Americans Protest against Austerity Budgets

Activists see parallel struggles

Activists in Wisconsin have commenced staging dramatic protests against newly elected governor, Scott Walker’s plans for harsh cuts in public spending.  We’re going to watch to see if such protests spread across the American states the way revolutionary movements have spread across the Middle East.   If state governments explicitly adopt policies that target state workers, their salaries and benefits, and services like public education, it’s  a pretty smart bet to expect protests to spread beyond the snowy hills of Madison.

Lowering taxes sounds great, as does spending on useful programs.  The Federal government has been able to do both of these things by running large annual deficits.  States don’t enjoy the same latitude and have to work hard and creatively to find ways to avoid tough choices.

With even a modest bailout from the federal government unlikely, forty-five states face large budget deficits (out of a total of 50 states!).  It probably seems worst in your own state, but it’s terrible everywhere.

Republican Scott Walker campaigned on a promise to cut that deficit, and won election rather handily last November.  He’s sought to deliver on his campaign promises by raising fees (like college tuition) and cutting spending.  He’s directly targeted organized labor, promoting cuts in pensions and benefits, as well as salaries.  He’s also working to limit collective bargaining rights.

Protest at the state house

It’s not surprising that organized labor is fighting back.  The AFL-CIO joined other organizations in staging a demonstration at the State Capitol, which drew an estimated 30,000 people, including all sorts of public workers: teachers, firefighters, and police officers.  Students protesting tuition hikes have also joined in–and staged their own protests as well.  It’s not so surprising that people who are threatened react by protesting, nor is it surprising that their organizations are investing in their activism.  Forty-six percent of the voters don’t win elections, but they can do much much more in other ways.

What will be more significant–if/when it happens–is when the citizens who benefit from services–join in the effort.  Thus far, Governor Walker has been steadfast in his campaign to reduce the state–and particularly, to reduce the power of organized labor.  This isn’t so different from what he promised as a candidate, but it’s surely different from what some of his voters expected.  In Wisconsin, this is an early round of what will certainly be a battle that will occupy most of the next year.

And it’s not just Wisconsin.  In New Jersey, Republican Governor Chris Christie has embarked on a similar program, with a particular focus on public education, proposing the elimination of teacher tenure. Of course, organized teachers are trying to promote a broad campaign against his budget plans in general–and protect tenure in particular.  (Here’s a facebook page.)  When virtually everyone suggests that the prime answer to America’s educational deficit is improving teacher quality, cutting pensions and protections isn’t the obvious way to achieve this goal.

There are other approaches.  The new governor in Illinois, Pat Quinn, a Democrat, signed a large tax hike, and promises budget cuts at the same time.  This is likely to provoke everyone. Connecticut Governor, Dannel Malloy, has promised to protect pensions and collective bargaining, finding alternatives to cut spending (criminal justice reform), and finding alternative revenues.  The New York Times quotes Malloy:

Connecticut would not be Connecticut if we cut $3.5 billion out of the budget. We are a strong, generous, hopeful people. We’d be taking $800 million out of education. You can’t do that in this state. You’d have to gouge the Medicaid system. You’d have to close 25 percent of the nursing homes. What do you do with people?

In facing budget problems, states can target weak constituencies a) (e.g., Medicaid recipients), b) everyone (taxes), and/or c) strong constituencies (organized labor).  Historically, a governor could make a or b work.  Right now, however, it looks like most states will be going after all of them–and then responding to the protests they provoke.  What seemed politically viable in campaign rhetoric may not turn out to work in real life.  And we need to remember that elections punctuate political battles, they don’t generally end them.

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About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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One Response to Americans Protest against Austerity Budgets

  1. olderwoman says:

    It is the attack on collective bargaining that has galvanized opposition here. State workers have had our pay and benefits cut repeatedly in the past decade. The attack on unions has turned out the unions, public and private.

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