New Jersey Rallies to Support Wisconsin Workers


Friday, Feb. 25, was a rainy day here in New Jersey. But it didn’t deter thousands of trade unionists from rallying in front of the state capital in Trenton in solidarity with the public workers of Wisconsin who are fighting back against, Scott Walker a right-wing governor trying to do in 2011 what he would not have dared to do in 1911, when Robert La Follette, Sr., the leading progressive reformer in the nation, was Wisconsin’s United States Senator.

La Follette more than a century ago  had led Wisconsin to become the most advanced state in the nation in terms of social policy and general labor relations. But Scott Walker is more reminiscent of Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy, whose post-World War II anti-Communist political witch hunts did great damage to the rights of all Americans and to this day under the name “McCarthyism” remains a symbol of the worst in U.S. politics through the world. For Walker and other rightwing Republicans, the “enemy within” is not merely CPUSA activists and the left, but public employee unions, the whole labor movement.

Hetty Rosenstein, state director of the Communications Workers of America (CWA), summed it up best when she told the demonstrators: “We are all Wisconsin Public Employees this week.” Other speakers made the point Walker in Wisconsin, Kasich in Ohio, Christie in New Jersey, and other Republican governors and legislative leaders were all reading from the “same script,” seeking to destroy teachers benefits to “improve education,” to destroy public employee unions in the name of “fiscal responsibility.” 

Richard Trumka, President of the national AFL-CIO, featured speaker at the rally, responded to Governor Christie’s ignorant lies with the remark that “Public employees didn’t cause New Jersey’s budget problems. They didn’t cause New Jersey’s pension problems.”

One might add that the trade union movement had nothing to do with the deregulation of Wall Street and the Banks over the last thirty years, which allowed banks and Wall Street to engage in the  speculation that led directly to stock market crash of 2008. These policies were also connected to federally sponsored union busting policies begun by Ronald Reagan which sharply reduced the percentage of workers in unions and reduced their ability of the trade union movement to resist the wage stagnation and heightened inequality that both undermined mass purchasing power and increased working people’s debt.

Trade unions also had nothing to do with the enormous increase in multi-billion dollar corruption, the Enrons and Madoffs, and before them the Savings and Loan  and stock market swindles of the 1980s, which deregulation fostered. Nor did trade unions in New Jersey support Republican governor Christine Todd Whitman on any level when she reduced state income taxes by 30 percent in the 1990s, an act which combined with the stock market crash has made New Jersey’s state fiscal crisis especially acute.

Not surprisingly, Governor Christie praised and strongly supported Walker’s union busting policy. Christie sneered that the Trenton rally was merely a “show.”  Earlier, he repeated one of his standard Comedy Central statements: that what is going on in New Jersey is “class warfare,” between the two classes that exist in New Jersey, the over-paid under worked public employees and the honest hard-working tax payers who support them.

Charlie Wowkanech, the New Jersey AFL-CIO president, answered that when he told the crowd that “this isn’t just about New Jersey. This is people all across America … to stand up and fight to restore social and economic justice.”

Labor was there in Trenton, teachers and fireman, accountants and cops, public and private employee unions to say to the Walkers and the Christies, “ we are fighting back and in unity we are stronger than you are.”

But there was something at the back of the minds of many of who attended the rally. Where were the New Jersey Democrats? Democrats were praised and rightly so for their walkouts in Wisconsin and other right Republican dominated states. A number of progressive Democrats were with the trade union leaders on the podium of the Trenton rally, since New Jersey has a Democratic majority in its legislature.

But unlike the Republicans, all of whom are either lock step or goose step in line with Christie, New Jersey Democrats are divided between those who advocate militant resistance and those who counsel retreat. Shouldn’t labor expect much more? More has to be done to build broad coalitions in New Jersey to stand against Christie's policies and to support the efforts of workers in other states.

The Obama administration, including the President, the Vice President, and the Secretary of Labor, have weighed in in with statements supporting the trade union movement in these struggles. Media reports suggested that the president's community organization network, Organizing for America, has played a role in organizing protests in Wisconsin and elsewhere.

Workers standing up to this conservative attack on their unions, their rights, and their families will win this struggle, if not immediately in the near-term as the base of the Democratic Party, the labor movement, and the progressive grassroots is energized. Some successes have already emerged. Indiana Republicans withdrew their anti-union bill. Some Wisconsin Republicans in the state senate have wavered. A statewide referendum in Ohio against stripping union rights is being organized, and recall petitions in Wisconsin will take the fight to the home districts of anti-working families Republicans.

Could the federal government do more in this fight? Although the recovery act absorbed tens of billions in state budget shortfalls over the past two years, Republican control of the House has prevented meaningful discussion of renewing or building on that measure. Threats to withhold federal funds seem like they would play into the hands of governors like Scott Walker who has already turned down federal dollars for job-creating infrastructure projects while accepting hundreds of thousands in out-of-state donations from billionaires like the Koch brothers.

We should remember that all of the state debts are a fraction of what the government has given to the banks and Wall Street and  a policy of selective absorption of state debts would do in my opinion much more to stimulate economic recovery than the Wall Street, investment bank, corporate bailout has,

The battle of Wisconsin is continuing and other battles are developing through the country. The Walkers and the Christies are in their own way worse than George W. Bush who in his own way was worse than Ronald Reagan. If their agenda isn't defeated, unemployment and inequality will grow. Their allies in state and local governments will impose more heavy handed attacks on the civil rights and civil liberties of citizens.

Photo: Danny Glover joins with Indiana workers to protest anti-union proposals and in solidarity with Wisconsin workers./ Wilson E. Allen

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