Sunday, February 20, 2011

GADFLY: Aux Barricades, Wisconsin!

Posted By on Sun, Feb 20, 2011 at 6:00 PM

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Well, it's about time! I wondered what it would take for Cairo-like demonstrations to break out on this side of the pond, and now, thanks to the folks in Madison, Wisconsin, we know the answer: it's the same as anywhere else , autocracy. The newly-elected Republican-cum-tea-party governor of that state mistook his election as a mandate to engage in another of the right-wing's battles with the middle class by targeting one of the Republicans' favorite bogeymen, labor unions, threatening to unilaterally terminate the rights of 175,000 state workers to collectively bargain (a right, by the way, the union movement originated in—-you guessed it—-Wisconsin). He even borrowed a page from the Middle Eastern despots' playbook by threatening to call out the National Guard to quell any protests.

But, unlike the rest of the socio-economic class in this country who are under attack by conservatives but who have seemingly decided to shuffle off to the slaughter house in sheep-like obeisance to their oligarch, corporatist overlords, these feisty laborers have intoned Peter Finch's famous movie line, telling their bully governor that they're mad as hell and they're not going to take it any more. Now, how about the rest of us?

Americans are notoriously complacent. Ever noticed how, in so many other countries, in a matter of hours after something unpopular happens, tens of thousands are marching in the street, with banners and signs already made decrying the latest outrage du jour? In this country—not so much. Even though we have a rich history of public protest, dating from the original (and still the only authentic) tea party demonstrations during our colonial period, our impossibly high threshold for “taking it to the streets” (hat tip: Doobie Brothers) has all but eliminated public demonstration as a legitimate form of protest. The last time we had mass demonstrations in this country of an equivalent magnitude to what we've seen in the Middle East was during the Vietnam war, and that was primarily because many of the demonstrators were at risk of becoming involuntary cannon fodder. There's nothing like being told you're going to carry a rifle in a far-flung rice paddy against your will to put you in protest mode.

Sure, Americans have lost trillions in their pension and retirement accounts as a result of the crimes committed by Wall Street investment banks, for which no one will ever be held to account, and sure, millions of Americans have lost their homes as a result of fraudulent loans and foreclosures, for which no one will ever be held to account, and sure, the U.S. has even greater income inequality than many middle eastern countries (including Tunisia and Egypt), members of the middle class: get over it. Pay your taxes, even if the super-rich pay far less, proportionately, than you do, and STFU. Write a blog, or maybe even an opinion column for your local alternative paper, but whatever you do, don't put your bodies on the line, en masse, to express your disaffection or to demand your grievances be addressed and remedied. That would be so third-world.

Labor unions, of course, make a convenient target for the tea-and-no-sympathy crowd. It's much easier to blame public employee unions for the fiscal problems most states find themselves in than it is to take responsibility for policies that have caused those problems. In Wisconsin's case, this means the governor can bash unions as scapegoats for a budget deficit that he himself caused by a series of corporate tax reductions he promoted immediately following his election. Republicans hate labor unions, almost as much as they hate people of color, not just because they're a check on corporate power the GOP worships so slavishly, but also because they (unions and people of color) are strong enclaves of Democratic electoral support. So, while it's perfectly OK for the Wisconsin governor to water himself at the trough of corporate power brokers, the Koch brothers (the same ones who've funded the whole tea party “movement” and who also paid to have counter-demonstrators bused to Madison), labor unions must be thwarted, at any cost.

The anti-union mantra is a familiar one here in the South, where the majority of “right-to-work” states are located. Unions are vilified here, perhaps as a remnant of a slavery-induced mentality that workers should be grateful, and even servile, to their employer/masters. Right here in River City the hostility towards public employee unions in particular was graphically displayed in the dustup that followed the garbage workers' failure to report for work during a particularly cold stretch of weather. And, other than WalMart, FedEx is perhaps the most successful corporation in the country when it comes to resisting unionization, so much so that it's managed to get traditionally pro-union Democrats to push its anti-union agenda in Congress.

Maybe the demonstrations in Wisconsin are a function of the fact that, unlike the rest of the country, the demonstrators were already organized, and maybe the public employee unions in Wisconsin are the ones who are really promoting the “don't tread on me” ethos the tea party disingenuously mouths as a subterfuge for its real, pro-corporatist, agenda, but either way, we can all learn something from their resistance efforts (and, indeed, from the demonstrations in the Middle East that preceded them as well), namely that there's something to be said not only for being mad as hell and not wanting to take it anymore, but in storming the barricades to do something about it.

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