It looks like “Cairo has come to Madison,” said conservative Republican Rep. Paul Ryan, as 50,000 citizens took over the state’s Capitol building. He got the spirit right, but the location wrong. In Madison, folks wearing Packers jerseys stand together with folks wearing Bears colors. Madison is this generation’s Selma, the epicenter for the modern battle for basic human rights.
In 1965, the drive for basic voting rights was stalled in the U.S. Senate. President Johnson pushed Martin Luther King to stop demonstrating. Instead, Dr. King went to Selma. Selma was not a big city, but it held a mirror to the nation. There, on Bloody Sunday, peaceful demonstrators were met with dogs, clubs and hoses, and touched the conscience of a nation. Two days later, Johnson, invoking the famous words, “We shall overcome,” introduced the Voting Rights Act. Five months later it was signed into law.
Today, the assault on basic rights is accelerating. The economic collapse caused by the gambols of Wall Street destabilizes public budgets at every level, as tax receipts plummet and expenses caused by unemployment rise. Yet Wall Street gets bailed out, and working and poor people are squeezed to pay to clean up their mess.
In states across the country, conservatives have used this occasion to assail public workers and their unions. They demand not only rollback of pay and benefits, but push laws to cripple — if not ban — public employee unions, destroying the right of workers to organize and bargain collectively.
Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin, a self-described “Tea Party governor,” leads the most egregious of these efforts. Upon election, he signed into law millions in tax breaks for business. Then, pointing to the budget crisis, he demanded not only harsh concessions from public workers — dramatic hikes in what they pay for pensions and health care — but crippling limits on their right to negotiate, limits on any pay increases and an annual vote to see if the union survives. As if to flaunt his power grab, he exempted the unions — police and firefighters — that endorsed him in the election.
The right to organize, to bargain collectively and to strike are basic human rights enshrined in international law. To this day, the U.S. champions independent free trade unions across the world — even as Walker and his ilk seek to crush them at home. With the U.S. suffering more extreme inequality than Egypt, and the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United giving corporations and billionaires a free pass to distort our elections, unions are virtually the only counter that workers have. That’s why the right has targeted unions; that is why every citizen has a stake in their survival.
In Wisconsin, the public employees accepted the harsh concessions demanded by the governor, but rejected the attack on their basic rights. Teachers, nurses and other public workers stood up. Democratic state legislators left the state, blocking the effort to ram the legislation through. Students, ministers and progressives rallied to their side. The demonstrations are now entering their second week. Across the country, just as in the civil rights movement, people of conscience are holding vigils and protests in support. This is a Martin Luther King moment.
The effort by the governor and his right-wing allies to divide private sector workers from public sector workers is an old trick. In the South, race was used to divide. The tricks perfected in the South — right-to-work laws, barriers to unions — are now coming north.
Madison, like Selma, is not a major city. It isn’t Chicago or New York or Los Angeles. And it isn’t Cairo. It is the epicenter of the battle for America’s democracy, and it is as American as Lexington, Concord, Gettysburg, Montgomery and Selma.