Our lives begin to end when we become silent about things that matter
- Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
We’re not sure we attended the same day of mass protests in Madison, Wisconsin reported on by the Chicago Tribune two days ago (I am writing on the morning of Monday, February 21st, 2011). We were in Madison on Saturday to witness and participate in the fifth day of historic labor protests occurring there – protests the editors of the “liberal” New York Times did not see as worth mentioning in the “Week in Review” section of their Sunday paper. This remarkable labor resistance was sparked by Wisconsin ’s hard-right governor Scott Walker, who is trying to ram through a “budget repair” bill that would significantly reduce the medical and pension benefits enjoyed by the state’s public sector workers and effectively strip those workers of their collective bargaining rights.
We drove up to our old home away from home – Madison, the birthplace of progressivism – with two friends from Iowa City, Iowa, on Saturday to see and add our voices to the pro-union force there. We did so knowing that our own state could be next. Along with the right wing governor in Ohio, Iowa ’s Republican governor Terry Branstad is readying a bill very much like Walker’s.
Here is Tribune reporter Dan Hinkel’s account two nights ago, in an article titled “Wisconsin Budget Battles Continue”:
“In opposing rallies…an estimated 60,000 demonstrators surrounded the Wisconsin State Capitol on Saturday…
“State workers and pro-labor activists have filled the streets of downtown Madison to oppose Gov. Scott Walker’s attempt to force Wisconsin employees to contribute more for their health care and pensions and to strip them of their collective bargaining rights.”
”With activists flying in from around the country, those protests were countered Saturday by a smaller but equally strident crowd of supporters of Walker ’s state budget measure.”
"The Capitol rotunda echoed with drums and chants while pro-labor protesters outside chanted ‘Kill the bill.’ The Tea party-led activists responded with chanted slogans including ‘Do your job!’”
“…'This is where we’re gonna start,' said tea party organizer Melvin Timm of Neenah , Wis. 'This is gonna set the tone.’”
“The Walker supporters rallied at one end of the Capitol, while union boosters surrounded them with a march around the square. The groups mingled and could sometimes only be differentiated by the signs they carried.”
“...Both sides seemed ready for an even longer fight. ‘This is an existential battle,’ said conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart, as he took the stage before the pro-Walker protesters. ‘It’s the battle of our times.’”1
A Workers’ Rights Battle
Contrary to the title of Hinkel’s article, we did not witness a “budget battle” in Madison . We beheld and joined in a workers’ rights struggle. Wisconsin ’s public workers and their unions are ready to negotiate on benefits and more. The main question for them is labor rights. The most provocative issue – the core source of popular and labor anger – is that Walker and his Republican cohorts in the state legislature are using the state’s “budget crisis” (itself exaggerated and largely a result of massive tax breaks to corporations) to attack hard-won collective bargaining rights. Their “repair” is an act of destruction. It contains a provision that would end the state’s government workers’ right to collective bargaining on anything other than wages and prohibit unions from winning wages in excess of the inflation rate x unless approved in a local referendum (imagine the outraged business response to a bill that denied the right to enjoy a rate of profit increase exceeding the increase of the Consumer Price Index!). Workers could not negotiate their benefits and working conditions under Walker ’s bill. Unions could not force their workers to pay dues, and would face a vote every year to remain certified.
The bill would already have been passed but for the decision of 14 Democratic state senators to leave Wisconsin . This denied the state legislature the number of sitting representatives required to hold a session and opened the door for large scale protests that have involved activists sleeping in and around the Capitol building and huge popular meetings in the Capitol’s assembly.
“ Wisconsin is Open for Business”
Walker, the Wisconsin Republicans and their corporate backers from within and beyond the state are not content merely with business as usual – with balancing their state budget on the backs of working people and the poor while handing out tax cuts to rich folks. Hell, Democratic and moderate Republican governors and legislatures can do that. As right-wing extremists of the Tea Party variety, they see an opportunity to really make capitalist history by breaking the back of public sector unionism. Having pushed private sector union density (the share of workers enrolled in unions) well below 10 percent, the right wing business class has launched a major campaign to destroy labor power in the pubic sector. Using the need to “repair” deficits as their pretext, Republican governors and legislators and from New Jersey to Iowa see a chance to gratify their business backers by inflicting an historic defeat on the last bastion of union power in the U.S. : government employment.
