21 February 2011, 18:39

Middle East fighters inspire US protesters

Middle East fighters inspire US protesters
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The proposal for unprecedented budget cuts with respect to public sector workers led to a 70,000 protest rally in Wisconsin. Some protesters claim to be inspired by the revolution in Egypt and unrest in other Middle East countries. Meanwhile the situation is the first serious clash between the Democrats and the Republicans in the upcoming pre-election period.

The proposal for unprecedented budget cuts with respect to public sector workers led to a 70,000 protest rally in Wisconsin. Some protesters claim to be inspired by the revolution in Egypt and unrest in other Middle East countries. Meanwhile the situation is the first serious clash between the Democrats and the Republicans in the upcoming pre-election period. Battle for Wisconsin may become crucial for the results of the 2012 presidential elections.

The bill proposed by Republican state Governor Scott Walker ignited a national political explosion bringing tens of thousands of protesters out into the streets. The proposal introduced in the Wisconsin congress envisages cutting the wages and benefits of public sector workers and seriously reduce union powers. Governor Walker argues that the bill is necessary in order to avoid painful job cuts. Wisconsin faces a $3.6 billion budget deficit in the coming two-year period. According to Walker, the cut of the state government workers’ health benefits and pension contributions could save up to $300 million. The measure also brings a significant decrease in the power of public sector unions, including a ban on collective bargaining over benefits, an end to automatic deductions of union fees and the introduction of annual votes on union recognition. 

According to analysts’ opinions, the Republicans chose the right moment to attack public-sector unions: years of cuts in favor of government workers significantly weakened public sympathy for the unions.

"For decades we had leaders - Republicans and Democrats - pushed off the problems. Now there's no place to push them off to,” says Governor Walker, "We're going to make tough decisions now. We have to get our budget balanced."

His supporters prefer to voice their opinion in even stronger manner. "Unions don't deserve anything, you don't deserve anything, you work for it yourself!" says Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher, more known as "Joe the Plumber". During the 2008 US presidential election Wurzelbacher – a plumber’s assistant at that point, confronted Barack Obama with questions about his small business tax policy. Soon Joe the Plumber was declared as a representative of middle-class Americans by the Republican McCain-Palin campaign. The former plumber’s assistant published a book and became a public speaker, appearing as a guest in a number of political TV-shows.

Joe the Plumber is not the only leader of the Walker bill supporters. A pro-Walker rally was organized by the conservative Tea Party Patriots and Americans for Prosperity. Republican presidential candidate Sarah Palin also conveyed her support to the Tea Party, addressing the opposition in a pseudo-friendly style: "Union brothers and sisters, this is the wrong fight at the wrong time." But on the fifth day of protests, Republican supporters found themselves outnumbered by union supporters, who gathered not only from all over Wisconsin but also from neighboring states.

Comparison of the Wisconsin protests to the recent Middle East uprisings made by many commentators wasn’t wiredrawn. As the BBC reports, some of the protesters who stormed the capitol building compared themselves to those who overthrew the Egyptian authorities. A retired teacher, waving sign with "Hosni Mubarak?" written next to a picture of Governor Walker, says "What happens here is going to be very important to what happens in a lot of other states, just like the thing that happened in Egypt had an effect on a lot of other countries in the Middle East."

President Obama himself voiced his sympathies for the public employees, saying "they are our neighbours, they are our friends... they make a lot of sacrifices and it is important not to vilify them". According to Obama’s statement some of the Walker’s proposals "seem like an assault on unions".

Obama can’t underestimate the significance of Wisconsin for his 2012 campaign. During the previous election the state was won by Obama and this victory became one of the key moments of his success. The budget battle appears to become one of the most serious political challenges for Obama. At the same time the current situation could just be a test for both political parties before the real action of the upcoming elections.

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