Wisconsin workers protesting

This is a speech I delivered at a rally in support of Wisconsin workers on February 24, 2011, at Wellesley College, where I work.  I helped organize the rally and urge my URPE colleagues to do the same on their campuses, and post information about their rallies to URPE.

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It’s absolutely wonderful to see and be with all of you who have taken time out of your busy lives to come here today and stand with the Wisconsin workers.  Over the past few weeks, thousands, even millions of people, from the Middle East to the Middle West (as John Stuart calls it) are waking up, facing their fears, speaking out, taking a stand.  I am so proud to see that Wellesley “represents” in this movement
Why are we here TODAY?  What are we “representing”?  We are here today to stand in solidarity with Wisconsin workers.
What is happening in Wisconsin?
If you listen to Fox news, or read much of the mainstream, corporate controlled press, you will be told that the State of Wisconsin is suffering from a budget shortfall due to the recession, and has to cut the pay and benefits of the workers it employs.  You will be told that it is only fair that the public sector workers there be stripped of their high pay and free health benefits — benefits that other workers don’t and can’t have.
Actually, though, if you dig a bit deeper, you will find that the State of Wisconsin is not facing a looming budget deficit.   You will find that the public sector workers are paid, on average, less than private sector workers in the state.  And you will find that they have agreed to all of the pay and benefit cuts that Governor Walker has proposed.
So what is left to fight over?
Wisconsin public sector workers are protesting because Governor Walker now wants to pass a bill which would take away their right to collective bargaining.   Essentially, he wants to take away  their right to form a union.
The Right to Collective Bargaining:  Key to Worker Well-being and Dignity
As an economist, let me take a minute to discuss why the right to collective bargaining is important.
How many of you have taken Econ 101 and learned about the laws of supply and demand?  What tends to happen to wages when there is excess supply of workers, or unemployment?  You’re right, WAGES FALL.  Why do wages fall?  Because, when there is unemployment, jobless workers who need jobs to survive begin to compete with other workers and with the unemployed for scarce jobs by offering to work for less.
What does this do?  It lower wages and benefits, and worsens working conditions.  It makes all workers worse off.  Wages can even fall below the poverty level, as  they have across the world and even have in many sectors of the US labor market.
What can workers do to reverse this self-destructive trend?  Well, some economists suggest that they could quit if the wage got too low, as suggested by the upward sloping labor supply curves you are often taught).  Some can do this; one spouse can stay home and care for the children, and a couple can live on one salary; or a person can try to start a business; or set up a farm; or go to school to get a better education.  But most workers can’t do that, they have to work to survive, that’s why they’re called workers.  If anything, such workers have to work more hours, or send more family members into the labor force, when falling wages reduce their take home pay.   This increase in labor supply only exacerbates unemployment.
What then can workers do to keep their wages to fall to starvation levels?
They can stop competing with one another, and instead get together and form unions.  Refuse, collectively, to work for their employer unless they are offered acceptable wages and working conditions.  As union members chanted in Tuesday’s demonstration at the State House, “United We Bargain, Divided We Beg.”  Collective bargaining is what a union does; eliminating it is nothing less than union-busting.
This is what is at stake in Wisconsin, and around the country.
If unions lose their right to bargain collectively – workers lose their ability to have a say in the determination of their wages and working conditions.
Wages and working conditions will deteriorate…around the world….
as they already have been, as attacks on unions intensify, and global corporations force workers across the world to compete with one another for jobs by cutting their wages and benefits..
Workers who are unionized know this – and that is why they are standing up in wisconsin, in indiana, in ohio – and all over the country, for their rights and in solidarity with the workers under attack.  These workers need our support!!!!  That is why we are here!!  As the union chant goes, “Workers’ rights are under attack.  What do we do? STAND UP, FIGHT BACK!!
This is about democracy…
One final, but important point.  The struggle in wisconsin is not only about worker rights.  It is also about democracy,
Most Americans enthusiastically supported the Egyptian peoples’ nonviolent revolution against dicator Hosney Mubarek, as a pro-democracy movement.
Well, the protests in Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio, are also a pro-democracy movement.  Why?  Because the attack on Wisconsin workers is vehemently anti-democratic.
The behind the scenes story about Wisconsin is truly upsetting.  Independent journalists have uncovered the fact that Governor Walker is part of an organized war on worker rights, which is planned and waged by the super-rich Koch brothers.   The Koch brothers, who are each worth over $17 billion and are tied as the fifth richest men in the U.S.,  are trying to use their wealth to buy political power throughout the U.S.

  • They were involved in obtaining the Citizens United Supreme Court decision, which gives corporations unlimited rights to buy political influence through campaign contributions.   The citizen’s organization, Common Cause, has discovered ties between them and Justices Thomas and Scalia.
  • They are a key funder of the “grass-roots” Tea Party Movement
  • And their PAC was the second largest contributor to Governor Walker’s campaign, and is bankrolling an ad campaign now to support him in this struggle.

Essentially, instead of Mubarkek vs. the Egyptian protestors, it’s the Koch Brother Billionaires against thousands of Wisconsin workers and students!!!
The money of one side, against the numbers, determination, and principles of the other side.  By being here today, we are throwing our weight on the side of the protestors, on the side of their democratic rights to pass laws that benefit the people, not the Koch brothers already enormous fortunes.  We are struggling for democratic rights here on the streets of America, right here on the steps of Jewett at Wellesley College, like the protestors in the Middle East!!!
We in the US are learning something about democracy that we haven’t been taught in our textbooks.  Democracy isn’t just voting every four years.  In  fact, when wealthy people corrupt the political process,  they can dictate our electoral choices and buy out our politicians.  This isn’t democracy.
Realizing that electoral democracy can and has been corrupted in this way,  activists are beginning to call for a new kind of democracy, participatory democracy.    This means active participation in the process of creating the economic and political practices and institutions that govern our lives, that create our society – so that they reflect core American values of freedom, democracy, justice, sustainability.
Students are the Spark…
How many of you here are students?  It’s a clear majority.  Go students!  You students have a most special role and responsibility in this struggle to revitalize and regain true democracy, here and across the world.  All over the world, and all through history, students have been the spark that ignites movements for democracy and justice.  You can be that spark.  Be the kind of Wellesley woman who really makes a difference, as these banners call for —  not just any kind of difference (like a big contribution to the Koch’s billions!), but a positive, life-affirming, earth-saving difference, the kind of differences that our world sorely needs at this moment, the kind of difference that the Wisconsin protestors are clamoring for, that the Egyptian protestors begun to achieve, and that Libyan protestors are dying for.
I would like to end my speech with a great chant used since the famous Seattle demonstrations of 1999 against the WTO, “This is what democracy looks like, this is what democracy looks like….”  Yes, this rally at Wellesley, bringing together students, staff, union, and faculty in support of the Wisconsin workers, and of all of our rights, is what democracy looks like!

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