The social and labor struggles in Madison, Wisconsin are a crucial turning point in labor history, because they happen in the heartland of Empire, after nearly 30 years of decline, and following the tipping point of 100 million concurrent strikes in India alone, in September 2010. On the one hand, it is symptomatic of a global assault on the living standards and organizing capabilities of working people; but on the other hand, it is part of a global labor revival, with strong p2p aspects, also highlighted by the uprising in Egypt.
This is explained in great detail by Matt Stoller in a long essay.
First, what he writes about Egypt:
“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.
As Daniel Ellsberg once said, “Courage is contagious.” And what happened in Wisconsin came from the inspiration of see millions of powerless people join together and overthrow a regime in Egypt. It didn’t come from union leaders, who have been perpetually unprepared for the onslaught against them.”
And here’s how that new energy of creation and resistance lept over to Madison, Wisconsin:
“Striking just isn’t in the collective memory of the American public anymore. This kind of highly politicized hybrid political protest/strike walks like an Egyptian these days, which is why Egyptians were sending Wisconsinites pizza and Madison protesters were holding signs lauding teachers, workers, and the new Egyptian flag. In fact, Madison may represent a new kind of American labor model, the melding of old school unions, Howard Dean-style internet-based organizing, Anonymous-style serious pranking, and social media reporting on protests and policy. There’s an anti-bailout class-based fervor here as well, with a simmering anger at Wall Street as subtext. It’s headless and global, though there is leadership. The most powerful moment so far in the Wisconsin conflict didn’t come from the actions of a labor leader, but from a prank call by alt-weekly “Buffalo Beast” editor Ian Murphy, who pretended to be billionaire American oligarch David Koch and had a frank 20 minute conversation with Governor Scott Walker. Murphy originally wanted to pose as Hosni Mubarak, but couldn’t pull off the accent.
Perversely, people may be so beaten down that they only want to side with institutions that are visibly and aggressively advocating for them. This might lead them to recognize that middle class interests are aligned with those of labor, which was the widespread view in the first generation after World War II. However, that also means that the de facto business unionism of the 1970s onward isn’t appealing. People might only like unions when they see strikes, otherwise all they hear about is backroom negotiations. Perhaps effectively striking is actually the way to force people to ask questions about what kind of country they want to live in. I haven’t seen this much labor coverage since, well, ever in my lifetime. There seems to be multiple feedback loops at work: political, global, and economic.
As commodity prices shoot up, and become more volatile, the pressure to liquidate America will only increase. These increases take the form of gifting public assets to oligarchs, taxing the middle class and poor, slashing social service budgets, and cutting wages through inflation and outright demotions (like the NYC sanitation workers that were demoted right before a giant blizzard). But civil unrest is intensifying it its most basic forms: protests and strikes, and in advanced forms, like the blowback at the national security state embodied in the HB Gary and WIkileaks fiasco.
What we are seeing is two political and economic systems, increasingly at odds – high trust and cooperative, or dominance-based and lowest common denominator. This is not, fundamentally, a debate about economics. It is true that neoclassical economics doesn’t work, leads to corruption, and is intellectually dishonest. But that’s why this isn’t a question of economics, because the dishonesty is part of a system of corrupted values. “