In case you had any doubts about what the recent elections (a landslide for Republicans) and the continuing effects of the economic meltdown portend, a few episodes should dispel them. I think my favorite this week is what’s going on in Wisconsin. There, once the cradle of radical politics not to mention the birth in the 50s of the public employee union movement, a yahoo by the name of Scott Walker was elected governor, and both houses of the legislature fell to the Republicans as well (not to mention the defeat of one of the last ethical Senators, Russ Feingold.) I’m not sure what happened to the drinking water in Wisconsin, but the results are beginning to play out big time. Governor Walker has initiated a bill, just passed by the budget committee, that would strip Wisconsin’s public employee unions of their right to collective bargaining. So where most of us thought that the right to collective bargaining was an issue long-since settled (after millions marched, endured beatings from hired thugs, and were murdered by those same thugs in the battles for union rights), it now turns out that this wannabe dictator in Wisconsin is coming close to turning back the clock on teachers, prison guards and other public employees. This so his plan to force these employees to pay more of the cost of their pensions and health care costs could not be reversed by collective bargaining. Isn’t that nice? Not only that, the unions would be hamstrung so that pay increases would be tied to the Consumer Price Index only. And to enforce his decrees, Walker has threatened to call out the National Guard to run the prisons (just in case the prison guards try to strike). So there you have it: no collective bargaining, no effective striking, no power to unions at all (does it need to be said that public unions are about the only large groups left contributing to the Democratic Party?).
If this bill goes through—and the Gov claims he has the votes to do it—another nail in the coffin of unions and collective bargaining would be hammered in. The movement started shortly after WWII by big corporations, and sent into high gear by Ronald Reagan when he fired Air Traffic Controllers to cripple their union (and all others), will have come to fruition. Does it need to be pointed out that this comes at just the time when American corporations are at the very height of their power, having been given, in the Citizens United case in the Supreme Court, carte blanche to pay politicians for the favors they already controlled before? Now, with this complete judicial sanction to corporations to buy whatever government they please (is it any wonder that Obama has kowtowed almost completely to the moneyed interests, and hired the head of General Electric, for god’s sake, which outsources to foreign countries more than half of its work, to be his top economic advisor in charge of “putting Americans back to work?”), the fiction that America is a “government of the people” has become laughable, a cruel, sick joke.
One could add more. In Florida, the Governor there has just axed the planned high-speed rail project, saying the state could not afford it. But the federal government was providing millions in seed money, and the state had already spent more millions in planning for the rail system that was projected to add millions to the tourist economy on which Florida depends (not to mention reducing automobile pollution). And hundreds of thousands of workers would have been hired to complete and then run the project. Nevermind. Those were just “workers” after all, and in the Republican version of economics, workers, like the environment, are simply expendable.
The irony, I suppose, is that all this is taking place at a time when in the Middle East, where democracy has only been a label to dress up dictatorships, the people really are in revolt. So as we watch thousands and millions in Egypt and Tunisia rise up, protest their powerlessness, and force their dictators to resign, and thousands more in Bahrain and Yemen take to the streets to try to do the same, here in the U.S.A. the “people” have so far been mute. Not in Wisconsin, thankfully, where thousands of teachers camped out in the state capitol to protest the proposed slashing of their rights. But in most other places, the “people” have been largely sidelined by the logic of what Naomi Klein calls the “shock doctrine.” That is, when those in power wish to cripple their opposition and remake society to their liking (i.e. privatize publicly-owned utilities/schools/industries, eliminate social programs that benefit the poor, reduce taxes on the rich), the best way to do so is to wait for or engineer a shock to the system—something like Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, or 9/11 throughout the nation. And so, what we are seeing now, after the “shock” of the financial collapse in 2007-08, and to combat which the federal government bailed out banks and wall street with borrowed money, is all this conservative blather about THE FEDERAL DEFICIT. ‘We have to bring spending under control. We have to manage our nation’s budget the same way families do. Control our spending. Trim our sails.’ And what has to be trimmed? Why all that spending on the poor, all that spending on health care for those who can’t afford it like Medicaid, all those handouts to those lazy ones who line up for food stamps and health care for their children and block grants to local clinics and, ultimately, that major “handout” conceived by the demon Roosevelt Administration, Social Security.
Ah yes. The shock has been administered, and now come the shocking proposals. Not the masters of war, not the crooks on Wall St, not the bankers and corporate CEOs, but public employees are the freeloaders. Why should they get pensions? Why should they get free health care? Why should their unions get to hold up taxpayers with their threats of strikes? Why should we get taxed to pay for their benefits? Privatize everything. Bring in the corporate mavens to run (or is it ruin?) everything.
Ah America. The day of awakening is coming, the day of accounting is coming, and it’s not going to be pretty.