Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Wisconsin, Egypt

My friend Michael Schwartz has a really good post this morning from TomDispatch below on the general strike in Egypt. While he does not probe the particularly role of strikes led by women, the some 2000 strikes in the last five years, and the adoption from the strikes of the tactic of bringing children/families to Tahrir Square and elsewhere – see here – Mike uniquely gets the role of the protests as a general strike, closing down the Egypt of tourism, and widely threatening to domestic and foreign businesses who often ran away from Mubarak. This is a novel and important way of seeing the power of nonviolence, linking Gandhianism to older European and American notions of the general strike and to the Wobblies, “one big union.” Unsurprisingly, the military government in Egypt is trying to limit strikes.

Today in Wisconsin, the Republican (read: authoritarian) governor is outlawing public unions and collective bargaining. He seeks to take 10% of teacher's salaries in new pension and health care payments. There have already been big demonstrations and he seeks especially to take down teachers (one interviewed on Amy Goodman, Brad Lutes, makes $50,000 after 13 years on the job), and other public workers as part of a nationwide capitalist offensive – John Kasich in Ohio, Chris Christie in New Jersey, Andrew Cuomo in New York and other corrupt governors, at the urging of business are watching – to crush the American labor movement.

Public employees were organized in Wisconsin by AFSCME - the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees - in the 1930s. This set about the nationwide wave of public employee organizing, especially among teachers, which has been a distinctive stronghold of American workers during the great decline of unionization: the banks/corporations/federal government onslaught coupled with American deindustrialization from roughly 25% of the workforce to less than 9%. Why make a lot of money off union workers, this elite practice might be called, when you can invest in China for a song?) Public sector workers in Wisconsin (and elsewhere) are bastions of the labor movement mand hence of anti-Republican – anti-union smashing, anti-“commander in chief power,” anti-imperial aggression - sentiment (elected Democrats are often very bad on these issues as well). Further, these unions are leading supporters of public, that is democratic education. Though problematic in many ways (see Jonathan Kozol, The Shame of America, on the reapartheidization of American schools and the class differences in teaching, and needs to be made genuinely democratic), this is not the “for profit” education that will cripple American schooling.

Reactionary ideologues, bankrolled by the Koch brothers and other elite forces, want to get rid of the public sector and democratic education (see the report on CPAC below). "Let’s privatize what’s left of education, make money off it, and have paupers teach." (Some of us who don’t teach for the money, but would like to survive, and would like others to survive, doing decent things, need to stand up before this trend becomes “America.”)

The Governor, Scott Walker, has threatened to fire workers who do not report to work (local school boards understand that his attack is on them too, so they are in no hurry to harass teachers). Knowing exactly who he is, Walker has called out the national guard against peaceful protest. Why not, he thinks, arrest and harass – perhaps beat up or even shoot - teachers for standing for decent conditions in the schools?

Of course, many teachers (and parents and – former - students) also serve in the National Guard, so whether it will be reliable, or as in Mubarak’s Egypt, torn by conflict, remains a question. It is no wonder however that the news – DemocracyNow excepted here – does not report this conflict. The corporate news is part of the war complex. The American regime is moving more and more to the Right, and there is now an assault on the livelihoods of ordinary people in American democracy, even with Obama as President.

Obama has just called for the end of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and of the American dream to own a house. See here. Young people – and everyone else below the elite – can rent…As in the Egyptian case, Obama is very good only if he is pushed by a mass movement from below.

The people of Egypt have shown the way in democracy. Teachers and other state employees are fighting back in Wisconsin. It is time for there genuinely to be “democracy in America,” democracy from below. Everyone should learn about, support or, if possible, join the Wisconsin strikers.

Business Insider Politix had the following note today on Governor Walker calling up the National Guard:

Wisconsin National Guard Preps For Worker Unrest After Governor Unveils Emergency Budget
Grace Wyler | Feb. 14, 2011,

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, unveiled an emergency budget proposal Friday to deal with the state's growing budget woes. Wisconsin has a $137 million deficit this year, and faces a projected $2.9 billion budget shortfall for 2012 and 2013.

Under Walker's plan, public employees would lose all of their collective bargain rights, except a limited negotiation of wages. State workers would also have to contribute more to their pension and health care benefit plans.

Unions erupted in outrage as they learned about Walker's proposal. The Governor told Milwaukee Public Radio that he has briefed the Wisconsin National Guard to prepare them for any worker unrest today.


