Madison, WI: the Pearl Harbor of the class war

Scott Walker dropped his bomb on the workers of Wisconsin. But the middle class is standing -- and ready to fight.
February 28th, 2011 |
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Jon Anne Willow, managing partner at TCD, and I discussed taking an official editorial stance on the events in Madison and the policies of the Walker administration. We decided against that. The analysis and commentary that follow are my own as a citizen of Wisconsin — nothing more than that. And nothing less. — Tom Strini

Why is Wisconsin mad as hell?

Because a few thousand state employees will pay more for their pensions and health insurance?

No. Thousands don’t camp out in the capitol for weeks over that. This is bigger. Madison, right now, is the Pearl Harbor of the American class war, and we aren’t the ones flying the bombers.

The uprising shows that we in the middle class are starting to grasp Walker’s “Budget Repair” bill as part of a grander far-right-wing strategy to migrate wealth out of our hands and into the hands of the top 1%. They already have 43% of everything, but they want more. If we fail to defend ourselves, it will soon be 60% — and in a zero-sum game. With public education starved out from kindergarten through grad school, Wisconsin and America will lack  the educated, creative population needed to compete and generate new wealth in a world economy. We’ll not only get a smaller slice of the American pie, the pie will be smaller.

By middle class I mean households in the $50,000-$150,000 range. We aspire to some upward mobility, home ownership, modest vacations. We send our kids to public schools and public universities. We hope they can stand on our shoulders and do a little better. We believe in hard work and free markets; some of us hope to get rich if we can build better mousetraps. But we don’t want 19th-century capitalism of the sort that filled unmarked paupers’ graves on the Milwaukee County Grounds and concentrated wealth in the hands of a very few.

We want capitalism with a human face. We want parks we can use and take pride in. We want art and music and beauty in our cities, with modest subsidies to assure their survival and access to all. We want clean water and air. We want decent health care. If we get cancer, we don’t want to lose our houses to foreclosure. If we’re laid off because of economic upheaval, we want health insurance and unemployment compensation until we find new jobs. If loved ones are mentally ill, we don’t want the public facilities intended to help them to be underfunded hell holes.

The far right despises all of that. Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, public transportation, public schools, low-tuition public universities, arts funding, national parks — to them, it’s all socialism. They despise the minimum wage and unemployment insurance. They hate consumer protection laws and regulations. They chip away at these pillars of the middle class at every opportunity, usually on grounds that they stifle economic growth. (Never mind that the US has enjoyed enormous economic growth during the decades these protections have been in place.) Most of all, they despise workers who have banded together in unions to defend their shrinking slice of the pie.

I’ve often been exasperated with the behavior of unions; don’t get me started, as a 20-year MPS parent, about the Milwaukee teachers’ union. But unions in Wisconsin and around the country have shown great willingness to adjust to new realities and to help rebuild the economy. Look especially to the auto workers, who sacrificed and contributed a great deal to the survival of the American auto industry. (By the way, the Republicans still haven’t admitted they were wrong about the GM bailout.) More important, unions historically have had a direct hand in middle-class life enhancers that plenty of non-union people enjoy, such as the 40-hour work week, unemployment insurance, worker safety and overtime rules. The right doesn’t like any of that and is seizing the moment take down the hard-won benefits of the middle class.

In order to do that, they must beat down the political opposition, mainly by outspending it. The 2010 election is partly explained by massive stealth spending. The US Supreme Court enabled it with a hideous decision sanctioning secret contributions to political hit men posing as public interest groups. The only significant counterbalance — and not all that weighty of one, truth be told — is political spending by unions. The drive to cripple unions is also a drive eliminate the last source of funding for politicians who would stand up to the rightist agenda and protect services and policies that shore up the middle class.

The right is fine with health insurance companies that take 35 to 50 cents of every dollar we spend on medical care. They are fine with health care executives who are paid millions, while 46 million Americans do without health insurance. They are fine with CEOs who drive their companies into the ground, lay off workers, destroy countless lives, then walk away with millions. But a social worker or a teacher making $45,000 and getting low-cost health care? Scandal! At the national and state level, most of all in Wisconsin, Walker and various versions of him are gutting programs that serve us all in order to shield guys like this and this and this from taxes. Walker’s “Budget Repair” bill is part of that, which is why he won’t consider more sensible, less disruptive solutions to Wisconsin’s very real but by no means insurmountable budget problems.

The GOP and the elite that owns it have been very clever about attracting a significant number of middle-class people to vote directly against their own interests. They’ve leveraged racism for that purpose since Ronald Reagan rode into the White House on the Southern Strategy. In red-state Wisconsin, “stick it to Milwaukee” is code for “stick it to the blacks.” That’s how they get the vote of some guy in Rhinelander who makes $12 an hour, even though the GOP would love to beat that guy down to $10 an hour and kick him off Badgercare.

And is Walker ever sticking it to Milwaukee.  He’s fixing to hack $233 million — 25% of the entire budget — from MPS. The tea partiers couldn’t be more pleased. MPS serves, you know, those people. (The right has extended the those people brand from African-Americans to gays, feminists and Mexicans. That’s their idea of diversity.)

