14—Beyond Wisconsin: Seeking New Priorities as Labor
“The attack on labor by Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker and that
state’s legislature in early 2011 appeared at first to be a response to the state’s budget crisis. Two developments quickly contradicted this belief.
First, the amount of money the governor said would be saved
almost exactly matched the $140 million in tax cuts the legislature and
governor had provided Wisconsin for businesses just a few weeks
before. Also, within a few days of the proposal, Wisconsin’s public
employee unions announced that they would accept all the governor’s
proposed cuts in wages and benefits in collective bargaining negotiations.
But the governor pressed on with the new legislation nonetheless.
In the end, it passed only after Republicans in the legislature
acknowledged that destroying public sector collective bargaining was not a budgetary matter, thereby avoiding the required quorum that Democrats in the legislature had prevented by escaping to Illinois for nearly three weeks. Page 235
Wisconsin was unusual in the ease with which it became apparent
that the state’s budget problems were not the actual basis of attacks on
public sector services and the workers who provide them.
Throughout the United States, in states with conservative governors, but also where liberals like Jerry Brown of California are chief executives, budget deficits continue to be the ever-present backdrop to cuts in public services and reductions in wages and benefits for public sector workers.
In 2011, almost every state in the country was running a deficit in
its operating budget (not including capital budget items). At the federal
level, too, addressing the deficit became the principal policy issue, requiring “painful cuts” despite persistently high unemployment, crumbling infrastructure, and education levels among young people far below those of other industrial countries with which our businesses compete.
Unions and other civic organizations dedicated to confronting
this agenda emphasize the revenue side of the budget rather than
reduced expenditures. Some have joined the New Priorities
Network (NewPrioritiesNetwork.org) to coordinate and popularize this approach. The starting point for this work is a direct challenge to the proposition that “there is no money” when we address budget shortfalls.
Unions and others point to two main sources of funds: increasing
taxes on corporations and wealthy individuals—often called the “millionaire’s tax”—and redirecting money from the military by ending the wars and occupations in Afghanistan and Iraq, closing unnecessary weapons programs and overseas military bases, and ending other wasteful military practices. Funds freed by these changes could, if not
swallowed by deficit reduction, then go to support critically important public programs and the workers who deliver them.1
Before considering these elements of labor’s response to budget
crises, it will be helpful to address directly the basic claim that government
deficits and debt are urgent problems—in fact our highest priorities— that must be resolved if our economy is to thrive. This claim is not true.
One common assertion intended to make the problem intelligible to
ordinary people claims that the government is just like a family. We hear this analogy over and over. Every responsible family knows that it has to pay its bills. (Never mind decades-long corporate efforts to get consumers
to borrow evermore money on their credit cards and use their
homes as ATMs based on supposedly ever-increasing house prices, a
strategy that failed spectacularly with the collapse of the housing bubble
and financial crisis in 2008.) In the tough economic times of 2011, as families are cutting back on spending and losing their homes, it seems reasonable to conclude that government has to tighten its belt too.
But as I have said elsewhere:
“Federal government deficits and resulting debt are usually not a
problem. The government is not like a family that must balance its
budget. The government is more like a corporation that lives longer
than its individual shareholders or citizens. If it borrows to support productive activity that will generate greater future wealth, from
which the debt with interest can be repaid (as for education, public health, roads, ports, and rail transportation), the debt is benign.
Large deficits over an extended period can sometimes be a
problem. If there is full employment and a booming economy, government borrowing may increase interest rates and make it more difficult for private businesses to borrow to expand their operations. But in a period of widespread unemployment and businesses not investing (as was the case in 2009–2011), government deficits do not
create this problem. Instead they help to prevent deeper unemployment and more widespread bankruptcies. They save taxpayers
money over time by securing and improving the economic activity
that generates more wealth, growth, and taxes in the future.
The idea that the deficits burden our children and grandchildren
who must repay it misses two important points: first, current borrowing
may create a better world in which our children and grandchildren
will live; second, the interest that our grandchildren will pay
will go to other of our grandchildren who will own government
bonds—through their private pension funds, in the Social Security
Trust Fund, or directly. Future interest payments are not a net burden on future generations, but a transfer of wealth from those who then pay taxes, but own few or no bonds, to those who own government bonds and may also pay taxes from which the interest is paid.
