The uprisings in the Middle East have captured the attention of the world, but in the U.S. an equally important protest has also begun to grab headlines. Public servants–teachers, nurses, firefighters and many others–are taking to the streets of Wisconsin to protest pending legislation that will strip away decades of hard-won workers’ rights.
According to Congressman Paul Ryan (R-WI) “It’s like Cairo has moved to Madison…” The congressman has characterized the peaceful demonstrations as “riots”, an attempt to discredit the public employees. But nothing could be further from the reality on the ground.
Wisconsin, like many other states, is having budget problems. The newly elected governor, Scott Walker, a conservative Republican, lays the blame at the feet of state employees. He wants to slash their benefits and pensions and more ominously, he’s proposed legislation that will strip the public employees unions of the right to collective bargaining. Ironically, Wisconsin was the first state to grant collective bargain rights to state employees. (This CNN article analyzes the importance of collective bargaining for the American middle class.)
Some claim that Walker has ginned up the state’s books to exaggerate the deficit so he can use it as a pretext to break the unions, a gift to his corporate backers. According to Wisconsin’s budget office, the state was running a surplus until Walker, soon after taking office, pushed through a series of corporate tax cuts that will add over $100 million to Wisconsin’s budget deficit over the next two years.
Yesterday, a reported 30,000 people rallied in Madison, the state capital, to protest the pending vote. Other demonstrations were held across the state. Larger protests are expected today.
Is this simply an issue of “spoiled” workers trying to preserve their perks or is there more at stake here?
Most of the benefits that American workers enjoy–minimum wage, safe working conditions, the 40 hour work week, paid holidays, sick leave, paid vacation–are a direct result of the labor movement. Union negotiations set the standard and private industry followed their lead.
An attack on unions is really an attack on the beleaguered middle class. State workers–the people that put out fires, teach our kids, respond to emergencies, pick up the trash, repair the roads–deserve thanks, not vilification. Now they’ve been pushed to the edge and they’re fighting back, drawing a crucial line in the sand.
Should Wisconsin’s civil servants lose this battle, it will embolden other states to follow suit; Ohio and New Jersey are watching closely. Can corporations be far behind in demanding more work for less pay? A bill just introduced in Nevada seeks to eliminate the $8.25 minimum wage. Will America compete with China by legally paying workers $2 an hour? It’s not as far-fetched as it sounds.
For all you working stiffs out there, it’s time to take some action. Show your support by joining the Protect Wisconsin Families Facebook page. Follow the breaking news on Twitter. Unions are not the enemy. They deserve our support.
In the last few weeks, there’s been a lot of debate in the media about the effect the Internet has had on the recent uprisings in the Mideast. Some credit social media tools like Facebook and Twitter for fomenting the turmoil. Others say that the conditions already existed and social media had little to do with it. While you can argue it both ways, the fact that the Internet has helped get the word out is undeniable.
For instance, in Tunisia, it was no secret that the former government of president Ben Ali was rife with corruption. When Wikileaks revealed cables from U.S. diplomats that documented this corrosive environment, it provided Tunisians with tangible proof, adding fuel to the fiery rebellion.
In Egypt, the recent uprising began when a young man, despondent over his hopeless condition, set himself on fire in front on parliament. A Facebook page, We are all Khaled Said, spread the word about his horrific personal protest. A few days later, people took to the streets. During the 18 days of protests that lead to the departure of President Mubarak from office, Facebook and Twitter informed Egyptians about street protests.
The government was so concerned about the Internet, that it shut it down for a number of days. International outrage and pressure eventually restored service.
Fear of the Internet has now spread to Algeria, where citizens, emboldened by events in Tunisia and Egypt, have taken to the streets demanding change. According to news reports the government has blocked Facebook and ordered an Internet shutdown.
Regardless of whether the Internet provoked the uprisings (certainly the underlying conditions were already there), clearly governments are afraid of it. China has censored the Net for years, but now repressive regimes are going further–taking their countries offline. But how long can a nation disconnect from the flow of information? Is it committing political and economic suicide? As discontent spreads across the Mideast and disenfranchised citizens take to the streets, we’ll find out the consequences of these information revolutions.
As quoted in the New York Times, Shawki al-Qadi, an opposition lawmaker in Yemen said, “The street is not afraid of governments anymore. It is the opposite. Governments and their security forces are afraid of the people now. The new generation, the generation of the Internet, is fearless. They want their full rights, and they want life, a dignified life.”
“Power to the People” was a much used slogan during the 1960s, but today it’s taking on a whole new meaning.