Tahrir in Wisconsin

Contagion has spread not only in the Arab world. It has even been seen in the United States, specifically in Wisconsin. The background is the assault by the federal and state governments against public worker unions, part of the ruling class’s drive against the social wage, including cuts in education and other social services. In the wings Social Security and Medicare (the program for health care for people over 65) are being targeted.

The biggest attacks on public worker unions are being undertaken by Democrats in California and New York. But in a series of Republican-controlled states, the attack has assumed a more naked form. In Wisconsin, the new Republican governor, Scott Walker, and the Republican-controlled legislature are hell-bent on ramming through a law that would not only force big cuts in public worker wages, but destroy the rights of public worker unions to bargain collectively, thus smashing them.

This was too much for even the timid leaderships of the public worker unions, who saw in this the destruction of their own bases and jobs. They called on their members to protest, and, much to their surprise, tens of thousands have come out in loud and raucous demonstrations day after day, occupying the state legislature and marching outside. The first day, February 16, there were 10,000, the next day 20,000, then 30,000 public workers of all kinds. Other supporters joined in.

Parents and students joined teachers. Schools were shut down. The state government has come to a virtual halt. The demonstrations look different than recent union protests before Tunisia and Egypt. Lots of young people, with enthusiasm. Some in the capitol rotunda raise their fists, pumping them in unison with their shouts. A few workers carry hand-made signs comparing Walker with Mubarak. One veteran held a sign reading, “I went to Iraq and came home to Egypt”. The governor threatened to call out the National Guard to crush the demonstrations. This vets’ reaction underscores that, as in Egypt, this threat went too far. Another sign I saw on TV read, “National Guard and people, hand in hand”, a translation of similar signs in Egypt. If Walker tries to use the National Guard, whose rank and file are ordinary citizens, he will get a real revolt.

In face of this mass movement, the Democratic Party state senators refused to show up for the vote on the legislation, preventing its passage because a quorum could not be reached. They fled Wisconsin, so that state troopers couldn’t round them up. The public worker unions have been large contributors to the Democrats, which gives them an interest in blocking the law, but these faithful servants of the ruling class would never have fled the state without the mass mobilisations forcing their hand.

The New York Times noted, “The images from Wisconsin — with its protests, shutdown of some public services and missing Democratic senators, who fled the state to block a vote — evoked the Middle East more than the Midwest”. An editorial cartoon in an Oklahoma newspaper showed a reporter in front of an angry crowd, talking into a microphone to a TV program, saying, “Brian, yet another hotspot of unrest has broken out … what’s that? No, not the Middle East, … I’m actually in Wisconsin.”

On February 19, the largest demonstrations were held, after Walker went on TV the day before to reiterate his hard-line stand to smash the unions. In another echo of Egypt, Walker called on rightist Tea Party supporters to stage a counter-demonstration. The counter-demonstration was held, but aside from some spitting on the workers and verbal abuse, they didn’t try to physically attack them, unlike Egypt.

The labour fakers and Democrats will undoubtedly try to defuse the situation, but as of today, the stand-off continues.