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Has the Arab tidal wave hit Wisconsin?
Sat, 12 Mar 2011 15:23:02 GMT
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Has the huge wave of protests that has swept across the Arab world and North Africa, raced across the Atlantic to inundate American shores?

If the ongoing events in the state of Wisconsin are any indication, it certainly has. The protests begun on February 15 in response to Governor Scott Walker's proposed Budget Repair Bill, have, since that time, grown to such an extent as to capture worldwide attention, prompting sympathy from protestors in Cairo, and union leaders from Spain to Poland.

As with the events in North Africa, the protests in Wisconsin began innocuously enough. Wisconsin, like a number of other American states, found itself 'broke' with an enormous projected 2-year budget shortfall - to the tune of $3.6 billion. According to Governor Walker, a Republican, the only way to meet the budget would be to trim the salaries of public employees and weaken the collective bargaining power of their unions. The state government would require public employees to contribute 5.8 percent of their salaries to cover pension costs and an additional 12.6 percent to their health care premiums.

In other words, their 'benefits' would end up costing the employees a great deal more, and these public servants, who, for the most part, are already notoriously underpaid, would be taking home much smaller paychecks.

Though union leaders and Walker's Democratic opposition, realizing that something needed to be done to balance the budget, accepted the higher cost of benefits, they drew the line with the governor's proposed weakening -- or eradication -- of bargaining rights. According to the Associated Press (AP), they condemned the proposal as nothing more than a power grab that would “gut Wisconsin's deep organized labor tradition and result in layoffs” that would “devastate the economy.”

Walker, however, 'stuck to his guns,' saying that he wanted to remove all collective bargaining rights, except for salary, because the state was broke and he saw no point in negotiating with the unions when there was nothing to offer. He also said regarding salary negotiations, that any requests for an increase in salary higher than the consumer price index would have to be approved by referendum.

When the governor first announced his proposal at a state Capitol news conference, he said his plan should come as a shock to no one. "Unless you were in a coma for the last two years, it was clear where I was headed," he informed the people of Wisconsin.

However, Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca, a Democrat from Kenosha, pointed out that Walker had never mentioned his intention to abolish collective bargaining rights during his gubernatorial campaign, and this proposal was "a radical departure from Wisconsin values."

Wisconsin State AFL-CIO President, Phil Neuenfeldt, agreed, saying in a statement that the right to negotiate wages and benefits through a union is a fundamental underpinning of the middle class. “Instead of balancing the budget on the backs of hard-working Wisconsinites, we need to come up with a balanced approach that looks at shared sacrifice from everyone," he said.

Bryan Kennedy, president of the union AFT-Wisconsin, called the proposal as shocking as it was outrageous.

And the Democrats and union leaders were not the only ones disturbed by the proposed legislation. When the governor's announcement was made, angry citizens hit the streets of Madison, the state capital, with smaller protests erupting in Milwaukee, Green Bay and on various university campuses.

As Walker remained adamant, the numbers of demonstrators grew to the tens of thousands, converging on the state capitol building, and prompting John Tarrett of Al-Jazeera TV to liken the protests to those of Egypt, Bahrain, and Libya, in which “ordinary people are standing up, saying enough is enough.”

By February 19, the day Tarrett and his camera crew arrived, the number of protesters in Madison, alone, had swollen to over 70,000, with demonstrators carrying placards, which compared Walker to Adolf Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Hosni Mubarak, and a 'terrorist.'

A week later, on February 26, despite freezing temperatures and steady snowfall, the number of protesters in Madison had jumped, according to some reports, to 100,000.

"I've been around Madison for 50 years, and I have not seen anything like it so far," said the city's police spokesman Joel DeSpain.

On March 5, filmmaker Michael Moore joined the fray. Speaking to a crowd of tens of thousands, he refuted Governor Walker's claims, saying that America and Wisconsin are not broke. He added that the country is actually “awash in wealth,” but this money is not in the hands of the people. “It has been transferred, in the greatest heist in history, from the workers and consumers to the banks and the portfolios of the uber-rich."

Moore informed the crowd that they had aroused a sleeping giant. “Right now the Earth is shaking and the ground is shifting under the feet of those, who are in charge,” he said, adding that “The only thing that's broke is the moral compass of the rulers.”

He urged the crowd to persevere and not retreat because "You are not alone. America is with you."

The American people do indeed appear to be with the protesters. Demonstrations in a show of solidarity with the people of Wisconsin began cropping up across the country. And a joint US Today/Gallup poll indicated that 61 percent of Americans would oppose a law in their own state similar to that proposed in Wisconsin, which would rescind collective bargaining power from public employee unions. A New York Times/CBS poll came up with similar results.

But what about the link with the Arab uprisings? Is there any validity to John Tarrett's observations?

Political analyst Mike Lux believes there is. He also has compared the events unfolding in Madison with those in Egypt.

“The fact is that the pictures we are seeing and the story playing out in Wisconsin is like Egypt in some really important ways. The new mass militancy of union members, students, and other allies of the maligned teachers, social workers, cops, firefighters, and other public employees being attacked and threatened by the governor is not a manufactured thing, it is a mass movement spreading like wildfire, building in momentum day by day,” Lux observed.

“The response to Governor Walker's insanity has been as inspiring as the protesters in Egypt, and it is a joy to see workers, students, and progressives of all stripes spontaneously say "NO!" in a very loud voice. In fact, it is clear that protesters in Wisconsin and Ohio were inspired by the Egyptian democracy movement; some folks were even carrying Egyptian flags,” he added.

He went on to say that the protests were “spreading like wildfire to Ohio and other states, as well. Lux maintains that it is only this kind of mass militancy that will give the American people a chance “to survive the power of Wall Street, big business, and the right-wing media machine,” because those groups have “too much entrenched power, too much money, and too much concentrated media sway for progressives to beat them using conventional tactics and strategies.”

So have the events in Wisconsin been inspired by those in Egypt, Libya and Bahrain? They certainly seem to be following the same pattern.

Governor Walker has remained as adamant as Libyan leader, Muammar Gaddafi. Despite criticism from such diverse political figures as US President Barack Obama, who said the proposed bill seemed “more like an assault on the unions,” and former Republican Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, who called the standoff a "profound struggle between the right of the people to govern themselves and the power of entrenched, selfish interests to stop reforms and defy the will of the people," Walker has refused to budge. Even the flight of 14 Democratic senators, who left the state in an attempt to prevent the bill from being passed (due to the lack of a quorum) failed to deter him.

The legislation was pushed through on March 10 by a rump caucus of Republican senators, who justified their actions by stating they did not need a full quorum to act since the bill had no financial aspects. They had found a way to pass the legislation without a quorum, by amending it -- taking out the parts of it relating to money. Nevertheless, the aspect of the bill that most people were opposed to - the part, which revoked the rights of unions to bargain -- was passed.

On March 9, as the final touches were being put on the controversial piece of legislation to guarantee its passage, anger among the demonstrators outside the capitol building reached a fever pitch, with people yelling, "Break down the door!" and "General strike!" The police, who were in sympathy with the protestors, did little to deter them.

The next day, as the bill was being passed, the crowds outside the capitol chanted, “shame” and “you lied to Wisconsin,” as thousands began to converge on the building and motorists in passing cars honked their horns in protest.

And now, like their fellow demonstrators in Egypt and Libya, the people of Wisconsin are still refusing to back down. Those opposing the bill, including unions and various progressive groups, have announced that more protests are being planned. The people have spoken, and Governor Walker, like numbers of despotic leaders before him, will soon discover that their collective voice, like the gale-force wind of a hurricane, is a formidable power, indeed.

TG/PKH
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