Harold Meyerson
Opinion writer February 15, 2011

In Egypt, workers are having a revolutionary February. In the United States, by contrast, February is shaping up as the cruelest month workers have known in decades.

The coup de grace that toppled Hosni Mubarak came after tens of thousands of Egyptian workers went on strike beginning last Tuesday. By Friday, when Egypt's military leaders apparently decided that unrest had reached the point where Mubarak had to go, the Egyptians who operate the Suez Canal and their fellow workers in steel, textile and bottling factories; in hospitals, museums and schools; and those who drive buses and trains had left their jobs to protest their conditions of employment and governance. As Jim Hoagland noted in The Post, Egypt was barreling down the path that Poland, East Germany and the Philippines had taken, the path where workers join student protesters in the streets and jointly sweep away an authoritarian regime.

Harold Meyerson writes a weekly political column that appears on Thursdays and contributes to the PostPartisan blog. View Archive

But even as workers were helping topple the regime in Cairo, one state government in particular was moving to topple workers' organizations here in the United States. Last Friday, Scott Walker, Wisconsin's new Republican governor, proposed taking away most collective bargaining rights of public employees. Under his legislation, which has moved so swiftly through the newly Republican state legislature that it might come to a vote Thursday, the unions representing teachers, sanitation workers, doctors and nurses at public hospitals, and a host of other public employees, would lose the right to bargain over health coverage, pensions and other benefits. (To make his proposal more politically palatable, the governor exempted from his hit list the unions representing firefighters and police.) The only thing all other public-sector workers could bargain over would be their base wages, and given the fiscal restraints plaguing the states, that's hardly anything to bargain over at all.

You might think that Walker came to this extreme measure after negotiations with public-sector unions had reached an impasse. In fact, he hasn't held such discussions. "I don't have anything to negotiate," Walker told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel last week. To underscore just how accompli he considered his fait, he vowed to call in the National Guard if protesting workers walked off the job or disrupted state services.

It's a throwback to 19th-century America, when strikes were suppressed by force of arms. Or, come to think of it, to Mubarak's Egypt or communist Poland and East Germany.

Now, it's not as if our states don't have fiscal crises to address, and Walker insists that it's Wisconsin's empty till that has driven him to curtail workers' rights. But there are other options. Democratic governors such as California's Jerry Brown and New York's Andrew Cuomo have proposed scaling back public services, pay and benefits without going after workers' fundamental rights to bargain. The right to bargain is clearly a separate question. Newly elected Republican governors, however, may reach the same conclusion Walker did and use the recession-induced fiscal crisis to achieve a partisan political objective: removing unions, the most potent force in the Democrats' electoral operation, from the landscape. "If we just stop and cure the pension problem, we have not gone far enough," Steve Malanga of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal said at the Conservative Political Action Conference last weekend.

The real goal of the American right is to reduce public employee unions to the level of private-sector unions, which now represent fewer than 7 percent of American workers. Walker's proposal not only confines public-sector unions to annual bargaining over wage increases but restricts the increases for state employees to raises in the consumer price index and compels every such union to hold an annual membership vote to determine whether the union can continue to represent workers. It clearly intends to smash these unions altogether.

Which would yield what? Our unions have already been decimated in the private sector; the results are plain. Corporate profits are soaring, while domestic investment, wages and benefits (particularly at nonunion companies) are flat-lining at best. With nobody to bargain for workers, America increasingly is an economically stagnant, plutocratic utopia. Is everybody happy?

American conservatives often profess admiration for foreign workers' bravery in protesting and undermining authoritarian regimes. Letting workers exercise their rights at home, however, threatens to undermine some of our own regimes (the Republican ones particularly), and shouldn't be permitted. Now that Wisconsin's governor has given the Guard its marching orders, we can discern a new pattern of global repressive solidarity emerging - from the chastened pharaoh of the Middle East to the cheesehead pharaoh of the Middle West.

meyersonh@washpost.com