Interest paid to foreign businesses and governments who own
U.S. government bonds does leave the U.S. economy (in 2010
amounting to 30 percent of total interest payments, up from 19 percent in 2000).2 But foreign ownership of U.S. government bonds
reflects the strength of the dollar as a reserve currency others wish to hold—a plus for the United States—and the large deficit in the U.S. balance of trade, which must be addressed with tools other than adjusting the levels of government debt.
All in all, government deficits in the early years of the Obama
administration were not a real concern, but were used to scare people into believing that public services and living standards for public workers must be reduced.3
Tragically, in the political climate we face in 2011 there is no
practical way to escape the deficit/debt mania that corporate elites, eager to shrink government and escape the social responsibility of paying taxes, have created. The debt-ceiling crisis of summer 2011
and its resolution requiring trillions of dollars in further spending cuts guarantees the continuation of this set of questions. If we have to take deficits seriously, however, there are many ways to address the issue
through the revenue side of budgets and by changing the priorities
that shape the expenditure side. There is no need to blame public
sector workers or adjust budgets with cuts to wages, benefits, and
social programs. Just reversing the 2001 and 2003 federal tax cuts
that went to households with incomes greater than $450,000 per year
(the top 1 percent) would generate $1.36 trillion to the federal
treasury over ten years.4 Reversing similar cuts enacted in states across the country would relieve most of the states’ fiscal problems.
Unions and community groups address this aspect of the question with demands to “Make Wall Street Pay,” “Tax the Rich,” “Make the Corporations Pay,” and the like.
Budgets are not just arithmetic documents. Budgets are also moral documents. Budgets reflect the values and priorities that guide budgetmakers as they choose among competing possibilities. These choices affect not only the tax burdens that different people and businesses experience, but also the types and relative scales of the activities the government pays for. U.S. military expenses dwarf the military budgets
of all other countries in the world.5 The 2012 budget proposed by the White House allocates 59 percent of all discretionary federal spending to military purposes, compared with 5 percent for housing and community
development, 4 percent for the State Department and civilian
international affairs, 4 percent for education, and 2 percent for transportation.
6 These priorities are subject to increasing challenge as
budget crises heat up at all levels of government.
Since its founding in 2003 in the run-up to the Iraq war, U.S. Labor Against the War (uslaboragainstwar.org) has been a strong voice within the labor movement challenging the values and priorities in the federal budget by opposing the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and calling for the redirection of war dollars to meet urgent domestic needs.
USLAW now brings together over 190 union locals, central labor councils, state federations of labor, international
unions, and other labor groups, united in opposition to the
wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The initial growth of USLAW came during the tenure of George
W. Bush. At that time USLAW, like the administration and the U.S.
public, focused on Iraq and largely ignored Afghanistan. From the
start, opposition to the Iraq war grew from labor’s opposition to Bush in response to his hostility to unions and working people’s interests.
The fact that Iraq was Bush’s war, and based on lies, opened the door to the possibility of union opposition.
But opposition to the war as a labor issue grew from three arguments, often debated heatedly as union members and leadership
addressed resolutions opposing the war.
First, union members and
working people more generally were fighting and dying, so unions
representing them had an obligation to express concern for their
safety and call for their return home.
Second was the question of money. Even in 2003 and 2004, it was clear that the war was a drain
on resources that could better be used at home. Finally, unions opposed the war in the context of labor’s vision of the kind of society we should have, championing values and policies that would give priority
to human needs and guide the country away from militarism and
violence as the dominant response to international affairs.
By the end of 2008, it was clear that the war in Afghanistan could
no longer be ignored. Barack Obama had campaigned on the commitment
to wind down Iraq (which won him much support in the
peace movement). But he also promised to escalate the war in
Afghanistan (a pledge the peace movement largely chose to ignore,
but one of the campaign promises he kept). Early in 2009, President
Obama dispatched 17,000 additional U.S. military personnel to
Afghanistan. By the end of 2009, he had committed another 30,000,
bringing the total in 2011 to nearly 100,000 soldiers, sailors, and
Marines deployed to Afghanistan.
