Why what happens in Wisconsin matters worldwide
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.
“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.”