The labor haters, old and new, have hijacked the state government of Wisconsin and set it on a course of collision with the fundamental rights, interests and way of life of the great majority of its people.
Decades ago, I worked for a time in a small machine shop in Houston. We repaired heavy construction equipment. Often there was a huge road grader or similar vehicle waiting to be worked on, sitting around with its nose poking into the shop. One day the boss's kid climbed up into the cab of one of these big machines and started pulling levers and handles, managing to release the brakes. This behemoth started rolling into the shop before we managed to climb abroad and stop it.
The image of this near-disaster comes to mind when I think of the irresponsible demagogues in the Wisconsin Statehouse. They, too, are tinkering with social machinery that has been set in place for generations, seemingly oblivious to the social and economic forces they are setting in motion.
In recent days we have seen virtually unprecedented mobilizations of angry public workers and their allies surrounding the State Capitol in Madison. And despite Gov. Scott Walker's threats to call out the National Guard if state workers refused to toe the line, none have yet appeared at the State Capitol to disperse the workers. Perhaps the lessons of Egypt are too fresh.
Attempts to pit public employees against "the taxpayers" would be ludicrous, if they were not fueled by such hatred and vituperation. Who pays the taxes if not workers, public and private? The money kings expatriate their profits to offshore banks and evade most taxes altogether. And the top corporate income tax rate has shrunk from more than 50 percent throughout the 1950s to 35 percent today.
In 1950, the corporate income tax was equal to 67 percent of individual income taxes, or about two thirds, while in 2008 the corporate tax was 32 percent of individual income tax receipts -- one third. In other words, the relative corporate share of the burden was cut in half over that period, according to the Office of Management and Budget. If you're looking for the source of the budget deficits, start there.
Back in 1980, when Lech Walesa was leading the courageous strike by shipyard workers in Poland, and organizing the world-famous Solidarity trade union, the right wingers in this country couldn't praise the struggle enough. They were apparently willing to overlook, at least for the moment, the inconvenient truth that the striking Gdansk workers were none other than public employees, as were 98 percent of all Polish workers at that time. In fact, President Ronald Reagan told the world, "in attacking Solidarity, its enemies attack an entire people. ...By persecuting Solidarity, the Polish government wages war against its own people."
Gov. Walker's war against his own people has gotten off to a rocky start, thanks to the audacity and determination of its targets. The working-class mobilizations in Wisconsin and other states demonstrate that labor has begun to stir in a way not seen for a long, long time. Once labor begins to feel its power to move and act, the locomotive of history -- and justice -- can resume its journey.
Dave Riehle, 64, is a locomotive engineer and a longtime leader of the United Transportation Union who lives in St. Paul. He speaks and writes frequently on labor history. He was born in Madison and is a source in MPR's Public Insight Network.