Within the labor movement, bridging opposition to the war in Iraq
to the one in Afghanistan presented new challenges. Unions had
devoted enormous effort and resources to Obama’s election, which
made it much more difficult to oppose him on the war than it had been to oppose George W. Bush in Iraq.
And the basic narrative supporting the war in Afghanistan—running back to the al-Qaeda attacks of
September 11, 2001—had an apparent legitimacy that the Iraq war
never had. To complicate matters further, the economic crisis following the 2008 financial meltdown brought jobs to the forefront of labor’s agenda, together with the extended congressional battle over health care reform throughout 2009.
In this context, straight antiwar messages had little continuing resonance in union halls, nor in the broader population. Yet the reasonsfor union opposition to the wars continued. The wars were major impediments to progressive agendas of all sorts, especially as the budget crises intensified at the local, state, and federal levels. There was growing awareness that our government and military were presenting
shifting rationales for continuing the war in Afghanistan and
had no coherent strategy.
But the key to continuing antiwar work in
the labor movement became making connections between the wars abroad and labor’s domestic economic agenda.
Table 1 shows the amount of money taxpayers in each state were
budgeted to pay to the federal government for the wars in 2011, compared
with the anticipated 2011 budget deficit in the state. In all but
eleven states, the war costs, if redirected to the states, would have completely paid for the state shortfalls and ended the budget crises altogether.
Taking the country as a whole, redirecting 2011 war costs
could have solved the budget problem in all states, with $40 billion left over. School systems could have hired more teachers instead of laying them off by the tens of thousands in 2011.
Severe state budget shortfalls were postponed in the economic
crisis that began in 2008 because the $787 billion stimulus package
Congress passed in early 2009 included $150 billion in aid to states specifically to shore up their finances. That aid came to an end in 2011. But the anemic recovery had not by then promoted the economic
activity necessary to generate significant new revenues based
on higher incomes, sales, and profits. At the same time, government
spending continued to be high for unemployment compensation,
housing subsidies, Medicaid, and other supports for the poor and
unemployed suffering through the long period of economic distress.
Had the wars ended and the stimulus continued, including aid to the
states, working people would have had better lives. Instead, the stimulus ended, and the wars continued.
This line of argument gained greater traction in the labor movement
as the economic crisis continued through 2009, 2010, and 2011 and as attacks on the public sector intensified. Over the same period, support for the war in Afghanistan eroded significantly and rapidly as people came to realize that we were in league with a corrupt Afghan government
and that, in the words of a 2008 Rand Corporation study, “there is no military solution to terrorism.”7 Meanwhile, frustration with President Obama among labor leaders and rank and file continued to build because of continuing high unemployment, widespread home foreclosures, and perceived softness in his approach to banks and the wealthy,
lessening resistance to criticism of his war policies.
Table 1. Comparing the Costs of War with State Deficits (2011)
In 2010, the national conventions of the Communications Workers
of America (CWA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT)
passed resolutions calling for the end of the war in Afghanistan, full care of returning veterans and their families, and redirection of war
dollars to domestic needs. AFT delegates called on their union “to
undertake an educational campaign on these issues among its membership and seek to involve members in the political tasks necessary to
implement this resolution in public policy.” In 2011, the International
Executive Board of the American Federation of State, County, and
Municipal Workers (AFSCME) approved a similar resolution that had
been referred to it by the union’s national convention. In 2009, two
smaller unions, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union
(ILWU) and the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers (UE),
were the first to oppose the Afghanistan war and call for its immediate end.8
On August 3, 2011, one day after meeting with President
Obama to urge the creation of millions of new jobs as the highest priority for labor and the country, the AFL-CIO Executive Council for the first time directly confronted the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, declaring:
“There is no way to fund what we must do as a nation
without bringing our troops home from Iraq and Afghanistan. The
militarization of our foreign policy has proven to be a costly mistake. It is time to invest at home.”9
These resolutions, and the many similar ones at local and regional
levels of the labor movement, indicate a new labor attitude toward U.S. foreign policy compared with the Cold War years, when its critics sometimes
referred to the AFL-CIO as the AFL-CIA. In part, this is due to
the end of the Cold War twenty years ago. It also reflects the presence in
union leadership of men and women influenced by the Vietnam War
and that era’s radical critiques of U.S. foreign policy and corporate power. Another contributing factor was labor’s experience in solidarity
work with Central America in the 1980s and 1990s. This solidarity
was partly responsible for the AFL-CIO’s reversal of its historic hostility to immigrants in 2000, and subsequent opening to worker centers and
immigrant rights issues, which lessened the jingoistic nationalism that had so often been characteristic of twentieth century labor leaders.
