by Gary Olson —
Describing what’s happening in Madison, Wisconsin as class warfare is neither an exaggeration nor meant to be inflammatory. It’s simply a fact.
The financial elite who run this country are seeking to solve the financial crisis on the backs of middle income, public sector workers, especially unionized ones. Only 11.9 percent of all workers are organized and only 6.9 percent in the private sector. In the public sector, however, unions represent 36.2 percent of workers. As Washington Post writer E.J. Dionne notes, the battle in Wisconsin is really more about power than budgets because “the only workers left who have decent pension coverage, who have decent, really generous healthcare coverage, are the unionized public employees.”
After essentially destroying private sector unions, big business and their bought-and-paid-for politicians are going after the only remaining viable sector of the American labor movement. They see Wisconsin as the tipping point in permanently reducing living standards for working families on behalf of enhanced corporate profits. For example, one of Wisconsin’s Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s less publicized proposals may affect 1.2 milliion Medicaid recipients. Waiting in the wings are cuts in public education, renewable energy, public transporation, unemployment insurance and layoffs of public workers. In other words, this is about much more than workers’ rights and unless ordinary citizens resist, more assaults are sure to follow in Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and beyond.
An important objective of this phony “austerity” campaign is to demonize unions, thereby diverting attention from the obscene tax cuts for the rich, bipartisan cuts that precipitated the massive decline in government revenues. We might recall that in 1980 the top marginal tax rate was between 72 and 92 percent. After massive lobbying, plus generous deductions and credits, that rate is now at 25 percent. Guess who must make up the revenue shortfall?
In the meantime, right-wing demagogues rush in to name scapegoats for the vanishing American Dream. But make no mistake, these state budget crises originated in Washington. We watch “our” government give away our money for Wall Street’s crazed speculative binges and squander trillions on two immoral wars while drastically reducing taxes on the corporations and our most affluent citizens. Now, abetted by a complicit media, private sector workers are being encouraged to direct their justified but misplaced resentment at public sector workers in a brutal and self-defeating race to the bottom.
As retired M.I.T. Professor Noam Chomsky puts it, “The population in the United States is angry, frustrated and full of fear and irrational hatreds. And the folks not far from you on Wall Street are doing fine. They’re the ones who created the current crisis… They’re coming out stronger and richer than ever. But everything’s fine—as long as the population is passive.”
Along with a majority of other Americans I’ve been experiencing a rare and exhilarating sense of global solidarity as I watch courageous demonstrators stare down oligarchs in the Middle East and North Africa. I was especially heartened by a recent photo from Tahrir Square saying “Egypt Supports Wisconsin Workers – One World, One Pain.” Indeed, this should inspire us to push back against our home-grown, anti-worker Mubaraks on Wall Street and in Washington.
Gary Olson, Ph.D., is chair of the Political Science Department at Moravian College in Bethlehem where he offers a course on “U.S. Workers in the Global Economy.”