The Cairo-Madison Connection

On Feb. 20, Kamal Abbas, Egyptian union leader and prominent figure in the Jan. 25 movement, sent a message to the “workers of Wisconsin”: “We stand with you as you stood with us.”Egyptian workers have long fought for fundamental rights denied by the U.S.-backed Hosni Mubarak regime. Kamal is right to invoke the solidarity that has long been the driving force of the labor movement worldwide, and to compare their struggles for labor rights and democracy.

The two are closely intertwined. Labor movements have been in the forefront of protecting democracy and human rights and expanding their domains, a primary reason why they are the bane of systems of power, both state and private.

The trajectories of labor struggles in Egypt in the U.S. are heading in opposite directions: toward gaining rights in Egypt, and defending rights under harsh attack in the U.S.

The two cases merit a closer look.

The Jan. 25 uprising was sparked by the Facebook-savvy young people of the April 6 movement, which arose in Egypt in spring 2008 in “solidarity with striking textile workers in Mahalla,” labor analyst Nada Matta observes.

State violence crushed the strike and solidarity actions, but Mahalla was “a symbol of revolt and challenge to the regime,” Matta adds. The strike became particularly threatening to the dictatorship when workers’ demands extended beyond their local concerns to a minimum wage for all Egyptians.

Matta’s observations are confirmed by Joel Beinin, a U.S. authority on Egyptian labor. Over many years of struggle, Beinin reports, workers have established bonds and can mobilize readily.

When the workers joined the Jan. 25 movement, the impact was decisive, and the military command sent Mubarak on his way. That was a great victory for the Egyptian democracy movement, though many barriers remain, internal and external.

The external barriers are clear. The U.S. and its allies cannot easily tolerate functioning democracy in the Arab world.

For evidence, look to public opinion polls in Egypt and throughout the Middle East. By overwhelming majorities, the public regards the U.S. and Israel as the major threats, not Iran. Indeed, most think that the region would be better off if Iran had nuclear weapons.

We can anticipate that Washington will keep to its traditional policy, well-confirmed by scholarship: Democracy is tolerable only insofar as it conforms to strategic-economic objectives. The United States’ fabled “yearning for democracy” is reserved for ideologues and propaganda.

Democracy in the U.S. has taken a different turn. After World War II the country enjoyed unprecedented growth, largely egalitarian and accompanied by legislation that benefited most people. The trend continued through the Richard Nixon years, which ended the liberal era.

The backlash against the democratizing impact of ‘60s activism and Nixon’s class treachery was not long in coming: a vast increase in lobbying to shape legislation, in establishing right-wing think tanks to capture the ideological spectrum, and in many other measures.

The economy also shifted course sharply toward financialization and export of production. Inequality soared, primarily due to the skyrocketing wealth of the top 1 percent of the population — or even a smaller fraction, limited to mostly CEOs, hedge fund managers and the like.

For the majority, real incomes stagnated. Most resorted to increased working hours, debt and asset inflation. Then came the $8 trillion housing bubble, unnoticed by the Federal Reserve and almost all economists, who were enthralled by efficient market dogmas. When the bubble burst, the economy collapsed to near-Depression levels for manufacturing workers and many others.

Concentration of income confers political power, which in turn leads to legislation that further enhances the privilege of the super-rich: tax policies, deregulation, rules of corporate governance and much else.

Alongside this vicious cycle, costs of campaigning sharply increased, driving both political parties to cater to the corporate sector — the Republicans reflexively, and the Democrats (now pretty much equivalent to the moderate Republicans of earlier years) following not far behind.

In 1978, as the process was taking off, United Auto Workers President Doug Fraser condemned business leaders for having “chosen to wage a one-sided class war in this country — a war against working people, the unemployed, the poor, the minorities, the very young and the very old, and even many in the middle class of our society,” and having “broken and discarded the fragile, unwritten compact previously existing during a period of growth and progress.”

As working people won basic rights in the 1930s, business leaders warned of “the hazard facing industrialists in the rising political power of the masses,” and called for urgent measures to beat back the threat, according to scholar Alex Carey in “Taking the Risk Out of Democracy.” They understood as well as Mubarak did that unions are a leading force in advancing rights and democracy. In the U.S., unions are the primary counterforce to corporate tyranny.

By now, U.S. private-sector unions have been severely weakened. Public-sector unions have recently come under sharp attack from right-wing opponents who cynically exploit the economic crisis caused primarily by the finance industry and its associates in government.

Popular anger must be diverted from the agents of the financial crisis, who are profiting from it; for example, Goldman Sachs, “on track to pay out $17.5 billion in compensation for last year,” the business press reports, with CEO Lloyd Blankfein receiving a $12.6 million bonus while his base salary more than triples to $2 million.

Instead, propaganda must blame teachers and other public-sector workers with their fat salaries and exorbitant pensions — all a fabrication, on a model that is all too familiar. To Wisconsin’s Gov. Scott Walker, to other Republicans and many Democrats, the slogan is that austerity must be shared — with some notable exceptions.

The propaganda has been fairly effective. Walker can count on at least a large minority to support his brazen effort to destroy the unions. Invoking the deficit as an excuse is pure farce.

In different ways, the fate of democracy is at stake in Madison, Wis., no less than it is in Tahrir Square.

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