The Battle of Wisconsin

After my parents got back from a weeklong vacation in Florida, funded in part by the pensions they receive as retired Wisconsin public educators, they went to Madison, where, after enjoying lunch at the hip, local food–oriented The Weary Traveler, they took to Capital Square to protest Governor Scott Walker’s budget bill.

Ha ha.

No, seriously. My parents returned to Milwaukee early last Tuesday after spending six days at my aunt and uncle’s condo in Hollywood, Florida. My parents aren’t wealthy enough to buy their own Florida condo — and they probably wouldn’t buy a condo in Florida if they had that kind of money anyway — but they do, after a combined sixty years working in public education, have enough money and security to head down there on a whim when my aunt calls and says (and this actually happened), “Hey, we’re going on a nudist cruise with Snuffleupagus and the gang for a week, so why don’t you come down here and get out of the cold? You can stay at our place and use our car.”

So off they went, and back they came. Two days at home clearing snow and ice from the roof — we’ve got a little insulation problem up top — then westward to Madison. Not ten minutes ago I got a call from my mother, the second of the day. She didn’t say anything, so I suppose she just wanted me to hear — and to hear her participate in — the chants of “Hey-hey, ho-ho, this bill has got to go” resounding in the capital building rotunda, ground zero of what some have taken to calling “The Battle of Wisconsin.”

At issue in this battle, for anyone who has been too captivated by Libya, gay marriage, or American Idol to pay attention, is a provision in the new governor’s budget that would strip public employees unions of all collective bargaining rights except the right to bargain for base wages commensurate with inflation. In addition, public employees unions would not be permitted to deduct dues from member paychecks, nor to make political donations. Surely, this has something to do with Walker’s interest — and a more general interest on the part of Republican governors across the country, who apparently decided on this course of action at some kind of Republican governors camp — in dismantling these unions, which are the only institutions with big money and power that consistently support Democratic candidates in political campaigns.

Whatever the “real” motivations behind the effort, what is at stake, given the massive manufacturing exodus facilitated by NAFTA and everything after and the well-documented ravaging of the service industry unions, may be the very survival of American unionism itself.

There are a lot of obvious things to be said about this, and some of them are probably worth saying. Unions built the American middle class. Perhaps it was never the greatest thing in the world, but as a friend whose parents work as union reps pointed out to me the other day, it at least has been a middle class. Then there’s the whole bit about the little guy versus the big guy, and how if the little guy can’t get together with all the other little guys to negotiate the terms of his labor, then the terms of that labor are always going to be the same: take it or leave it. And “take it or leave it” isn’t a choice: it’s an ultimatum. If you’re working under an ultimatum, you are being exploited. Or at the very least, you can be exploited, which in itself is a form of being exploited.

It appears that a lot of people in Wisconsin agree with me in this regard. In response to this go-for-broke union-busting bill, we have seen a resuscitation of the state’s proud liberal activist tradition combined with the best of Madison’s long history of protest and demonstration. But there are just as many Wisconsinites, or almost as many, who disagree. Those people — the governor, because they have not been turning up in Madison with signs and drums and slogans, keeps calling them the “silent majority,” though according to most polls they are slightly in the minority — would say that the real exploiters are people like my parents who live high on the hog, making weeklong jaunts to Florida just because someone’s going on a nudist cruise, with taxpayers footing the bill.

The rhetoric of their complaints is worth noting. I’ve been tracking user comments on the website of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (the product, as the name suggests, of a 1995 merger between the Milwaukee Sentinel and the Milwaukee Journal, the latter of which was one of the nation’s last afternoon dailies) and have noticed a couple of things. First, the commenters are overwhelmingly in favor of the governor’s union-busting bill, unsurprising given the paper’s general political orientation; second, among the tens of thousands of comments are innumerable references to the Cadillac, as in: “These teachers with their Cadillac pension plans . . .”

One might here recall the “Welfare Queens,” so named by Ronald Reagan in 1976, who continued to figure large in political discourse until Bill Clinton summarily did away with the welfare system. Back in the day, one of the big accusations was that these women were raking in so much taxpayer dough that they were able to drive Cadillacs — the ultimate insult to working taxpayers who could not possibly afford these great gas-sucking symbols of middle-class success. The resurgence of this same metaphorical Cadillac in Wisconsin reveals a significant transformation of the scapegoat offered to that segment of the middle class that identifies, as per one Journal Sentinel commenter’s username, as “hardworkin
Americans.” In the Reagan era, the scapegoats offered to the financially fragile middle class were members of the underclass, the primarily African-American urban poor. As a perverse inversion of classic class antagonism — the working class versus the underclass, rather than the wealthy, profit-making class — and a playing up of real and perceived racial difference, it’s hardly a surprise that this was a successful tactic. Now, it seems, the scapegoat being offered to and accepted by these same financially fragile hardworkinAmericans is the teacher, who belongs to the same economic class as the hardworkinAmericans and in many cases lives in the same neighborhood.

This replacement of “Welfare Queen” by “teacher” in Wisconsin is only the latest example of the transformation, under global neoliberalism, of class antagonism into culture war, whereby the resentment that the laboring class is “supposed” to feel toward the wealthy class that profits from that labor is transformed into antagonism within the laboring class, between educated, open-minded, reasonable people and stupid, provincial, undereducated fundamentalists who don’t even know what’s in their own best interests — or, seen from the other perspective, between hard-working Americans and smug, espresso-sipping, elitist cosmopolitans who think they know what’s best for everyone else but in fact, with their tax-subsidized teaching jobs and tenure-track university posts, are living off everyone else’s hard work without producing anything useful themselves.

