- 700 Madison East High School students walked out and marched nearly three miles to the Capitol building to show support for public sector workers.
While my snarky comparison of the protests in Wisconsin to the populist uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and throughout the Middle East may be a bit hyperbolic, my focus on this unfolding story is not, for what's happening on the ground at the state Capitol in Madison could prove to be a momentous turning point in the modern labor movement, impacting the lives of working people nationwide, for the better or for the worst.
Newly elected on a wave of recession-induced teabaggerism, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is attempting to exploit his state's budget crisis as an opportunity to achieve what former U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold aptly describes as a "long-time corporate wish: the fantasy of destroying unions." And should Walker succeed in crushing his public employee unions while transforming Wisconsin into a so-called "right to work" state, you can be sure that campaigns to replicate his anti-worker efforts will be exported with great fanfare to Washington state and the rest of the nation.
Unilaterally double state workers' health care premiums? Deny state workers the right to strike, to collectively bargain, to even organize? Sounds familiar, no? Those are exactly the kind of policies that Washington state Republicans and corporatist surrogates like the union-hating Seattle Times and the ironically named Evergreen Freedom Foundation have been advocating for years. And give them a Gov. Rob McKenna and an even slight GOP majority in the legislature—or even more likely, a clever initiative with a deceptively worded ballot title—and that's exactly what Washington might get.
Hyperbole? Well, how is the anti-labor rhetoric in Wisconsin all that different from the anti-labor rhetoric here?
"This is an attempt to divide and conquer," [Feingold] added. "What they did is teed up the rhetoric in the last few years about how public employees — the notion is that somehow they're making huge amounts of money and they don't have to work very hard, and they're doing fine because their jobs and pensions are guaranteed while people in the private sector are suffering. Surely, there is enormous reason for people in the private sector to be frustrated — and particularly working people who have had their jobs shipped overseas by trade agreements that have been backed by these big corporate interests that are benefiting from Citizens United. But the idea here on the right and the corporate side is to divide working people against each other, to turn private employees against public employees out of some kind of resentment."
And that's why what's happening on the ground in Madison is so important. If Wisconsin's working people remain united, if they storm the Capitol in force... if they can convince just a handful of Republican state senators to flip their votes and kill the bill... then this pernicious attack on the rights and wages of our nation's working people can be stopped in its tracks. For now.
Otherwise, it's every man for himself. Which is just how corporate America wants it.