On, Wisconsin

This is a guest post by Meredith Clark. Meredith writes about politics, lives in Brooklyn, and thinks everyone should visit Madison in the summertime. She has a blog and is covering events in Wisconsin on Twitter at @MeredithLClark.

70,000 protesters gathered in downtown Madison, WI on Saturday for the biggest demonstration yet against Governor Scott Walker’s attempt to crush the state’s public employee unions. Madison is a city of only 300,000 people, and it’s the middle of a brutal Midwest winter, yet every day brings the kinds of crowds rarely seen outside of football games. As a Wisconsinite, it has been inspiring to watch things unfold over the last six days, but the fight is not finished. We have to keep watching. This is only the beginning.

Why is this happening in Wisconsin and not someplace flashier, more glamorous, less pasty? Mother Jones has an excellent primer, but there is much, much more to the story. Wisconsin has long been at the forefront of labor issues. It was the first state to allow collective bargaining for public employees, in 1959 (the very right that Gov. Walker wants to destroy), it’s the birthplace of AFSCME, the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, and it’s the home of the only collectively-owned professional football team in the U.S. Workers in Wisconsin led movements for the 40 hour work week, 8 hour days, and unemployment insurance. We teach labor history in our schools, we love it so much.

We also make really good cheese.

Sadly, organized labor is in the fight of its life thanks to one of Wisconsin’s other long-standing traditions: we love pioneers and risk-takers. Sometimes this works out wonderfully. We proudly claim Russ Feingold(the only Senator to vote against the PATRIOT Act), Tammy Baldwin(the first openly gay person elected to Congress), Gwen Moore(the state’s first African-American Representative), Gaylord Nelson(father of Earth Day), and Robert LaFollette (father of modern US progressivism in general). As a proud member of the far, far left, I don’t think they’re extremists, but I can’t pretend they’re mainstream. Less proudly, we gave the world Joe McCarthy(we’re really, really sorry about that), and now Scott Walker. The state is fairly evenly divided politically, but Walker got elected in 2010 thanks to millions of dollars of corporate money and a terrifying platform: Don’t just hate the government, destroy it.

It was easy to see this coming. While he was Milwaukee County Executive, people died. Yes, people actually died. He was so bad at his job that the Milwaukee newspaper reportedly endorsed him for Governor just so he would stop screwing things up. Of course, since he also proposed eliminating the County’s government altogether, Walker’s stunning incompetence starts to look a little like Tea Party supervillainy.

Only seven weeks into his term, Scott Walker is poised to strip public sector employees of their right to collectively bargain for fair pay, better benefits, and safe working conditions (All employees except the ones whose unions endorsed him in the election, that is). As Dana Goldstein pointed out, this is going to hurt a lot of women, and this is a dangerous precedent to set at a time of such economic upheaval. Over the past thirty years, income inequality has increased precipitously as union membership has plummeted. Without unions, there is no middle class. The people of Wisconsin know this, and protests are set to continue into next week because they refuse to let the legacy of their ancestors die. This will happen all over the country; it’s already happening in Ohio. This is part of a Republican war on workers.

I’m a fourth generation Wisconsinite, and alum of UW-Madison, and the daughter of two public employees, so this is personal. The outcome of this standoff will affect people that I love. Friends and family have been sending me pictures from the protests all week, and the stories I’ve heard are so thrilling it’s hard to believe they’re true, but they are. More than a dozen school districts closed – including the state’s two biggest – while teachers flooded downtown surrounded by the children they teach. University students camping inside the Capitol for days. Police officers handing out brats (a delicious sausage, if you’re not familiar) to protesters. Union members setting up grills to feed their fellow protesters. High school students Firefighters marching in solidarity (their union, along with the police and state troopers, are the ones exempted from the bill) while playing the bagpipes.

The popular uprising has been amazing to see, but without the actions of 14 State Senators on Thursday, all of it would be over. Thursday was when the 14 Democratic State Senators fled the state to prevent a vote on the bill. As of today, they have no plans to return until Gov. Walker removes the collective bargaining ban from his budget bill. This was a heroic last-ditch attempt to stop legislation that was introduced just over a week ago, and all 14 of them must remain outside of Wisconsin or all of this falls apart. There are 19 Republicans in the State Senate, and 20 Senators are needed in order to hold a vote. If even one of the 14 sets foot in Wisconsin, state troopers can compel that Senator to return to Madison for the vote.

State troopers, state workers who will not suffer under this plan, state workers whose union endorsed Scott Walker, will force a democratically-elected State Senator to be present for a vote to undermine workers’ rights.

