Monday, February 21, 2011

Wisconsin – an Improbable Battleground?

The country has moved, in this 24-7 news cycle, from the exhilaration shown in the streets of Cairo, to the protests in Madison, Wisconsin. These demonstrations for workers rights are being held by members of unionized public employees groups. As one who grew up in a blue-collar union family, I am sympathetic to the rights of workers. Most understand how important it is to have safe workplaces, reasonable breaks and hours of duty. The public also knows that union workers should have rights about due process, health care benefits, collective bargaining, equal pay and expect some savings for pensions. These are all part of a negotiating process.

The average Social Security payment in Wisconsin, (and the United States), for a retiree is about $1,100 per month or slightly more than $12,000 a year. Average pension payments are generally under $20,000 a year for state employees, including those who were required to pay into the system. States have traditionally used employee pensions as a float to underfund state budgets. As an example, Maryland's pension system is currently very much underfunded, which is one reason the Governor wanted to return the burden to the counties. Required contributions have been set aside for several years in order to balance the budget in tough times.

The Tea Party members who support Governor Walker in Wisconsin are railing against "unions feeding and getting fat at the public trough," but a look at the facts proves this to be untrue. They claim the workers are taking money unfairly and getting plush retirements. General Motors won concessions from workers regarding promised benefits in it's reorganization. But should life always offer a "re-do"? When do promised earnings become a maybe? Don't these public employees work for their living and not rely on tax breaks or favoritism? The average worker, union or not, in this country has less than $50,000 saved for retirement outside of a pension system. Many planned on ever increasing home values to carry them through their retirement years. We now know how deeply the recession and falling home prices have impacted this dream. Workers who retire at 65 many live 20-30 more years. This is why this battle is so intense. Workers are fighting for the right to live into retirement with the expectation of the middle class quality of life which they have earned.

The women who teach our children -- and teachers are still primarily women -- earn an average of under $50,000 a year after ten years in their jobs. Many in Wisconsin have said they will agree to pay more toward their benefits and even retirement which will further reduce their take-home pay, but they must retain their collective bargaining rights. The union movement is indeed under assault. Many states, especially across the south, have laws against union shops and collective bargaining. Are we moving toward destruction of the middle class worker and creating a nation of haves and have-nots? Surely the legions of union members who were the so-called Reagan Democrats must be regretting their decisions. Much of this anti-union effort was begun when Reagan destroyed the Air Traffic Controllers group and fired all who were striking for better conditions.

The Democratic State Senators who have abandoned their legislative posts had the right idea. Leave the state until the Governor will agree to negotiate. This is the only way to force him to listen to both sides and be a governor for all of the people in his state. If the Governor is only trying to balance his budget, why did he give huge tax concessions to businesses as one of his first acts once elected? If he and his fellow Republican Governors in Ohio and New Jersey are truly not interested in union busting, then why are they posturing rather than coming to the bargaining table? Are they not furthering the message of Citizens United in trying to destroy the Democratic union sources of funding? Just as the right wing went after trial lawyers who supported Democrats -- think of the spurious efforts for "tort reform" -- they are now targeting the union members and their PACs. Union membership has been decreasing, especially in the last two decades, but they still have political clout. Diminishing power and membership will decrease their treasuries and ability to advocate. In 2010 the Public Service unions were the only entities with enough funding to combat the funding sources controlled by Karl Rove, which are mostly outside public scrutiny.

It is unknown whether foreign interests or right wing nuts gave him his hundreds of millions which were used to spread half truths and outright lies in many cases. This contributed greatly to the Democratic defeats. NDC Chair (and friend of the President), Tim Kain, mounted few effective defenses against this full court press from the right.

Democrats should seriously heed this threat and be ready to combat it now and in through the 2012 campaign.