USLAW contributed to this change in attitude through steady education on the issues in the context of hundreds of resolutions introduced
to labor bodies at all levels. USLAW mobilized its affiliates for
local and national demonstrations, bringing the working class directly
into the mainstream peace movement. And it organized lobbying
efforts that involved labor leaders and rank-and-file activists addressing
politicians with demands that they implement peace policies.
As a central part of its activities, USLAW undertook solidarity
work with Iraqi unions, beginning in 2003. In October of that year,
two U.S. trade unionists traveled to Iraq as part of an international labor delegation.
On their return to the United States, USLAW organized
a national tour in which American workers could hear firsthand
reports of the conditions under which Iraqi workers lived and worked as the U.S. occupation took hold. It was the first time most people had heard of the existence of trade unions in Iraq and their long history going back to the days of British occupation in the 1920s.
Picking up on the energy and interest the tour generated, USLAW,
with the cooperation of the AFL-CIO’s Solidarity Center, organized
three subsequent tours that for the first time brought Iraqi labor
leaders to the United States. They visited twenty-six U.S. cities in 2005, and returned for smaller tours in 2007 and 2009.10
The Iraqis spoke to thousands of U.S. workers and met with union leaders in dozens of locals and central labor councils, and with AFL-CIO president John Sweeney. In their presentations, the Iraqis stressed three goals:
the end of the occupation and sectarian violence in Iraq; the
preservation of Iraqi oil from efforts to privatize it and other Iraqi economic resources; and the creation of legal protections in Iraq for independent trade unions as an essential ingredient of the democratic society they hoped to build once the war and occupation ended.
These messages resonated with audiences of U.S. workers. They,
too, were battling privatization. They, too, were trying to organize without legal protections. And, when they heard from Iraqi workers directly what damage the war and occupation were doing to that
country, they could join the broad U.S. antiwar movement and bring
labor’s voice into it. Working from the bottom up in the labor move
ment, by the time the AFL-CIO national convention met in Chicago
in September 2005, USLAW affiliates had submitted eighteen resolutions from unions, central labor councils, and state federations across
the country calling for the end of the war in Iraq and redirection of the funds to domestic needs. After a full debate on the convention floor,
the delegates approved such a resolution, the first time in history that
the mainstream labor movement had opposed an ongoing U.S. war. 11
When the Afghanistan war heated up in 2009, USLAW already
had broad ties in the peace movement. As the October 2, 2010, One
Nation rally in Washington was being planned, USLAW joined many
other organizations to push for inclusion of an antiwar message in the day’s activity. Taking advantage of the presence in DC that weekend of people from around the country, CWA hosted an October 3
meeting of leaders of more than thirty labor, peace, community, religious, and racial and economic justice organizations to form the New Priorities Network.
In one example of work along these lines, the Long Island (NY)
chapter of Jobs with Justice (an affiliate of USLAW) undertook in the spring of 2011 a campaign to save the public bus system in Nassau
County, which the county government wanted to privatize in response
to a severe budget crisis. Ending the public bus system would result in a 20 percent fare increase and cuts in services, which would place
extraordinary burdens on low-paid workers and poor residents in the
county. It would result in layoffs of unionized bus drivers and
mechanics and reduced wages and benefits for those who remained.
One aspect of the campaign involved getting the member organizations
of the Jobs with Justice chapter and their allies in this battle to
call for the end of the wars and redirection of funds to save local government
services, like the bus line, and to call on the county legislature
to do the same. In the process, the campaign raised the question of the wars and national priorities in the context of their implications for immediate local concerns.