If that sounds like the antithesis of democracy, you’re right, but Wisconsin’s Republicans disagree. At this point, when Republican lawmakers accuse the Senate Minority Leader of shutting down democracy, they’re not talking about democracy. They’re using the same trick that Fox News pundits use when they face consequences for hateful rhetoric. “Democracy” means showing up and watching as the rights of their constituents are taken away, just as “Free Speech” means that someone can say whatever they want without facing criticism.

The people in the streets in Wisconsin know that real democracy sometimes means shutting down schools, missing work, standing in the freezing cold, and even packing up and getting the hell out of town, and doing it day after day after day. Scott Walker isn’t going to stop trying to gut public benefits while enriching business interests. He’s not going to stop trying to destroy the unions. The unions have already said they will pay more for their benefits if Walker drops the collective bargaining ban. He’s already said he will not compromise. The people in the streets, the people who have the most to lose in this struggle, know they can’t afford to compromise either.

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26 comments for “On, Wisconsin

  1. Lauren
    February 21, 2011 at 9:30 am

    Troopers Association regrets endorsing Walker


  2. PrettyAmiable
    February 21, 2011 at 9:42 am

    I enjoyed this post until I got to “… cripple workers’ rights.” It was informative for someone like me, who wasn’t aware of the issue and couldn’t locate a comprehensive and succinct statement, but the ableism is pretty distracting.

  3. Matt
    February 21, 2011 at 9:54 am

    Check out the ActBlue site to help support the brave politicians in WI:

  4. lt
    February 21, 2011 at 10:03 am

    Great post, thanks. FYI, the link on his role as Milwaukee County Executive doesn’t seem to work – certainly sounds like interesting information worth spreading.

  5. February 21, 2011 at 10:19 am

    Pretty Amiable: I am very sorry. That was bad editing on my part.

    It: the link *should* go to a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel investigation titled “Patients in Peril.” Here is a link to one of the articles:


    The Wisconsin progressive organization One Wisconsin Now has some more detailed information at http://www.scottwalkerfailurefiles.com/

  6. WI_Resident
    February 21, 2011 at 10:35 am

    Thank you for the blog. You just briefly touched on the one point I have been saying since this whole thing started last week. This is not only an assault on worker’s rights, it’s an assault on Women! The industries that Walker is attacking, are those that are held overwhelming by women. Statistics: 92% of Teaching jobs, 93% of childcare workers and 75% of health care workers jobs are held by women. As opposed to 16% of Fire / Police jobs (those industries that Walker IS NOT attacking).

    Couple other facts about the bill (Which, by the way, I have read)
    1 – Cutting benefits: The bill requires Employers to NOT contribute more than 88% to their employees Health or Pension plans. This, not such a bad thing if you consider that it’s still more than most private sector jobs
    2 – Now, here’s where the bad things start… He eliminates the UW Medical system from being able to collectively bargain AT ALL
    3 – The bill eliminates the ability for employees to contribute from their paychecks to their union – This “Payroll deduction” is Prohibited in this bill. (Last I recall, once you pay me, it’s my money)
    4 – Requires annual certification of the labor union and must be pasted by 51% of the workers being represented. If 51% is not attained, no union representation for ONE YEAR. (Can you imagine what could happen in just one year!)
    5 – Prohibits the extensiuon of collective bargaining agreements.
    6 – Prohibits limited term employees (LTE) from participating in WI Retirement System. (So, in other words, I don’t have to hire you as an “Employee”, as an employer, I could just say you are an LTE and you no longer have a pension)
    7 – Then there’s the part in this about our State BadgerCare Program. WI residents can get for themselves, and their families (or maybe just kids) our state sponsored health insurance. Walker’s bill reduces the eligibility for a family of 3 with income of $37,000 down to an annual income of $24,000. This part would take thousands off of health care!
    8 – This bill also allows for termination of a Civil employee for participating in a strike, work stoppage, sit-down, stay-in, slowdowns or other activities that interrupt operations. So, all the workers down at our capital, exercising their rights, would be fired under this bill!

    This is all being done under the “Budget Repair Bill” ruse. Our state unions have conceeded the financial aspects of the bill and requested that they are able to keep their rights to form and maintain their unions. Walker, if you’ve been watching FOX News, says that the Wisconsin 14 should come back and negotiate. However, he said as early as last week, that the “time for amending this bill had passed”. He’s not allowing for changes or amendments. He doesn’t want unions, plan and simple. It’s also been reported that after he passes this bill, it’s on to limits for the Private sector with respect to Unions there. Walker keeps indicating the “Dyer financial position of the state budget”. But what he fails to tell you is that he gave $117 MILLION in tax breaks to Corporations just the week before! Again the wealthy are getting the cash, the middle class gets the bill.

  7. Boy Mulcaster
    February 21, 2011 at 10:48 am

    I enjoyed this post until I got to “… cripple workers’ rights.” It was informative for someone like me, who wasn’t aware of the issue and couldn’t locate a comprehensive and succinct statement, but the ableism is pretty distracting.

