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Amy Traub

Cheesehead Agonistes: Why Wisconsin’s Fight Matters in New York

It was cold out, but the workers crowding the steps of City Hall Wednesday morning were fired up. New Yorkers shouted in support of public workers in Wisconsin battling their governor’s effort to destroy their unions by taking away workers’ rights to bargain and their unions’ ability to support itself through dues. “We Stand with Wisconsin Workers!” read a hand-lettered sign. But the retail employees, clerical workers, UAW members, actors, domestic workers - and yes, city and state employees - who made their way through the long security line to rally outside City Hall were also talking about New York.

At this and other solidarity rallies around the city, they were talking about New York’s shrinking middle class. About the centrality of unions - in both the public and private sectors - in fighting for good jobs capable of supporting a middle class standard of living. And about the attacks on public workers coming from both Governor Cuomo and Mayor Bloomberg, While neither as vitriolic nor as existential than the assaults in Wisconsin, Ohio, and Indiana, New York’s attacks nevertheless draw their strength from and reinforce the same anti-worker trend.

That’s what makes commentaries like Bill Hammond’s recent Daily News column so absurd. Hammond asserts that public workers in New York “should thank their lucky stars that they're dealing with nice-guy, union-friendly Cuomo rather than the Cheeseheads' chief executive, Scott Walker.” After all, Cuomo “would never dream of attacking their right to organize or collectively bargain… [and is] going easy on them in the grand scheme of things.”

You read that right: rather than asking our mayor and our Democratic governor to support the vast majority of New Yorkers who work for a living by trying to retain jobs, preserve public services we rely on, and fight for living wages, we should be delighted that their attacks on workers aren’t worse! We should be grateful that they’re only attacking public pensions, rather than asking why they aren’t working to increase retirement security for everyone who works.

That’s precisely the twisted thinking rallies across America are working to challenge. The larger question is, who do our federal, state, and local governments really represent? Who has power in America: working people and their representatives, or the corporations and billionaires pouring money into our political system? The now-famous prank phone call from an activist impersonating right-wing billionaire David Koch to Wisconsin’s Governor Walker tells us a lot about the answer to that question in Wisconsin, but what about New York?

Bill Hammond points out that Governor Cuomo called union members "my brothers and sisters." Yet actions speak louder than words. As Harold Meyerson wrote in the Washington Post, unions function as "the linchpin of progressive change in America. Taking them off the political map isn't about budgets. It's about removing a check on right-wing and business power in America." Yet Governor Cuomo has worked actively to build up corporate power in the state through the Committee to Save New York.

And then there are those persistent questions: when New York, crushed like many other states by the deep national recession caused by Wall Street, finds itself short of revenue, do we ask the millionaires who long ago recovered from the recession to chip in a bit more to keep teachers in our classrooms and snow off our streets? Or do we start attacking bus drivers for having decent retirement benefits? The answers to these questions will tell us whose side our elected representatives are really on.

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Posted at 5:19 PM, Feb 23, 2011 in Labor | New York
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