With corporate-sponsored Tea Party-friendly Republicans in control of both its executive and legislative branches, Wisconsin is a natural ground zero for that assault. Its recently elected governor is just the man to launch the assault on labor rights. Telling Fox News yesterday morning that he is not fazed by six days of remarkable pro-union protest in and around the Capitol, Walker predicted that Wisconsin will trail-blaze “conservative” policy for other states by weakening unions, much like it did with so-called welfare reform (the abolition of poor families’ entitlement to public family cash assistance) and the advance of school privatization vouchers in the 1990s.2 When he took up his position as governor earlier this year, Walker hung a sign on the doorknob of his office that read “Wisconsin is open for business.” He rejected $810 million in federal money that Wisconsin was getting to build a high speed train line between Madison and Milwaukee, turned the state’s Department of Commerce into a “public-private hybrid” in which workers had to re-apply for their jobs, and joined with other Republicans to grant $117 million in tax breaks to businesses and others. Walker is a dedicated capitalist ideologue who believes that collective bargaining is bad for business.3
The main problem with Hinkel’s article is its drastic understatement of the disparity in turnout between labor and the tea party. We saw little “mingling” between the groups. What we did see was a seemingly endless sea of smiling, chanting, whistling, drumming, joyous, clapping, hooting, and diverse pro-labor humanity surrounding a comparatively tiny group (500-1,000 people tops) of angry Tea Partiers stuck on the eastern side of the Capitol. The pro-Walker Tea Party group was organized by Americans for Prosperity, a leading right-Republican outfit dominated by the arch reactionary billionaire capitalist and arch-polluters Koch Brothers (Charles and David Koch) – leading sponsors of the Tea Party from the beginning. 4
It was quite an understatement for the Tribune to call the pro-Walker rally “smaller but equally strident.” The Tea Party contingent was outnumbered by at least 60 to 1 by our up-close and panoramic observation – something that went unreported in Chicago evening news broadcasts that depicted the day in Madison as pitting two roughly equivalent protests against one another. It is revealing that Hinkel included in his report two quotes from right wing activists but not a single quote from a labor supporter. This is consistent with the dominant mass media’s pronounced tendency to view the corporate-crafted and top-down business-backed Republican “Tea Party” as a legitimate and worthy social protest movement. By contrast, those media commonly treat actually popular social movements and resistance as what might be called “unworthy protests,” hardy worth serious and respectful coverage and commentary.5
“Vive La Cheddar Rebellion”
It wasn’t just size that differentiated the two sides from on another. Equally significant was their comparative spirit and mood. The billionaire-backed Walker forces were sour and haughty, seemingly irritated at the requirement to gather collectively and make noise – the stuff of social movements. They did not seem to be enjoying themselves very much. They spewed jealous accusations at the supposed reckless “socialism” of “radical left” big government Democrats like (the center-right) Barack Obama and the state senators(dubbed the “Fab 14” by some labor supporters) who “fled Wisconsin .” Their mean-spirited message was clear to the workers and professionals who teach the state’s children and plow its highways and clean the bathrooms of its state, county and municipal buildings: “shut the Hell up, go back to work, and be thankful for whatever we see fit to pay you and indeed for having any kind of job at all.”
One of us (Street) went up to a Tea Partier holding a poster depicting Obama as a Communist and asked him if he really believed that the president of the United States – the savior of Wall Street – was a Marxist. The rightist looked at his questioner with disgust and turned away in stone silence.
By happy contrast, the progressive, pro-labor mass of surrounding and the dwarfing the Tea Party group was a model of festive good humor. There was music and street theater, including a pro-union Fife and Drum corps in colonial-revolutionary garb (take that Tea Party), a man dressed as “Darth Walker,” and the impressive bagpipes of kilt-wearing members of the Firefighters’ Union. Joyful and supportive conversation was free and easy between and among participants, who laughed and took pictures of each others’ many hand-made posters and signs, crafted to combine struggle with good humor:
This Cheese Does Not Run
Walker is a Weasel, Not a Badger
No You Can’t Have My Rights, I’m Still Using Them
Support Workers’ Rights, Not Walkers’ Wron
Send Walker to the Principals’ Office
Schools Don’t Allow Bullying – Discipline Walker
It’s Not About $, Its About Rights
You Can Have My Money But Not My Voice
This is Your Governor on Corporate Drugs
Governor Walker: The World is Watching
Walker Needs a History Lesson
Every Packer Player is a Union Member
NFL Believes in Collective Bargaining
Bears Fans Support Wisconsin Workers
Teachers Are Not Silent in a Democracy
Wisconsin Wants More Beer and Brats – Nobody Ordered Tea
No Tea for Me
You Can Pry My Union Card From My Cold Dead Hands
Scott Walker Report Card: Listening – F; Math – F; Plays Well with Others – F.
Wisconsin Values Democracy at Work
He’s Walking Like an Egyptian (Mubarak)
Walker Der Fuher
Jesse James Walker and the Great Workers’ Rights Robbery
Wississippi: The Walker Tea Party Agenda
New State Motto: Backwards
Union Blood is Thicker Than Tea
Corporate Street Walker (words above a salacious picture of Walker )
The Greedy Got Us Into This Mess and They Laugh When We Fight Each Other
I’m Still Mad About the Train
High Speed Fail
Workers’ Rights = Human Rights
Don’t Budget Our Rights
Reasonable People Negotiate
Don’t Drink the Tea
Negotiate, Not Dictate
United We Bargain, Divided We Beg
I’m Not Here for the Money I’m Here for My Rights
Our Lives Begin to End When We Become Silent About Things That Matter, Dr, Martin Luther King, Jr.
