Wisconsin Public Employees: Defense of the Unions Leads to Defeat

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As well as this article we have produced a shorter leaflet here, which can be downloaded and distributed by our sympathisers.

Over 200,000 public sector workers and students have taken to the streets and are occupying the state capitol in Wisconsin to protest proposed changes to collective bargaining agreements between the state government and its public employee unions. The state’s rookie governor, Tea Party backed Republican Scott Walker, has proposed a bill removing collective bargaining rights for the majority of the state's 175,000 public employees, effectively prohibiting them from negotiating pension and health care contributions, leaving only the right to bargain over salaries. Moreover, according to the legislation, public employee unions would have to submit themselves to yearly certification votes in order to maintain the right to represent workers in future scaled down negotiations. Firefighters not affected by the proposed changes (because their union supported Walker in the November election) have shown their solidarity with those under attack by joining the protests, which many say have taken inspiration from the wave of unrest sweeping Egypt and the wider Middle East. Many Wisconsin protestors proudly display placards giving the Governor the ominous moniker Scott “Mubarak” Walker, while others hold aloft sings asking, “If Egypt Can Have Democracy, Why Can’t Wisconsin?” Protesters in Egypt have even shown their solidarity with workers in Wisconsin!

Meanwhile, although the U.S. State Department has repeatedly called on Arab leaders to show restraint against protestors these past weeks, Gov. Walker has threatened to bring in the National Guard to suppress if necessary! Some veterans groups have responded that the guard’s job is to respond to disasters not serve as the Governor’s personal goon squad. The political situation in Wisconsin is said to be fragile, as a constitutional crisis looms. All 14 Democratic state senators have fled the state, denying the Republican controlled state legislature the quorum it needs to pass the Governor’s bill. It is said that if they are found within the state, the state patrol will arrest them and bring them back to the capitol! On the other hand, union and Democratic leaders openly talk of recalling the Governor and any state senators who support his legislation. American politics just keeps getting more and more cartoon-like with each crisis!

Source: Politico.com

The crisis in Wisconsin has been framed by the national media as the first real clash of a Tea Party backed Republican executive using his newly found political power to enact an ideological agenda of destroying the public employee unions that many Tea Partiers and Republicans blame for the virtual bankruptcy of state governments across the country. These Republicans say that enacting austerity is necessary in order to balance a state budget crippled by a massive $137 million deficit. On the other hand, Democrats and their friends in the unions are making a hue and cry over the Republican governor and his national Tea Party allies making good political use of a real fiscal dilemma to push their union busting ideology. Who's right?

It is true that, just as in Europe, the American states are in effect facing insolvency. While at the national level the federal government can still indulge in quantitative easing (in effect printing more dollars), the states have no such privilege and therefore face an urgent need to push through drastic austerity measures if they are to balance their budgets and remain financially viable in the bond markets. At this level, Gov. Walkers’ legislation appears to fit a vital need of the bourgeoisie to lower the state’s labor costs and gain a lasting advantage in future negotiations by limiting the scope of future contracts. He would seem to be setting a model to be followed in other states, as they struggle to come to grips with their terrible fiscal situations.

However, on a more global level, the bourgeoisie is also well aware of the political and social risks of launching heavy attacks on workers already hammered by high unemployment, pay freezes, furloughs and the collapse of the real estate market. Hence the tried and true American strategy of pushing attacks through in a piecemeal fashion at the state and local level, rather than launching a direct and immediate frontal assault on federal entitlement programs. Still, there is a risk that Gov. Walker’s legislation would go too far in destabilizing the unions—which act as the shop floor police to control workers’ anger, as well as the state Democratic Party itself, which relies on the unions for much of its campaign fundraising. Gov. Walker’s policy could not only risk emasculating the unions when the bourgeoisie needs them the most, it could also threaten to upset the two-party system in a vital swing state that President Obama won in 2008.

Last year saw protests in California against cuts to education budgets and earlier last week workers in Ohio protested a bill that would limit collective bargaining for state employees there, as did teachers in Indianapolis. When the need for further attacks come, the bourgeoisie will need the union apparatus there in order to contain the workers’ militancy and make sure the struggle remains within the scope of bargaining over wages and benefits rather than threaten the state itself.

The perilous state of Wisconsin's finances isn't uncommon. It's facing a $137 million budget deficit this financial year, and a whopping $3.6 billion over the next two years. The most drastic aspects of Gov. Walker's cuts demands that most state and local employees contribute half the cost of their pensions and at least 12.6 percent of their health insurance premiums. However, this is only projected to save the state $30 million by this June, rising to $300 million over the next two years, only 10% of the deficit. The rest of the bill proposes to save $165 million this year by simply refinancing state debt. Thus the biggest savings have nothing to do with public employees. This is of course cold comfort to the workers facing crippling increases in pension contributions and health care costs. One estimate says the proposal amounts to an effective pay cut of 10% for the average Madison teacher.

