America’s Tea Party of the left is a warning to the coalition

The US trade union rallies are spreading from Wisconsin to Ohio and beyond. Leaders in the UK must r

The new US Super Bowl champions, the Green Bay Packers, got a heroes' welcome when they brought the trophy home to the northern state of Wisconsin in early February. The Packers frequently play in below-zero temperatures (Fahrenheit, that is) on the frozen tundra of Lambeau Field, the stadium named after the team's founder, Curly Lambeau. "Cheesehead" is a nickname, sometimes used disparagingly, for a person from Wisconsin - a nod to the large volume of cheese produced in the area. It is also the nickname of Packer fans, many of whom wear cheesehead hats to home games.

But Wisconsin has been in the news for another reason - namely the angry response of many of its citizens to a fiscal austerity bill intended to deal with the state's $3.6bn budget deficit. Around 70,000 cheeseheads have gathered at the state capitol in Madison to protest against plans by the new Republican governor, Scott Walker, to remove the collective bargaining rights of around 175,000 public-sector employees. Teachers have turned out in such large numbers that some schools have been forced to close due to understaffing. Trade unionists have agreed to double their health insurance contributions and to put 5.8 per cent of their salary towards their pensions, but would not accept the removal of their bargaining rights. Walker insists there is "no room to negotiate".

Hiding out

The vote on Walker's bill requires a quorum of 20 senators. The Republicans have 19, so at least one Democrat must be present for the vote to be taken. Every single Democratic senator failed to show up at the session on 17 February, then fled the state after being ordered to attend. Scott Fitzgerald, the Wisconsin senate majority leader, said that law-enforcement officers were searching for the Democrats, who were apparently hiding at a resort in Illinois.

There is precedent for this kind of political hide-and-seek in the US. The Texas constitution requires the attendance of two-thirds of the 150-member house of representatives to conduct business. In 2003, the Republicans wanted a vote on legislation to redraw the district lines in a way that would have benefited their party. The Democrats were having none of it and went into hiding in the neighbouring state of Oklahoma. The Republican governor of Texas, Rick Perry, sent the Texas Rangers across the border to arrest the runaway Democrats and return them to Austin. But Oklahoma's Democratic governor, Brad Henry, blocked this move, arguing that Texas Rangers had no jurisdiction outside of Texas. The Democrats ignored the Rangers' pleas for them to return voluntarily and the legislation failed to pass.

As I write, the Democratic senators of Wisconsin are still holding out south of the border, and their counterparts in Indiana are also on the run. The mass rallies, meanwhile, are spreading to Ohio and many other states. Some commentators have said that the protesters represent a "Tea Party movement of the left".

Like the protesters in the US, public-sector workers in Britain will not sit idly by as the government tries to impose its misguided austerity measures. Even though trade unionists are in no way to blame for the economic crisis, the Institute of Directors has echoed moves in the US by calling for collective bargaining to be banned for teachers and NHS staff. The TUC's national demonstration on 26 March is gaining support from a wide range of people and organisations worried about the impact of the spending cuts. Given the strength of the unions in the public sector, a big fight looks likely.

The government's case for reform would be hard enough to take even if ministers were being honest with the public. But they are not. Two recent comments stand out. The first was by David Cameron in his Toynbee Hall speech on welfare reform. "This welfare system has left more than one in four adults of working age out of work," he said. This is implausible. The table below shows the latest data for those of working age. The data is presented separately for men and women and the percentages refer to the proportions of the population, so 6.2 per cent of those aged between 16 and 64 are unemployed (the unemployment rate - the unemployed figure divided by the sum of both employed and unemployed - is 8 per cent).

blanchflower graph

Stick to the facts

Out of a total of just over 40 million people, 30.7 million are members of the labour force (employed or unemployed). The remaining 9.4 million are classed as "inactive". The different reasons for this are included in the table. Around two million are students; a further two million are looking after their children and homes; 1.6 million are retired. So, even if we assume that everyone who is unemployed is out of work because of the welfare system, and add to them the numbers who say that they are discouraged from work, along with those in the "long-term sick" and "other" categories, only 14 per cent of adults at most are out of work because of the welfare system. That's way off Cameron's "more than one in four". Unemployment is high at the moment because of a lack of jobs, not because benefits are too high. The Prime Minister needs to get his facts straight - and get rid of his speechwriters.

The second wildly implausible comment came from Iain Duncan Smith, who claimed that the welfare system is "so out of control that it houses unemployed people in some of the most expensive accommodation in the land". Housing benefit figures provided to me by the Department for Work and Pensions show that the majority of claimants - 4.6 million of 4.8 million - get less than £10,000 a year. Only 160 people across the country get the equivalent of £50,000 a year (and because these figures are annualised from weekly amounts, they may have got, say, £2,000 for two weeks and far less the rest of the year). The solution is to move those in expensive accommodation to cheaper homes. The evidence provides no justification for reforming the whole welfare system.

The path to austerity is not looking smooth. Wisconsin should provide a warning to the British government.

David Blanchflower is NS economics editor and a professor at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire, and the University of Stirling