As much of the national attention focuses on the massive pro-union demonstrations in Madison, Wisconsin, where over a 100,000 people gathered to oppose an anti-union law on Saturday, March 12, Florida workers and activists are taking aim against budget cuts and laws that threaten to further widen the already huge divide between rich and poor in our state.
On March 8, the opening day of our state's 2011 legislative session, some 15,000 Floridians, from Pensacola to Key West, attended local rallies organized by Awake the State, an organic, grassroots movement that formed to stop budget cuts and other assaults on working families. The following day hundreds of unemployed workers and their families stormed Florida's capitol, where they set up a soup kitchen, and wore tape across their mouths to protest what they see as the silencing of workers and the unemployed.
What is happening in our state is part of a larger nationwide battle waged by the corporate class and its politicians against workers. The Michigan Senate is trying to give financial managers the power to dissolve local municipalities and enact pro-corporate measures during times of "financial crisis." In Ohio, lawmakers are working on a bill that would greatly limit the bargaining power of some 360,000 state employees. On the federal level, the Republican-dominated House has voted to kill mortgage assistance to homeowners who have lost their jobs or become ill. The list goes on.
But why are they doing that?
During a recent Democracy Now! interview, filmmaker Michael Moore told Amy Goodman:
If you were a big shot on Wall Street, Amy, and you saw that -- 'Oh, my god! We just like got billions of bailout money. We now are getting the Fed to print what will eventually be trillions for us. We've thrown a million families out on the curb, foreclosing on them. And they just don't do anything. They don't do anything' -- as with any criminal, what does that tell the criminal, if the criminal is not stopped, caught, punished for the crime that they've committed? They will keep committing the crime.
We allowed our president and our elected officials to hand out billions in public funds to the very corporations that crashed the economy and we did nothing about it! So now the corporations have decided to go back for more without the slightest fear of public retribution. In Florida, even union lawyer Ron Meyer thinks it highly unlikely that there will be a Wisconsin-style public uprising in response to the gargantuan budget cuts, because in our state the government can impose harsh fines and take away pensions and salary benefits if union members engage in political activities during work hours.
The Rising of Florida, however, was inevitable.
Since Rick Scott, our Medicare-defrauding governor, took office, his attacks against the poor have been so blunt even his fellow Republicans have asked him to slow his roll. Yet, he has continued to upset Floridians across the socioeconomic and political spectrum.
Among his main assaults against workers and the poor was his rejection of $2.4 billion in federal money allocated for a high-speed rail. According to the Florida Department of Transportation, the rail would have produced a surplus on its first year of operation. Billions of job-creating dollars were rejected, no doubt, to prevent any drops in the cash flow to the auto industry. Scott is not the only Republican governor who rejected federal money for rail projects. His pals in Wisconsin and Ohio did the same in their states.
Another infamous deed by our governor is his proposed $3.3 billion cut from education, which would lead to devastating reductions in the arts and music departments, and in specialized programs, such as dance, science and technology. Farewell piano teachers, goodbye computer labs!
But wait, the attack on public education is not over yet. Another law now allows school principals to fire teachers regardless of seniority, as long as they get hired after July 1, based on standardized tests scores, such as the FCAT.
On March 10, a House committee voted to propose a bill that would prevent public unions from using payroll deductions to collect member fees. The measure would create a logistical and administrative nightmare, and has been denounced as union-busting by teacher, transit worker and police unions. Another law would require unions to have 50 percent membership among workers to have collective bargaining rights.
Courtesy of yet another House Republican bill, once teachers become unemployed because of poor test scores they will have a harder time obtaining unemployment compensation. If they get their claims approved, they will see a combined reduction of 20 weeks in state and federal benefits, totaling a combined $4,294 in lost compensation. Florida's HB 7005 would make our state the least protected from unemployment in the United States.
And in case Florida hasn't gone backwards enough, the governor just reinstated a rule forcing felons to wait five years after serving their sentences to have their voting rights restored. This law, shared only by Virginia and Kentucky, has major racial implications. As of 2006, 13 percent of voting-age blacks had lost the right to vote in Florida, the very same state where rigged elections handed the presidency to Bush Jr. in 2000, by a mere 537 votes.
It should come as no surprise that all these proposed cuts and changes to our constitution have unleashed a wave of anger across the political spectrum. Put bluntly: Florida is pissed!
But one thing we should keep in mind, as Floridians organize our response, is that the Florida House and Senate are way more conservative today than in recent years. It would be naïve and irresponsible to think legislators will stop Gov. Scott's rampage against Florida's workers and unemployed.
Real change must be effected from the bottom up!
As people out of work, as immigrants, as union members (cops, teachers, bus drivers, etc.), as former felons, as students, as women, men and children, we should not doubt for a moment that it is in our best interest to protect job creation, social benefits, and equality for everyone. We cannot, and should not, rely on a conservative, pro-business legislative power to stand up for our rights.
This March 17, a number of organizations are mobilizing their members to gather in Tallahassee to protest an Arizona-style bill against undocumented immigrants. The bill, SPB 7066, would allow law enforcement to detain anyone for "looking undocumented," and would criminalize anyone not having immigration papers.
For information on how to participate in this or other local rallies, visit the We Are Florida website.
Participation in these rallies, in Florida, Wisconsin and elsewhere in the United States, should not be viewed as an act of solidarity with "others," for it is in the best interest of the nation to build a society free from persecution of the poor by the rich. We must turn the chase around and become the hunters.
We, the people, from the streets of Cairo to the streets of Tallahassee, must go outside by the hundreds of thousands, by the millions, and show politicians everywhere what real democracy looks like.
We must not feel alone as we stand against the attacks on the many by the few, even if we are in a small town where only a few people show up at the local street-corner rally. There are many street corners in the United States, and we are not standing up to defend the rights of a few.
Always remember the words of the late cultural anthropologist Margaret Meade, who said "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."