The battle of public employees for their rights in Wisconsin is about fairness, the preservation and expansion of the middle class and keeping the American Dream alive. In the face of a vicious Republican and corporate assault on the ability of workers to negotiate for a better life, Wisconsin's workers are fighting back. They're standing up for their right to collectively bargain and they're standing up for all of us.
The tenacity, courage and commitment of the protesters have been extraordinary. The community support the workers have received has been inspiring. The people of Wisconsin are making history by drawing a serious line in the sand against unbridled corporate power and Republican extremism.
Throughout our nation's history, workers and their unions have fought for better wages, benefits and scores of trailblazing workplace improvements. At the bargaining table, the ballot box, in the halls of Congress and wherever important policy decisions are made, unions have fought for greater opportunity and shared prosperity, for the real American dream (Rachel Maddow has a great segment about Wisconsin's labor history which you can watch here).
In the post World War II era, unionized jobs with good pay and decent health care and retirement benefits helped create and expand America's middle class. It was the promise of America: If you worked hard and played by the rules, you could get ahead. And your kids could do even better.
That promise — the American Dream — has been made possible by the strength of the American labor movement and the sacrifices of countless workers and their families.
Today, union membership is down, unemployment is up and the current generation of young people is the first in years to expect that they won't be as well off as their parents.
Enter Governor Scott Walker, Speaker of the U.S. House John Boehner, Wisconsin Representative Paul Ryan and the rest of the Republicans who want an America run by and for the big corporations. Their agenda is to downsize government to dangerous levels, dismantle the public programs that keep our families safe and make our communities strong, export our jobs overseas and do whatever it takes to increase corporate profits and concentrate the nation's wealth into fewer and fewer hands.
These politicians are owned and operated by a powerful cabal of corporations and billionaires like the infamous Koch Brothers, who fund many right-wing front groups such as FreedomWorks who sent people to Madison from across the country this weekend to stage counter-protests.
These politicians and organizations are part of a nationwide effort to take away collective bargaining. They're also trying to take away the important cost-saving benefits and consumer protections of the Affordable Care Act. They want to privatize Social Security and eliminate Medicare as we know it. The want a government that's small enough to starve the poor, shrink the middle class and eliminate small businesses and big enough to regulate who we can love and marry. They want a government that looks the other way when oil companies recklessly drill offshore and mining firms operate without regard for the health and safety of their workers. And they want a government with enough reach to tell a woman, her doctor and her family what to do about private health care decisions.
We have a different vision of the world. As Paul Wellstone would often say, "We all do better when we all do better." We believe that work should be rewarded and workers treated with dignity and respect. We believe in an America where there is opportunity for everyone to achieve their potential and have fulfilling lives, including a secure retirement. We also believe in a robust government that does things we can't do ourselves to improve our collective quality of life. We believe in pitching in and helping each other out. The Republicans and their corporate sponsors believe in every man for himself — the "you're on your own" theory of government and life.
We also believe in unions. As Bob Creamer says in his very fine piece on this struggle, the right to form a union is "an American value." He adds, "The right to form a union is critical to a democratic society because it is the only way to assure that employers do not treat their employees as commodities."
It's these different visions that the battle in Wisconsin is about, beginning with worker's most basic rights. That's why teachers, correction officers, firefighters, nurses, administrative assistants, sanitation workers, social workers and so many others have banded together like never before. As AFSCME President Gerald W. McEntee has said, Wisconsin is "ground zero" for the rights of public employees to unionize.
"If they succeed in Wisconsin, the birthplace of A.F.S.C.M.E., they will be emboldened to attack workers' rights in every state," McEntee says.
As we all know by now, the fight in Wisconsin is not about the money. To the extent that Wisconsin has a budget deficit, it is a problem of the Governor's own making, thanks to tax breaks he just gave to corporations. In fact, the workers have already indicated their willingness to negotiate over legitimate budget issues. Meanwhile, the Governor won't budge — he continues to choose his ideological agenda over the people of Wisconsin.
As the New York Times explains, "In a year when governors across the country are competing to show who's toughest, no matter what the consequences, Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin stands out as the first to bring his State Capitol to a halt." The paper continues, "Like many governors, he wants to cut the benefits of state workers. But he also decided a budget crisis was a good time to advance an ideological goal dear to his fellow Republicans: eliminating most collective bargaining rights for public employees."
The Governor's plan is to take away nearly all of the collective bargaining rights of public employees, which would have no impact on the state budget. They would be barred from bargaining about anything except wages, and any pay increase they win would be limited by the consumer price index. Contracts would be limited to a year, and union dues could no longer be deducted from paychecks.
As President Obama noted, with considerable understatement on Wednesday, Walker's proposal "seems like an assault on unions."
At the center of the battle in Wisconsin are AFSCME, SEIU, the teachers (AFT and NEA), the AFL-CIO and many other labor and community organizations. These are the same groups — along with dozens of community, civil rights and faith groups and other unions such as the CWA, UAW and UFCW — that have also been key players in the coalition Health Care for America Now (HCAN) and its grassroots campaign to win (and now promote and defend) the new health care law. Without the power of labor — without the coalition of labor and community groups - we never would won the health care law (labor has also been central to many other victories over the last two years, beginning with the election of President Barack Obama).
"We Stood Up Straight" — The Memphis Strike
AFSCME is not unfamiliar with tough fights where the whole world was watching. In 1968, the sanitation workers in Memphis, Tennessee, famously went on strike for better wages, benefits and working conditions and to get Mayor Loeb to recognize their union, AFSCME Local 1733. On April 3, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous "I've Been to the Mountaintop" speech, the last formal remarks he would give before being assassinated the next day. He was in Memphis that night to support the strikers, who had walked off the job 51 days earlier.
Taylor Rogers was one of the strikers. During the nearly 10 years I worked at AFSCME, I had the honor of working with Mr. Rogers at events where he told the story of the strike. Just like Wisconsin's protesters, the Memphis workers went on strike for all of us.
One of Rogers' recollections of the strike is captured in a 2002 article in AFSCME's national magazine.
Rogers remembers the Memphis organizing events as if they happened yesterday. In 1964, Rogers and his co-workers figured that if they had to pick up other people's garbage, they were going to be respected for doing it. So they began to organize.
In those segregated times, African Americans in the South who stood up and demanded justice were ridiculed and harassed. Mayor Henry Loeb and the city council, with the backing of the white community, ignored the workers' union representation with AFSCME.
In February 1968, a crisis erupted: The accidental activation of a packer blade in the back of a garbage truck fatally crushed workers Echol Cole and Robert Walker. "That's when the men said, 'We're tired and we ain't going to take anymore,'" recalls Rogers. "If you bend your back, people can ride it. But if you stand up straight, people can't ride your back. And that's what we did.
"We stood up straight."
The workers in Wisconsin are standing up straight in a big way. Let us all stand with them. There are lots of web pages where you can go to get updates and help. Here's one: www.wearewisconsin.org.