What Class Warfare Looks Like

Mike Konczal has a rough transcript, starting about 45 seconds in:

Representative Barca:  Excuse me, Mr. Chairman I have a question about the open meeting rule being violated…Most importantly, before we even get started, obviously I’m going to want to have a summary of this bill from our director Lane, so I understand what’s in here.

Chairman:  It’s the same bill you debated for 60 hours.

Barca:  So there’s nothing different?

Chairman:  No.  We just removed items from it.

Barca:  Removed what?

Chairman:  Removed items.  There’s nothing new.

Barca:  So can we get a description of what was removed?

Chairman:  Nothing new.

Barca:  Well, you said things were removed Mr. Chairman.  I want to know what’s removed.  It seems to me that the body should have and our community should know what we are voting on.  So what was removed?  I need to know that.  So I do want a description from Director Lane….But before we even get into that I want this is a violation of the open meeting law.  It is required, I have here a memo from the current Attorney General, not a past one the current one.  August 2010.  No Wisconsin Court decision will allow meetings unless you have good cause to provide less than 24 hours notice of a meeting.   The provision, like all other provisions of the open meetings law must be construed in favor of providing the public with the fullest and most complete information about government affairs…

Chairman:  Representative Barca.

Barca:  that’s compatible with government business…

Chairman:  Representative Barca.  Clerk, call roll.

Barca:  NO EXCUSE ME  It says if there’s any doubt as to whether or not good cause exists the governmental body should provide 24 hours notice. This is clearly a violation of the open meetings law.  You have been shutting people down…

Members:  Aye.

Last night was as clear an example as any I’ve ever seen of how Republicans are waging class war on the American middle class. As Rep. Barca points out, what the happened in Wisconsin during last night’s conference committee meeting clearly violated the state’s open meetings law, which require 24 hour notice prior to a governmental meeting. David Dayen has been astutely documenting the ways in which how the WI Senate Republicans split off the repeal of collective bargaining to make it “non-fiscal” (despite arguing for a month that it was a fiscal provision) failed to actually remove fiscal items from the language they voted on:

But that does not address the potential fiscal impact in what remained. On page 12 of the LFB memo you see a item that would “reduce funding… in the Joint Committee on Finance’s general program revenue supplemental appropriation.” On page 17, you see the changes to public employee health and pension benefits. On page 33, there’s an inclusion of a particular piece of wetlands in a tax incremental financing district, which appears to be tax relief. It would be hard to imagine that these pieces don’t have a fiscal impact. In fact, the Wisconsin State Journal, one of the more staid publications in the state, basically came this close to accusing the Republicans of outright lying

One of the Wisconsin 14 Democratic State Senators who’ve bravely stayed away for the last number of weeks and created the delay that allowed protests to gather steam did in fact go so far as to call Governor Walker a liar last night on MSNBC (sorry I don’t have the quote). State Senate Minority Leader Mark Miller had this to say after the Republicans dishonest and dishonorable actions yesterday:

“In thirty minutes, 18 State Senators undid fifty years of civil rights in Wisconsin.

“Their disrespect for the people of Wisconsin and their rights is an outrage that will never be forgotten.

“Tonight, 18 Senate Republicans conspired to take government away from the people.

“Tomorrow we will join the people of Wisconsin in taking back their government.”

The solidarity between Wisconsin Democrats, unionized workers of both the public and private sector, students and the general public has been truly inspiring. It will continue in the face of this latest assault and I can’t imagine anything but a further slide in approval for Gov. Scott Walker and the Republicans in Madison who rammed this bill through over unprecedented public opposition.

MJ on Wisconsin

Andy Kroll of Mother Jones has a must-read account of the ongoing fight between workers and GOP Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin. It’s a step-by-step walk through of Walker’s actions, labor’s responses, and how people moved into the streets to protest Walker’s attacks on unions. If you haven’t been paying attention, this is a good piece to get caught up. And if you have been paying attention, Kroll provides insight into how Wisconsin unions made decisions to act with conviction to protect public workers. Perhaps the most important part of the fight in Wisconsin is how it has brought different unions together in solidarity. Walker’s union-busting bill exempts the police and fire fighters – two unions that were politically supportive of him. He hoped to divide public workers and keep some of the best messengers for labor on the sidelines. But the fire fighters and police wouldn’t have it – they stood with other public sector workers and have been strong opponents to Walker’s bill. Beyond labor solidarity, Kroll identifies the radicalization of students as key allies in the fight as something which has helped sustain opposition to union busting. Given that labor unions haven’t had the best public perception broadly, seeing the positive support from youths in Wisconsin is encouraging for the long-term prospects of resistance to union busting. Demographics are important and it’s going to be hard for Republicans to succeed in destroying unions if young voters are not on their side. Hopefully what we are seeing in Wisconsin (and Ohio) is not a flash in the pan and labor solidarity with public support stays strong.

