It’s About Who’s Sitting in: Reflections on the Early Global Springtime of Peoples

Published on Dissident Voice, by Paul Street, March 5, 2011.

… And then there’s the remarkable state-level progressive labor rebellion that has erupted in the United States, where right wing governors’ and state legislators’ attack on public worker benefit levels and negotiating rights amounts to the largest assault on labor’s political and collective bargaining power in recent United States history. Much to the surprise of Wisconsin Governor Stott Walker, the clumsy, messianic, business-backed Tea Party governor who launched the assault, workers and citizens have responded with an historic uprising in defense of labor rights. The Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison has become the  site of an incredible three-week (so far) protest that has sparked support demonstrations across the country and received statements of solidarity from Egypt.

From one day to the next, tens of thousands union members and supporters have marched (some carrying signs likening Walker to the deposed Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak) and rallied around and inside Madison’s Capitol Rotunda.  Schools were briefly closed within and beyond Madison as teachers and other public school employees flocked to the Capitol to show their opposition to “Imperial Walker’s” attack on union power. On February 22,  the Madison-based 97-union South Central Labor Federation (representing 45,000 public and private sector union members in southern and central Wisconsin) passed a resolution in support of a General Strike.  The federation appointed a coordinating committee to contact European unions with experience conducting general strikes.

Walker’s assault was prefaced by a provocative statement claiming that he would call out the National Guard if workers dared to resist his effort to effectively strip public sector workers of their collective bargaining rights. The public workers of Wisconsin and their supporters went ahead despite this threat.

The fire of grassroots labor rebellion has spread to other states along with the top-down right- wing attack on union rights. Other battlegrounds include Ohio, Indiana, New Jersey, Oklahoma and Tennessee. Last Saturday, rallies were held in support of Wisconsin’s public workers and collective bargaining rights across the country in every state capital in the U.S. – an extraordinary development.

The Tea Party right insists that their great, supposedly socialist nemesis Barack Obama – the corporate-friendly savior of Wall Street – has intervened on workers’ side in, and even sparked, these historic, state-level labor uprisings in the American heartland. The charge is absurd.  As Wall Street Journal reporter, Jonathan Weisman, noted last week, Obama stepped back from the state-level battles after initially seeming to support labor in Wisconsin. Obama has responded to the rank-and-file labor rebellion in the American heartland in much the same way as he responded to the right-wing coup in Honduras in June of 2009 and to the rise of the Egyptian revolution in February 2011: with initial statements of seeming support for popular-democratic forces followed by conservative equivocation and caution meant to identify himself with democratic change without damaging his deep ties to existing dominant domestic and imperial hierarchies and elites.

National New York Times correspondent, Jackie Calmes, learned that the White House intervened in anger against the national Democratic Party’s initial efforts to support the labor rebellion, which administration officials found as contrary to its happy and neoliberal message “… the White House mostly has sought to stay out of the fray in Madison, Wis., and other state capitals where Republican governors are battling public employee unions and Democratic lawmakers over collective bargaining rights. When West Wing officials discovered that the Democratic National Committee had mobilized Mr. Obama’s national network to support the protests, they angrily reined in the staff at the party headquarters.  Administration officials said they saw the events beyond Washington as distractions from the optimistic ‘win the future’ message that Mr. Obama introduced in his State of the Union address, in which he exhorted the country to… ‘out-innovate and out-educate’ its global rivals.” 1

The real energy in the great Wisconsin worker rebellion and its state-level offshoots comes from the bottom up. It comes from the grassroots, not from the top down. As Wisconsin State Democratic Senate Leader Mark Miller rightly noted when theWall Street Journal (WSJ) queried him on Obama’s role: “Really the people of our state, and the people of our country, have been able to find their voice in this battle. The voices of the people are the voices the governor needs to listen to” 2 … (full long text).

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