a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

On Wisconsin

Posted by Thomas Nephew on February 28th, 2011

Over the weekend, unions and progressive organizations mobilized “Save the American Dream” events across the country to show support for Wisconsin public unions in their fight with Governor Walker.  On Saturday, I joined the rally at Dupont Circle in downtown Washington DC.

Video interviews with rally goers, including Jesse Lovell (DC for Democracy), Johnny
Barnes (ACLU-NCA), Jim Epstein (Pathfinders International) and others.

Plenty has been written about the confrontation in Wisconsin, and I’ll take up some of that below.

But this post is mainly about relaying the solidarity and notably high spirits that I felt among the demonstrators — at least a thousand of them, by my estimate, maybe more — and in myself for that matter.  At a time when it’s tempting for even some working class people say “I’m hurting, so they should hurt too” — and of course all but irresistible for mainstream media to give them a megaphone for that — it was great and important to feel like we were answering a call on Saturday, and to be with others who felt the same way.

Will that have an impact?  I don’t know — but not doing anything certainly would have had the wrong one.

As to the issue: clearly I agree with the labor movement for circling the wagons against Wisconsin governor Scott Walker’s assault on collective bargaining, or I wouldn’t have gone to the rally.   The problem is well known; the labor movement as a whole is in undeserved disrepute, and the public sector unions are both a last bastion of that movement and — as has been repeated ad nauseam — ones indirectly employed by taxpayers rather than corporations.

For those who decry high public sector pension plans, I say first of all: why exactly? What is it about paying people well, as agreed on in a contract, for the jobs they have done?  Was a gun held to anyone’s head when the agreement was signed?  What is it about contractual obligations you don’t understand? I thought that was an underpinning of capitalism; does it suddenly not count when it’s a mere employee’s union?  Ezra Klein has relayed a study pointing out that “Wisconsin public-sector workers face an annual compensation penalty of 11%. Adjusting for the slightly fewer hours worked per week on average, these public workers still face a compensation penalty of 5% for choosing to work in the public sector. […]  The residents of the various states, when all is said and done, will probably have gotten the work at a steep discount. They’ll force a renegotiation of the contracts and blame overprivileged public employees for resisting shared sacrifice. Which gets to the heart of what this is: A form of default.”

Rick Ungar at Forbes Magazine makes the point similarly: “If the Wisconsin governor and state legislature were to be honest, they would correctly frame this issue. They are not, in fact, asking state employees to make a larger contribution to their pension and benefits programs as that would not be possible- the employees are already paying 100% of the contributions. What they are actually asking is that the employees take a pay cut.”

But we lose sight of the forest for the trees and even the weeds by focusing on Wisconsin pension plans.  It’s not about that.  It’s about unionbusting pure and simple.  Walker confirmed that in the hilarious, notorious sting pulled off by the Buffalo Beast’s Ian Murphy (calling in pretending to be billionaire rightwinger David Koch), in emotionally recalling a final planning meeting where he compared himself to Ronald Reagan breaking the air traffic controllers union in 1981.  As Chris Hayes and Naomi Klein pointed out in a memorable MSNBC segment, we’re essentially facing a “Shock Doctrine USA”: a manufactured crisis leading to the looting and crippling of the public sector — as well as the crippling of solidarity with each other, and of a common purpose beyond looking out for number one.

Van Jones speaking to union supporters, Dupont Circle
From Wisconsin Solidarity Rally, Feb 26, 2011

I return to the rally, where former Obama White House official Van Jones made some interesting remarks — about the “Tea Party.”  Responding to widespread boos when he named the group, he held up his hand and said “no, no — they are our brothers and sisters too.  They just don’t know it yet.” And then he went on to say that he respected the Tea Party for one thing: that on the heels of defeat in 2008, they didn’t decide to “come crawling to the center” but instead redoubled their efforts for the principles they believed in.  And just as the crowd saw where he was going with that, he said it: now it’s our turn to do the same thing.  No crawling to the center — stand on principle.

Bucky Badger sez: On Wisconsin unions!

And no throwing fellow progressives under the bus.  A final great thing about the DC rally was that the site and time had actually been registered by a different coalition — one resisting cuts to women’s health and reproductive health funding —  and was generously shared by them.  Likewise, there were environmentalists with Sierra Club posters, and civil liberties advocates like Mary Beth Tinker and Johnny Barnes (ACLU-NCA) on the scene.  People from all facets of the American left are banding together to fight back.   It makes me hopeful that we can win this one, and start winning more.

EDITS, 2/28: Chris Hayes, not Hedges, David Koch, not Richard.

One Response to “On Wisconsin”

  1. Harry Waisbren Says:

    Fantastic post, Thomas! Particularly like the Van Jones quote about not crawling to the center and standing on principle….we need much more of that sentiment from our leaders, that’s for sure.

    This isn’t about politics. This is about the fundamental nature of our country, and half measures won’t suffice.

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