Public Employees Work for You, Privatization Works for Profits
This is Not a Tea Party
Hurting Teachers Hurts Kids
Land of the Free, Home of the Economically Enslaved
“Who’s Sitting in….the Halls of Government”
Unlike the Obama-obsessed Tea Partiers, the union and pro-labor crowds in and around the Capitol Rotunda seemed uninterested in the question of who’s atop the national media-politics extravaganza. They were focused on the real and relevant policy issues at hand and above all on basic labor, human, and civil rights and social justice within and beyond the workplace. With tens of thousands of them circling the Capitol and thousands occupying the structure itself, it seemed as if they were channeling the wisdom of the late great radical American historian Howard Zinn in 2009:
“There's hardly anything more important that people can learn than the fact that the really critical thing isn't who is sitting in the White House, but who is sitting in—in the streets, in the cafeterias, in the halls of government, in the factories. Who is protesting, who is occupying offices and demonstrating—those are the things that determine what happens. It is becoming clearer and clearer to many, after the first year of Obama’s presidency, that it is going to require independent action from below to achieve real change.” 6
Exactly right. Let this be where the next progressive movement gets its start. Let this set the tone.
Janet Razbadouski is a public sector employee and energy efficiency and sustainability expert in Iowa. Author Paul Street ’s next book (co-authored with Anthony DiMaggio) is Crashing the Tea Party Mass Media and the Campaign to Remake American Politics (advance order at http://www.paradigmpublishers.com/books/BookDetail.aspx?productID=280225)
1 Dan Hinkel, “Wisconsin Budget Battle Rallies Continue,” Chicago Tribune (February 19, 2011, 8:30 pm) at http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/breaking/chibrknews-wisconsin-budget-battle-rallies-continue-20110219,0,1990710.story
2 Ryan J. Foley, "Wisconsin governor says state could lead nation in weakening unions as protests enter day 6," Associated Press (February 20, 2011) at http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/breaking/sns-ap-us-wisconsin-budget-unions,0,3070407.story
3. Monica Davey, “For Wisconsin Governor, Battle Over State Finances Was Long in Making,” New York Times, February 20, 2011, Sec. 1, 16-17. Davey’s title repeats the claim that it is a battle over finances when the main point of contestation is in fact labor rights.
4. On the Koch brothers and the Tea Party, see Jane Mayer, “Covert Operations: The Billionaire Brothers Who Are Waging War Against Obama,” The New Yorker (August 30, 2010).
5. There are many examples of this revealing media disparity given in Paul Street and Anthony DiMaggio, Crashing the Tea Party Mass Media and the Campaign to Remake American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, forthcoming in April 2011). It all fits very well with the late radical historian Howard Zinn’s analysis of what Zinn called “the unreported resistance.” Genuinely popular oppositional activity, Zinn observed, tends to be deleted from dominant media coverage because it challenges existing domestic and imperial hierarchies and refuses “to surrender the possibility of a more equal, more humane society.” The forgotten and censored social movements of past and present might be labeled “unworthy protests,” following the dichotomy drawn between “worthy” and “unworthy victims” by Noam Chomsky and Edward Herman in their famous book Manufacturing Consent: The Political Economy of the Mass Media (1988). In detailing the ideologically biased coverage of U.S. global policy and foreign affairs in dominant American media, Chomsky and Herman showed how people killed and injured by U.S. and U.S-allied violence go mostly unreported and un-mourned in American mass media. They are unworthy victims as far as the reigning media authorities are concerned. By contrast, the victims of officially designated “enemy” violence —real or imagined—receive extensive attention and their fate is the subject of strong moral outrage and serious investigation. They are worthy victims. We might designate American antiwar, anti-empire, and social justice activists and demonstrators as officially unworthy dissenters in dominant U.S. media coverage. They lack respectable status in the reigning communications and ideological systems because of their challenge to domestic and imperial power structures and doctrines, which have long garnered approval in the nation’s reigning media conglomerates – themselves leading parts of the corporate and military power system. Authentic grassroots struggles that confront concentrated wealth and power naturally receive short shrift in American corporate media: expecting anything different is like thinking that General Motors’ company newspaper ought to be sympathetically portraying labor struggles in GM’s domestic and foreign auto plants. By contrast, faux-populist Astroturf groups that conform to the needs and views of the rich and powerful receive much more extensive and favorable coverage and commentary. The corporate-backed and corporate media-ted Tea Party phenomenon is a graphic example of the sort of “movement” that falls within the spectrum of acceptable (worthy) “dissent” and thus receives deceptive designation as a genuine social protest expressing real popular anger. See Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States (New York:Harper Perennial, 1999), 629.
6. Quoted in “The Legacy of Howard Zinn,” SocialistWorker.org (November 2, 2010) at http://socialistworker.org/blog/critical-reading/2010/11/02/legacy-howard-zinn