Monday, February 28, 2011


Rally for the Wisconsin Workers

By Reginald Johnson
February 28, 2011

HARTFORD ---- More than 400 union members, retired state employees, activists and concerned citizens converged on the State Capitol Saturday to raise their voices on behalf of state workers in Wisconsin, whose bargaining rights, pensions and benefits are under attack by the state’s Republican’s governor, Scott Walker.

Normally it would be difficult to get a sizeable crowd of people out on a day with biting cold weather to rally in support of union workers locked in a struggle 1500 miles away.

But the Wisconsin battle is not your typical labor fight. The struggle in Madison has come to symbolize a wider attack by the right-wing and big corporations to tear down all unions and reduce the rights of American workers in general.

That attack, if successful, will further erode the power of the middle class and people’s ability to earn a decent living, those at the rally said.

“What we’re seeing in Wisconsin is the ultimate manifestation of corporate capitalism,” Edward Vargas, former president of the Hartford Federation of Teachers, told the crowd. “Corporate capitalism is trying not just to destroy the unions, but the very fabric of democracy. I have friends who are retired in Florida. Everytime I visit, I see the future of America. There are no 40-hour jobs anymore down there. You gotta work 20 hours for this guy, and then 20 hours for that guy, just to get by. And no benefits.”

Vargas thundered, “Is that the future we want for our children?”

“No!” the crowd roared back.

“Then we have to stand up and fight for Wisconsin,” he said, finishing his speech by shouting “Somos Uno!” (‘We are One’ in Spanish)

Speaker after speaker denounced the effort in Wisconsin as well as other states to weaken unions and demanded that the rich and big business pay their fair share in taxes and stop making workers shoulder the burden of funding government budgets. Speeches were often interrupted by chants like “Make the rich pay!” “Make the rich pay!” and “Fair Share! Fair Share!”

The Connecticut rally was one of dozens around the country on Saturday organized by and affiliated groups aimed at showing solidarity with the Wisconsin workers. State employee unions have been warring with Governor Walker for over two weeks over his demand that they not only agree to pay more for pensions and health benefits, but that they give up their power to negotiate collectively for contracts. Walker has maintained that the changes are needed to bring the state’s deficit under control.

The unions have agreed to kick in more for pensions and health care. But they have refused to accept the demand to give up collective bargaining, seeing that as an existential issue. Thousands of workers have been sitting in at the Wisconsin state capital in protest.

Union supporters claim that the battle is not really over the deficit, otherwise Walker would accept the union concessions, settle the budget issue and go home. But they say the governor’s aim is more than that --- break the unions.

Republican governors in other states, such as Ohio and Indiana, are trying similar hardball tactics in dealing with public employees. And they sound a similar refrain: bring union costs under control, because they’re breaking the bank. No mention is ever made of tax cuts for the wealthy and big business as being a factor in the deficits.

Connecticut’s Gov. Dannel Malloy --- though elected with strong union support --- has also talked of “sacrifices” to erase a state budget gap. He says he needs $2 billion worth of concessions from unions, although no specifics have been laid out yet.

No one at the rally criticized Malloy, but the perceived double standard about who is being made to suffer through difficult economic times, was clearly on the minds of many.

David Burke, a member of the theatrical workers union, said that the middle class is being made to sacrifice a lot in today’s economy --- whether through contract concessions or in paying higher prices for goods and services ---- while big corporations raise prices without restraint and enjoy high profits.

“I demand to know why it’s easier to have us pay more for health insurance than it is for the legislature to regulate health insurance costs?” he said.

Some of the nation’s biggest insurance companies, like Aetna, are based in Hartford. Their rates in Connecticut are supposed to be controlled by the state.

“Aetna made $1.7 billion in profit in 2010. That was up from $1.5 billion in 2009. Where the hell is Aetna’s sacrifice?” Burke shouted.

Burke a moment later said “We will not bow to these corporate-sponsored political hacks. We will never let our rights be taken away easily. Let’s stop these bastards now!”

Union activist Deborah Ellerman also commented on the point that Republican policies, such as the Bush tax cuts, have created large deficits which working people are supposed to pay for. But at the same time, she noted, the many people in wealthy Connecticut who earn over $400,000 a year “will enjoy a 3.7 percent tax cut.”

