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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