That the Battle of Wisconsin is only the latest front in this intra-class culture war is reflected in an exchange I came across today on the Journal Sentinel’s comment boards. First, commenter “jmgoldman” invited his opponents to “Join your fellow Wisconsinites in protecting our interests, or at least don’t attack us for doing so.” A few minutes later, commenter “Mucho” dropped the following into jmgoldman’s generously extended hand: “You are an arrogant, pontificating professor of life with a superior understanding of humanity and what is best for me. While I hope to obtain your level of intellectual prowess someday, I realize that I am a simple working class slug. So forgive me and my Neanderthal brothers as we trudge our way through our pathetic lives being deceived by the greedy corporations we work for.”

Why, going on eight years after Thomas Frank first outlined its basic structure in What’s the Matter with Kansas? (marketed internationally under the title What’s the Matter with America?), is this culture war still raging? How can this still be so, after the recent global economic implosion and the unveiling of the destructive excesses of the Wall Street “fat cats” that accompanied it? I don’t know. But thanks to Mucho’s blistering refusal of jmgoldman’s overture, it occurs to me that it must have something to do with the fact that the very gesture of reaching out, in an effort to form some new alliance that would transcend the terms of the ongoing culture war is, according to those same terms, itself an act of aggression.

And then: hope.

Not the branded, Obamafied hope of the last election, the hope that perhaps the people I consider the good guys of the culture war — the ones who support abortion rights, gay marriage, multiculturalism, et cetera — would gain the upper hand, but a larger hope that perhaps the laboring class will not remain forever mired in that war while wealth and resources are every day more intensely concentrated at the top.

I’m thinking again about my parents, who made the drive to Madison from Milwaukee today, and will do so again and again in the days to come. The human rights issue — the right to unionize — aside, one could no doubt argue that their zeal reflects a perfectly understandable desperation not to lose the comparatively lucrative health care coverage and pension they enjoy as a result of the contract under which they retired: a contract which, according to the bill the governor has proposed, would be nullified because its very negotiation would become retroactively illegal.

But I think there may be another desperation informing their zeal. My parents were undergraduates at the University of Wisconsin at the end of the 1960s, when Madison was one of the centers of the antiwar movement. The spirit of that movement, of course, was all but liquidated in the decades that followed, and not without the complicity of those in whom it had flowered in the first place, occupied as they inevitably were with overseeing their own lives, taking care of their children (which is where I come in), and so on. Now that the members of that generation are entering their retirement years, it seems only natural that they feel a personal urgency to recuperate something of that past, and to renew the possibility of the better, more humane present that, at a historical moment that has been both canonized and fetishized to the point of meaninglessness, that past fleetingly promised.

In the time that has elapsed since I began writing these notes, my parents have driven back to Milwaukee. From the car, my mother called me, for a third time now, to give me a rundown of the day. Most of what she had to say was predictable, except for this: The police, she said, could not have been nicer. This was a far cry from the Vietnam-era demonstrations to which the current protests cannot help but harken back for her. Back in those days, she said, the police hated us.

In fact, there’s more to it than that. When he wrote into his very first budget as Wisconsin governor a provision that would strip public employees unions of their rights to bargain collectively, Scott Walker exempted the police and firefighters unions, who had broken with the state’s other public employees unions to endorse him during the campaign. As it turns out, though, the police and firefighters unions were not only not grateful to have received this special treatment, but in fact resented it. On February 16, Tracy Fuller, executive president of the Wisconsin Law Enforcement Association, released a statement in which he said, among other things: “I am going to make an effort to speak for myself, and every member of the Wisconsin State Patrol when I say this. . . . I specifically regret the endorsement of the Wisconsin Trooper’s Association for Gov. Walker. . . . I regret being the recipient of any perceived benefits provided by the Governor’s anointing. I think everyone’s job and career is just as significant as the others. Everyone’s family is just as valuable as mine or any other person’s, especially mine.”

So it’s not just, as my mother pointed out, that the police are being nice to the demonstrators in Madison; they are allied with them. Indeed, off-duty, un-uniformed police officers have been joining the protests, holding signs identifying themselves as officers supporting working families. And the firefighters have been out, too. In uniform, since they’re allowed to wear their uniforms off hours. These police and firefighters aren’t just hardworkinAmericans — people who, like Mucho, think that people like jmgoldman think that people like Mucho are Neanderthal slugs who don’t know what’s best for them. Police and firefighters, more than ever in the years since September 11, 2001, are the heroes of hardworkinAmericans. They are the hardworkinAmerican par excellence.

I don’t think Governor Walker could have predicted this development. I certainly would not have predicted it, given what I saw as the police and firefighters unions’ ignorant endorsement of him during the campaign. All the same, it appears that by going after the public employees unions — and, on a symbolic level, the teachers union in particular — Wisconsin’s rookie governor somehow created the conditions for an alliance that transcends the terms of the cooked-up culture war that has already provided decades of cover for the punishing exploitations of global neoliberalism.

That alliance alone may not prevent the Battle of Wisconsin from ending badly; as of this writing, there’s no way of knowing how it will end. But if our aim is to reverse and repair the destruction wrought by neoliberal policy there will be many battles ahead, and the work of the protestors in Wisconsin, combined with words like those of Tracy Fuller, have given me, and my parents, and plenty of others, reason to continue to believe that, beyond the horizon of the expected, a more human future might yet await us.

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