Bob Kingsley, director of organizing for the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers (UE), said his union is fully behind the Wisconsin workers.

“The barons of big business have wrecked the economy and now they’re trying to blame us for it,” he said. “The folks who teach our kids and clean our streets are not to blame for the current crisis.”

He noted that the average public worker pension in the U.S. is only $20,000 a year.

Kingsley urged people to keep the battle going, either by sending financial support to the Wisconsin unions, getting their towns or cities to pass resolutions expressing support for the workers or “get on a bus and go to Wisconsin.”

The UE official said the union’s northeast council had just agreed to back the idea supported by some unions in Wisconsin for a nationwide general strike.

As the rally wound down, a chant erupted of “Obama show some guts! Obama show some guts!” There’s been disappointment on the part of progressives with President Obama, since he’s only spoken once on the Wisconsin battle, saying two weeks ago Governor Walker shouldn’t bust the unions.

Felipe Flores attended the rally with his wife, Suzanne. He is a retired community college teacher, while she is a retired high school teacher.

“What’s happening in Wisconsin is important. If they can take away union rights there, it will spread everywhere,” he said.


Despite the size of the rally, mainstream media coverage of the Hartford demonstration was poor. Channel 3 did cover the rally and ran a short report. But other TV channels like WTNH, sent no reporters. The Hartford Courant, supposedly the state's paper of record, didn't cover the rally in its backyard. The Courant did run an AP piece about the nationwide rallies, but failed to mention the Connecticut protest. The Courant ran a front-page story Sunday on what it means for Connecticut to be "business-friendly."

Tuesday, February 22, 2011


Go Wisconsin!

By Reginald Johnson
February 22, 2011

Just over a week ago, in my last blog, I lamented the fact that the American people seemed so unwilling to protest the many ills of our society --- the lack of jobs, a deplorable health care system, crumbling schools and government service cuts.

This was in sharp contrast, I said, to what we’ve seen in Egypt and across the Middle East, where thousands have taken to the streets to demand the removal of corrupt dictators and the establishment of fairer economic systems.

Well, maybe I spoke too soon. Maybe the sleeping giant in America is waking up.

In Wisconsin and now in Ohio and Indiana, throngs of workers are out every day demonstrating against the outrageous moves by new Republican governors to reduce the benefits of public employees and strip their unions of bargaining rights.

In Wisconsin, tens of thousands of workers --- teachers, nurses, firefighters, sanitation empoyees and others, together with school students --- have rallied at the state capital in Madison against the plan by Gov. Scott Walker and the Republican-dominated legislature. The governor says the public employees must pay substantially more for their pensions and health care, in order to erase a claimed $3.6 billion budget deficit and avoid layoffs.

But Walker and the Republicans are lying about the reason for the draconian measures: the deficit came about only after GOP lawmakers in January rammed through a series of costly tax giveaways for the rich and big corporations. Before that, according to the Wisconsin Fiscal Bureau, the budget was balanced.

What’s happening in Wisconsin is part of a broad, national effort by the right-wing to smash public employee unions --- a major source of strength for both the Democratic Party and progressives in general. Anti-union forces must also figure that if public worker unions are badly hurt, it would be a mortal blow for the labor movement in general, since private sector unions have been steadily declining in recent years.

The union workers and their allies don’t buy the blather about the budget and see what’s really going on. It’s been inspiring to see the size of the crowds and the spirit of the protesters, day after day, in Madison.

Maybe this is the start of something. As Noam Chomsky commented on “Democracy Now” recently, the Wisconsin protests may be heralding the beginning of a “democracy uprising” in America.

Let’s hope so.


MSNBC Commentator Ed Shultz has done a terrific job covering the protests. He devoted his show every night last week to the rallies, offering strong progressive commentary and getting good interviews with people like John Nichols of The Nation. I just hope his passionate pro-worker stance doesn’t ruffle too many feathers at management (the channel’s new owners are Comcast) and he’s shown the door the way Keith Olbermann and Phil Donahue were.