Republican Class War

This ad by the Progressive Change Campaign Committee and Democracy for America is probably the best one I’ve seen either side produce during the fight in Wisconsin. It was shot at the rallies in Madison and features voices from workers who will be affecting by Scott Walker’s union busting. These are incredibly effective spokespeople. But what really drives home the ad’s efficacy for me is that one of the people in the ad, Kathleen Slamka, an electrician from Oak Creek, WI, says, “This is Republican class warfare, an attack on the middle class.” A statement this obvious as this has been absent throughout the fight in Wisconsin, at least on the airwaves. But it’s true and it’s high-time the allies of working Americans step up and make clear three things: there is class war going on in America, the war was started by corporate elites and their political cronies, and the rich are winning this war. Again, great ad by the PCCC and DFA. More, please.

Tom Morello in Wisconsin

Tom Morello, of Rage Against the Machine and many other musical projects, was in Wisconsin last week to play a show in support of union workers and the people who were protesting in solidarity with them. He has a great write-up in Rolling Stone about the trip and I definitely recommend giving it a read.

The Capitol building in Madison has been occupied by students and workers for more than ten days now. But at 11 PM the doors are locked, and if you’re in, you’re in, and if you’re out, you’re out. We were out. And so one of the protesters on the inside claimed that I was his intern in order to slip me through security. Once inside, I was amazed at what I saw: the building was packed with a cross section of the people of Madison, all demanding justice. There were students, teachers, firefighters, policemen, veterans, nurses, old hippies and young rebels in every corner and corridor of the building. There was a festive spirit in the air and a determined feeling that they were indeed making history. On my way out, I was actually “bro-ing down” with some cops…AT A PROTEST. Quite new for me. The police were union men themselves, and wholly supportive of the protesters, and I thought, “This is a strange and new, exciting day indeed when the police are delivering bratwurst to the students occupying the State Capitol and high-fiving The Nightwatchman.”

The battle to preserve workers’ rights in Wisconsin is a watershed moment in US history. Wisconsin is Class War Ground Zero for the new millennium and a crucible for people’s rights in the United States. As the gulf between the haves and have-nots grows exponentially in the US it is here that the first domino is going to fall…one way or the other. If things go poorly, workers across the nation will be stripped of some of their most fundamental rights – to organize and to collectively bargain, to make a better life for themselves and their children. Were it not for hard-fought union struggles of the past, we wouldn’t enjoy some of the most basic human rights that we enjoy today. The next time you “have a good weekend,” you can thank the union for fighting for those two days off. If your eight-year-old son doesn’t work in a coal mine or your ten-year-old daughter doesn’t slave away in a textile mill, you can thank the union. Unions are and have historically been a crucial check against untrammeled corporate greed.

The future of worker’s rights in this country will not be decided in the courts or in Congress, on talk radio or on Fox News. The future of worker’s rights in this country will be decided on the streets of a small Midwestern city, on the streets of Madison, Wisconsin. And who knows? Maybe in your city too. Yeah, this land is our land, and to those occupying the Capitol building tonight, or marching in the streets across the Midwest tomorrow, and to the people still deciding which side they’re on at this historic crossroads, I’d like to pass along some advice from the immortal Woody Guthrie: “Take it easy…but take it!”

More videos from Morello’s time in Wisconsin are below the fold. Continue reading “Tom Morello in Wisconsin”

Egypt & Neoliberalism

At Al Jazeera English, pseudonymous Egyptian writer’Abu Atris’ has a very interesting opinion column which seeks to analyze the Egyptian revolution as a revolt against neoliberalism. Atris makes the case that Egypt was among the most thoroughly neoliberal countries in the world and the failures of neoliberalism were evidenced by the intense inequality of wealth, driven by and symptomatic of high unemployment and the privatization of public services. Of course this isn’t a dissimilar argument from the one made by Matt Stoller at Naked Capitalism.

I don’t think the argument that Egypt was a revolt against neoliberalism undercuts the methods of that revolt as an economic uprising, driven by solidarity between unionized workers, the poor, and students. Rather, Atris’ neoliberalism argument explains the conditions which led to this incredible uprising.

