MADISON — Last week, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and his Republican allies fittingly resorted to blatantly undemocratic means to ram through Walker’s anti-democratic proposal to deny public employees a union voice on the job and in the political arena, legislation designed to both permanently weaken both labor and the Democratic Party.
But in their desperate and almost-certainly illegal rush to pass the bill, Walker and the Republicans incinerate their own claims that the anti-union bill was an apolitical measure aimed only at bringing state and local budgets under control.
The sleazy tactics behind passage of Walker’s anti-union bill — which he signed Friday morning — took protests to a new level focused on challenging the bill via legal appeals, campaigns to recall anti-union Republican senators, intensified outreach in local communities, and discussion of various direct actions by workers, including heightened talk of a general strike.
The bill’s passage also inspired a massive protest of 85,000 to 100,000 people Saturday — the largest in four weeks of demonstrations — at the State Capitol in Madison, despite bone-chilling weather that was harsh even by Wisconsin standards.
The rally featured 50 farmers on tractors roaring around the Capitol to show their support for pubic workers and union representatives from across the nation, stressing the importance of the Wisconsin struggle. Protesters were addressed by a lineup of fiery speakers including fillmaker Michael Moore, the Texas populist radio broadcaster Jim Hightower, TV host Laura Flanders, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, U.S. Rep. Dennis Kucinich, U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin, and The Progressive editor Matt Roschild, among others.
To the crowd’s delighted roar, the event was capped by the return of 14 fugitive Democratic state senators who had denied the Republicans a quorum needed to pass the anti-union provision embedded in a “budget-repair bill.
Last week, the Republicans reversed two months of fervent assertions that the anti-union bill was strictly a budgetary measure (for example, Gov. Walker’s own official website actually still has a now-embarrassing four-part statement titled “Collective Bargaining Has a Fiscal Impact.”) Wisconsin Republicans had found themselves trapped by their own manufactured budget “crisis.” With budget measures requiring a 20-vote quorum, the Republicans were paralyzed by the Senate Democrats’ absence.
Walker apparently saw his window of opportunity closing fast. Having gained sudden prominence and popularity among conservatives nationally for his bold effort to crush public-sector unionism in the state where it was born (AFSMCE formed here in 1932, and Wisconsin was the first state to grant union rights to public workers in 1959), Walker was in danger of a sudden plunge in his status among conservatives.
After losing support, GOP rams bill through
Walker’s position was deteriorating rapidly by last week. His approval rating had plunged to 39 percent, and support for union rights stood at 60 percent or more. Walker had been badly embarrassed by a phone conversation with a hoaxster posing as billionaire right-winger and Walker donor David Koch, and Republican senators were beginning to waver.
Rather than retreat, Walker pressed the red button to launch the “nuclear option.” Ignoring various procedural rules and apparently breaking the state’s Open Meeting Law by acting on short notice, the Republicans zipped the bill through the Senate on an 18-1 vote Wednesday night and the Assembly 52-42 (with four Republicans defecting) on Thursday. Key to passage was the Republican senators abruptly reversing course and re-defining the anti-union package as a non-budgetary item so that the special quorum was not required.
To top it off, the Republicans’ innocent claim that the bill was non-political was demolished when Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald brazenly revealed Wednesday the Republicans’ underlying political objectives to a visibly stunned FOX News interviewer:
If we win this battle, and the money is not there under the auspices of the union, what you’re going to find is President Obama’s going to have a much more difficult time getting elected and winning the state of Wisconsin.
Naomi Klein, author of The Shock Doctrine: the Rise of Disaster Capitalism, articulated the strategy of Walker and his right-wing, virulently anti-union backers. It begins with instilling a manufactured sense of budget crisis that leaves citizens disoriented and willing to passively accept the imposition of pro-corporate policies:
[Walker and the Right] really want corporate monopoly states. They don’t want any countervailing force balancing out the power of corporations.
With the January 2010 Citizens United decision of the U.S. Supreme Court wiping out a century of campaign finance reforms to restrain the disproportionate power of corporations and the wealthy, “one side got nukes…and now they’re going after the slingshots the other side has.”
Labor outspent 13-1
Wisconsin unions were out-spent by corporations in the 2009-2010 election cycle by a staggering 13-1 margin, according to figures that the nonpartisan Wisconsin Democracy Campaign compiled at my request. But Walker and corporate leaders evidently want to further reduce the volume of workers’ voice on the job and in politics.
Following Wednesday’s Senate vote, Gov. Walker issued a statement declaring a victory that will add enormously to his standing among Republicans nationally.
But Walker also hinted at his long-term vision of fundamentally re-shaping Wisconsin into a low-wage, de-unionized Southern-style state where social needs (e.g., public education, healthcare, transportation, etc.) suffer disinvestment in order to richly subsidize private profit in the name of “job creation”:
In order to move the state forward, I applaud the Legislature’s action today to stand up to the status quo and take a step in the right direction to balance the budget and reform government. The action today will help ensure Wisconsin has a business climate that allows the private sector to create 250,000 new jobs.
However, as evidenced by Saturday’s high-energy rally, the law’s passage was viewed by a huge swath of Wisconsinites as a temporary setback that will be countered with massive recall campaigns, legal battles, job actions, protests at banks and corporations that financially supported Walker, and ever-evolving forms of resistance to Walker’s fundamental attack on workplace democracy and drive to turn Wisconsin into a corporative state.
In this new book, longtime organizers and movement educators Mariame Kaba and Kelly Hayes examine the political lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic and its aftermath, including the convergence of mass protest and mass formations of mutual aid. Let This Radicalize You answers the urgent question: What fuels and sustains activism and organizing when it feels like our worlds are collapsing?
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