    You can’t use it as a pejorative, but you can use it as a justification for giving yourself an extended period of time to kill them before they’re born! Because unlike pretentiously asking people not to use “cripple” as an insult, not giving yourself extra time to kill the crippled before they’re born (and opposing infanticide generally) would mean actually giving something up. And social justice policies that require doing more than talking a certain way aren’t the ones you’ll see anyone on Feministe advocating — or anyone on any other “feminist” blog, for that matter.

  8. Boy Mulcaster
    February 21, 2011 at 10:51 am

    Except trolls. XD

  9. human
    February 21, 2011 at 11:04 am

    Yeah, what happened in Milwaukee? Now I’m all curious, but that link gets a page not found error.

    I think it’s absolutely amazing what is happening in Wisconsin and am very encouraged by it. How often these days do we see Democrats — backed, it must be said, by the direct action of thousands — standing up for people? It’s encouraging all around.

    The media coverage of course has been atrocious. I spent a good chunk of time yesterday explaining the situation to various family members as I did the round of obligatory monthly family phone calls. My aunt knew that teachers weren’t showing up to work, but not why; and my dad only had a vague sense that there were protests. None of them knew the REASON all this is happening – Walker’s attempt to bust the unions and take away their collective bargaining rights.

    So I think it’s really important for all of us who know what’s going on to educate others whenever the opportunity arises. The tv news just isn’t going to, so we have to do it. Thanks for this post, Meredith!

  10. Samantha b.
    February 21, 2011 at 11:08 am

    And sadly, Boy Mulcaster, even the trolls aren’t doing the greatest job at advocacy! Go fucking figure.

  11. February 21, 2011 at 11:17 am

    Apologies, all, for the ableist language. As we’ve discussed many times before, a lot of those words are so ingrained that we often skip right over them without noticing, which is what happened here. Meredith emailed me right after this post went up and asked to have it changed, so it’s my fault that line was up for as long as it was. It has now been edited. Apologies again.

    Also, the broken link has been fixed.

  12. libdevil
    February 21, 2011 at 12:01 pm

    This whole thing is a giant scam. Walker took a balanced budget, rammed through a tax cut for rich folks to create a deficit, used that newly created deficit to file this budget repair bill, and then crammed that full of a bunch of things chosen at random from the wingnut/greedocrat wish list. Not just the labor stuff. There’s another passage, for instance, that lets him sell off publicly owned power plants. Without competitive bidding, and with “in the public interest” legally redefined as being whatever Scott Walker and his cronies say it is. If this passes, he could “legitimately” sell his campaign backers a power plant for $1, and claim that it’s in the public interest to do so because socialism is bad for Wisconsin, or some such nonsense.

  13. February 21, 2011 at 12:08 pm

    I was recently doing some research into Taft-Hartley. Ever heard of it? Catharine MacKinnon’s father was one of its drafters. It was a labor bill which irrevocably damaged unions, and they’ve never recovered. This stuff in Wisconsin has been a long time coming. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3nYTaHOymos

  14. February 21, 2011 at 12:36 pm

    I think the last paragraph (and the comment from WI_Resident above) contains the most important point here. Union members and representatives have repeatedly said they will make concessions, even the concessions as laid out in the bill.

    Walker called these offers a “red herring.” I think he misused the term, but ironically, it’s an apt assessment; the union concessions are about balancing the budget, whereas this bill, it is increasingly clear, is about union busting.

    That point needs to be driven home over and over and over again.

  15. February 21, 2011 at 12:37 pm

    Oh, and one other point that needs to be driven home…

    These are peaceful protests. As someone who is on the ground in Madison, I want to make it crystal clear that there is no rioting. In fact, on Saturday, when the Tea Partiers came to town for the biggest counter-rally in support of the bill, there were no arrests made. The right’s claims to the contrary are not just misleading–they are blatant lies.

  16. February 21, 2011 at 12:43 pm

    Sorry for the thread hijack, but one more thing and I’ll stop, I promise.

    If anyone wants to contribute to the cause, you can buy a pizza for the protesters camped out at the Capitol. Ian’s Pizza on State Street has suspended regular service to keep up with the demand for donations to protesters, and Ian himself donated 600 slices. If that weren’t enough, the place is a great local joint that sources ingredients locally.

  17. Linnaeus
    February 21, 2011 at 12:46 pm

    The same bill also contains a provision that would allow the selling off of state-owned power plants with or without bidding. That’s a nice little gift there.