Why Mubarak Fell The (Sometimes) Incredible Power of Nonviolent Protest By Michael Schwartz, February 15, 2011, TomDispatch

Memo to President Obama: Given the absence of intelligent intelligence and the inadequacy of your advisers’ advice, it’s not surprising that your handling of the Egyptian uprising has set new standards for foreign policy incoherence and incompetence. Perhaps a primer on how to judge the power that can be wielded by mass protest will prepare you better for the next round of political upheavals.

Remember the uprising in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989? That was also a huge, peaceful protest for democracy, but it was crushed with savage violence. Maybe the memory of that event convinced you and your team that, as Secretary of State Clinton announced when the protests began, the Mubarak regime was “stable” and in “no danger of falling.” Or maybe your confidence rested on the fact that it featured a disciplined modern army trained and supplied by the USA.

But it fell, and you should have known that it was in grave danger. You should have known that the prognosis for this uprising was far better than the one that ended in a massacre in Tiananmen Square; that it was more likely to follow the pattern of people power in Tunisia, where only weeks before another autocrat had been driven from power, or Iran in 1979 and Poland in 1989.

Since your intelligence people, including the CIA, obviously didn’t tell you, let me offer you an explanation for why the Egyptian protesters proved so much more successful in fighting off the threat and reality of violence than their Chinese compatriots, and why they were so much better equipped to deter an attack by a standing army. Most importantly, let me fill you in on why, by simply staying in the streets and adhering to their commitment to nonviolence, they were able to topple a tyrant with 30 years seniority and the backing of the United States from the pinnacle of power, sweeping him into the dustbin of history.

When Does an Army Choose to Be Nonviolent?

One possible answer -- a subtext of mainstream media coverage -- is that the Egyptian military, unlike its Chinese counterpart, decided not to crush the rebellion, and that this forbearance enabled the protest to succeed. However, this apparently reasonable argument actually explains nothing unless we can answer two intertwined questions that flow from it.

The first is: Why was the military so restrained this time around, when for 50 years, “it has stood at the core of a repressive police state.” The second is: Why couldn’t the government, even without a military ready to turn its guns on the demonstrators, endure a few more days, weeks, or months of protest, while waiting for the uprising to exhaust itself, and -- as the BBC put it -- “have the whole thing fizzle out.”

The answer to both questions lies in the remarkable impact that the protest had on the Egyptian economy. Mubarak and his cohort (as well as the military, which is the country’s economic powerhouse) were alarmed that the business “paralysis induced by the protests” was “having a huge impact on the creaking economy” of Egypt. As Finance Minister Samir Radwin said two weeks into the uprising, the economic situation was “very serious” and that “the longer the stalemate continues, the more damaging it is.”

From their inception, the huge protests threatened the billions of dollars that the leaders and chief beneficiaries of the Mubarak regime had acquired during their 30 year reign of terror, corruption, and accumulation. To the generals in particular, it was surely apparent that the massive acts of brutality necessary to suppress the uprising would have caused perhaps irreparable harm, threatening its vast economic interests. In other words, either trying to outwait the revolutionaries or imposing the Tiananmen solution risked the downfall of the economic empires of Egypt’s ruling groups.

But why would either of those responses destroy the economy?

Squeezing the Life Out of the Mubarak Regime

Put simply, from the beginning, the Egyptian uprising had the effect of a general strike. Starting on January 25th, the first day of the protest, tourism -- the largest industry in the country, which had just begun its high season -- went into free fall. After two weeks, the industry had simply “ground to a halt,” leaving a significant portion of the two million workers it supported with reduced wages or none at all, and the few remaining tourists rattling around empty hotels, catching the pyramids, if at all, on television.

Since pyramids and other Egyptian sites attract more than a million visitors a month and account for at least 5% of the Egyptian economy, tourism alone (given the standard multiplier effect) may account for over 15% of the country’s cash flow. Not surprisingly, then, news reports soon began mentioning revenue losses of up to $310 million per day. In an economy with an annual gross domestic product (GDP) of well over $200 billion, each day that Mubarak clung to office produced a tangible and growing decline in it. After two weeks of this ticking time bomb, Crédit Agricole, the largest banking group in France, lowered its growth estimate for the country’s economy by 32%.