On a larger scale, Code Pink initiated a campaign that led to the
U.S. Conference of Mayors passing a resolution in June 2011 calling
on Congress to end the wars and redirect the funds to he Page 246
nation’s mayors meet the urgent needs they faced on behalf of their
constituents. Resolutions by local city councils in Los Angeles,
Baltimore, and Eugene, Oregon, led the way to the national resolution.
The New Priorities Network, and USLAW within it, seeks to
reproduce this process in cities and towns across the country.
Wherever a library has to close, a school has to end its arts program, a
bus line is discontinued, and other public services erode because
“there is no money,” resistance needs to arise with demands to end the wars and move the money—together with demands from local governments and civic organizations directed to their federal representatives
to tax the corporations and high-end incomes. The tasks of taxing corporations
and ending the wars and moving the money emerged as priorities
at the Jobs with Justice national convention in August 2011,
recommended to JwJ chapters for initiatives toward the creation of a new economy in the United States.
In April 2011, thirteen labor leaders in Oregon sent a strongly
worded letter to all Oregon representatives and senators. They said:
As labor leaders dedicated to protecting the best interests of working
Oregonians, we are writing to thank those of you who have gone on
the record supporting an end to the war in Afghanistan and urge you
to intensify your efforts to end this costly and unnecessary war.
Oregonians have already spent more than $3 billion on the war,
and there is no end in sight. President Obama’s proposed 2012
budget includes devastating cuts that impact the poor and working
class—from low-income home heating assistance to community
service block grants to Pell grants—while allocating another $107 billion to continue the war in Afghanistan.
Meanwhile, American soldiers and their families bear a costly burden to continue this war.
More than 1,400 American soldiers have
died in Afghanistan since 2001, and suicide and Post-Traumatic
Stress Disorder rates for veterans have hit record highs.
We have seen the outrage at this attack on the middle and working
classes erupt in the streets of Madison, WI, and throughout the
country. Our supporters and members cannot tolerate government
actions that prioritize continuing a war beyond the ten-year mark
over building our communities at home.
This trade-off in spending is especially egregious given the lack of evidence that the war in Afghanistan contributes to improving
American security. By all major indicators—US casualties, civilian
casualties, corruption, security—the military strategy is failing.
With fewer than 100 Al Qaeda members reportedly in Afghanistan, we are asking Americans to spend more than $1 billion per Al Qaeda fighter while they struggle to make ends meet at home.
There are much more cost-effective alternatives in Afghanistan
that stand a better chance of success. The US should implement a
nonmilitary strategy based on regional diplomacy, political negotiations, development and humanitarian aid and divert the saved
resources toward economic opportunities in Oregon and around the
It is unconscionable to balance the budget on the backs of working
people in order to fund a war that isn’t making Americans safer. We
urge you to take action to pressure the administration to end the war, including cosponsoring and voting for legislation to end the war andspeaking out forcefully for a new approach.
The letter was signed by Tom Chamberlain, president of the
Oregon AFL-CIO and officers of nine public and private sector
unions and the Oregon chapter of Jobs with Justice.12
Connecting labor’s opposition to the war in Afghanistan with
events in Wisconsin is not just a recognition of the intense budget
battle that erupted there.
This international link also reflects the
inspiration and sense of solidarity Wisconsin activists and others
around the United States took from the “Arab Spring” in Tunisia and
Egypt, which had captured the popular imagination in this country
just as the events in Wisconsin reached their most intense peak.
When Egyptian unions sent money to Madison for pizza delivery to
people occupying the state capitol building, feelings of international
labor solidarity arose among U.S. workers in return. “From Tahrir
Square to Madison” was a common expression, carrying the sense
that all were engaged in a common battle for democracy, as well as for material well-being.
Here we come back to the basic point arising from the budget battles in Wisconsin, Ohio, California, and elsewhere throughout the country: they are not just accounting contests over balance sheets.
They highlight conflict over the most basic values required for a democratic society. In addressing these issues by linking the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with the domestic needs of working people, the labor movement is helping to create a new direction in foreign policy as it helps to reorder the domestic balance of power as well.
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