Tell me if this description of events sounds familiar:

The only people for whom Egyptian neoliberalism worked “by the book” were the most vulnerable members of society, and their experience with neoliberalism was not a pretty picture. Organised labor was fiercely suppressed. The public education and the health care systems were gutted by a combination of neglect and privatization. Much of the population suffered stagnant or falling wages relative to inflation. Official unemployment was estimated at approximately 9.4% last year (and much higher for the youth who spearheaded the January 25th Revolution), and about 20% of the population is said to live below a poverty line defined as $2 per day per person.

For the wealthy, the rules were very different. Egypt did not so much shrink its public sector, as neoliberal doctrine would have it, as it reallocated public resources for the benefit of a small and already affluent elite. Privatization provided windfalls for politically well-connected individuals who could purchase state-owned assets for much less than their market value, or monopolise rents from such diverse sources as tourism and foreign aid. Huge proportions of the profits made by companies that supplied basic construction materials like steel and cement came from government contracts, a proportion of which in turn were related to aid from foreign governments.

Most importantly, the very limited function for the state recommended by neoliberal doctrine in the abstract was turned on its head in reality. In Mubarak’s Egypt business and government were so tightly intertwined that it was often difficult for an outside observer to tease them apart. Since political connections were the surest route to astronomical profits, businessmen had powerful incentives to buy political office in the phony elections run by the ruling National Democratic Party. Whatever competition there was for seats in the Peoples’ Assembly and Consultative Council took place mainly within the NDP. Non-NDP representation in parliament by opposition parties was strictly a matter of the political calculations made for a given elections: let in a few independent candidates known to be affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood in 2005 (and set off tremors of fear in Washington); dictate total NDP domination in 2010 (and clear the path for an expected new round of distributing public assets to “private” investors).

The descriptions of the suppression of labor, the privatization of services, public service austerity measures for non-elites, and rampant unemployment without a meaningful response from the government sound an awful lot like what we’re experiencing in the US.

Atris warns of post-revolution Egypt turning back towards neoliberal policies as a new government and new public society are formed. The dangers are real:

A neoliberal fix would, however, be a tragedy for the pro-democracy movement. The demands of the protesters were clear and largely political: remove the regime; end the emergency law; stop state torture; hold free and fair elections. But implicit in these demands from the beginning (and decisive by the end) was an expectation of greater social and economic justice. Social media may have helped organise the kernel of a movement that eventually overthrew Mubarak, but a large element of what got enough people into the streets to finally overwhelm the state security forces was economic grievances that are intrinsic to neoliberalism. These grievances cannot be reduced to grinding poverty, for revolutions are never carried out by the poorest of the poor. It was rather the erosion of a sense that some human spheres should be outside the logic of markets. Mubarak’s Egypt degraded schools and hospitals, and guaranteed grossly inadequate wages, particularly in the ever-expanding private sector. This was what turned hundreds of dedicated activists into millions of determined protestors.

What’s so powerful about this is that the analysis takes the clear economic causes for revolution in Egypt and connects them to still elemental, but broader, social justice guideposts. To put things a bit differently, if there’s a market that produces a system of values of cronyism, theft of wealth, destruction of government, and torture, the market is broken and needs to be replaced with a system that values people, values labor, and values civil society. The people of Egypt – driven primarily by unionized workers, students and the poor – forced out a dictatorial ruler who’d built a neoliberal system of government. What comes next will be up to these same people, but hopefully the common thread ends up being a rejection of neoliberalim and not merely a rejection of Mubarak.

Stoller on Labor & Egypt

Matt Stoller has a post up at Naked Capitalism, which, while worthy to be read in full, draws out another set of lessons from the revolution in Egypt qua model for economic change movements in the United States:

Egyptians are trying to throw off the IMF-imposed austerity measures that created such a system for their country. The new government there is proposing raising taxes on oligarchs, increasing food subsidies, and reducing inequality. Their new cabinet is letting more people apply for “monthly portions of sugar, cooking oil, and rice.” The previous cabinet, “which was comprised of businessmen and former corporate executives”, had refused this.

And look at how Egypt is treating public employees: “Temporary workers who have spent at least three years working for the government will now be given permanent contracts that carry higher salaries, and benefits such as pension plans, and health and social insurance.”

Pension plans, health, and social insurance, oh my! How are they planning to pay for this? One member of a left-of-center party made it quite clear:

Confiscating wealth looted by cronies of the former regime, more egalitarian distribution of wealth, gradual taxation, better government oversight, and placing “a reasonable ceiling” on profitability of goods and services sold to the public are among the measures that should restore an economic balance to society, he said.

It is too early to pretend like this is a done deal, but it is certainly the case that the mass exercise of people-power in Egypt made this far more possible than it had been before. Even after Mubarak resigned, and even when the army tried to ban labor gatherings, the Egyptian labor movement continued to strike, gather, and make demands.

