Wisconsin, ‘America’s Dairyland’ (famous for its cheddar) is a state with a long-standing tradition of labour-unions defending their socio-economic rights. Following a Republican win in the November 2010 elections, new Tea-Partyist governor Walker, backed by a majority in both houses of the parliament, pushed for an extreme neoliberal austerity budget plan, including cuts in social services and public salaries, corporate tax breaks, and a union-bashing bill to curtail the right to collective bargaining. The mass protests, which ensued throughout the winter and spring, spearheaded similar demonstrations in almost two dozen US states.
In Israel, encouraged by the success of a consumers’ boycott addressing the rising cost of the national staple, cottage cheese, a Facebook-originated protest against housing prices quickly evolved into a mass popular movement for ‘social justice’.
Comestibles aside, the two cases of social mobilization have much to share. It is no secret that the Israeli economy is following the American model. Symbolically, Israel has even imported – to disastrous effect – the model of the ‘Wisconsin Works workfare program’ (W-2), known in Israel simply as the ‘Wisconsin Plan’. While the particular triggers for uprising are different (union-bashing versus housing prices), the broader driving force in both cases is the economy of austerities: reduced employment security (less direct employment, more working poor), a growing gap between the average salary and the cost of living, deep cuts in the public sector and social services, and so forth.
In this context, both states saw the coming together of broad coalitions within civil society, including labor unions (mostly public sector), students, self-employed and small business owners, unemployed and others. What they all demand is that the government’s responsibility for its citizens’ livelihood is restored, bringing with it a re-affirmation of their social and economic rights. Both movements oppose the idea of ‘trickle-down economics’, with the Wisconsin demand “Tax the rich” and the Israeli call “Workers, not tycoons, drive the economy”, coupled by a demand to re-issue estate and inheritance taxation.
A struggle over ‘our house’ and democracy
The struggle also took a similar shape, in a fashion reminiscent of events in Midan Tahrir or Puerta del Sol, as, in addition to rallies, public spaces were occupied by encampments run as a combination of headquarters and a festival. These soon became symbolic of the whole movement. As protesters flocked the state Capitol in Madison, they chanted “Whose house? Our house!”. In Israel, one slogan says “Fighting for our house!” – and in both cases it is a reference not only to the a government building or to any particular accommodation solution, but rather, more generally, to the state, its polity and society.
Both movements also see their task at re-establishing democracy in its extended definition, including not only social and economic rights, but the right to actively participate in decision-making and to really influence it, not only through electoral politics. “This is what democracy looks like” is such a popular chant in Wisconsin, that it is recognizable even when car drivers honk it with their horns. “This” stands for all the forms of popular gatherings: rallies, the ‘occupation’ of the state Capitol building (which was eventually evacuated by force and by law), the public hearing on the budget bill which lasted more than a 100 hours, and, of course, the right of union. Democracy, for Wisconsin protesters, means that the people can change their minds less than two months after an election if they feel that elected politicians act against the trust that was accorded them, and even go for a re-call election less than a year later. In Israel, following the Spanish model, protesters have created a system of direct democracy throughout the popular assemblies which have sprung up across the country (they, too, had to fight off attempts to evacuate their encampments and arrest protest leaders – especially in the periphery). Aided by academics and other experts, they formulate demands which will be negotiated with government representatives.
Of course, there are differences in the electoral systems, the party system and the political culture between the two states, which account for some of the differences between the movements. In Wisconsin’s bipartisan system, the struggle translated almost immediately into the electoral arena, culminating in the recall elections of Senate representatives. In an unprecedented move, the two parties launched campaigns to recall no less than eight senate members each, with nine senators eventually facing recall (6 Republicans and 3 Dems). Following the final vote this week, the GOP still has a majority at the Senate but they did lose two seats to the Democrats, leaving them with a margin of a single house member. For the Democrats this success is encouraging enough to continue with their effort to recall Governor Walker in November.
In Israel’s system of proportional representation, and a society with relatively low levels of party identification, the party system is prone to frequent changes, and early elections have become a routine matter (hardly any government in the past couple of decades has served its term in full). Nevertheless, the protesters demand a change in policy, not a change of government. Such might come, in due time, but for now the current coalition is stable and the people demand an active part in politics – not through any political parties, but simply as citizens.
Where has all the labour gone
Unlike Spanish protesters, who have rejected cooperation with trade unions, Labour plays a prominent role in the Wisconsin mobilization and features in the Israeli J14, too. Wisconsin protests were spearheaded by unions primarily from the public sector, among the first being the teachers – a feminized union. Women working in the public sector should be credited for being the first to stir up the Israeli streets as well, with the social workers’ strike a few months back. Many unions – including the Histadrut, the largest trade union in the country – are part of the Israeli J14 movement, though not in any particularly leading role.
But something interesting happened to organized workers on the way to the warm embrace of the mainstream. They disappeared from discourse, and in their stead appeared the ‘Middle Class’ side by side with ‘Working Families’. In Wisconsin, this move can be traced back to the language used in the presidential campaign in 2008: but it was also a fearful reaction to conservative attacks on ‘union thugs’. The recall ads, in particular, bore no trace of the topic of collective bargaining which was the trigger for getting people to the streets in the first place – and instead emphasized social provisions and corporate tax breaks. This is also the situation in Israel. While so many of its claims pertain to labour concerns, the J-14, is considered by most to represent the ‘Middle Class’ and the ‘Families’ (the “Parents’ Protest” is one of the largest groups within the movement). Typically, J-14 leaders have so far remained detached from the ongoing work dispute of the physicians, with which they are nevertheless sympathetic.
The new Middle Class
The recent Wisconsin protests were perhaps the first time that leftist activists claimed back the term ‘families’ and held it as among their own values: not for control over family planning, for instance, but for social provisions to support childcare. Yet they need to be careful not to adopt such terminology without due consideration of the ways in which this resonates with a conservative worldview, lest they find themselves using it in an exclusivist fashion, at their own expense.
The recent eruption of social crisis in the UK has promoted discussions on social and economic reforms in which conservative politicians manage to speak of ‘social gaps’ without speaking of the poor or of poverty. Rather than talking about good, protected jobs, they speak of ‘more jobs’ coupled with a demand for ‘stronger families’ – meaning more repressive measures taken to deal with lower-class and especially single parent families.
When leftist movements adopt such terms as ‘Families’ and ‘Middle Class’, unwittingly they can displace recognition of the role of labour movements, the working class and the poor. Ironically, today, the idea of the ‘Middle Class’, appealing in the fight for democracy, stands disconnected from any discussion of the class system. This is not only misleading, it is a trapdoor. Labour activists in Wisconsin today already regret the educational opportunity that was lost during the recall campaigns, as they continue their fight for collective bargaining, currently through constitutional lawsuits.
The concept of the ‘Middle Class’ also conveys a seemingly homogenous body which obscures social tensions – race/ethnicity relations, religion, migration – which interact, both in Wisconsin, in Israel (and indeed, where not?) with class differences. This point has attracted critique in both movements, requiring a more detailed discussion for the future.
As these lines are written, Israeli minister Ehud Barak is leading a brutal attack on civilians in the Gaza strip, in what he calls – using the language of extreme settler thugs – a “price tag” action for the assault on Israeli citizens earlier yesterday. As I wrote in my last, this is exactly the scenario J-14 protesters have been dreading and preparing for. Israeli governments have always used ‘security’ as a means of silencing social unrest. This is the first real peril faced, not only by the people of Gaza, but by the J-14 movement as well.