The demonstrators in Madison, Wis., are fighting to preserve American hopes for opportunity and security that conservative Republicans are trying to destroy.

Republican efforts in Washington, D.C., and Madison go hand in hand. The union members in Madison are fighting an effort by the Republican governor and Legislature to take away public employee unions’ collective bargaining rights. Elimination of such rights in public- and private-sector unions would leave workers without protection, leading to a widening of the gulf between the rich and the poor or those of moderate income. In Washington, right-wing Republicans in power in the House of Representatives are demanding cuts in education and other programs that help working people’s chances of bridging that gap.

Let’s hope the efforts of the Madison demonstrators will stir the liberal grass roots to fight the GOP with the energy the protesters are displaying at the Wisconsin Statehouse. Not enough people see the connection between Madison, Washington and the oppression of working people. It’s easy for progressives to dismiss the House tea party Republicans as a bunch of stubborn ignoramuses. And the mainstream media—as demonstrated on ABC’s “This Week” last Sunday—are shrugging off the thousands of public employee union members as throwbacks to the 1960s or even the 1930s.

The connection is clear. While Republicans in the nation’s Capitol were preparing their extreme budget cut proposals, Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker and the GOP-dominated Legislature were working up a package of their own. Facing a projected deficit—caused largely by Republican business tax breaks—the governor demanded that state employees increase their contributions to health and pension systems. Leaders of two of Wisconsin’s largest public employee unions said they are willing to accept the financial concessions demanded by Walker, the Wisconsin State Journal reported. But the unions said they will not go along with the governor’s union-busting goal, stripping the unions of most of their collective bargaining rights. Walker rejected the union offer.

The union members are defending a legacy that goes back to Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, one which Republicans seem to think they can finally destroy after decades of effort.

The legacy is one of economic and social protection along with a strong education system designed to help Americans move up to better jobs. Social Security began the safety net, along with an expansion of welfare. The GI Bill of Rights opened college to World War II veterans from working-class families, a process expanded in the postwar years by state support of public universities, colleges and community colleges. Medicare rescued many of those over 65 from illness-caused poverty, while Medicaid provided care to the working poor. The 1935 Wagner Act gave workers the right to organize and form unions and banned employers from stopping them.

The Wagner Act opened up heavy industry to union organization. Workers went from insecure poverty to a path taking them to middle-class security. But union membership dwindled along with the decline of heavy industry. In 2009, just 12.3 percent of wage and salary workers belonged to a union, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, down from 20.8 percent in 1983. The only growth was in public employee membership.

FDR, by the way, was not a public employee union fan. Patrick McIlheran recalled on the website Real Clear Politics that Roosevelt said in 1937, “The process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service. … A strike of public employees manifests nothing less than an intent on their part to prevent or obstruct the operations of Government.”

Despite the thoughts of their patron saint, Democratic politicians in the 1960s gave government workers the right to bargain collectively through their unions. With private-sector unions declining, the public employee unions took up the fight for workers public and private. They battled for the protection of workers such as hotel employees and high-rise building janitors, supporting their fight for a living wage that would allow them to send their kids to college and to a better life. They bolstered their power with big campaign contributions and grass-roots workers for Democratic political campaigns.

While Wisconsin Republicans waged war on union rights, House Republicans approved huge budget cuts aimed at working Americans.

Cuts in education are particularly reprehensible. The Republicans have proposed major cuts in federal aid to elementary, middle and high schools. And they called for a big reduction in Pell grants, which provide federal funds for 8 million poor and moderate-income people to attend college. Their budget cuts would reduce maximum grants to individuals from $5,550 to $4,705 annually. Mark Kantrowitz, who runs the Fastweb educational finance website, said the reduction would mean that 1.7 million would no longer be eligible for the grants. He went on to say, “The proposed cut in the maximum Pell Grant will be the largest cut in student aid funding in the history of the Pell Grant program.”

Without education, a person is doomed to run in place. That was shown clearly in a Gallup survey last month. Unemployment had declined slightly. But the highest number of unemployed and underemployed was those with a high school education or less. College graduates or those with a postgraduate degree had the lowest unemployment and underemployment figures. A significant finding was that those with “some college”—most likely those who could not finish—had substantially higher unemployment and underemployment figures than college graduates.

“So be it,” said House Speaker John Boehner when commenting on the potential job losses resulting from the Republican cuts. But it doesn’t have to be if President Barack Obama and the other Democrats fight with the intensity of the Madison protesters. They are an inspiration to a party that badly needs one.

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