France's top business daily dissects the Republican governors' challenge to public sector unions.
NEW YORK - Americans do not take to the streets easily. But when they do, the result can be extraordinary. Take Madison, the capital of Wisconsin, flooded nowadays with colorful banners and angry union supporters. American moviemaker Michael Moore arrived there last Saturday to speak in front of the thousands of protesters assembled around the state capitol. Some 8,000 people have also gathered around the capitol building in Columbus, Ohio.
The protests are a response to the incredible offensive mounted by Republicans against public-sector unions, which are now expected to tighten their belts, relinquish their collective-bargaining rights, and even end their right to strike.
Not since Ronald Reagan curtly fired 11,000 air traffic controllers in 1981, has any political figure dared to pick a head-on fight with American unions. The present confrontation has multiple explanations and serves different purposes, both economic and political.
Several of the newly elected Republican governors have taken advantage of the financial crisis to attack what they see as pampered public employees. America's 50 states – which are required to balance their budgets – must plug a total deficit of 125 billion dollars this year. Eager to introduce some of the budgetary discipline they promised during the election campaign, Republicans demand that public-sector unions do their share. Arguments in favor of reform are easy to find: the public-sector pension scheme, for example, faces a shortfall estimated between $1 trillion and $3 trillion.
With unemployment stuck at 8,9%, local public-sector unions and their long list of benefits (which include good job security, generous pension payments and health insurance coverage) are starting to be seen as a greedy, self-interested lot. Newt Gingrich, a potential presidential candidate for the Republican Party in 2012, has called unions an elite defending their privileges.
The strength of unions – 36,2% of the public sector employees are unionized, compared to only 6,9% in the private sector – is often described as unjustified. New York's mayor Michael Bloomberg is threatening to sack 4,600 teachers unless unions accept that layoffs can be based on performance, not just on how long a teacher has taught.
The fact that public-sector unions are regulated at state level (contrary to private-sector unions, which fall under federal law, and the Wagner Act of 1935) helps governors twist the arm of union bosses. And what they ask for are quite stringent measures. In order to reduce Wisconsin's gaping deficit, which now stands at $3,6 billion, the Republican governor Scott Walker says he is ready to cut 21,000 public sector jobs. He also wants unions to renew certifications every year, to contribute more for pension programs and health insurance, and to relinquish all collective bargaining rights, except for salary.
In Ohio, which is facing a deficit twice as large, the governor John Kasich wants the same things, plus a suppression of the right to strike. In Indiana, legislators want to put an end to the rule forcing employees to join and pay dues to unions. They are thus attacking a unique feature of the American union system. It was thanks to this so-called system of "union shops' that truck drivers and car industry workers in the Midwest have become a formidable force.
Another reason behind the war against labor is that Republicans would like to suck the money out of unions. Lack of cash would not only bring unions to a halt, but would also force them to diminish their donations. That could troublesome for the Democratic Party, which has long been the main beneficiary of unions' largesse. During the 2010 and 2008 elections, the party pocketed some 600 million dollars coming from unions. A campaign aimed at weakening unions could therefore result in weakening Barack Obama's party right before the next presidential election. Considering the fact that the United States Supreme Court has recently lifted all restrictions on the amount of money that companies can give to their favorite candidate, poorer unions would be a further setback for Democrats.
Scott Walker and other newly installed Republican governors have largely benefited from the generosity of private donors during the last electoral campaign. The new Wisconsin governor would probably not be where he is today without the Koch brothers, billionaires who have made their fortune in the Kansas oil industry. Stalwart supporters of the Tea Party, Charles and David Koch want to see large-scale privatization throughout the United States and impose the "right to work," that is, the right to refuse unionization.
But unions will not give up without a proper fight. One of the banners hanging in front of the State Capitol in Columbus reads: "Walk like an Egyptian." That speaks volumes about the current mindset of the American labor movement.
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Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.
"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.
Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.
But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.
The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."
Criticism of any 'royal project'
The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.
Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.
In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.
Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release
Freedom of speech at stake
"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."
The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.
The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.
Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.
Shift to social media
While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.
The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.
Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".
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