What’s so powerful about this is that it based in soundly liberal economic ideals: before some people have too much,  everyone must have a baseline of wealth. Workers don’t exist to be exploited. Government doesn’t exist to speed a transfer of wealth from the poor and working class to the rich. In fact, it should work to ensure that there is upward economic mobility in society through basic things like education, livable wages, retirement security, and healthcare. These things are eminently achievable if there is a willingness in society to prioritize them over the accumulation of wealth in the hands of the few.

People around the US, in the UK and in the Middle East are finding that they can get things done by going outside existing power structures and organize together. Common vision for economic life and common analysis of inequalities that keep them from achieving the life they want to live have brought workers into the streets around the world. Success has bred success, which has bred more courage for people to take action in the face of repressive and unresponsive forces.

For those of us in the labor movement, working on economic justice issues more broadly or working within Democratic politics the challenge is clear: either wake up to the fact that people are hungry for an economy that works for them or wake up to the fact that you’re irrelevant at best and a big part of the problem at worst. Mass change movements tend to come in cycles. Waves roll as far as they can reach and then stop. We’re in the midst of a big wave right now and while there is little professional activists can do to existentially change it, there is still a role for dedicated organizing to make this grow farther and wider. After all, saying Egypt happened because of Facebook is like saying the civil rights movement happened because Rosa Parks wouldn’t give up her seat on the bus. There is still a major role for people who seek to develop strategic methods for strengthening the hand of the workers in the streets of Madison, New York, London and Bahrain. Involvement would be a statement of commitment, of trust with the folks in the street and a readiness to keep up the pressure.

The largest problem that Americans fighting for economic justice face is a not thinking big enough. What’s happening in Wisconsin can’t be just about saving collective bargaining or protecting a larger slice of public worker pensions. The goals must be systemic and the end vision must be inspiring. In so doing, the pressure should shift from a defensive posture around basic worker rights to an offensive one which calls the question of how we got to where we are today and who is responsible for the destruction of our economy and our governments’ abilities to provide an adequate social safety network. If all this happens, great things could be possible.

Economics & Pensions in Wisconsin

Dean Baker has a short piece in Politico that contains the most straight forward rebuttal to attacks on public workers from the right.

The reality that no honest person can dispute is that state budget crises are almost entirely due to the economic downturn, not out of control spending. This in turn was the result of Wall Street fraud and greed and the incredible incompetence of people like Alan Greenspan and Ben Bernanke, who failed to rein in the housing bubble before it grew to such dangerous levels.

However, politicians like Gov. Walker have managed to instead focus public anger on public sector employees who have the audacity to want to maintain a middle class life style. It would be great if the events in Wisconsin can be a turning point. If our economy was being managed by competent people we would have no problem assuring the whole population of the same sort of pension and health care benefits that most workers used to have and public employees still enjoy. We just have to stop handing over all of our money to Wall Street.

This is really the truth. There was a massive economic downturn in 2007-2008 which wrecked public pensions, along with all other pensions. Matt Stoller, on Twitter, points out, “Assets fell from $87.8B in 2007 to $61.8B in 2008. WI slashed benefits, raised costs.”

Even if you convinced me to ignore the Wall Street collapse as the primary cause for public pension troubles in Wisconsin, Brian Beutler points out that Gov. Scott Walker created this current budget crisis out of whole cloth to have an excuse to destroy public unions.

this broadside comes less than a month after the state’s fiscal bureau — the Wisconsin equivalent of the Congressional Budget Office — concluded that Wisconsin isn’t even in need of austerity measures, and could conclude the fiscal year with a surplus. In fact, they say that the current budget shortfall is a direct result of tax cut policies Walker enacted in his first days in office.

“Walker was not forced into a budget repair bill by circumstances beyond he control,” says Jack Norman, research director at the Institute for Wisconsin Future — a public interest think tank. “He wanted a budget repair bill and forced it by pushing through tax cuts… so he could rush through these other changes.”

Beutler links to an op-ed in Madison’s Capitol Times, which points out:

In its Jan. 31 memo to legislators on the condition of the state’s budget, the Fiscal Bureau determined that the state will end the year with a balance of $121.4 million.

To the extent that there is an imbalance — Walker claims there is a $137 million deficit — it is not because of a drop in revenues or increases in the cost of state employee contracts, benefits or pensions. It is because Walker and his allies pushed through $140 million in new spending for special-interest groups in January.

To recap, the main issue with state budget and public pensions is due the Wall Street-caused economic collapse. And even withstanding that collapse, which Wisconsin largely survived without necessitating austerity measures, the only trouble exists now because Walker blew the budget with tax cuts for his pet projects which he is only now trying to pay for by breaking unions in Wisconsin.

