Madison, WI, Feb 18, 2011 (cc license shaggyisaac on Flickr)

The past week has seen an intensification of the fight over public sector work in the US. From our allies at Berkeley:

AFSCME is planning a solidarity rally in Sacramento this Tuesday, February 22nd. Vans or buses will hopefully be going from Berkeley in the afternoon, get in touch (berkeley@uaw2865.org) if you’re interested!

Amidst growing nationwide attempts to demonize public sector workers and their unions, Wisconsin has emerged this week as the first major battleground for the future of public sector unions. At least 30,000 workers and students have been out protesting in Madison for the last three days.

The newly elected Republican Governor revealed his radically aggressive attack on workers’ rights last week. His plan would increase pension contributions from workers to almost 6% of pay, increase the percentage of health care premiums that workers pay to 12.6%, and drastically limit collective bargaining rights so that unions can only bargain over wages (not benefits or rights), must renegotiate contracts every year and must seek recognition from their members every year, and would no longer be able to collect dues through payroll deductions. It’s not hard to see that these measures would effectively destroy public sector unions, whose operating budgets would hugely increase as their ability to protect workers hugely decreases.

Worse yet, faculty and staff at the University of Wisconsin would lose their rights to unionize completely–faculty just gained union recognition in 2009.

But if the Governor thought he could force this legislation through while public employees were stuck in a state of shock, he vastly miscalculated. Tens of thousands of public workers, including public school teachers, unionized graduate student assistants, faculty and students have been filling the streets of Madison and the Capitol building itself for three days now. They’ve gotten support from firefighters, whose benefits and collective bargaining rights were not threatened by the legislation. The teachers and faculty have the support of their students, who have been called the “soul of the protests.”

… [read the rest of the article]

We think it’s important as well to point out the racialized nature of the attack on public sector workers in mainstream political discourse. From a recent article from ColorLines:

As tens of thousands of public sector workers in Wisconsin turn Madison into Tahrir Square, I’m nagged by a question: How much of the current demonization of public workers is racialized?

Yes, I get that this is plainly a budget debate: States are broke and the new surge of conservatives in governor’s offices and legislatures would far rather cut pensions and benefits than raise taxes. And those politicians have convinced many struggling constituents that it’s their own pocketbooks versus the paychecks of public servants. That tension is heightened by residents’ frustrations with public services that have been so hobbled in recent decades that they often no longer work well—like, say, public schools.

I also get that, as many progressive commenters have noted, this is a straight out political fight. We’re witnessing the culmination of a decades’ long effort to destroy unions as the sole remaining check to corporate power in both federal and state government. Corporatists are plainly winning that fight, and the labor movement hasn’t always been its own best advocate. A Pew poll done in the first week of this month found public opinion of unions worse than it’s been in a quarter century—though, it found similarly historic lows for business.

But as governors and columnists have painted pictures of overpaid, underworked public employee in recent weeks, I have also seen the faint outline of familiar caricatures—welfare queens, Cadillacs in the projects, Mexican freeloaders. It’s hard to escape the fact that, in the states and localities with the biggest budget crunches (New Jersey, California, New York…) public employees are uniquely black.

… [read the rest of the article]

The struggle over public resources, public sector work, and social services promises to be significant all over the US this year. There are some difficult strategic and analytical questions we need to be posing. All over the country, eyes are turned to the struggle in Wisconsin. The fightback has been inspiring, but it remains to be seen whether victory is possible, what victory would look like, and how developments there will set the stage for other struggles this year.

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