The initial devastating losses in the tourist, hotel, and travel sectors of the Egyptian economy hit industries dominated by huge multinational corporations and major Egyptian business groups dependent on a constant flow of revenues. When cash flow dies, loan payments must still be made, hotels heated, airline schedules kept, and many employees, especially executives, paid. In such a situation, losses start mounting fast, and even the largest companies can face a crisis quickly. The situation was especially ominous because it was known that skittish travelers would be unlikely to return until they were confident that no further disruptions would occur.

The largest of businesses, local and multinational, are not normally prone to inactivity. They are the ones likely to move most quickly to stem a tide of red ink by agitating the government to suppress such a protest, hopefully yesterday. But the staggering size of even the early demonstrations, the face of a mobilizing civil society visibly shedding 30 years of passivity, proved stunning. The fiercely brave response to police attacks, in which repression was met by masses of new demonstrators pouring into the streets, made it clear that brutal suppression would not quickly silence these protests. Such acts were more likely to prolong the disruptions and possibly amplify the uprising.

Even if Washington was slow on the uptake, it didn’t take long for the relentlessly repressive Egyptian ruling clique to grasp the fact that large-scale, violent suppression was an impossible-to-implement strategy. Once the demonstrations involved hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of Egyptians, a huge and bloody suppression guaranteed long-term economic paralysis and ensured that the tourist trade wasn’t going to rebound for months or longer.

The paralysis of the tourism industry was, in itself, an economic time bomb that threatened the viability of the core of the Egyptian capitalist class, as long as the demonstrations continued. Recovery could only begin after a “return to normal life,” a phrase that became synonymous with the end of the protests in the rhetoric of the government, the military, and the mainstream media. With so many fortunes at stake, the business classes, foreign and domestic, soon enough began entertaining the most obvious and least disruptive solution: Mubarak’s departure.

Strangling the Mubarak Regime

The attack on tourism, however, was just the first blow in what rapidly became the protestors’ true weapon of mass disruption, its increasing stranglehold on the economy. The crucial communications and transportation industries were quickly engulfed in chaos and disrupted by the demonstrations. The government at first shut down the Internet and mobile phone service in an effort to deny the protestors their means of communication and organization, including Facebook and Twitter. When they were reopened, these services operated imperfectly, in part because of the increasingly rebellious behavior of their own employees.

Similar effects were seen in transportation, which became unreliable and sporadic, either because of government shutdowns aimed at crippling the protests or because the protests interfered with normal operations. And such disruptions quickly rippled outward to the many sectors of the economy, from banking to foreign trade, for which communication and/or transportation was crucial.

As the demonstrations grew, employees, customers, and suppliers of various businesses were ever more consumed with preparations for, participation in, or recovery from the latest protest, or protecting homes from looters and criminals after the government called the police force off the streets. On Fridays especially, many people left work to join the protest during noon prayers, abandoning their offices as the country immersed itself in the next big demonstration -- and then the one after.

As long as the protests were sustained, as long as each new crescendo matched or exceeded the last, the economy continued to die while business and political elites became ever more desperate for a solution to the crisis.

The Rats Leave the Sinking Ship of State

After each upsurge in protest, Mubarak and his cronies offered new concessions aimed at quieting the crowds. These, in turn, were taken as signs of weakness by the protestors, only convincing them of their strength, amplifying the movement, and driving it into the heart of the Egyptian working class and the various professional guilds. By the start of the third week of demonstrations, protests began to hit critical institutions directly.

On February 9th, reports of a widening wave of strikes in major industries around the country began pouring in, as lawyers, medical workers, and other professionals also took to the streets with their grievances. In a single day, tens of thousands of employees in textile factories, newspapers and other media companies, government agencies (including the post office), sanitation workers and bus drivers, and -- most significant of all -- workers at the Suez Canal began demanding economic concessions as well as the departure of Mubarak.

Since the Suez Canal is second only to tourism as a source of income for the country, a sit-in there, involving up to 6,000 workers, was particularly ominous. Though the protestors made no effort to close the canal, the threat to its operation was self-evident.

A shutdown of the canal would have been not just an Egyptian but a world calamity: a significant proportion of the globe’s oil flows through that canal, especially critical for energy-starved Europe. A substantial shipping slowdown, no less a shutdown, threatened a possible renewal of the worldwide recession of 2008-2009, even as it would choke off the Egyptian government’s major source of steady income.

