Wisconsin's Tunisia Moment

As events in Egypt showed, you never know what will set off mass protest.

Here at home, over-reaching by a novice Republican governor of Wisconsin has finally triggered the protest marches that have been eerily missing during the more than three years of an economic crisis that has savaged the middle and bottom and rewarded the top.

It's not as if we lack a politics of class. As mega-investor Warren Buffett famously said, there is plenty of class warfare in America, but the billionaire class is winning.

This economic crisis, after all, was brought on by excesses on Wall Street. Yet with the rest of the economy still mired in high unemployment and fiscal crises of public services, Wall Street was first to be bailed out, the first to return to exorbitant profitability, and the last to be held accountable.

Month after month, progressives have been asking each other, where are the mass protests?

You might expect popular indignation to be focused on the banks. Instead, the economic unease of ordinary people has been substantially captured by the Tea Party right and directed against government, while Beltway politicians of both parties are outdoing one another to vie for the role of more austere deficit hawk, which will hardly win back popular support for the public sector.

Then the newly energized Republicans made a couple of big mistakes. One was trying to cut too deep, on the heels of a massive tax cut for the rich. But the other miscalculation was to declare war on the one bastion of organized economic representation of regular people -- the labor movement.

With new legislative majorities in 18 states, several freshman Republican governors are hoping to withdraw collective bargaining rights from public employees and to otherwise demonize nurses, teachers, fire-fighters, cops, sanitation workers and others who have managed to hang on to decent pensions and health coverage.

This looked to be a cakewalk. Public workers, seemingly, are an easy target. After all, they still have jobs and benefits. Instead of demanding to know why our own pension and health coverage is so lousy, the rest of us are supposed to resent middle income workers in the public sector for having health and pension benefits better than ours. It is a carefully cultivated politics of division and resentment.

But this time, Republicans overreached, and the long smoldering economic unease has finally sparked mass demonstrations. Rather than following the script and resenting public employees as a privileged "other," the citizens of Madison increasingly view teachers, nurses, cops, firefighters, and other public workers as their violated neighbors.

One recent poll showed that two-thirds of Wisconsin citizens polled (none from public employee families) felt that Walker had gone too far. Even citizens who wanted public workers to pay more of the costs of their benefits concluded that his scheme was excessive. Another poll, sponsored by an Illinois Manufacturers Association, found a similar result.

Now, mass protest has broken out in other states where Republican governors are attacking unions, tens of thousands of other citizens are joining their union brothers and sisters, and even the mainstream press is taking sympathetic notice. In a fine piece in Saturday's Times, Michael Cooper and Kit Seelye asked: "Is Wisconsin the Tunisia of collective bargaining rights?"

Maybe it is. And not just of collective bargaining rights.

At long last, resentment against the economic crisis is beginning to find its natural home, where it always belonged -- against financial elites, their privileges and Republican allies. It is dawning on ordinary voters that something is wrong when hedge fund billionaires and investment bankers are making more than ever, while public workers (average Wisconsin pay: $48,000) are being made the scapegoats.

Why did this take so long? For one thing, organizing against this economic collapse was always a challenge because the details of the financial crisis are esoteric. Though the crisis was triggered by deregulation, by the capture of both parties by financial elites, and by reckless greed on Wall Street, the right was able to sow just enough confusion about "deadbeat" sub-prime borrowers and corrupted government guarantors at Fannie Mae as to diffuse culpability.

A Democratic president of the United States, moreover, has been reluctant to point the finger at bankers, and seeks reconciliation with a business elite which claims hurt feelings. So over time, the recession seems like a natural disaster like the extreme weather (which lately is a man-made disaster too, but I digress). Anxious people hunker down rather than taking to the streets. Responsibility is obscured.

And, what is being done to private sector workers seems impersonal. Orders are down, so layoffs ensue. Outsourcing seems inevitable if America are to stay competitive. It's all in the passive voice. The invisible hand did it.

But unlike the broader economic crisis, which is mistakenly viewed as a random unfortunate event, the actions by Governor Scott Walker are as intentional and explicit as they are malicious. Walker cut corporate taxes, then proclaimed a budget crisis, and then proposed to cut worker pensions and health benefits -- and just to rub salt in workers' wounds to eliminate collective bargaining rights as well.

Unlike the nameless financial elite, Walker has a face and an address. He is directly accountable politically.

And how fitting that it was the labor movement that fought back and kindled broader protests. We needed a reminder that individual, unorganized citizens are largely powerless against the predations of highly organized economic elites.

The labor movement may directly represent only one worker in eight, but it is the strongest organized counterweight to economic elites and a wall-to-wall rightwing takeover. As it the 1930s, labor needs to come out of this economic crisis reborn and strengthened.

It is also fitting that former senator Russ Feingold has praised the demonstrators and called on all politicians who stand with labor to join them. This is an overdue reminder of the importance of political leadership. And -- hosannas! -- even a conflict-averse President Obama has rebuked Walker for "an assault on unions."

All of this will energize not only the labor movement and "Democratic base," but clarify what this economic crisis is all about, and alter the dynamics of its politicals.

I recently interviewed Mary Kay Henry, the new president of the Service Employees International Union. "Politicians put their fingers to the wind," she memorably said. "We need to be the wind."

Governor Walker and the Republican majority in the Wisconsin legislature may win this round. Public workers in Wisconsin and elsewhere may end up paying more for their heath coverage and pension benefits, a compromise already offered by Marty Beil, president of the Wisconsin State Employees Union.

But something important that was largely missing has been kindled. Popular protest against financial abuses, top-down class warfare, clueless Republicans, and misplaced austerity is finally in the air. The labor movement is leading, and even non-union Americans are realizing why organized labor is all about protecting the middle class generally. On all counts, it's about time.

Robert Kuttner is co-editor of The American Prospect and a senior fellow at Demos. His latest book is A Presidency in Peril.