Friday, February 11, 2011


Fighting Back in America

By Reginald Johnson
Feb. 11, 2011

For nearly three weeks the Egyptian people put on an incredible display of courage. Despite attacks by pro-government thugs and police --- which resulted in over 300 deaths and widespread injuries --- they continued to demonstrate day after day by the hundreds of thousands, demanding a more just economic system, a more democratic government and the removal of long-time dictator Hosni Mubarak.

Now it looks like the rebellion has succeeded, with Mubarak stepping down and ceding power to the military and the vice president.

The Egyptian uprising followed the protests in January in Tunisia, where people rallied by the thousands to demand the ouster of long-time despot, Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali. Eventually, the massive protests forced Ben Ali to flee the country.

Last year millions demonstrated across Europe, protesting austerity plans calling for pay cuts and pension reductions. In Greece alone, two million workers ---- a full 20 percent of the nation’s population --- protested on one day alone.

I’m wondering. Just when are the American people going to rise up and demand changes from their government? When is there going to be a mass movement and fightback against the financial-military-media elite of this country to bring about a fairer economic system?

It just seems that as other countries boil over, it’s so quiet here. You would think people would be really steamed over the worsening quality of life in the U.S, and that so little is being done to stop the decline.

What do we have? More than 9 percent unemployed ---- 22 million people looking for work; health care costs climbing steadily, eating away at family budgets and driving more people into bankruptcy; foreclosures still happening everywhere, with banks and the government doing little or nothing to stanch the flow; millions of Americans worried about their ability to retire, due to losses in retirement accounts in the stock market crash of two years ago as well as pension reductions.

But instead of taking the position that government should play an active role in helping people weather these difficult times, we have a President and a Congress who keep insisting on cutting safety net programs.

Despite the crisis in health care, proposals are being floated to slash Medicare and Medicaid. Many in Congress and people around President Barack Obama also think Social Security should be cut. Obama is also asking for a freeze on vital domestic programs such as education and housing.

Obama and other leaders say Americans have to sacrifice so the nation can pull itself out of massive debt --- a debt they didn’t create. The debt was created by the cost of bank bailouts, overseas wars and a recession triggered by Wall Street speculation.

But only working people are being told to sacrifice in this effort.

A bill signed by Obama in December gives tax breaks to billionaires and big corporations. This will just add to the debt burden on everyone else.

The wars and occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan continue, siphoning money away from social programs.

So Americans are getting screwed. The middle class is being battered --- to the point where soon, there will be no middle class. Increasingly our society is becoming two strata --- the rich and the near rich, and everybody else.

You would think that this situation would get people fired up, fired up to the point where they want to get out and demonstrate, wave flags, hold signs, shout and demand better --- just like in the Middle East and Europe. But it’s not happening. There have been local protests, for instance, in California and New York, over budget cuts. That’s good. But where are the broad coalitions forming for a general fightback against what’s happening in Washington? I don’t see it.

I looked up some websites for different liberal and progressive groups to find out what’s going on. AFL-CIO, Progressive Democrats for America, United for Peace and Justice,, etc. They’re all working on good things, economic issues, social issues, environmental issues. But I saw no signs of coalition building for a wider struggle.

There was nothing about big demonstrations planned, or rallies to fight the growing inequities in our society and the central problem of corporate power.

I don’t know the reason for this. Is it a weakened labor movement that no longer can lead the way? Is it that people and groups are being too insular, working on their own agendas, and refusing to join forces?

Or are people still clinging to the faint hope that Obama will change course and do something good? That he will suddenly adopt a progressive agenda? Fat chance. He keeps talking about working with business to get them to invest more, and boost the economy. Recently, he appointed former GE CEO Jeffrey Immelt as an advisor. Hey, that will help working people.

Then he visited the Chamber of Commerce, and said to the business leaders, ‘pretty please, can you invest some of the more than a trillion dollars you’re sitting on?’ He was met with stoney slience. Then he offered to soften some regulations to help them. This is the road to nowhere.

Forget about Obama. There has to be a strong, grassroots movement in this country to bring about change. This has to be hitched to issues, not a party or candidate. Organizations of all stripes ---- labor, political, community, civil rights, religious and environmental --- have to come together for a wider fightback.

As evidenced by the accomplishments in the 1930s and 1960s --- it’s only through strong social movements that anything will be achieved.