President Obama has moved cautiously in support of the Wisconsin workers. What would you have him do? Let's hear your views on this topic.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Freedom for Egypt

Can you feel it, taste it, touch it? Freedom is ethereal, a sense in the spirit, yet there is a hunger for its presence in the human heart. First there were marchers in Tunisia, angry at the unnecessary martyrdom of a young man. The quest for freedom then spread like a desert wind across the nations rimming the Mediterranean. This was so evident in Egypt over the last few weeks as many, young and old, Muslim, Christian, and secular marched to create a democracy. I am certain many of us have held our breath and crossed our fingers as we watched the hopeful marchers and protestors for freedom. As the crowds grew, so did concern for the safety of the marchers.

And suddenly, journalists were getting detained, the internet was disrupted and camel riding thugs started breaking up gatherings. The world watched despite the interference, and still the marchers increased in numbers. The doctors came in and patched the wounded, checkpoints were established to keep the thugs away, and the army stood by. That single factor kept the drive alive and sent a message to the Egyptian leader. Mubarek, (and sorry Mr. Biden -- he was a dictator) seemed distanced from both the situation and his country. Apparently he thought he could brush off the complaints with promises to step down at the end of his term. But the protestors would not be denied and responded with strong negatives and demanded he leave office immediately.

I think our President sent the right message but tried also not to interfere publicly. It appeared that he wanted to come out more strongly on the side of the protestors but was warned off by the State Department and others concerned with the status quo. When Mubarek made his TV announcement that he was not stepping down, when most had been led to expect that he would, the gloves came off and President Obama said that the resignation needed to happen "now". Although several office-seeking Republicans chided him for not jumping in earlier, many others have acknowledged that by keeping on the sidelines, and encouraging, but not meddling, he played the situation from a strong hand.

And -- when Mubarek did step down -- the whole world WAS watching and cheering with the protestors. (Well, almost the whole world was cheering, it has been said that many Middle-Eastern dictators are looking carefully over their shoulders and trying to find appeasing moves to quiet their poverty-stricken multitudes.)

Where do we go from here? The military is apparently in charge and is making moves to govern in an interim until elections can be held -- with luck by September. The country needs to return to commerce, banking, education and international relations. Structures need to be reorganized since parliament and cabinets have been disbanded. Hopefully some of those leaders who have come forward from the ranks of the protestors will be brought in to help the reorganization. They showed themselves to be resourceful organizers, both idealists and pragmatic and incidentally, both male and female educated and effective communicators. The Internet, Twitter and Facebook genies have been unleashed by these young people and they will not be returned to their lamp of restive silence again. The young Google executive who was detained then released was indeed a leader, though he disclaimed the title. He showed courage and resilience as did many of his fellow demonstrators.

None of us knows just what the future will bring for Egypt. We can hope. America can help with NGO assistance and not weapons. A free, educated, employed, fed and informed public is a terrific weapon against extremism. Let's hope that we can help make that happen. Egypt has millions of poor and poorly-educated residents. They were not the numbers in the streets, but to make this revolution meaningful their needs must be addressed. And America needs to understand that this is their revolution and they may make mistakes and may go in directions we would not choose. Democracy is messy; freedom is fanciful at times. We as a country need to step back, just as a parent does when a child rides a bike without training wheels for the first time and be close enough to help if need be.

A cartoon was reprinted in the Saturday Washington Post in which a cartoonist showed a pyramid losing its top of "auto"-cracy but not yet deciding whether to try on the top of "demo"-cracy or "theo"-cracy.

What do you think the future will show for Egypt? I do not see the country becoming a nation such as Iran, dominated by Imams. Few of those were in evidence in the crowds, nor do I see a military martial law in effect long-term. I remain hopeful that parties will form and elections will be held later this year. It is hoped that they will be free and fair without being rigged and a government of sorts will ensue, warts and all, just as we did in our early days as a country. There were those who considered making George Washington a King; thankfully he declined and we formed a more or less imperfect country -- free for some, then and eventually later for the rest of us, but based on the principles of democracy. I heard an Egyptian haltingly say that they wanted: "a government of the people, for the people and by the people" -- now who should argue with that?

Let's hear your thoughts on this most unexpected turn of events.