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Allen Ruff: Farmers and workers from private sector join protest in Madison

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. And in Wisconsin on Saturday, another massive protest [snip] now in response to Governor Walker and state Republicans, who found a way to split the bill and pass the legislation that will strip public sector workers of most of their collective bargaining rights. Now joining us from Madison, WI, to give us his take on what’s happening there is Allen Ruff. Allen is a historian, a freelance journalist, and a longtime social activist in Madison. Thanks for joining us, Allen.


JAY: Part of the big demo is farmers. Now, this is farmers in support of the public sector workers?

RUFF: This is farmers in support not only of the public sector workers, but farmers understanding how this attack on unions will affect small communities throughout the state. After all, it’s going to lead to attacks on not only public sector employees, but private sector as well. Many people from across these small communities, these hamlets and villages and farm communities across Wisconsin, commute now into the larger cities in order to find employment, many of them as public employees. So there’s, you know, many, many families that work in various sectors. So they understand what this assault means.

JAY: I don’t quite understand this piece of it. I would assume that a lot of the support so far for the public sector workers have come from the urban centers, which are generally a little more, you know, progressive, a little more pro-union. If the farmers are supporting the public sector workers, then who the heck is supporting Governor Walker?

RUFF: Well, the Koch brothers, the large corporations, the big firms here in the state, in Milwaukee, and across the region and nationally. We understand that this is part of a concerted effort to assault unions, you know, put forward by the Republican leadership. Folks here in the state understand [inaudible] I’ve encountered over the past couple of weeks, several weeks, people that actually have signs saying, “I voted for Walker” who were marching [inaudible] So it’s very complex. We also have to understand that there’s a bunch of social legislation that was packed into this so-called budget repair bill that attacks the most neediest sectors of our society–the elderly, those needing health care, those with disabilities, children, working families, single mothers. And that’s not being given enough airplay, but that’s certainly a big part of the message. The focus has been on, again, this assault on unions and collective bargaining. But that’s been only one part of the bill, of the legislation that was ramrodded through the other night.

JAY: Now, do we have any sense from polling how broad the support in rural Wisconsin is for the public sector workers?

RUFF: I haven’t seen any of the polling, no. But, again, I think tomorrow’s “tractorcade”, this–the fact that farmers from across the state are organizing and coming in to the State Capitol, that hasn’t happened since the milk strikes of the 1930s.

JAY: In one of the ads that was put out by one of the conservative groups calling on how public sector workers should share the sacrifice, they’ve pointed out in their ad how Harley Davidson workers, Kohler workers, and Mercury Marine workers, they’ve been willing to sacrifice. I think “willing” is a kind of unfortunate word. They kind of lost a battle and went for a two-tier contract. But what indication is there how workers at those three plants and other workers in the private sector are responding to the public sector struggle?

RUFF: One indicator is the fact of the diversity of trades. So non-public sector trade unionists that have flocked into Madison–steam fitters, electrical workers, Teamsters, firefighters. There’s even been, of course, as we know, as has been widely seen, police, cops for labor. Every imaginable trade has been here, along with a great deal of state, national, and international trade union leadership. Workers understand there’s this new–really, a workers consciousness, a class consciousness that people said was dead in the United States that has resurfaced.

JAY: There’s been quite a bit of discussion about whether the unions agreed to some of the economic concessions a little too quickly in this. There was a lot of pressure put on public sector workers should share the burden. And of course there wasn’t anything done to tax the wealthy of Wisconsin to share the burden. What was the internal debate like about whether to make those concessions or not?

RUFF: Well, of course, I wasn’t sitting–I wasn’t–I wish I had been a fly on the wall. But what’s most interesting about that is the fact that the unions offered up concessions, and Walker and his crew said, no, we want to do away with unions, we want to do away with collective bargaining. And then, of course, the conservative TV, Fox and so on, claimed that the unions were unwilling to make any concessions. That’s absolutely not true. Again, it’s probably varied from union to union, from district to district. It’s varied, you know, some of it internationals, the state organizations. And here in Madison, the South Central Federation of Labor, you know, it’s probably been a very deep debate within those union halls.

JAY: Now, just conducted a big fundraising campaign to raise–I think they were trying to raise half a million dollars for the Democratic Party of Wisconsin. How is this playing out vis-a-vis the partisan struggle between Democrats versus Republicans versus–. I don’t know if it’s versus or complimentary to a general strike, a recall campaign.

RUFF: Personally, I see the two, that is, the campaign for a recall and the threat, if not the actuality, of a broad range of actions by working folks as intertwined. The–what’s happened here, understand–what people have to understand is that the mass movement on the ground, the groundswell from below, has pushed both the Democratic Party leadership here in the state and the trade union bureaucracy to move in directions that they’ve been reluctant to move. That isn’t to say that the move by the 14 state senators, Democratic state senators here in Wisconsin [inaudible] Illinois hasn’t been a mobilizing factor. I think some of that has been somewhat [inaudible] But, again, that space was created by the mass movement at the bottom.

JAY: How do people or you assess the role of the national Democratic leadership, President Obama, his administration?

RUFF: Well, aside from one comment about collective bargaining, Obama, of course, has been silent. Jesse Jackson’s been here, and there’s some debate about the role that he plays. There’s a debate on the ground here amongst activists about the role of the Democratic Party celebrity and the trade union officials in containing what’s going on here. But, again–.

JAY: Containing in what way?

RUFF: Certainly the trade union bureaucracy is frightened to death, I imagine, of even the talk of a general strike. The discussion of the general strike here in Madison was initiated at the South Central Federation of Labor (SCFL) meeting, that is, the regional federation of labor, oh, about three weeks ago, and it was brought forward to begin a discussion about educating the members of the SCFL, of the fed, in regard to a general strike. It was not a call for a general strike. The conservative paper here in Madison The Wisconsin State Journal portrayed it as a call for a general strike. And, of course, a federation–a regional fed or a local fed cannot call a general strike. That’s left up to the unions. But that inaugurated a general [inaudible] amongst the public at large, amongst those protesting these moves by Walker and his clique, into a broader discussion. And now that the assault on the unions, the demise of collective bargaining, seems to be, you know, here, that has broadened the discussion of a whole range of political strikes, of mass strikes, in unison with the recall.

JAY: I talked to a senior official from the AFL-CIO, and he actually said they’re–for the first time in decades there was talk of a general strike. And he said it with some excitement, some support for it. Even at the most senior levels there seems to be some entertaining of the idea.

RUFF: Well, that’s certainly good to hear, because we know about the conservative role that the–some of the–you know, at some of the senior levels of the trade union bureaucracy, that that hasn’t been the case. [Richard] Trumka was here. Jimmy Hoffa Jr. was here. So, again, it’s given a shot in the arm or maybe a kick in the butt to trade unionists around the country. You know, there’s all this talk about unionism and trade union activism and real trade unionism being dead or supine or dormant. But, you know, they’ve kicked a sleeping giant.

JAY: Thanks very much for joining us, Allen.

RUFF: My pleasure.

End of Transcript

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Allen Ruff is a U.S. historian and investigative researcher. His primary work centers on opposition to U.S. "grand strategy" and interventions in the Middle East, Central Asia and elsewhere. He hosts a weekly a public affairs program on WORT, 89.9 FM in Madison, Wisconsin and blogs at