“Dr. King’s last act on earth, marching in Memphis, Tenn., was about workers’ rights to collective bargaining and rights to dues checkoff. You cannot remove the roof for the wealthy and remove the floor for the poor.”
—Rev. Jesse Jackson Jr. (shown at right holding first-grader Emily Anne)
We spoke today with Kevin, a teacher and union member in Milwaukee, about his up-close-and-personal view of the protests in Madison against Wisconsin governor Scott Walker’s bill to take away union members’ right to collective bargaining. (Kevin is a cousin of one of our writers; see his YouTube video below.)
Scott Walker, a former Milwaukee County Executive who took office Jan. 3, has given the state legislature a “budget repair” bill that would force most public employees to pay higher portions of health care and retirement benefits and eliminate their right to collective bargaining, a right that Wisconsin state workers won in 1959. (This after giving corporations in Wisconsin a tax break that reduced state revenues by $100+ million.) Walker insists he is trying to balance the state budget; union members see the bill as union-busting plain and simple. Union members have generally agreed to significant financial concessions but refuse to surrender the hard-won right to collective bargaining. Walker insists there will be no negotiating: it’s all or nothing.
(Walker’s gubernatorial campaign received contributions from the billionaire right-wing activist Koch brothers. The Kochs also gave $1 million to the Republican Governors Association, which gave substantially to Walker’s campaign.)
As many as 80,000 protesters marched in the state capitol of Madison on Saturday—cheerfully, peacefully, and determinedly—to stop Walker’s bill. Many signs reflect the recent struggles for freedom in Egypt, Tunisia, and elsewhere in the Middle East.
Kevin says that Walker’s bill is clearly seen by the public as a partisan issue. Democrats and union members are pretty much unanimous against the bill, and even moderate Republicans in Wisconsin see Walker’s all-or-nothing push as extreme, with potentially disastrous consequences. “This is not about money at all; this is about our basic right to have a voice in our workplace, a right we’ve had in Wisconsin since 1959” with the passage of a law guaranteeing public workers’ right to collective bargaining. (See Rachel Maddow’s great summary of how Wisconsin has been at the forefront of workers’ rights for many decades.) Teachers are back at work this week, he says. He is teaching his class—“the students come first”—but then he’ shuttling back to Madison to join in the protests.
It’s a family affair—Kevin and his wife Kelly and their children Joe and Emily are part of the movement—and people of all backgrounds are joining in to defend their rights and their fellow citizens’ rights to bargain collectively, to have a say in the conditions of their workplace. They go first to the capitol to get charged up, then walk around outside to join in the chanting. It’s a festive, positive atmosphere. He writes:
There are some very cool videos of the protests at defendwisconsin.org . . . I’m making another starring Emily titled “This is What Democracy Looks Like.” Emily picked out the music and knows all the protest shouts: “Walker is a weasel not a badger,” “Union busting, that’s disgusting,” “Forward, not backward” . . . and of course, “Tell me what democracy looks like—This is what democracy looks like!”
Joe thinks it’s cool people are really nice and hand out free food. My union had a ton of stuff left over from a campus event so I put 7 platters of bakery into my van and we all passed it out to hungry protesters. People from all over the world are calling the pizza shop that’s 100 yds from the capitol [Ian’s Pizza on State Street] and ordering pizzas to be taken up to the kids occupying the capitol each night. It’s wonderful. Now dem legislators in Indiana have fled to Illinois as well. The showdown is ON!
This is a national fight that Wisconsin is at the very front of—we will not be silenced!
Kevin says the state troopers’ association and the fire and police, originally exempted from Walker’s bill (they were the only unions to endorse his candidacy), have announced their support of fellow union members’ right to collective bargaining. The head of the state Department of Public Instruction issued a strongly worded letter denouncing the governor’s bill, and the publicly owned Green Bay Packers too have announced their support of the workers.
The Wisconsin state senate comprises 19 Republicans and 14 Democrats. The Dems have left the state to deny the Republicans a quorum and a vote on the bill; they intend to stay away until the bill expires. The protesters’ hope is that the Democrats remain united; one defection and the bill would pass. Gov. Walker has threatened to start firing state workers if the Democrats do not come back to the statehouse.
Amy Goodman of Democracy Now quotes Pulitzer Prize–winning economist David Cay Johnston as saying, “The average Wisconsin state employee gets $24,500 a year [in pension benefits]. That’s not a very big pension. The state pension plan, 15% of the money going into it each year is being paid out to Wall Street to manage the money.”
. . . And what I think is going on here is this is the state as we began where public employee unions were first by law allowed, and if this governor can break these unions then you’re going to see this happen all across the country and further drive down wages. And if you can drive down wages in the public sector, it means private employers can drive down wages in the private sector.
Johnston, author of the best-selling Perfectly Legal: The Covert System to Rig Our Tax System to Benefit the Super Rich . . . , points out that two-thirds of the companies in Wisconsin—mostly the big ones—are not paying any corporate income tax.
Why Does Wisconsin (and Indiana, Ohio, etc.) Matter to You?
Bill Scher at OurFuture.org lists five reasons why everyone in America—other than the Koch brothers and other oligarchs—stands to be affected by the struggle in the Midwest:
1. Weak Economies Need More Demand
2. Strong Standards Strengthen the Middle Class
3. Decent Government Pay Means Decent Government
4. Public Employees Are Not the Problem
5. Scapegoating Lets the Culprits Get Away
What can we do to show support and help the workers of Wisconsin?
Sign the Petition: The AFL-CIO has a petition supporting fair pay and worker rights, to be delivered to all 50 state legislatures.
Also, phone the offices of the Democrats in the state legislature to show you think they’re doing the right thing in holding out from voting on the noxious bill. Phone national Republican leaders Mitch McConnell and John Boehner and Eric Cantor and tell them to press Scott Walker to end his assault on public employee unions. Union members have offered some concessions—why can’t he bend a little?
And you can also order a pizza for some of the protesters from Ian’s Pizza on State Street in Madison. Democracy needs care and feeding too.
As promised, here is Kevin’s video, featuring Emily Anne, with music by Demi Lovato:
Amy Goodman on Egypt–Wisconsin Solidarity: Uprisings: From the Middle East to the Midwest
Paul Krugman: Wisconsin Power Play
Spreading Anti-Union Agenda | NYT editorial
Eugene Robinson on the Standoff in Wisconsin: Starving Wisconsin’s Unions
Some Stats Behind the Wisconsin Fight with David Cay Johnston (Dylan Ratigan Show, MSNBC)
Photo of Rev. Jesse Jackson and Emily Anne by Craig Felix