the name of balancing the budget, must be spread across the nation. To help that happen, Piven and West are promoting a national teach-in April 5 on fighting the austerity agenda that will be conducted on dozens of campuses.
The teach-in will begin with live-streaming of a session with a panel of experts dissecting the sweeping assault on union wages, benefits and rights along with massive cutbacks in social programs benefitting working families, students, and the poor, and outlining strategies for resistance. That segment will be followed by localized discussions analyzing specific threats by elite groups across the nation.
The Wisconsin protests are crucial to build upon, says Piven, because they have reflected a profound rejection of the elite notion that state and federal deficits necessitate more sacrifices for working people but continued incentives and tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy. (In Wisconsin, for example, Gov. Scott Walker originally justified the public union-destroying bill signed March 11 as a vital part of a badly needed “budget repair” measure. His website insisted that “Collective Bargaining is a Fiscal Issue.”)
The Wisconsin uprising was largely unpredictable, says Piven. “It’s always hard to assess when people are going to be able to see beyond the clichés and fabrications of politically powerful. …
“In Wisconsin, maybe this maneuver was just too obvious, maybe the elites have tried it too many times, ” she reflects. “When it becomes this transparent, when we are told that we must have cuts in rights and earnings for public sector workers, food and health while taxes are being cut for corporations, it becomes clear that it is a manufactured crisis.
“We may have come to this point of rebellion because of the over-reaching by the big banks and corporations, [which] demanded a bailout with taxpayer money, paid themselves so lavishly, pushed for more tax relief, and then turned around and are claiming a fiscal crisis.”
Second, the Wisconsin rebellion – with protesters both occupying the interior of the State Capitol and surrounding it outside with tens of thousands of people – exemplified a remarkable degree of solidarity.
“What struck me was the extraordinary solidarity,” stresses Piven. “We expect young people to be in the forefront of social movements, but they came out in solidarity with the public workers. This almost signals a new era in protest politics. High-school kids came out for their teachers.” said an almost-incredulous Piven.
Participants in the Wisconsin rebellion widely understood that the real stakes in the fight were the relentless corporate drive to push down wages and destroy social programs by crushing union and drive up profits by extracting more tax breaks. As Piven points out, the post-WWII “social compact” between employers and labor, although often exaggerated, reflected a certain equilibrium where corporations offered relatively high wages to build up domestic spending and fuel their future profits in exchange for labor agreeing not to question fundamental management decisions.
But with corporate globalization and the shift of jobs to low-wage nations and the rise of free-spending elites in Mexico, Brazil, China and India, Americans became more dispensable both as workers and consumers. “The corporations and banks are more and more predatory. They no longer see American consumers as their sole or even main market. Now we can sell the cars to anyone. This greatly weakens the model on which the social compact relied.”
Unperturbed by growing inequality or worried about social disorder, Corporate America and its CEOs have effectively seceded from the rest of society. They are earning vastly more, with the CEOs of the largest 100 corporations earning 1,723 times as much as their workers and accumulating vast wealth while ordinary Americans are suffering from mortgage debt — and a record number of foreclosures — and students are weighed down by heavy loan burdens.
As they sit on a record $1.9 trillion in accumulated savings, American-based firms created 1.4 million jobs overseas in 2010 while the much lower number created at home were often part-time or temporary. Domestic job creation in the 1999-2010 decade was virtually zero, compared with 20% to 38% in every decade since 1940.
Along with staging a virtual “capital strike” when it comes to job creation, Corporate America’s giants have successfully whittled away at the share of taxes they pay to educate children, provide healthcare and nutrition, assist the disabled and elderly, and maintain the nation’s infrastructure. The real deficit lies in badly-needed public investments, as economist Jeffrey Sachs argues:
The first thing I would do is ask the rich to pay their way, because everything that we need, whether it’s helping our kids to start out life with a safe daycare, proper nutrition and a decent school, or whether it’s increasing the quality of our infrastructure, whether it’s being able to sustain the science and the technology that brought us to where we are today, whether it’s the creating a new energy system, requires some public funding.
And we don’t have that right now because the taxes on the top have been cut, the corporate tax rates have been gutted by tax havens and secret agreements of the IRS with the U.S. companies to allow them to keep all their money abroad through transfer payments, schemes and many, many things that have really gutted our tax system.
But corporate leaders, the Republican leadership, many top Democratic figures like Obama spokesman Jay Carney, and an unending stream of pundits (e.g., David Brooks ‘unwritten austerity constitution”) promote the notion that rather than rein in tax breaks for corporations and the wealthy, it is programs and services vitally needed by poor and working people to which fiscal discipline must be applied.
As Sachs stated,
[W]e have a large budget deficit and what we’re being told is, oh, the only thing we can do is slash the most basic public services.
That formula is being rejected in Wisconsin, and Frances Fox Piven and Cornel West hope to spread that spirit of fighting back with the April 5 teach-ins.