With the average contract negotiation taking 15 months, the Governor has refused to meet with the unions, instead calling for drastic measures, threatening the layoff of 1,500 state workers if his plan isn't accepted. He certainly seems to be staying true to his reputation of playing hardball. But is this just another case of a Republican trying to out 'right-wing' the right of his party by busting the unions? Walker himself is very clear: “For us, it’s simple. We’re broke. It’s not about the unions. It’s about balancing the budget.” (NY Times) From the union side, David Ahrens, of the UW-Madison's Carbone Cancer Center, disputes the emergency nature of the situation saying, “That would be more believable if he had ever bothered to meet with the unions to begin with.” (Wisconsin State Journal)

President Obama also weighed in on the union’s behalf, repaying the $200 million they spent on his November election campaign and calling Mr. Walker’s proposals “an assault on unions.” However, the House speaker, Rep. John Boehner, of Ohio, praised Mr. Walker for “confronting problems that have been neglected for years at the expense of jobs and economic growth.” As would be expected, the Left has come to the defense of the unions as the workers’ best protection in tough times, while the right descries them as historical anachronisms that stunt economic growth and kill jobs. What are workers to make of all this?

It's important to understand the key role the unions play as part of the state apparatus. They are 'social firefighters', acting as a safety valve at the economic and political levels. The kind of collective bargaining agreements under attack today were introduced by the likes of President Kennedy who saw their benefits in terms of social control offered by the unions, especially when the kinds of 'victories' the unions were winning included no-strike clauses! In the late 60s and early 70s these 'concessions' were certainly more affordable in economic terms than they are today. Forty years of economic crisis has led to great erosions in the social wage enjoyed by the post-war baby boomers. But while the unions are expensive in economic terms, they are also effective tools in imposing austerity on the working class. For example, in Wisconsin the unionsalready negotiated a deal with the previous administration for $100 million in cuts to benefits along with an outright 3% pay reduction.” One gets the sense that unions’ anger at the Governor’s plans is not so much about the cuts to the workers they are supposed to represent, but at the prospect of no longer be regarded as partners with the state in managing the economy. In fact, Marty Beil, head of WSEU/AFSCME—the Wisconsin public employees’ union argued that the union was perfectly willing to go along with certain cuts, but could not stand for the Governor’s brazen power play: “We are prepared to implement the financial concessions proposed to help bring our state's budget into balance, but we will not be denied our God-given right to join a real union... we will not - I repeat we will not - be denied our rights to collectively bargain.” In a conference call with the media she continued, "This is not about money (…) We understand the need to sacrifice." (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel)

All the talk of union busting is at bottom an attempt to derail the discontent shown by the workers against the attacks on their living condition into the dead-end of the defense of unions themselves and the democracy they supposedly embody and away from effective strike action to defend their living and working conditions. Already, in the movement in Wisconsin, the unions have been very effective in couching it in terms of the defense of “democracy” (hence the linking to Egypt), even though it is their allies, the Democratic Senators who appear, for the moment, to have obstructed the functioning of the bourgeois democratic apparatus by absconding from the state. Already, national Tea Party activists have bused in counter-demonstrators coming to the “democratically-elected” Governor’s defense and to protect the “majority of Wisconsinites” who voted for his tough actions against the unions. If your main goal is to defend “democracy,” it’s not clear which side you would support!

In a sense, the hunt of the state troopers for the missing senators is emblematic of the deeper hunt the US bourgeoisie is having for a solution to its economic crisis. As that solution proves ever more elusive, the bourgeoisie on all levels—federal, state and local—will have to resort to further attacks against the working class. Public employees—civil servants, firefighters, highway workers and above all teachers—will be on the front line of this assault. It is no accident, or simply an ideological penchant of the right wing, that Tea Partiers and Republicans have put public employees in the cross hairs. It is their wage and benefit bill that most immediately impacts the fiscal solvency of the state.

Moreover, attacks against public employees have not been limited to states governed by Republicans. In New York, Democratic Gov. Cuomo has threatened nearly 10,000 layoffs if union negotiations stall, while Democrat Jerry Brown in California has talked about the need for painful cuts to solve that state’s perennially budget woes. On the federal level, President Obama himself has frozen federal employees' salaries and his budget commission has threatened to lay off 10 percent of the federal workforce! Nevertheless, the zealousness with which Tea Party Republicans like Walker have carried their crusade against the very foundation of the unions (as distinct from the workers they are supposed to represent) has the potential to backfire if it is carried to its ultimate conclusion. The bourgeoisie will inevitably need to call on the unions as the class struggle continues to heat up. The attempt by a rookie Republican Governor to wipe out the unions in his state is yet another example of the difficulties the U.S. national bourgeoisie is having in controlling its political process as a result of the social decomposition that deepens every day this system still stands.

Colin, 02/20/11.


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