Back in the early 1990s, the right-wing taste of the year was Newt Gingrich. He led the Republican sweep into Congress in the 1994 midterm elections. His “Contract With America” loomed in every headline. Liberals wailed that Gingrichism was invincible.
The counterattack began right in Gingrich’s front yard, in Georgia. The Atlanta Central Labor Council and Jobs With Justice staged a noisy sit-in in Gingrich’s local Congressional office and seized the headlines with stinging descriptions of the Contract as a cruel assault on the poor and the working class. For months, groups of union workers dogged the Congressman at his every stop across the country. This noisy guerrilla warfare rallied the fainthearted and threw Gingrich, then Speaker of the House, off balance. By 1995 a rattled Gingrich had lost his touch, faltering badly in the famous budget face-off with Clinton.
In the 2000 Democratic primary campaign the AIDS coalition ACT UP (involved in the earlier Gingrich protests) adopted the same tactic against Al Gore, showing up wherever he made public appearances and shouting out protests at the rotten AIDS policies he’d signed on to. There weren’t always many protesters, but they were always there, and they had an effect. Gore changed his line, and so did the Clinton Administration.
Now it’s Arnold Schwarzenegger’s turn. California’s nurses have got him rattled, and it’s already costing him. A February 23 Field Poll showed his approval ratings declining ten points since last September, a significant drop. It should have been a no-brainer to realize that kicking Florence Nightingale’s butt is not a surefire way to the public’s heart. But the Governor is so used to browbeating the press that he thought he could do the same to the California Nurses’ Association (CNA), one of the most militant unions in the country. Schwarzenegger has been trying to roll back the union’s gains on nurse/patient ratios, safety standards and kindred issues.
Schwarzenegger’s version of Howard Dean’s scream came in December in Long Beach. As the nurses barracked him during a speech, he denounced them as one of the “special interests” and said, “I’m always kicking their butt.” This witty response from the breast-grabber got plenty of play, and did the nurses nothing but good. At a January Capitol protest in Sacramento the nurses carried coffins and had a New Orleans jazz group play a death march. During the Super Bowl they flew a small plane over the steroid-swollen Governor’s party at his Santa Monica home. When he was in Washington they took out a full-page ad in Roll Call flaying his record. During a Schwarzenegger speech in a Sacramento hotel, nurses held up a banner saying RNs Say Stop the Power Grab.
On February 15, when Schwarzenegger and his platoons of bodyguards and flunkies trooped into a screening of Be Cool, 300 nurses demonstrated. Kelly DiGiacomo, 46 years old and 5’2″, a nurse at a Kaiser hospital near Sacramento, had a ticket. She ensconced herself in the fourth row, wearing her nurse’s scrubs. A bodyguard rushed up and, under the pretext of a possible meeting with the Governor, led DiGiacomo to a room with a California Highway Patrol cop at the door and began to grill her. A few days later a CHP investigator called. DiGiacomo asked why she should be considered a threat. The investigator replied, “Well, you were wearing a nurse’s uniform.” “Oh, sure, the international terrorist uniform,” DiGiacomo scoffed. Californians scoffed with her when they saw the news stories. At least Bush and Cheney can claim they’re being targeted by hairy men from the dark side of Mecca. Arnold’s hiding behind his goons from the woman who cares for you when you’re in the hospital.
Schwarzenegger’s strategy has been to project an image–calculatedly fascistic in style–of irresistible momentum, aiming to crush all opposition with threats to go directly to the people with rallies backed by the mountains of corporate cash he’s been raising since he was elected. It’s no idle threat. Schwarzenegger has a swollen war chest, albeit one that’s also starting to get him bad press. One of the reasons Gray Davis, his predecessor in Sacramento, got recalled was his 24/7 addiction to fundraising. If anything, Schwarzenegger is even more relentless, with a corporate cash IV permanently stuck in his arm. Last year he raised $28.8 million, and this year he plans to raise at least another $50 million to promote his agenda.
Schwarzenegger’s agenda is crudely simple: Attack and if possible destroy social safety nets in health, pensions, insurance, workers’ comp, job security, education, etc., with a green light for business to pillage, outsource jobs and not pay taxes.
He’s already tripped. Near the end of February Schwarzenegger was reportedly abandoning his proposal to abolish the independent Board of Registered Nursing, along with eighty-eight other regulatory and policy boards. But he’s still planning to roll California into DeLay-style redistricting and to ramp up the use of “emergency” diktats to undercut democratic opposition from the legislature. One such example is in the area of healthcare: an emergency order by the Governor in November to roll back patient safety standards in California hospitals, reversing the intent of a 1999 law. A CNA lawsuit challenging that order will be heard in Sacramento Superior Court in early March.
You might have thought Schwarzenegger would have some sympathy for nurses, who incur long-term back trauma from having to haul patients up in bed, a task equivalent, on average, to lifting about 1.8 tons a day. No. The Governor vetoed a bill requiring hospitals (heavy Schwarzenegger donors) to install safe-lift policies and equipment. And yes, he vetoed another bill to educate school coaches about the dangers of steroids and performance-enhancing diet supplements.
As I said, political momentum is the key to Schwarzenegger’s game. But what happens when you trip over a 5’2″ woman in nurse’s scrubs? You lose momentum. What happens when you start screaming abuse at nurses and teachers? What happens when you make working women your enemies? The humbled president of Harvard, Lawrence Summers, might want to have a word with Governor Schwarzenegger on that one.