In a caustic characterization of the benefits packages that Wisconsin state workers receive, Gov. Walker (R/Tea Party) said yesterday,
If we’re going to be in this together, (cut) our $3.6 billion budget deficit, it’s going to take a whole lot more than just employee contributions when it comes to pensions and health care. But it’s got to be a piece of the puzzle because as I saw at the local level, it’s like a virus that eats up more and more of the budget if you don’t get it under control.
A few things merit comment here. First, Walker continually discusses the deficit by referring to “$3.6 billion,” the total state debt, and not in the annual terms, which thanks to his $140 million in pet projects for businesses is $137 million for 2011. This is a calculated effort to ratchet up fear by pointing to far larger numbers that, while accurate are, crucially, projected to possibly occur during 2011-2013 and far from unmanageable. Also, Walker characteristically fails to note that Wisconsin state workers have already agreed to wage and benefit concessions, now and in recent years, with teachers and other state workers already having weathered wage freezes. This point is crucial, for it illustrates that union rights are the primary reason why these protests have grown so rapidly, while also puncturing the right-wing rhetoric characterizing unionized state workers as greedy–or their benefits as a “virus.” Unions are doing their part to “tighten their belts,” to quote President Obama’s pet phrase for workers’ sharing the financial pain, even as the wealthy and big businesses thrive.
Yet this choice of terms, “virus,” represents a continuation of at best diminution, and at worst connection of workers and their hard-win and fairly negotiated benefits as contagion that must be quarantined and eradicated. Workers and their benefits, that is, are again represented as a social ill–this time a “virus”–plaguing society. This operates on multiple levels, to dehumanize workers and unions, to elicit fear in a public weathering a prolonged economic malaise, and to steer people away from a serious analysis of the economic, social, and political conditions causing problems in Wisconsin but also the nation as a whole and instead use what health insurance industry whistle-blower Wendell Potter termed in a December 7, 2010 speech “anger-mongering.”
Don’t be at all surprised to see others on the right pick up on and advance this affiliation of workers, unions, and their benefits-as-contagion trope. It has enjoyed a long shelf life in the pantry of right-wing rhetoric.