  18. Linnaeus
    February 21, 2011 at 12:47 pm
  19. February 21, 2011 at 5:27 pm

    is this a meditation or an argument? Walker’s plan will not do what he says it will (i.e. close the future budget gap) but that is something any economist or journalist of any political persuasion would find to be correct. What I’m having a hard time understanding is this “no middle class without unions” thing. My mother didn’t have a union for Bharatanatyam teachers ensuring her income that would place us just over poverty level. She did it herself by dictating prices for classes–like most grown-ups do. Most of this country is employed in that same private sector–without the power to call the governor like a dog to heel–and they manage to see themselves as ‘middle-class’ with very exceptions. There has been a stagnation in median income but simple correlations of union power and that stagnation are not explanatory nor strong.

  20. February 21, 2011 at 6:37 pm

    Grown-ups realize that individual workers are basically powerless when it comes to bargaining with powerful employers who employ hundreds or even thousands of workers. They realize that the personal and institutional wealth of their employers, along with the many-faceted connections such persons hold with other powerful persons within a given geographic area, along with direct or indirect control over various armed forces give their employers the ability to refuse to negotiate with individual workers, and to ensure the “blackballing” (translation: comprehensive exclusion) of workers deemed as troublemakers for wanting better pay, benefits, or working environment.

    Hence, it was a no-brainer for the grown-ups in this position to form unions and bargain collectively. There is strength in numbers. Historically, this is what built the “middle class” (as defined by the average working stiff to mean “person with disposable income”, as opposed to the Internet definition of “advanced education, six-figure income”) in the U.S. and elsewhere.

    Hope that clears things up for you.

  21. Anna Phor
    February 23, 2011 at 8:17 pm

    I don’t have a particularly incisive comment–just want folks in Wisconsin to know that there are thousands of us around the country in solidarity with you. Hang in there!

  22. Poeschl
    February 23, 2011 at 9:16 pm

    The Wisconsin public-sector union advocates have already won one decisive victory — in Indiana. The Indiana (Republican) Governor, Senate, and House have today publicly backpedaled from sponsoring an anti-union right-to-work bill.

    The Indiana Republicans were probably influenced by the favorable publicity/polls given to the Wisconsin union workers, the AFL-CIO’s demonstrated organizing capacity in supporting the Wisconsin workers, and by Ian Murphy’s widely-publicized prank call to Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker in which Gov. Walker betrayed his own bad-faith strategy to a caller he believed to be the billionaire David Koch (but who was really Ian Murphy). Gov. Walker’s very vocal bad faith was publicized all over the country and will cost Republicans dearly unless they drop their anti-union agenda.

    H/T Slate.com in “The Slatest, Evening Edition” 23 Feb 2011, citing http://www.courier-journal.com, “Indiana Senate won’t resurrect right-to-work bill,” 23 Feb 2011.

  23. February 24, 2011 at 10:18 pm

    Much appreciation for this post, and for all you in Wisconsin sticking up for the rights of regular working people. I also wanted to address a question from Nandalal Rasiah:

    “What I’m having a hard time understanding is this “no middle class without unions” thing. . . . Most of this country is employed in that same private sector–without the power to call the governor like a dog to heel–and they manage to see themselves as ‘middle-class’ with very exceptions. ”

    Much of what the middle class in the U.S. has taken for granted in the past century, and is now losing – things like the eight hour day, the weekend, pensions, and health care – were won by unions, not granted by those in power. Even people who are not in unions benefit from the rights won by workers through collective bargaining.

  24. Northerite
    March 7, 2011 at 2:16 pm

    The sheer terror of this organized plot by governor Walker against the working class can only be stopped by aggressive attacks against the right wing, tea party and their Constitutional hogwash. This is the modern world and in it we claim rights never before considered by mankind. Rights that we have concluded from the evolution of society that every man deserves. This goes way beyond Jefferson, Madison, or Franklin. This fight for rights could never have been formed in the age of the social contract. Only in the post-modern, pragmatism of our world today can we design rights by the nature of our sheer will to do so. Collective bargaining should be the right of all men…this is so big there should be talk of a Constitutional Amendment. The power of the collective working class to demand that their taxpayer base do more for them to secure their future. It may take away from the future of private sector working class families, but in the end with universal collective bargaining we could demand that the government set wages, benefits, and health care and pay for it out of the profits of the greedy elite. For our end game is egalitarian, it is equality and once we are all equal there will be no need for collective bargaining because there will be no elite to tax or own businesses. Of course there would be greater unemployment and the have-nots would have less, but the elites would have less as well. The bright side to all this is we won’t have employer-elites telling us what to do…we will have a government to do that. So the next step is for Federal workers to demand collective bargaining. Then merge public with private sector. The goal is to have everything under government control and keep it in the hands of Washington elites not the corporate elites. And once everything has been made equal, we can eliminate the IRS and go to a flat tax which would be equal for all.

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