Walker is reported to be pondering returning $34 million in US Title 1 MPS funding that, among other things, gives the poorest of poor kids free breakfast and lunch at school. If that occurs, it would be the most egregious instance of pointless cruelty for political gain I have witnessed in my 30 years in this state. And it will be more evidence that  rightist concern for children ends the moment they leave the womb.

Rightists have coaxed some middle class people into handing them power on economic grounds. Some of us have bought the notion that taxes are the only obstacle standing between us and happiness. But think about this: They don’t collect any taxes in Somalia, and that isn’t working out so well. Without taxes, no civilization.

Seriously, friends: What good does it do to save $200 on your tax bill — while those in the top 2% save hundreds of thousands — and then find that your local grade school no longer has music or art and now is squeezing 40 kids into a classroom? Or to find that UW tuition has priced your family out, and that scholarship assistance has been slashed? Your kid wants to be a physicist? Too bad. Your cubicle is that way, son.

But don’t worry, the Koch brothers are all right. Their kids and grandkids and their grandkids’ kids and on through the generations can go anywhere they want. Doesn’t matter if they’re dumber than sticks, because money talks in the Ivy League. And dynastic oligarchies are so much easier to maintain with that pesky estate tax practically repealed for the very wealthy.

Taxes, government spending and regulation did not cause this recession. The Bush tax cuts for the wealthy were in place for over six years, and Bush’s regulators and Justice Department had eight years to look the other way while banks and Wall Street did as they pleased. The Republicans got everything they wanted (including an insanely expensive war in Iraq). According to rightist theory, with such measures in place the recession should not have happened. But it did. They were wrong about the economy then, and there is no reason to believe that an even more radical GOP is right today.

Punishing teachers and home nurses, crushing the public schools, spurning investment in future technologies and slashing our universities won’t fix the economy or provide jobs. But Walker’s battle isn’t about jobs and the economy and repairing the budget. It’s about putting more of your pie on someone else’s already full plate, so those people will give the Republicans money and keep them in office. It is a symbiosis of greed and power.

All of that has made us mad as hell, mad enough to march on Madison for weeks. Walker dropped his bomb and awakened the middle class, rather the way Imperial Japan woke up America at Pearl Harbor. We have been provoked and we have responded. We will defend ourselves. Remember Madison! will be the rallying cry for 2012.

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12 Responses to “Madison, WI: the Pearl Harbor of the class war”

  1. jeff ircink says:

    tom, i think unions – like anything – have their pluses and minuses. here’s another viewpoint on the negatives: http://www.usatoday.com/news/opinion/forum/2011-07-12-unions-construction-recovery_n.htm

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  2. edith brin says:

    telling it like it is. wish it was required reading for everyone in the state.
    nice job, tom. thanks.

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  3. Robert Levine says:

    Precisely.

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  4. Tom Kovacich says:

    Nice article Tom.

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  5. Judy Kuhn says:

    Well done, Tom. Lots at stake here, including the survival of music in public schools and universities, the survival of an already-disappearing middle class, and the survival of campaign financing for Democrats in the face of the Supreme Court ruling allowing corporate campaign financing donations. Let’s hope this is a colossal miscalculation by Walker. It’s beginning to look like it

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  6. Dave Rasmussen says:

    One of the best analysis of this debacle yet. Kudos to Tom Strini!

    I second Linda’s followup.

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  7. Tom Strini says:

    The whole thing in a nutshell, passed along to me by Darcy Hamlin:

    A unionized employee, a Tea Party member & a corporate CEO are sitting at a table. In the middle is a plate with a dozen cookies on it. The CEO reaches out & takes 11 of the cookies, then says to the Tea Party member, “look out for that union guy, he wants a piece of your cookie.”

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  8. Patricia Pellman says:

    Well stated crystal clear sad and scary truths in this article. Where Are The Jobs Walker?

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  9. Jane Ward says:

    Thanks for writing about this in a clear and straight forward way.

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  10. Dan Knauss says:

    I agree with all of this except the overly abused spinning of the protesters as “an awakened middle class” and the implication that because the Walker agenda is so bad, the status quo of failure is worth paying forward some more. Both outcomes are terrible and no one is asking for a different, reform oriented endgame

    The protesters represent a piece of the middle class that is divided from the rest, and it’s the union minority’s place to earn, not demand, whatever support it wishes to enjoy from others. It has not been earned, so the middle class as a whole will squabble over who will make a better master instead of pressing forward its own terms.

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  11. judith ann moriarty says:

    for contrast and fairness, read Knauss’ “Milwaukee Needs a good kick in the a$$. Dan lays out the “other” side.

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  12. Linda Binder says:

    Great article! No hyperbole, no “spin”, just a clear analysis and explanation of the very scary truth. I hope everyone can muster the courage to read this article and really think about it, because we’re in big trouble. Thanks Tom, for laying it all out.

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