Labor

Wisconsin: Protest Like An Egyptian?

| Thu Feb. 17, 2011 11:08 AM EST

Is this the Middle East? Nope, it's the Midwest.

For the second straight day, demonstrators have been pouring into the streets of Madison, Wisconsin, to protest Republican Governor Scott Walker's anti-union plan to address the state's $137 million budget shortfall, prompting comparisons (and denounciations of these comparisons) to the uprising in Egypt. Walker's proposal would limit the collective bargaining power of many state and local employees, and roughly doubles their health care premiums. It would also give public union members the right not to pay their dues, deflating the groups' coffers. Experts expect that Walker's provisions will be voted into law by the end of the week by the state assembly and senate—both of which are controlled by Republicans.

In response, Madison public school teachers have called in sick for a second straight day. And teachers in over a dozen other school districts have followed suit. Meanwhile, union leaders are picketing the capitol, planning vigils and setting up phone banks to try to block Walker's effort. Other state legislatures, meanwhile, could see Walker's assault on public employees and their unions as a blueprint for how to fix their own budget catastrophes. The New York Times reports that such plans are already under consideration in places like Ohio, Indiana, and Tennessee, where the GOP scored major electoral victories last November.

Walker insists that he's not deliberately targeting unions. But he's not far from targeting workers themselves: he's threatened to call in the National Guard if public employees decide to walk off their jobs. Protestors say that sounds a little…Mubaraky. They're carrying signs saying things like "Mubarak-check. Walker—?" and "Hosni Walker, Elected Dictator." And local liberal pundits are feeding the flames of anti-MubWalkerism. Liberal columnist Pat Schneider wrote that "[t]he success of a grass-roots uprising in Egypt in toppling strongman Hosni Mubarak was a source of inspiration for many of those who brainstormed Tuesday in Madison about resistance to attacks on US workers in several states." Meanwhile, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wisc.) told CNN "it's like Cairo's moved to Madison these days…[h]e's basically saying I want you public workers to pay half of what our private sector counterparts are, and he's getting riots."

But Harold Meyerson sees some instructive parallels:

Our unions have already been decimated in the private sector; the results are plain. Corporate profits are soaring, while domestic investment, wages, and benefits (particularly at nonunion companies) are flat-lining at best. With nobody to bargain for workers, America increasingly is an economically stagnant, plutocratic utopia. Is everybody happy?

American conservatives often profess admiration for foreign workers' bravery in protesting and undermining authoritarian regimes. Letting workers exercise their rights at home, however, threatens to undermine some of our own regimes (the Republican ones particularly) and shouldn't be permitted. Now that Wisconsin's governor has given the Guard its marching orders, we can discern a new pattern of global repressive solidarity emerging— from the chastened pharaoh of the Middle East to the cheese-head pharaoh of the Middle West.

Walker is no Mubarak, and the political and civil conditions that precipitated the events in Egypt obviously have nothing to do with those in Wisconsin. (Still, this website is totally hilarious.) But the double standard for American workers is maddening. And, in light of the fact that other states intend to follow Walker's example, we may soon have a real uprising on our hands.