Our Egypt

The images are eerily familiar. Yesterday more than 30,000 workers, students, and supporters sought to defend their democratic rights in the streets. Today the crowds got larger. But instead of the streets of Cairo the mass protests bringing society to a halt are taking place in Madison, Wisconsin.

The epicenter is the state capital, where right wing millionaire Governor Scott Walker last week arrogantly proclaimed he was going to pass legislation to destroy the right of public workers to bargain collectively. Following the “look over there!” strategy designed by conservative think tanks and funded by billionaires, Walker attempted to pin the blame for Wisconsin’s state budget deficit on public employees. He wanted to cut their salaries, savage their pensions, and roll back their rights in the workplace to the point that they would disappear.

Ignoring the real causes of the deficit in historically low tax rates on the rich and ravaged state revenues due to the recession—itself created when Wall Street blew a giant hole in the economy with its engineering of the housing bubble—Walker threatened to call out the National Guard to put down any violent disturbances that raging librarians and teaching assistants might devise.

It seems he went too far.

Egypt has always served as a metaphor, both for an oppressive regime, and for the sometimes slow-fused resistance that oppression ultimately births. Jews celebrate the Passover story around Pharoah’s Egypt. African-American clergy commonly referred to slavery through the metaphor. Martin Luther King Jr. used the image to describe the situation of AFSCME members struggling for union recognition in Memphis (Tennessee, not Egypt) in 1968, shortly before he was assassinated.

Now AFSCME members are fighting to preserve their rights in the state in which the national union was founded more than seventy five years ago. They are not alone. Firefighters led the chanting crowd into the Capitol, even though Walker thought he could divide unionized public employees by exempting firefighters and law enforcement from his draconian proposal. But Joe Conway, Jr., president of Fire Fighters Local 311, said, “We've always been a part of labor. An injury to one is an injury to all of us.”

They were joined by nurses, by janitors, by teachers, and then by their students, who flooded out of nearby university and high school classrooms to join the demonstrations. Yesterday hundreds of protestors spent the night in sleeping bags on the floor of the Capitol rotunda, after keeping the legislative hearing on Walker’s bill going for 17 hours. Today the school district was closed by the Superintendent of Public Instruction when thousands of teachers called in sick.

A rattled Republican legislator told a reporter that some of his colleagues were reconsidering their support of Walker’s bill.

In the late nineteenth century, Wall Street financier Jay Gould boasted, “I can hire one half the working class to kill the other half.”   Today, billionaires and the politicians who side with them are subtler in their union-busting, anti-worker activities than they used to be, but their aim is the same: divide and conquer. 

Public employees in Wisconsin are demonstrating that the best defense for workers remains the same as it has always been, too: unite and fight. In the process, they are joining Egyptians in updating an ancient metaphor.