As if this weren’t enough, the demonstrators turned their attention to various government institutions, attempting to render them “nonfunctional.” The day after the president’s third refusal to step down, protestors claimed that many regional capitals, including Suez, Mahalla, Mansoura, Ismailia, Port Said, and even Alexandria (the country’s major Mediterranean port), were “free of the regime” -- purged of Mubarak officials, state-controlled communications, and the hated police and security forces. In Cairo, the national capital, demonstrators began to surround the parliament, the state TV building, and other centers critical to the national government. Alaa Abd El Fattah, an activist and well known political blogger in Cairo, told Democracy Now that the crowd “could continue to escalate, either by claiming more places or by actually moving inside these buildings, if the need comes.” With the economy choking to death, the demonstrators were now moving to put a hammerlock on the government apparatus itself.

At that point, a rats-leaving-a-sinking-ship-of-state phenomenon burst into public visibility as “several large companies took out adverts in local newspapers putting distance between themselves and the regime.” Guardian reporter Jack Shenker affirmed this public display by quoting informed sources describing widespread “nervousness among the business community” about the viability of the regime, and that “a lot of people you might think are in bed with Mubarak have privately lost patience.”

It was this tightening noose around the neck of the Mubarak regime that made the remarkable protests of these last weeks so different from those in Tiananmen Square. In China, the demonstrators had negligible economic and political leverage. In Egypt, the option of a brutal military attack, even if “successful” in driving them off the streets, seemed to all but guarantee the deepening of an already dire economic crisis, subjecting ever widening realms of the economy -- and so the wealth of the military -- to the risk of irreparable calamity.

Perhaps Mubarak would have been willing to sacrifice all this to stay in power. As it happened, a growing crew of movers and shakers, including the military leadership, major businessmen, foreign investors, and interested foreign governments saw a far more appealing alternative solution.

Weil Ziada, head of research for a major Egyptian financial firm, spoke for the business and political class when he told Guardian reporter Jack Shenker on February 11th:

"Anti-government sentiment is not calming down, it is gaining momentum…This latest wave is putting a lot more pressure on not just the government but the entire regime; protesters have made their demands clear and there's no rowing back now. Everything is going down one route. There are two or three scenarios, but all involve the same thing: Mubarak stepping down -- and the business community is adjusting its expectations accordingly."

The next day, President Hosni Mubarak resigned and left Cairo.

President Obama, remember this lesson: If you want to avoid future foreign policy Obaminations, be aware that nonviolent protest has the potential to strangle even the most brutal regime, if it can definitively threaten the viability of its core industries. In these circumstances, a mass movement equipped with fearsome weapons of mass disruption can topple a tyrant equipped with fearsome weapons of mass destruction.


A professor of sociology at Stony Brook State University, Michael Schwartz is the author of War Without End: The Iraq War in Context (Haymarket Press). Schwartz's work on protest movements, contentious politics, and the arc of U.S. imperialism has appeared in numerous academic and popular outlets over the past 40 years. He is a TomDispatch regular. His email address is ms42@optonline.net. To listen to Timothy MacBain's latest TomCast audio interview in which Schwartz discusses the Egyptian revolution and the power of nonviolent disruption, click here, or download it to your iPod here.


Tuesday, February 15, 2011 by In These Times
At CPAC, Conservatives Glorify Attacks on Public-Sector Unions
by Daniel Denvir

WASHINGTON, D.C.—Right-wing activists who gathered over the weekend for the annual Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) cheered a political climate that is increasingly hostile to public-sector unions.

Panelists on a Saturday morning panel called “Bleeding America Dry: The Threat of Public Sector Unions” pointed to Republican victories in state capitals across the country and to Democratic governors in New York and California who have vowed to fight labor. Most dramatically, the Republican governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker, has called for radically limiting state employees’ collective bargaining rights, and says he is prepared to mobilize the National Guard to deal with disturbances.

"I think it’s okay right now to talk about unions and tell the truth about unions. And I think the public is starting to understand," said Tom McCabe, who led the Building Industry Association of Washington (BIAW) for two decades. The night before, McCabe received CPAC’s Ronald Reagan Award for his activism. "It’s thanks, of course, to the think tanks on this panel...You can say stuff now in Washington, in New Jersey, any liberal state, that you could not say ten years ago.”

