James Clay Fuller

Things We're Not Supposed to Say

Monday, February 21, 2011

Fighting 'Divide and conquer' in Wisconsin

By Lydia Howell

The shell game of the corporate-sponsored Tea Party/GOP is being exposed in Wisconsin. That state’s new millionaire governor, Scott Walker, swept into office with very big campaign contributions from the billionaire Koch brothers, David and Charles, who own an oil company known as one of the country's worst polluters.

The Koch brothers also own several Wisconsin-based natural-resources companies that are known as major polluters and defiers of resource-protecting laws. They are also bankroll some Tea Party groups.

Governor Walker’s first priority was slashing corporate taxes. It’s no coincidence that the $130 million deficit Walker says he’s addressing with his attack on public workers equals the corporate tax cut he pushed through in January. This continues a trend illuminated by the organization Wisconsin’s Future.

Madison is ground zero for resistance to the dismantling of workers’ rights and cutting anything in government budgets that serves human needs while corporate “persons” get subsidies and tax cuts and are in effect made exempt from law supposedly governing such offenses as pollution and worker safety.

This war began when Ronald Reagan fired striking air traffic controllers who demanded better working conditions and has contiued right up to the bipartisan extension of George W. Bush’s tax cuts for the richest 1 percent in December.

Now, “budget deficits” are the mantra to justify anything from House Republicans’ plan to slash half of WIC (nutrition for pregnant women and children up to age five) to Wisconsin’s Governor Walker’s assault on public workers. The real agenda is to break unions.

This is an escalation of the 30-year war on workers, conducted whether Republicans or Democrats are in office. Whether it’s race, gender and age discrimination or illegal firing for trying to organize a union, workers’ rights have not been enforced. If Gov. Walker wins, all workers will lose as union rights are erased across the country.

Middle class and working people have paid higher taxes -- especially local property taxes -- to make up for corporate tax cuts. Corporate rates are now at 14 per cent or less and about a third of U.S.-based corporations, although moderately to extremely profitable, pay no income taxes. Corporate media keep that largely a secret from the American people.

You have to go to the United Kingdom’s Guardian newspaper to find out about a recent study by three academic accountants at Duke University, MIT and the University of North Carolina reporting on corporate tax-dodgers. One example: General Electric paid a 14 per cent tax rate over the last five years; workers making $30,000 paid 19 per cent. Wisconsin’s Future notes that what corporations pay in state taxes often is hidden from the public.

Add up “incentives” big businesses get supposedly to create jobs: infrastructure paid for by the public, free or cheap land with no property taxes for some years, payments for each job created or, inversely, tax breaks when companies move their factories -- even when they move them out of the country.

A “privatization” mania is cannibalizing government as public functions and services are taken over by big business, from military contractors to corporations that decide who gets social services -- at higher costs, since profits must be made when corporations run your schools or your wars.

It’s not public workers -- teachers, firefighters, nurses, garbage collectors or social workers -- that are creating budget deficits in Wisconsin or anywhere else. It’s the relentless demands by corporate “persons” to be exempt from paying their fair share while government is expected to work for them educating the workforce, providing transportation, infrastructure and cleaning up pollution corporations create. Public schools get cut while billionaire sports team owners get public funds for new stadiums with lots of new luxury boxes for corporate executives.

These legal thieves are now calling themselves “the job creators” but 75 per cent of all new jobs are created by much smaller business, which don’t get the public subsidies paid to big business.

In fact, corporations work mightily to undermine competition from Mom and Pop local businesses.

What’s maddening is that many profitable big companies are laying off workers and simply squeezing more out of the frightened, non-union workers that remain. The term “job creators’ is just the latest Ayn Rand mythology and “trickle down” hype.

As progressive populist Jim Hightower observes, corporations and the wealthy “see themselves as the Big Dogs and the rest of us are just a bunch of fire hydrants.”

For thirty years, workers have endured stagnant pay or wage cuts, loss of benefits and replacing pensions with 402Ks. (The latter, of course, were hit hard in the Wall Street fraud-driven financial meltdown). Unionized workers in the public sector have been more protected from these losses and so the Tea Party crowd misdirects workers’ anger and resentment towards unions -- turning attention away from greedy CEOs with salaries and bonuses in the hundreds of millions, which they are allowed to protect from taxes.

Gov. Walker’s sponsors David and Charlie Koch awarded themselves $11 billion in bonuses this year. (Oil companies get big subsides from the federal government; Congress refused to cut those utterly unnecessary subsidies, even as the House passed cuts to clinics serving poor women).

Listen to any call-in show and one hears everyday workers say: “I don’t have health benefits on my job and those unionized workers get Cadillac care!” “I haven’t had a raise in three years but those auto workers are making too much!” “The unions along with the EPA demand regulations. They’re job killers!”

This is classic divide-and-conquer in action.

If those callers knew America’s labor history, they would know that unions brought us an eight-hour day, weekends off, overtime pay, wages above the sweatshop level of the countries corporations now are shipping jobs to, health and safety laws (not enforced as they should be, as the Massey mine disaster and British Petroleum explosions shown). I’ve lived in a so-called “right to work”/non-union state (Texas): without unions you get lower wages, no benefits and little social safety net for anyone.

Ordinary people in the Tea Party haven’t figured out what corporations know. So the corporations and their top dogs get bought-and-paid-for elected officials like Gov. Walker to act on their behalf. Desperate workers mean more power for the already too-powerful and more wealth funneled to the already rich from the rest of us.

Madison protesters, counted at about 70,000 this weekend, are making new labor history. Only about 2,000 Tea Party opponents showed up, with “Joe the Plumber” flown in. In Hudson, Wis., Minnesotans stood with public workers on Saturday. It’s rumored that similar attacks on labor are planned in New Jersey, Iowa and Ohio, but in Madison a prairie brush fire of resistance has begun.

Tuesday, Feb. 22, at 4 p.m., Minnesotans will rally at the State Capitol in St. Paul to show solidarity with the Wisconsin state employees.

Lydia Howell is a Minneapolis independent journalist. Tune in to her show “Catalyst: politics and culture” Thursday, 9am on KFAI, for updates on this struggle. http://www.kfai.org