Wisconsin: the battleground for America’s political future
Wisconsin isn’t one of the glamour States in the US. You know it exists, somewhere in that expanse of endless terrain in the middle there, but you couldn’t pick it out on a map, much less name any of its towns. Even so, anonymous as it is, Wisconsin is now the hub of what might become one of the great political struggles of the era.
It started as a row over workers’ rights, but it has ballooned alarmingly into full-blown class war, beleaguered Democrat-leaning unions fighting for survival against the full array of the right wing attack machine. Initially the protests were small, a few thousand workers demonstrating outside the state capitol in Madison. Within a few days though, as many as 70,000 striking workers and their sympathisers had occupied the centre of the city and the building itself.
Many wonderful stories have emerged, not least a local pizza restaurant turning itself into a kind of field kitchen, taking orders from sympathisers across the US and the world – including Egypt – to feed demonstrators bedding in inside the capitol. Democratic state senators, meanwhile, have crossed state lines en masse and gone into hiding in order to hold up the vote on Walker’s budget. There are 19 Republicans and 14 Democrats – and the vote requires a quorum of 20.
The issue is with the new Republican governor’s budget. Claiming that the state was broke and that drastic measures were required, Scott Walker – a Tea Party favourite swept to power in the November midterm elections – proposed a package of devastating funding cuts for education and public services, even while introducing big tax breaks for corporations. By itself, the budget would have been a bitter pill for state employees, but it came attached to a savage kicker: a provision to strip public sector unions of the right to collective bargaining. Though he denied the allegation, Walker seemed to have engaged in a programme of union busting.
Unions, you see, are the Democrats’ biggest donors. In fact, they are the Democrats’ only big donors. Without union funding clout, the Democrat party would simply cease to be competitive against Republican opponents, who have the backing of nearly all of corporate America. Break the unions, and you break the Democrats.
There is a $137m budget shortfall in Wisconsin. Walker’s business tax breaks amount to $140m. Wisconsin’s public sector unions have bent backwards to reach a compromise: they’ve said they’d accept all the pay cuts imposed on them, unnecessary though they are, provided they can keep their collective bargaining rights. Walker hasn’t bent. The implication is clear: this crisis is manufactured.
But why would a lowly state governor be so determined to press on? Simple: he isn’t acting alone. Walker was swept to power with the help of numerous far-right political organisations, who ran huge TV attack campaigns against his opponent. These organisations, notably Americans For Prosperity, receive their funding from a handful of shadowy conservative billionaires, who seem to be hosing the entire US political system with money for their own ends. Surely you don’t need to ask why right-wing billionaire industrialists would want to break organised labour?
It sounds like a lefty persecution fantasy I know, but get this: yesterday, a 20-minute recording of a phonecall with governor Walker tore across the internet, seeming to show him enmired neck-deep in shenanigans. A gonzo journalist known for stunts like this telephoned Walker’s office posing as David Koch (pronounced ‘coke’), one of two billionaire brothers long thought to be pulling Tea Party and Republican strings. It took him a few hours to get through, but get through he did, and he held a particularly damning conversation with the governor.
Among other things, Walker appeared to ask for support for Republican state senators in vulnerable seats, and suggested that he’d considered seeding the crowd of peaceful protestors with agents provocateur. He admitted that union-busting was his goal – despite his repeated public denials. Lawyers are even now poring over the transcript to see if there’s any chance he can be indicted.
The situation remains fluid, and it’s dizzyingly exciting. Union protests have spread to Indiana and Ohio, where similar bills have been tabled, while Walker is now threatening mass layoffs if the Democrats don’t return to Madison for a vote. There are campaigns afoot to garner enough signatures to recall senators on both sides, while demonstrators continue to occupy the capitol in Madison.
The American Left, long disgusted by the national Democratic Party’s weakness in the face of any conservative pressure, is hoping that this will reinvigorate a faltering labour movement. Polling data suggests that the nation’s moderates are finally realising that the Tea Party’s barefaced corporatism is not in their interest. We really could be witnessing the beginning of a significant backlash against the Right’s rapacious financial agenda.
Barack Obama, predictably inscrutable, has remained silent.
Picture credits: Getty Images
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