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Arab Street goes to America
- Protesters take over Capitol in Madison to block bill
Protesters drum and cheer at the Capitol in Madison, Wisconsin, on Friday. (AP)

Washington, Feb. 19: Unrest of the Arab variety is spreading across the Atlantic and to America.

For the fifth day running, tens of thousands of protesters have taken over the Capitol building in Wisconsin and prevented the state legislature from passing a bill which would have forced government employees to give up their collective bargaining rights.

Lending support to those protests, opposition Democrats in the state Senate have fled to neighbouring Illinois because of a curious American law that allows the police in some states to round up elected representatives and bundle them into the legislature if they are not present at a session.

By fleeing beyond Wisconsin’s borders and into the home state of US President Barack Obama, these Democratic Senators have ensured that Wisconsin’s law enforcers cannot arrest and march elected representatives to the state Capitol to be present during a vote on the bill that seeks to comprehensively eliminate labour rights.

Without the presence of the Senators who have sought refuge in Illinois, the legislature is one member short of the quorum needed to consider the draconian bill.

The state Senate repeatedly tried to convene this week and was thwarted by the protesters. Another meeting has been fixed for Tuesday.

The week-long protests in Wisconsin are not some minor blips on the US political radar. They represent a likely pattern that slowly threatens to engulf this country’s heartland as American capitalism faces its gravest crisis since the Great Depression.

Already, on Thursday, tens of thousands of workers rallied in Ohio, warning the state governor against Wisconsin-style laws intended to crush trade union rights.

Plans are under way in Indiana to mobilise labourers to march in street protests next week against the state administration’s plans to cut benefits for workers across the board.

State administrations argue that they have no option but to ask people to tighten their belts given the huge budget deficits and an economy hit by recession.

But the anger among the middle and working classes stems from an unwillingness among rulers, both Republican and Democrats, to impose taxes on the rich or cut into the privileges of the wealthy who are becoming richer even during a recession because of policies that are fundamentally not much different from those of Hosni Mubarak in Egypt which allowed his son Gamal’s cronies to amass huge wealth legally.

At the root of the protests that are growing in this country’s heartland is also a perception that America’s ruling classes, ensconced in their opulent villas and townhouses in Washington or in the condominiums and penthouses in New York, are so cut off from ordinary people that they have to be reminded from the streets about a need to change policies.

There is every likelihood that Wisconsin-style protests are in the works in coming months in Tennessee, Florida, Ohio, Michigan, New York, New Jersey, Nevada and California.

All these states, faced with crippling budget shortfalls, are drawing up plans for largescale retrenchment of government employees. Others are planning lay-offs, wage freezes and drastic cuts to pension plans and critical health benefits.

Almost all of them want to mount legislative assaults on trade union rights while doing nothing about the privileges of the rich.

Sensing political opportunities in the unrest, America’s professional agitators have already landed in Madison, the capital of Wisconsin, and are hoping to streamline and give greater direction to the protests.

Rev. Jesse Jackson, the most enduring fixture at the espousal of every liberal cause in the US for several decades, arrived in Madison yesterday and energised the demonstrators with his trademark oration.

Last night, masses of trade union members from Illinois, Pennsylvania and New Jersey were on their way to Madison to join what organisers said would be the biggest demonstration yet in five days.

At the time of writing, the organisers were hoping to bring at least 70,000 protesters to the Capitol on Saturday according to figures they communicated to the police, Dane County Sheriff Dave Mahoney told reporters.

That is a huge number for a state with a population of merely 5.6 million, most of them spread across small and far-flung rural communities.

President Obama has also waded into the unrest and is hoping to acquire some political capital by siding with trade unions who were strong pillars of support in his successful 2008 presidential campaign.

On Thursday, the President accused Wisconsin’s recently elected Republican governor Scott Walker of an “assault” on trade unions with his proposed legislation.

Obama said in a television interview that “some of what I have heard coming out of Wisconsin, where they are just making it harder for public employees to collectively bargain generally, seems like more of an assault on unions.”

Lest he be accused of policies reminiscent of India’s CPM in the 1970s of “rule and struggle,” Obama later qualified his criticism of Walker by adding a conciliatory note: “I think everybody has got to make some adjustments, but I think it is also important to recognise that public employees make enormous contributions to our states and our citizens.”

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