The Global Austerity Party Meets Global Resistance, From Cairo to Athens to Madison

Paul Street Mar 1, 2011

If you pay attention and dig around a little in the newspapers and online you can mark the outlines of a global stirring of popular revolt – a burgeoning springtime of peoples blooming in advance of the technical onset of spring, 2011. The revolt has spread to the eye of the world capitalist hurricane – to the heartland of the United States itself.

No Sacrifice for Plutocracy

The most dramatic, actually regime-toppling revolts have taken place in Tunisia and Egypt, where millions poured into the streets to end the reign of long-term dictators. The wave of popular protest in the Middle East quickly spread to the authoritarian Arab states of Yemen and Bahrain, to Iraq (where thousands inspired by the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings took to the streets to protest political corruption and a lack of basic services)and to Iran. (It even spread to totalitarian, state-capitalist China, where Egypt-inspired calls for democracy protest put hundreds in the streets in Beijing and Shanghai, leading authorities to put dozens of activists under arrest and to deep censorship of the Internet.) Economically marginalized youth without jobs and prospects have figured prominently in the remarkable democracy upsurge that has rocked the Middle East, 1848-style.

Turning to Europe, we have seen a mass uprising in Albania, where Tunisia-inspired protests against corruption led to violent government repression at the end of last month. .  In Albania’s neighbor Greece, workers and students carrying on their ongoing rebellion against harsh neoliberal austerity measures there recently launched a one-day general strike and put 250,000 workers and citizens in the streets across many cities, including Thessaloniki, Patra, Ioannina, Kozani, Agrinio, Naxos, Rethymno, Volos, Arta, Heraklion, Larisa, Serres, Kefallonia, Mytilene. According to ABC News, “the 24-hour strike by public and private sector employees grounded flights, closed schools and paralyzed public transport …In the biggest march since riots in December 2008 brought the country to a standstill for weeks, Greeks marched through the streets of Athens chanting ‘We are not paying’ and ‘No sacrifice for plutocracy.’”

The renewed popular agitation in Greece is consistent with widespread 2009 protests there and also with significant mass actions against austerity measures and layoffs in Belgium, France, Spain, Ireland, and Italy last year.  Millions of European citizens and workers flooded the streets in major social movements and marches to resist budget, wage, and pension cuts last September and October.

The year 2010 ended with fierce conflicts in London between police and giant crowds of angry students protesting universities’ three-fold increase in university fees – an increase advanced as part of the British government’s larger austerity plan. Baton-wielding police on horseback faced off against students throwing sticks and smoke bombs at barricades set up in front of the British houses of Parliament.

From Middle East to the Midwest

And then there’s the remarkable state-level progressive labor rebellion that has recently erupted in the United States, where right wing governors’ and state legislators’ attack on public worker benefit levels and negotiating rights amounts to the largest assault on labor’s political and collective bargaining power in recent United States history. Much to the surprise of Wisconsin Governor Stott Walker, the clumsy, messianic, business-backed Tea Party governor who initiated the offensive, workers and citizens have responded with an historic uprising in defense of labor rights. Walker expected to pass a bill that effectively stripped public workers of their collective bargaining rights through both houses of the Wisconsin state legislature in mid-February.  He was prevented from achieving this, however, when fourteen of Wisconsin’s Democratic senators left the state, denying the upper legislative body from the number of representatives required to vote on his thuggish legislation.  Amidst the resulting paralysis of the legislative process, the Wisconsin State Capitol in Madison has become  site of an incredible two-week (so far) protest that has sparked support demonstrations across the country and received statements of solidarity from Egypt. From one day to the next, tens of thousands union members and supporters have marched (many carrying signs likening Walker to the deposed Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak) and rallied around and inside Madison’s Capitol Rotunda.  Schools were briefly closed within and beyond Madison as teachers and other public school employees flocked to the Capitol to show their opposition to “Imperial Walker’s” attack on union power.

Walker’s assault was prefaced by a provocative statement claiming that he would call out the National Guard if workers dared to resist his effort to effectively strip public sector workers of their collective bargaining rights. As of this writing (on the afternoon of Friday, February 25, 2011), labor officials in Wisconsin are talking quite seriously about launching a general strike.

The fire of grassroots labor rebellion spread to other states along with the top-down right- wing attack on union rights. The next battleground was Ohio, where another recently elected and Tea Party-backed super-Republican governor John Kasich and his hard-right allies in the state legislature are also determined to smash public sector unions. As the New York Timesreported on February 22:

“After a week of upheaval in Madison, Wis., where the thumping din of protesters has turned almost celebratory, the battle moved to Ohio, where the Legislature held hearings on a bill that would effectively end collective bargaining for state workers and drastically reduce it for local government employees like police officers and firefighters.”

“Several thousand pro-union protesters filled a main hall of the state courthouse in Columbus and gathered in a large crowd outside, chanting ‘Kill the bill,’ waving signs and playing drums and bagpipes…Ohio legislators agreed to change the legislation, to allow state workers the chance to negotiate wages. But the new measure would now ban public employees from striking – a death blow to real union power that made the revised bill unacceptable to the state’s public sector unions.”

In Indiana, impressive labor protest entered the state capitol in Indianapolis as most Democratic members of the state’s House of Representatives stayed away from a legislative session on February 22, 2011 to block a Republican bill designed to weaken collective bargaining.  As the Times reported:

“The Democratic members of the Indiana House of Representatives — like their counterparts in Wisconsin, a minority — left Indianapolis quietly Tuesday night to deny Republicans quorum, hoping to kill legislation that included a bill that would allow workers in private sector unions the right to opt out of their dues or fees.”

