Eric Foner: Return of the Class Struggle

[Eric Foner teaches history at Columbia University.]

Thanks to the public employees of Wisconsin, thousands of whom have occupied the state capitol building for the past several days, the class struggle has returned to the United States. Of course, it never really left, but lately only one side has been fighting. Workers, their unions and liberals more generally have now rejoined the battle.

As many commentators have pointed out, Governor Scott Walker’s plan to eliminate most collective bargaining rights for public employees’ unions has nothing to do with Wisconsin’s fiscal problems (which are far less serious than those of many other American states). Instead, it represents the culmination of a long right-wing effort to eliminate the power of unions altogether. During the Great Depression, Franklin Roosevelt redefined American politics by forging a majority political coalition that included labour unions, white ethnic minorities (Irish, Italians, Jews), African-Americans in the North, liberal intellectuals, Southern whites and, after the passage of the Social Security Act in 1935, the elderly. The New Deal coalition proved powerful enough to enable Democrats to win seven of the nine presidential elections between 1932 and 1964. One of its key achievements was the Wagner Act of 1935, which gave most workers the legal right to form trade unions....

Sadly, until Wisconsin, leading Democrats have had little to say in defence of unions, even though, despite their weakened condition, they’re still an important part of the party’s base. President Obama has criticised Walker. But he has been far less outspoken about the struggle for democracy at home than he was (belatedly) about events on the streets of Egypt. Representatives of the American black elite, Obama among them, tend to share the free-trade, finance and technology-oriented economic outlook of upper-class whites, in which unions play little part. Like Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton before him, Obama has shown no desire to promote legislation demanded by unions that would make it easier for workers to organise, or to address the problems that defined New Deal liberalism and remain all too relevant today: economic inequality, widespread unemployment and unrestrained corporate power....

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Arnold Shcherban - 3/8/2011

For decades, even during tough times for the US economy (like over Reagan's first term) but before Obama's presidency, every instance the issue of US national debt would be raised by LIBERALS, the response coming from the so-called CONSERVATIVES was invariably the same: "it does not matter."
(Recently canonized and currently revered by them with
even more zealotry than before, President R. Reagan had exact same attitude to the national debt as mentioned above.)
So why is only NOW, when the debt reached 14 trillions dollars, the governmental spending cuts became an unquestionable and main priority of the conservative agenda.
The answer is so simple and clear (and effectively has been openly given by the Right) - the so-called "socialist" reforms proposed and some steps taken by president Obama, which
have been termed as a "distribution of wealth" from UP - DOWN.
Let's see: first was banks' and insurances conglomerates' bailout.
How that one could become distribution of wealth from UP - DOWN, not vice versa, is certainly beyond capacities of human intelligence... Moreover, the latter distribution of wealth (from DOWN - UP) had been happening over many decades of the US history, with no complaints coming from the receiving side.
Then came bailout of car companies, accompanied by the same conservative outcry, as if high administrators of those companies were getting squeezed, not common workers and small businesses (or, as if conservatives ever cared about small businesses or workers, instead of big corporations - their main donors.)
The bailout was followed by the health care reform, that before being signed into the law by Congress, had been dramatically changed from its initial "socialist" version, with its cardinal part (public option) removed completely and hundreds of amendments made by conservatives, introduced.
Those circumcisions and amendments practically made the new health care reform republican by, at the least, 80%, and still... wrong, since the original idea (that they effectively killed) came from the wrong side of aisle.
The Obama's administration financial reform, as Republicans themselves characterize it is "toothless", i.e will not change much in Wall Street, which the conservatives praised for decades as the most beautiful face of democratic capitalism.
So, what're all those cries: "Murder! or End of American Dream!", coming from the conservatives, about?
On the other hand they are reluctant, if not rejecting completely to even discuss significant cuts in defense budget or quickly put the end to tremendous costs of wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or eliminating dozens of redundant US military bases in foreign lands, even those that are protested against by local populations for years and lost its strategic importance one-two decades ago; the cuts that would save hundreds of billions just in the next several years.
It's much easier and faster to redistribute the national wealth even more again in the good ol' direction: Down - Up.
That is what all current debate about. Amen!

Gary Ostrower - 3/4/2011

Writes Eric Foner: "As many commentators have pointed out, Governor Scott Walker’s plan to eliminate most collective bargaining rights for public employees’ unions has nothing to do with Wisconsin’s fiscal problems (which are far less serious than those of many other American states)."
So long as writers like Foner believe that the clash has "nothing" do do with fiscal responsibility, they
whistle in that proverbial wind. Fiscal responsibility is hardly the only thing that explains Wisconsin. He's partly correct: the Right is anti-union. Weakening and therefore de-funding unions is a way to de-fund the Democratic Party. But the fiscal issue is real. Unless it is addressed honestly, the Democrats will consign themselves to permanent minority status.

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