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What happens in Wisconsin matters world-wide

10:55 am - March 7th 2011

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contribution by Owen Tudor

The new independent unions of Egypt have been on the receiving end of a lot of solidarity messages from around the world as they struggle for democracy and human rights. But they are also sending solidarity messages to other workers engaged in the struggle for human rights: such as the trade unions of Wisconsin in the US mid-west.

It may seem bizarre to suggest that workers in the state capital of Madison, Wisconsin are engaged in a similar struggle as those in Tahrir Square, but it doesn’t seem bizarre to those Egyptian trade unionists, and they’re right.

What Republican Governor Scott Walker is trying to do in Wisconsin is to remove some fundamental human rights from the workers he employs, and he’s doing it to undermine democracy in the state. Workers across the world have a direct interest in making sure he is beaten.

In a situation that has faint echoes even in Europe, Scott Walker is using the excuse of a soaring budget deficit (US states aren’t allowed to borrow, so their crises are often much more intractable than any other government’s) to remove the right to collective bargaining from state employees – although they have already offered to take the hit of an 8% cut in salaries to tackle the deficit. It is widely recognised that he is simply using the deficit as an excuse (he started his term of office with tax cuts for the rich, making the deficit worse than ever) to undermine the support that Democrats receive from the trade unions in Wisconsin: so it’s a form of gerrymandering, as well as an attack on the fundamental human right (as recognised by the UN and the ILO) to bargain collectively.

As Republicans in Illinois and Ohio have started to follow suit, this is a battle that could echo round the whole USA. And it could happen in Europe too, under proposals from the European Commission for ‘economic governance’ which would mean tackling the deficit in European countries by taking away workers’ rights to bargain for cost of living increases. So this is a worldwide issue for trade unions, making the support of the TUC, our unions and fellow trade unionists in Egypt and beyond less like altruism and more like good old-fashioned solidarity.

There is masses of information on the Wisconsin struggle on the AFL-CIO’s special States of Denial website, and on news outlets like the BBC, whose Jonny Dymond reported:

“Some on the American political right paint public sector workers as little more than pampered leeches, enjoying health and pension benefits that ordinary Joes in the private sector can only dream of. But marching around the sunny snow-covered capitol building in Madison, the prison workers, teachers and nurses seemed pretty ordinary themselves – and pretty angry too.”

Owen Tudor is Head of the TUC’s European Union and International Relations Department.

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Reader comments

You do know that Democrat governors are taking on public sector unions too, don’t you?

“US states aren’t allowed to borrow, so their crises are often much more intractable than any other government’s”

I don’t think this can be right. From what I can find Wisconsin owes $44G.

@2 you have heard of Google?

“What has to be balanced? State balanced budget requirements in practice refer to operating budgets and not to capital budgets. Operating budgets include annual expenditures–such items as salaries and wages, aid to local governments, health and welfare benefits, and other expenditures that are repeated from year to year. State capital expenditure, mainly for land, highways, and buildings, is largely financed by debt. Court decisions and referendums on borrowing have led to the exclusion of expenditures funded by long-term debt from calculations whether a budget is balanced.”

@3 The guy at that link is a rather confused helmet isn’t he. Given that the unions agreed to a pay cut and are striking about something else entirely.

“(US states aren’t allowed to borrow, so their crises are often much more intractable than any other government’s)”

Nonsense. States can borrow and do all the time. You’re confused because the market is called the “muni” market, but it doesn’t apply just to municipalities but to counties and states as well.

What States are not allowed to do is run a budget deficit.

Great speech by Michael Moore addressing the huge rally at Madison on Saturday:

He draws many parallels with Egypt.

Since day 4 of Wisconsin protests I’ve been trying to advise protesters here it would be important.

Only the last week have people really been taking notice, and retweeting Wisconsin news.

Wisconsin is working because its workers & citizens affected ny cuts taking the fight directly tu local government and telling them they won’t let cuts happen on the scale on the table. They aglsi won’t allow it whilst at the same time workers rights are being removed.

Jump back over the pond and we’re yet tu have a similar protest take place until 26th March. Almost 6 months since the CSR and over a month since many councils rubber stamped budgets.

We’ve missed our Wisconsin moment, having been too occupied with tax avoidance which even if laws changed won’t plug our deficit/tax gap. At most it would cover 30%.

9. john rogers

‘In a situation that has faint echoes even in Europe,’

More than faint echoes Owen:it is looking likely that the Conservative right and big business will push for the rolling back of many labour rights, etc here and Cameron I suspect after his speech on Sunday will be very sympathetic. There were indications of this on Newsnight with a Tory minister saying he will make it easier for businesses to sack people while the ex Lib Dem adviser now of the IEA was calling for even more radical reforms, its not just cuts they have on their agenda.

The question is why are the TUC and the Unions so supine in the face of such dangers?

10. Brian Routh

You pose a very valid argument; however, your argument is based on the wild assumptions that Union workers have had a “rough” life. In fact, Union workers are being overpaid and have been overpaid for a long time. Americans are fed up with the Union who produce substandard products and have ruined industry. Their selfish ways can be seen in the American Auto industry which today is almost inexistent. Your wild assumptions do not help you in your argument.


If you’re not a comment bot, you’ve got bad reading comprehension. If you are a comment bot, someone’s spending big money trying to distort this story.

The right to enter into collective negotiation is a pretty bloody liberal right. I thought one of the key points of libertarianism was that you should be free to enter into any contract you like, including contracting other people to make representations on your behalf, which – broadly – is what a union does. It’s almost as though Walker isn’t a libertarian, merely a shill for corporatism.

@ Adam

Dear Adam,
According to the National Labor Relations Act, which allows workers to engage in collective bargaining, does state that it “governs labor relations for businesses involved in interstate commerce only.” And seeing as the union protesting in Wisconsin are not involved in any interstate commerce there is no valid explanation for the Union’s protests. There is no “attack on the fundamental human right to bargain collectively” for state employees are not included in the NLRA. State employees are getting better benefits and higher pay then comparable higher private sector jobs. This has created an unsustainable burden on the tax payers of Wisconsin. It is time that the Wisconsin state government workers do their part…and if they don’t want to do that, they should find another job. 🙂

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