“Gov. Mitch Daniels, a Republican, accused the absent Democrats of showing ‘complete contempt for the democratic process,’ adding, ‘You don’t walk off the job, take your public paycheck with you, and attempt to bring the whole process to a halt.’”

“But thousands of agitated protesters in hard hats and work boots clogged the halls of the Statehouse, chanting and cheering in support of the Democrats, most of whom remained camped at a discount hotel in Urbana, Ill., about a two-hour drive across the state line from Indianapolis…In the Statehouse in Indianapolis, the sound of the protests was similarly overwhelming.”

As the struggles in Wisconsin, Ohio and Indiana received national attention, more union rights battles (sold as “budget repair” battles by Republican governors and legislators) were expected to break out soon — in Oklahoma, where the state House was considering legislation that would strip municipal unions of collective bargaining rights, and in Tennessee, where Republicans had introduced legislation to ban collective bargaining between teachers’ unions and local school boards.

Rallies are being held in support of Wisconsin’s public workers and collective bargaining rights across the country in every state capital in the U.S. tomorrow –an extraordinary development.

“The People Have Been Able to Find Their Own Voice”

The American right insists that their great, supposedly socialist bete noire Barack Obama – the corporate-friendly savior of Wall Street – is intervening decisively on workers’ side in, and even sparking, these historic, state-level uprisings. The charge is absurd.  As Wall Street Journal reporter Jonathan Weisman noted yesterday, Obama stepped back from the state-level battles after initially seeming to support labor in Wisconsin. Top Democratic officials told Weisman that this is because Obama “is eager to occupy the political center…to help him try to forge a bipartisan deal on the nation’s long-term finances that could strengthen his position heading into the 2012 election.”  This is consistent with:  the center-right Obama’s campaign pledge to be a “post-partisan leader” who was ready to take on his own party’s union base; his support (over the opposition of teachers’ unions) of charter schools and “performance-based” teacher pay; his recent advance of corporate neoliberal free trade deals opposed by U.S. labor;  his recent high-profile strengthening of ties with business leaders; his refusal to move in any meaningful way on campaign promises to reform the nation’s management-friendly labor laws, and his offensive imposition of a two-year salary freeze on federal workers – a move that angered by public sector union officials. Obama has gone very far down the path of joining business and the right in advancing the false narrative that American prosperity is being undone by overpaid public workers, not by the real culprits on Wall Street who clearly and recklessly crashed the global economy in 2008.

Obama has responded to the rank-and-file labor rebellion in the American heartland in much the same way as he responded to the right-wing coup in Honduras in June of 2009 and to the rise of the Egyptian revolution in February 2011: with initial statements of seeming support for popular-democratic forces followed by conservative equivocation and caution meant to identify himself with democratic change without severing his accommodation to existing dominant domestic and imperial hierarchies and elites.

The real energy in the great Wisconsin worker rebellion and its state-level offshoots comes from the bottom up. It comes from the grassroots, not from the top down. As Wisconsin State Democratic Senate Leader Mark Miller rightly noted when theWall Street Journal (WSJ) queried him on Obama’s role: “Really the people of our state, and the people of our country, have been able to find their voice in this battle.  The voices of the people are the voices the governor needs to listen to.” (WSJ, February 24, 2011, A4).

Unlike the Obama-obsessed Tea Partiers, the union and pro-labor crowds in and around the Capitol Rotunda seem uninterested in the question of who’s atop the national media-politics extravaganza.  They were focused on the real and relevant policy issues at hand – above all on basic labor, human, and civil rights and social justice within and beyond the workplace.  With tens of thousands of them circling the Capitol and thousands occupying the structure itself, it seemed as if they were channeling the wisdom of the late great radical American historian Howard Zinn in 2009:

“There’s hardly anything more important that people can learn than the fact that the really critical thing isn’t who is sitting in the White House, but who is sitting in—in the streets, in the cafeterias, in the halls of government, in the factories. Who is protesting, who is occupying offices and demonstrating—those are the things that determine what happens. It is becoming clearer and clearer to many, after the first year of Obama’s presidency, that it is going to require independent action from below to achieve real change.”

Global Slump, Global Rebellion

The message is understood at home and abroad and is being acted on accordingly in inspiring ways. It is, we can be sure, more than pure coincidence that all these remarkable popular rebellions on behalf of democracy are breaking out at the same time in seemingly disparate regions: Greece, Albania, Yemen, Tunisia, and Madison, Wisconsin and Columbus, Ohio and the fifty state capitals of the “world’s greatest democracy” – the industrialized world’s most unequal and wealth-top-heavy society, where the business elite’s top-down class warriors have recently targeted public sector unions as their main enemy on the path to unchecked profits and power. In fact, these struggles are all connected by the global crisis of the profits system, whose current ongoing epic recession is imposing escalated and crushing unemployment, homelessness, insecurity, and budgetary austerity on working people the world over – from the sprawling slums of Cairo to the desperate ghettoes and shattered working class communities of Wisconsin and Ohio.  We are in the midst of a planetary slump, as the Marxist political scientist David McNally has shown – a reflection of the neoliberal “financialization” of the world economy, wherein the costs of bailing out the very giant financial and corporate interests that caused the ongoing epic recession are born by working people and the poor especially but not exclusively in the global South (D. McNally, Global Slump: The Economics and Politics of Crisis and Resistance [PM Press, December 2010]). The economic, social, and ecological crises inflicted by the global de facto dictatorship of capital are restricted to no single country and the peoples’ struggle against that system’s savage and authoritarian injustices is not restricted to any one nation, state, city, or province.

Paul Street ( is the author of many articles, chapters, speeches, and books, including
The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2010); and (co-authored with Anthony DiMaggio), Crashing the Tea Party: Mass Media and the Campaign to Remake American Politics (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, May 2011). Street can be reached at   

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