I have a pit in my stomach today as I watch workers gather outside the Wisconsin state Capitol once again to push back against the latest attack on working families in the Badger State. In 2011, in response to Gov. Scott Walker’s anti-union, anti-public higher education, anti-worker “budget repair bill,” upwards of 100,000 activists converged on the state Capitol building, occupying the building for over two weeks. Shortly after Walker introduced his “budget repair bill,” dramatically similar bills were introduced by Governors in Indiana, Ohio, and Michigan. The swift, coordinated attacks alerted working families across the country that while the attacks may have started in Wisconsin, they were coming to a state near you.
In Pennsylvania we got a less dramatic, yet no less radical attack on working families, public education, and accessible health care in former Gov. Corbett’s first budget. Corbett’s desire to cut public higher education funding by 50%, eliminate access to health care for the working poor, and slash over $1 billion in funding for K-12 education did eventually produce multiple protests at the state Capitol in Harrisburg, but the mobilization was not sustained. Buses would arrive in Harrisburg in the morning and then depart in the afternoon.
I spoke at a number of those rallies and attended nearly all of them. The speakers on the Capitol steps were passionate, heartfelt, and fiery. But at the end of the day, organizers of the actions seemed nervous that the crowd might get out of hand and turn Pennsylvania’s Capitol into an eastern version of Madison.
I was puzzled, for example, why at an NAACP sponsored rally to stop the cuts to public schools, speakers – including me – were told not so say anything bad about the Governor (you mean the guy who just gutted funding to our schools?). I was blown away that the president of my local faculty union got a “talking to” after he stood on the steps of the Capitol and called Corbett the “enemy” (you mean you want to play nice and say “thank you sir, may I have another?”). And, my jaw dropped when I stood with thousands of union members ready to march into the Capitol building and occupy the people’s house like union members and students were doing in Wisconsin, only to be told by leaders to stand down once all the official speakers were out of the media spotlight (you mean that was all just saber-rattling?). The message to activists in Pennsylvania was a mixed one: come to the Capitol to protest radical right-wing attacks on working families, students, the environment, and the poor, but don’t go “too far.” There were times it felt like more established progressive leaders liked having thousands of people converge on the Capitol for the big media show, but they were not as keen of the prospect of the emergence of a new political movement in the Keystone state.
Am I being too harsh? Maybe. I’ll take that. But, like I said, I’ve got a pit in my stomach today as I see a new round of attacks coming. I fear that we have not done enough to build a movement – at least here in Pennsylvania.
Sure, the Wisconsin Uprising and Corbett’s cuts gave rise to this very site – Raging Chicken Press – and we’ve worked our asses off to expand our work. We’ve gone from a small little start up to a site that gets upwards of 50,000 visits per month. That’s good news, but it’s still an act of sheer will that keeps us going. We have no budget other than a few dedicated contributors and my own limited pockets. We slowed Corbett’s scorched-earth austerity policies, but Democrats or Independents haven’t articulated an aggressive counter-message with coherent policy plans or strategies. We stopped the privatization of the state Wine and Spirits stores that bring in more than $500 million to the state and support more than 2,000 good-paying jobs. But, just yesterday, the Republicans introduced legislation to take another crack at privatization. And, yes, we made history. Corbett was the first sitting Pennsylvania governor to lose a reelection bid since the Commonwealth first began allowing governors to serve a second term in 1970. We elected Tom Wolf, a smart, fairly progressive governor; but, Democrats lost even more ground in the General Assembly, which became even more right-wing than before Wolf was elected.
Look, the last thing I want to do is minimize the victories we have won. And look, I get it. People are tired and stretched to the limit. But, that’s also kind of the point.
If Pennsylvania is going to be able to avoid tumbling down into the hole dug by right-wing ideologues funded by the Koch brothers and their ilk, then we cannot continue business as usual. We must be willing to step up our game, build a more militant movement, and stop thanking political and corporate leaders for the crumbs that fall from their banquet tables. And we’ve got to get our heads screwed on right pretty quickly.
Yesterday the PA Senate State Government Committee voted its latest version of a “paycheck protection” bill out of committee, which calls for a state constitutional amendment to ban paycheck deduction of union dues and political contributions from state and public school workers. This bill, like previous ones introduced by PA Republicans, is cut from the cloth of ALEC model legislation as part of the right-wing agenda to gut unions, thereby eliminating any political challenge to their agenda.
The bill will come up for a vote on the floor of the State Senate as early as tomorrow. Given Republican’s increased majorities and their new more radically right leadership, the bill is expected to pass, setting the stage for another fight with Governor Wolf. While Gov. Wolf may be able to put a stop to the legislation, union members, students, working families…hell, Pennsylvanian’s in general…cannot sit back and hope that daddy Wolf can save us all. If there is any hope to fighting back this latest round of attacks, we’re going to have to stand up and save ourselves.