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Amid Democratic Revolutions Abroad, Authoritarian Revolutions at Home

Jackie Smith

As Egyptians and other democracy advocates around the Middle East celebrate their gains in winning concessions from authoritarian regimes, at home we are witnessing a revolution of authoritarianism. Republican governors across the country are seeking to simultaneously seize authority from state legislatures and undermine the ability of ordinary citizens to affect the decisions that shape their lives.

In Wisconsin, Scott Walker’s controversial legislation proposes not just to eliminate worker rights and benefits but also to undercut legislative oversight of key decisions. Similarly, in a highly under-reported development, the Michigan legislature just advanced a bill that would allow the state to take over struggling municipal agencies. Emergency financial managers trained in corporate management logic would be empowered to end existing contracts, take over pension plans, reorganize departments, restructure debt, and dissolve or consolidate fiscally troubled towns and schools. The justification for their decisions is based on economic efficiency, not community well being. But as a writer in the Michigan Messenger asks: “What values will guide these individuals or firms as they work to balance budgets? How will a manager decide whether to sell off an ice rink or a library?”

Since the oil crisis and economic decline of the 1970s, capitalist elites in this country have been systematically working to undermine the voices of labor and popular groups and to advance an ideology that said that whatever is good for business is good for the country. Thus, we have seen unprecedented growth in corporate profits and executives’ benefits at the same time as workers’ wages have remained stagnant. Today we see levels of inequality that rival those at the time of the great depression.

Corporate elites have used their political influence to systematically reduce the power of labor unions. What we’re seeing in Wisconsin, Michigan, Idaho, Ohio, and elsewhere reflects a renewed offensive in this ongoing war to abolish people’s rights to form and join trade unions. In the early 1970s roughly 30% of the workforce was represented by unions. In 2010 less than 7% of private sector workers and less than 12% of all workers are unionized. Unions remain essential to helping secure decent wages and working conditions for all workers—not just those represented by unions.

What many don’t know is that unions today are also defending some of the most vulnerable segments of our population. Although African American workers tend to have higher unemployment rates than other workers, they were more likely to be represented by unions when they are employed. Also, women disproportionately occupy the positions in the public sector—such as education and health care --that are more likely to be unionized. Our nation’s persistent gender and racial gaps in wages reflect this weakened power of unions to help remedy the inequities of power and wealth in this country (see Economic Policy Institute analyses at

In addition, the arguments being made by Republican officials to justify restrictions on citizens basic human right to organize (see Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights) don’t stand up to scrutiny. They claim that by denying workers’ rights they will increase employment and raise wages. However, states that now have legislation that impedes unionization haven’t seen increased growth, and their wages are lower than those in states without such legislation (see

If Americans want to continue enjoying democracy, we need to resist the cost-benefit logic that guides these legislative challenges. This logic has been used for decades to justify a systematic shift in the organization of power in our society, allowing corporations and the wealthy to turn their financial might into disproportionate political influence. By reducing people’s rights and undercutting legislative checks and balances, we set the stage for even greater segregation in our country between the haves and have-nots. At a time when our ailing economy is leaving growing numbers of people behind, politicians are leaving more people and communities to fend for themselves in the name of government “efficiency.”



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Jackie Smith

Jackie Smith

Jackie Smith is professor of sociology at the University of Pittsburgh and editor of the Journal of World-Systems Research. She is author or editor of numerous books and articles on global organizing and social change, including "Social Movements and World-System Transformation," "Social Movements in the World-System: the Politics of Crisis and Transformation," and "Social Movements for Global Democracy." She helps coordinate Pittsburgh’s Human Rights City Alliance and is a member of the steering committee of the US Human Rights Network’s Human Rights Cities Alliance.

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