At last in the U.S. we see a mass mobilization against retrenchment of the sort we've seen in Europe, a so-far nonviolent counterattack by workers against their government on the recent Arab model. The site is Madison, Wisconsin, where a Republican governor wants legislative approval for his plan to strip non-public-safety public-employee unions of their collective bargaining rights. What this means, practically speaking, is that the public-employee unions would not be able to petition for pay raises. Instead, raises would be pegged to the Consumer Price Index; any further increase would be subject to a state referendum. While this proposal alone has been enough to spark charges of "union busting," further provisions make the Republicans' intentions more clear. Should the governor get his way, unions like AFSCME (which was founded in Wisconsin) will have to hold elections every year in order to retain their right to represent public employees in even the diminished capacity dictated by the bill. A further provision certainly dear to many Republicans would make dues payments entirely voluntary, thus liberating public employees from the intolerable burden of subsidizing in even a minimal way any political expression with which they disagree. In return, the governor promises not to lay off or furlough any state workers.
The unions have summoned thousands of people from their jobs to demonstrate at the state capital against the Republican legislation. They are powerless to change the outcome unless they can convince Republicans that they'll suffer in something other than an immediate physical way for their expected votes. Since Republicans have a majority in the state senate, however, they can claim a mandate from the people of Wisconsin to do what they will, which really should matter more than what might happen at the next election. They can't do what they will, however, unless they have a quorum present in the senate. The Republican caucus on its own is one vote short of a quorum. Exploiting the situation, Democratic senators have gone into hiding, leaving the Republican majority helpless. Republicans aren't the only ones who know the tricks of obstructionism, it seems, and Democrats aren't the only ones who cry foul when loopholes like this one appear to negate their mandate.
In theory, senators can be brought into the chamber by force and compelled to vote, but while the presiding officer has the authority, his power to do this seems vague. For now, the Democratic senators are unofficial fugitives and the bill is stalled. Meanwhile, a modest multitude by global standards, though an impressive one for America, remains on the scene. They'd like legislators to think that they represent the people as a whole, but state workers are too stigmatized a class everywhere for that claim to be convincing. Their real leverage, or the nearest thing to it, is an implicit threat to paralyze the state by taking more people out of work to join the protest in Madison. History would then repeat itself, since recognition of collective bargaining rights often came only after strikes. Strikers historically enjoyed the support of their neighbors, but since many neighbors seem to think of themselves as the employers or overtaxed paymasters of state workers rather than fellow laborers, the public employee unions may well find themselves on their own. As I just suggested, that doesn't necessarily mean that they'll be helpless, but they probably shouldn't expect much solidarity from a largely de-unionized working class, though the more politicized of the remaining powerful unions may make shows of support. Whatever happens, Madison should be the most newsworthy site in the nation this week -- and it is, in fact, the first story mentioned in the lead-in to ABC World News as I write. Cairo may have taught the media that crowds make news.