By Ellery Hamann
With the intention to bust unions and repair the deficit, Governor Scott Walker has taken a radical and unprecedented move: proposing a bill that would strip away the rights of hundreds of thousands of state workers. The bill would affect teachers, doctors and nurses, librarians, and public safety workers — just to name a few. The proposed “repair bill” would deny union rights to public school teachers and other state employees, thus disallowing legitimate collective bargaining on things like salaries, rights in the workplace, and health and retirement benefits. Wisconsin has had a 50-year history of strong unions that protect the rights of state employees. You might think workers and supporters will be able to continue protests if and when the bill is passed, but Governor Walker has said that any worker who protests or walks out on the job will be fired and replaced — he has even threatened to do something not done since the 1930s: call in the National Guard.
If and when this bill is passed, my family and hundreds of thousands of families across Wisconsin will be affected drastically. My mother has been a public school teacher in the Madison school district for more than 35 years and with her colleagues has fought long and hard for union rights. I have seen the ways in which the union has helped and affected my mother’s life and work and the ways in which it protects education and families. A previous art teacher of mine, whose husband is also a state employee, has said they would both have to look for new jobs if this bill is passed. This bill is not only an attack on Wisconsin families and public education but on democracy and civil rights in the United States.
Few know that Governor Walker created most of the deficit within his first six weeks in office. Wisconsin was relatively well managed given the difficult economic times. According to the Cap Times, Governor Walker and his allies spent $140 million dollars in January alone in a new spending scheme to support special interests. He did not inherit a significant deficit, but even opponents of the bill widely believe he has. Former Senator Russ Feingold said Walker claiming this is about budget repair is simply “phony.” Either way, taking away the civil, if not human, rights of state workers is not the way to repair any deficit, no matter what the size.
State workers and their supporters have been outraged, and protests have been held at the state capitol all week, lasting 24 hours a day. Protesters even slept in the capitol overnight Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday and will likely continue to do so through the weekend. State workers and UW-Madison students have organized and protested together hoping to convince many of those legislators who are on the fence to vote “no.” This past week, school districts across Wisconsin have been closed due to teachers calling in “sick” to attend the rallies. Protesters have filled the capitol rotunda, occupying it 24 hours a day.
I drove up to Madison to take part in the protest Wednesday and plan to return to Madison to continue protesting this coming weekend. I stood in solidarity with many of my previous teachers and hundreds of other state employees. Non-modest estimates of attendees reached 30,000 Wednesday and an estimated 50,000 Thursday in what are being called the biggest protests in Wisconsin’s history. There were angry faces and high spirits everywhere. Chants this week have echoed: “Hey-hey, ho-ho, Scott Walker has got to go,” “Kill this bill,” “Show me what democracy looks like — this is what democracy looks like,” “What’s disgusting? Union busting!” There has been cheering, yelling, chanting, dancing and singing — there has been democracy in action.
For the first time in a long time, Democrats have proved themselves not to be afraid; they have not kowtowed to the Republicans. Around noon on Thursday it was announced that 14 Democrats failed to show up at the capitol and the vote had to be stalled. Protesters in and around the state capitol were elated upon hearing the update. The Democrats, all of whom are strongly opposed to the bill, left the state in objection. Rumors quickly spread that state troopers were sent to find them. As of Thursday afternoon they were known to be in different secure locations outside of state borders. These 14 Democrats have said they refuse to return until Governor Walker agrees to sit down with union leaders for negotiations. Republicans hold a 19-14 majority but need at least one Democrat to be present in order to proceed with voting. Thursday afternoon, protesters began sitting in groups to block doorways in order to physically block Senate members from entering the chamber. Nine arrests occurred Thursday afternoon.
Having made national news Wednesday, the protests will continue into the weekend until the bill is voted on or negotiations begin, which may not occur until early next week. What exactly will happen in the next few days is entirely unknown, and what the response to the bill passing would be like is also unknown.
What Governor Walker is doing is unprecedented in the state of Wisconsin. Drastic measures like these have rarely been seen in U.S. history. Taking away the civil rights of state employees is undemocratic and, in my mind, simply not an option when it comes to budget repair — especially when the deficit is a result of new spending to support party allies and special interests. The issue is not just about teacher salary and changes in benefits; it is about the civil right to collectively bargain being taken away. The bill is an attack on democracy in our country.
If you would like to take some sort of action, there are several things you can do: you can make your way up to Madison for a weekend of protests, you can join in the Beloit student-led protests next Monday and you can call the Wisconsin legislators listed below who are believed to be on the fence about whether to vote “no”:
Michael Ellis (19th Dist.) 608-266-0718
Scott Fitzgerald (13th Dist.) 608-266-5660
Randy Hopper (18th Dist.) 608-266-5300
Dan Kapanke (32nd Dist.) 608-266-5490
Luther Olsen (14th Dist.) 608-266-0751
Dale Schultz (17th Dist.) 608-266-0703
Van Wanggaard (21st Dist.) 608-266-1832