Building the conservative revolution, one t-shirt at a time, at the American Conservative Union's Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) February 12, 2011 in Washington, D.C. (Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images)

The campaign to shift the public perception of public-sector workers has in many ways been a success. The present moment is a perfect storm for an attack on public-sector unions: a conservative populism that encourages jealousy of unionized workers rather than anger toward business and Wall Street; nationwide shortfalls in pension funds thanks to under-funding during flush times and investment losses; and an economic crisis that has blown a hole through the middle of countless state and municipal budgets. “You have to understand something,” Steve Malanga of the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal said at CPAC. “If we just stop and cure the pension problem, we have not gone far enough.” As the situations in Wisconsin and New Jersey demonstrate, the right is moving not only to permanently curtail retirement benefits but to fundamentally curtail the power of unions. “We know who the enemy is,” Malanga said. “What we need in so much of public life is courage. I was very fortunate to work for a guy who personified courage. His name was Ronald Reagan.” Reagan demonstrated that courage, of course, by firing all of the country’s air traffic controllers in 1981—the mention of which drew wild applause.

CPAC was all about being tough: on workers, on the poor, on the environment, and on crappy little countries that dare to mess with the United States (though the Ron Paul folks would take exception to that last one).

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, an anti-union stalwart in a “blue” state, is the paragon. Interestingly, Christie was not present at CPAC. I don’t think that is an accident. He excels at appealing to the right-wing base while presenting himself as a pragmatic, commonsense conservative to everyday voters. The fight against unions is part and parcel of a broader conservative assault on the tattered remains of the welfare state. In fact, it’s the linchpin.

'The big government coalition'

“Everyone’s been talking about public-sector unions,” said Vincent Vernuccio, labor policy counsel at Competitive Enterprise Institute, a big-business think tank. “No. These are government sector unions. They are the main force that are fighting for bigger federal, bigger state, bigger local budgets. They are one of the main reasons for the bloated bureaucracy and deficits we’re seeing today. More government equals more workers equals more dues money for them.” Community activists and advocates for the poor and uninsured are just a Trojan Horse for public-sector unions, inventing social problems out of whole cloth to line the pockets of bureaucrats. Malanga calls it “the big government coalition” of unions and “social service advocacy groups.” “We happen to have in the White House today a former community activist,” he said, adding:

A former government-funded community activist who was elected with tremendous support from public sector unions. I can guarantee you that no public sector union official in America could be elected president. But a community activist could be.

This is the way this coalition has worked for thirty, forty years. The community activists are the sympathetic part of this coalition. They have commanded the high ground. They produce the studies that say, ‘we have a problem here, we have a problem here in our society and we need to spend more money on it.

There was no discussion of the things that public sector workers do: educating children, picking up our trash, ensuring public safety. It’s the same for everything at CPAC: government programs are the problem. There is no acknowledgement of problems that are caused by anything but government or someone’s personal and moral failings.

Nor do they acknowledge the unique role that municipal unions have had in black economic advancement over the 70 years, providing an economic foothold long denied them in the private sector. With the disappearance of industry, public-sector jobs are some of the only good jobs left for working class people in American cities.

Upside-down conservative martyrdom

Conservatives are particularly thrilled to see Democratic pundits and politicians taking up the fight against labor. There was an entire panel dedicated to the documentary Waiting for Superman, which attacks traditional public schools as an intrinsic failure and touts charter schools as the sole solution. Superman, directed by An Inconvenient Truth director Davis Guggenheim, was panned by many education scholars. But for many conservatives, the film’s success was proof that conservative ideas can win ground on the left, especially when they’re dressed up as a story of poor people of color fighting for justice.

Breaking public-sector unions is a priority for the right as a whole—not only of business, but for conservatives of any stripe who want to defeat progressives at the ballot box or in government.

“I think everyone understands here that unions are the most important power on the other side of the political equation,” said Donald Devine, director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management under Ronald Reagan. “Remember, Karl Marx said there are only three things necessary to overthrow capitalism: one, is the unions need to organize the masses; two, some of the businessmen...need to sell out...and thirdly intellectuals. And that’s still the three powers that are most important in fighting against the free constitutional society that we are all about.” The entire conference is infused with an air of conservative martyrdom and belief in a world where the people on top are the ones who are always getting stepped on. Someone in the audience asked if unions had threatened McCabe with violence. He said no, but that his “wife is good friends with some police officers in the Olympia Police Department. Because the union officials do come by our house frequently.” A reporter from another news organization told me he thought it was the day’s most caustic panel. He was right—despite the fact that David Horowitz had just finished a speech in which he complimented the McCarthy-era House Un-American Activities Committee. “I believe you must understand the opposition in order to defeat the opposition,” said McCabe.

It was one point which the country's emboldened conservatives and embattled unionists can agree on.

© 2010 In These Times

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