As demonstrators in the tens of thousands flooded the Capitol in Madison, Wis., a sign captured the spirit: "I didn't think Cairo would be this cold." Even conservative Republican Rep. Paul Ryan saw the parallel: "It's like Cairo moved to Madison."
Got that right. As the demonstrations for workers' rights head into their second week, Madison has become ground zero in the battle for democracy in this country.
Don't fall for the dodge that this is about money, the pay and perks of public employees. This is about basic democratic rights, and the balance of power in America. This is a fight in which every U.S. worker has a direct stake.
Wisconsin faces budget deficits in the wake of the Great Recession, although not nearly as severe as in many states. In the 2010 election, Republicans captured control of the statehouse and both houses of the legislature. Scott Walker, the newly elected, self-declared "Tea Party" governor, signed off on tax cuts for businesses and then demanded harsh concessions from public employees, forcing them to pay more for pensions and health care. He coupled this with a direct attack on teacher and public employee unions, seeking to ram through legislation curtailing their right to bargain collectively, limiting any pay raise to the increase in the cost of living, and requiring an annual vote of members to continue the union. These measures aren't about the budget crisis; they are about eliminating the unions. And to make the power grab blatant, Walker exempted those unions - police and firefighters - that supported him in the last election. This is straight ugly, folks.
And it isn't limited to Wisconsin. Corporations and their right-wing allies have launched a final offensive against America's unions. With unions representing less than 7 percent of the private workforce, the target is public employee unions. With Republicans now in control of 21 states, hundreds of bills have been introduced seeking to cripple unions, if not ban them completely. States that are considering either weakening or removing entirely the ability of public-sector workers to bargain collectively include not only Wisconsin but also Ohio, South Dakota, Colorado, Michigan, Nebraska, New Hampshire and Oklahoma. (See "Labor's Last Stand", Jane MacAlevey, the Nation, March 7-14, 2011.)
Unions, described by right-wing gadfly Grover Norquist as one of the "five pillars" of Democratic strength, have been central to the rise and fall of the American middle class. There is a strong correlation between states with right-to-work laws that outlaw majority rule on unionization, a worse quality of life for workers and a more hostile climate to any progressive cause. The average worker in a right-to-work state earns $5,333 less than his or her counterpart in a pro-worker state. Twenty-one percent more people lack health insurance in right-to-work states. In a country which, by some measures, suffers greater inequality than Egypt or Tunisia, the stakes in Wisconsin are high.
But they are more than economic. At stake is the strength of our democracy itself. The Supreme Court decision in Citizens United opened the floodgates for the money of corporations and billionaires to corrupt our elections. The unions provide virtually the only counterbalance for working Americans. It is no coincidence that America has grown more unequal and the middle class has declined as union representation has been weakened.
In Wisconsin, stunningly, workers drew the line. The public employee unions agreed to accept Walker's economic demands, but rallied against the union-busting provisions. State Democrats joined, leaving the state to block the vote on Walker's legislation and allowing the demonstrations to gain traction. Students and activists rallied to the workers' side. The demonstrations swelled to levels not seen since the Vietnam War protests. Yet other than former House speaker Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Dick Durbin (Ill.), joined by the President Obama, national Democrats have been virtually invisible. More Green Bay Packers have spoken in support of the demonstrators than national Democrats.
The alternative press, the social media, MSNBC and other outposts of progressive journalism have been aflame with stories of the resistance. MoveOn, Organizing for America, the Campaign for America's Future and US Uncut, a new protest movement inspired by a recent article in the Nation, have called on activists to join.The resistance has spread. On Feb. 26, a national Day of Action is planned. The goal is to go after corporations - symbolized by Bank of America - whose tax avoidance contributes to the squeeze on basic social programs.
The teachers, nurses, police officers and public workers in Wisconsin, in the spirit of their progressive and populist forebears, have stood up against the assault on basic rights. Their fight poses a classic question: Whose side are you on? With basic rights at stake, it is time for outrage.
Katrina vanden Heuvel is editor and publisher of The Nation. She writes a weekly online column for The Post.