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VIDEO: Why Others Should Join The Wisconsin Protests

Campaign for America’s Future co-director Robert Borosage joins FireDogLake editor Jane Hamsher and Wisconsin AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer Stephanie Bloomingdale on Cenk Uygur’s show on MSNBC February 22.

“It’s now important for others to stand up with them,” including “people who care about democracy and the distortion of money in our politics,” Borosage said. “This is a battle of whether we have a strong middle class, whether we have an operating democracy, and it is time for other groups to pick up this banner.”

The following was originally published in Politico.

“I didn’t think it was this cold in Cairo,” read a sign in the 40,000 person demonstration in Madison, Wis. Teachers, nurses, public workers and thousands of allies occupied the state Capital building and brought the legislature to a halt with demonstrations, now headed into their second week.

The Cairo analogy is right. This isn’t about money; it’s about basic democratic rights. It isn’t about benefits; it’s about power. And the outcome of the struggle in Wisconsin – echoed in states across the country – will say much about what kind of America emerges from the Great Recession.

In Wisconsin, the self-described “Tea Party governor” Scott Walker, his election bankrolled by big-time donations from the billionaire Koch brothers and other influential conservative contributors, unleashed a frontal attack on public worker unions. After signing into law millions in tax cuts for businesses, he invoked the state’s projected budget crisis to demand harsh cuts in benefits and bargaining rights from public employee workers and their unions.

Even after the unions accepted his cuts in pension and health care, Walker pressed forward with his effort to cripple their right to negotiate. As if to flaunt his power grab, Walker exempted the police and firefighters unions that had largely supported him in the election.

Walker’s assault may be the most offensive — but it is not alone. States across the country are exacting concessions from public workers, who have already suffered pay cuts and unpaid furloughs. With the midterm elections giving Republicans control of both statehouse and legislature in 21 states, the right has launched a concerted attack on unions — particularly public employee unions.

In 2001, when conservatives were fantasizing about a permanent majority, Grover Norquist identified unions as one of the “five pillars” of Democratic power. He called for a plan to reduce their power. Decades of corporate trade policies, union-busting and deindustrialization have now reduced private sector unions to less than 7 percent of the private workforce.

For the first time, a majority of unionized workers are public sector workers — 36 percent belong to unions. They are now the primary target; the state and civic budget travails in the wake of the Great Recession have offered the occasion.

Now 12 states have introduced right-to-work laws that limit majority rule in creating a union. Five states seek to restrict the ability of public employee unions to collect dues, unless they limit their use in political activity. States considering either weakening or abolishing the ability of public sector workers to bargain collectively include not only Wisconsin but Ohio, South Dakota, Colorado, Michigan, Nebraska, New Hampshire and Oklahoma.

The right’s strategy is clear. Distract attention from Wall Street and wealth, and lay the blame on government. Turn private sector union against public sector union, worker against worker. In the South, right-to-work laws and other anti-union measures have long been peddled as part of the politics of race. Now it is the politics of resentment.

Public employee workers are said to have higher pay than private sector workers. (Simply wrong when adjusted for education.) Government workers enjoy pensions and health care benefits long stripped from most private sector workers, so bring them down, rather than fight to level up. Polls show union favorability is declining.

But in Wisconsin, teachers, nurses and public workers refused to relinquish their basic rights without a fight. Students and Green Bay Packers rallied to their side. State Democrats left the state to block action on the legislation and let the demonstrations build.

Many national Democrats were hesitant to support the protests, but President Barack Obama said the basic truth: that this was an “assault on unions.” Organizing for America, the Obama campaign vehicle, called its members out in support. Initial press coverage was limited, but the social media – Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr – was abuzz The progressive blogosphere — MoveOn, Daily Kos and more – mobilized.

The stakes are immense. Unions, like free speech and democratic elections, are a centerpiece of democracy. That’s why the right to organize and bargain collectively is a fundamental human right — enshrined in international law and treaties.

The United States has championed independent free trade unions around the globe— from Solidarność in Poland to the Centre for Trade Union and Workers Services (CTUWS), the group of independent unions that helped drive the demonstrations in Cairo. Unions give workers voice at the workplace, and direct experience in workplace democracy.

Unions are the primary counter to the power of wealth that can distort our elections. Through them, workers become a vital source of funds and volunteers for candidates who will support their interests. The Civil Rights Movement, among others, could not have triumphed without union support.

Strong unions are also central to a thriving economy. They help workers gain a fair share of the profits and productivity that they work to generate. Unions gave us the weekend, child labor laws, workplace safety protections They were central to building the broad middle class, which was the postwar triumph of American democracy.

It isn’t surprising that, as unions have lost ground since 1980, inequality has grown to Gilded Age extremes. Nor that the advanced countries with stronger unions – like Germany and Sweden – have fared far better in sustaining widely shared prosperity while navigating the currents of globalization.

Wisconsin is the first fierce battle in what will be a brutal and extended struggle. Will America come out of the economic collapse with policies that revive a broad middle class and widely shared prosperity? Or will the power of wealth and Wall Street succeed in continuing the squeeze on working and middle class families?

Will unions, the critical counter to the power of wealth in the democracy, be crippled? Or will those who had the party be held accountable for the mess they left behind? Walker picked this fight. Now across the country, people will have to decide, in words of the old union song, “Which side are you on?”

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