Stoller on Egypt

Matt Stoller has a post up at Naked Capitalism where he looks at the revolution in Egypt’s strong labor base and the extent to which it is a rejection of a Rubinite economic view. Stoller writes:

What is going in Egypt represents a remarkable new political coalition striking deep at the heart of the Washington consensus. Social media mattered, in that it was the language by which the youth expressed themselves and their hatred of the torture inflicted upon them to extract maximal profit. This alliances, of a domestic business-military community, women’s groups, and a youth-driven labor movement, has parallels in the 1930s New Deal coalition and the 1850s anti-slavery coalition. It is also interesting that the pre-Facebook blogosphere of 2004-2005 played an important role in unmasking torture and delegitimizing the authority of the state, including the justice system and the media.

Seen in this context, Egypt is part of a global conflict of financial oligarchs fighting with leftist human rights activists, unions, and domestic industries. Egypt’s going to need the money stashed away and stolen by the Mubarak family; getting to that money requires an international crackdown on superrich tax havens. Furthermore, the links between Mubarak corruption and various Rubinites are probably as extensive as the torture trade between the CIA and Egypt. The extent of the cover-up of the Mubarak regime’s behavior will be the way to judge what happens going forward. Obama’s mild-mannered and largely irrelevant statecraft simply reflects the paralysis of the foreign policy establishment as the extent of its complicity in the overall economic and political strategy of this repressive regime is revealed.

Of course, it’s quite possible that the Mubarak-style repressive franchise isn’t done. Already, the Egyptian military is trying to ban the labor and professional organizing at the heart of the uprising. Like Obama’s promises of hope and change in 2008, Egypt in 2011 is full of promise, with ambiguous tidings.

It’s deeply troubling that among the first acts by the military of their hopefully interim regime is to ban labor unions and worker organizing. Why is the military trying to break the back of a movement that just handed them power? Obviously they are scared – as Mubarak was scared – of the people uniting across class lines to support revolutionary means of achieving economic improvement. The question will be, how will this coalition of youth, women, and workers respond to the crackdown by the military? Will they ride it out patiently until this fall’s elections in the hopes of democratic change through the ballot box? Or will there be resistance to military rule straight away? It was clear last week and even more so now, but Egypt is not out of the woods yet.

Attacking Unions Through Budget Fights

In yesterday’s Steven Greenhouse article on attacks on unions at the state level in the New York Times, there’s a great passage about how the right is trying to undercut unions through budget crises.

Some union leaders say that proposals like right-to-work laws, which have little effect on state budgets, show that Republicans are using budget woes as a pretext to undercut unions.

“They’re throwing the kitchen sink at us,” said Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. “We’re seeing people use the budget crisis to make every attempt to roll back workers’ voices and any ability of workers to join collectively in any way whatsoever.”

Yves Smith makes the point very succinctly:

Notice the effort to use the push against public unions to break the remaining private sector ones.

Attacks on public workers through public budgets pave the way towards not only cuts in worker benefits whose maintenance is crucial to job growth and economic growth – pensions, healthcare, job security, wages – but also paves the way for austerity measures inflicted on unorganized workers. Additionally, the move towards right to work for less laws ensures that, again, it will be harder for workers to lift themselves up and make more money. Wealth will stay with the wealthy and large corporations and will not be flowing into state and federal government coffers. On the flip side, if private sector workers have higher wages, they will be paying more in taxes and help fix budget shortfalls at the state levels.

There is a squeeze being put on by conservatives, for the benefit of the wealthy and corporations, at the expensive of unionized and non-unionized workers alike. The result is likely going to be a loss of public services, a reduction in the size and strength of the social safety net, and the further destruction of the labor movement. Recognizing that this is what is happening in the context of public worker collective bargaining fights and right to work fights is critical to understanding how to stop it from happening. Even if you don’t support the revitalization of the labor movement, understanding the goals of what corporations and conservatives are fighting for now should make clear that the economy cannot and will not recover if austerity and union-busting win out.

The other key piece that needs to be responded to is the core use of jealousy as a motivating factor for drumming up public discontent towards public workers specifically and unionized workers broadly. I don’t know the answer to stopping non-unionized working class people from being jealous of the successes their neighbors have earned through joining a union. At the most basic level, wouldn’t we all be better served to share each others aspirations rather than pull each other down to our lowest possible level? How this is conveyed will be a challenge for labor and pro-labor progressives…and it must be done in the face of a massive PR campaign by the right to drive people to hate their neighbors.