IN HER OWN WORDS:
It was union-busting, plain and simple.
Elizabeth L. Farrington
By Elizabeth Leigh Farrington, WIHE associate publisher and director of online advertising
Wall Street hit Main Street in February in Wisconsin, when new Governor Scott Walker introduced legislation to squelch collective bargaining for state workers that sparked massive protests at the state Capitol in Madison. They brought the national news media, and we had a front row view to the action.
Since the WIHE team has long-term Wisconsin residents, we all knew people affected by the bill, including University of Wisconsin employees. Collective bargaining had helped them to establish wages that allow them to support their families, and to establish protections for them and for the people they serve.
We quickly identified it as a women’s issue, since 70% of Wisconsin state employees are female. The bill exempted Wisconsin’s firefighters, police officers and state troopers—traditionally male professions— while targeting teachers, nurses and home health and childcare workers—traditionally female professions. Drastic reductions in funding for education, health care and childcare contributed to the attack on women and working families.
As former students at the UW-Madison, we were skeptical of the “New Badger Partnership,” a plan to split off the Madison campus from the rest of the UW schools that would give Walker—who lacks a college degree—the power to appoint 11 of the UW Madison’s 21 regents. How would his pro-life background affect UW’s stem-cell research grants? What about UW’s policies friendly to female faculty and families?
Wisconsin residents quickly began to assemble at the Capitol in protest, and continue to do so. Several WIHE people joined, including one who slept on the Capitol’s marble floors for three nights. Demonstrators included state workers, union members, soccer moms, farmers, families, grandmothers and more.
They protested abuses of democracy, and massive cuts to education, healthcare and environmental protections, plus Walker and his administration’s dirty politics, cronyism, lying, stealing from the state, corporate favoritism and his refusal to compromise or negotiate.
Back at the office, clients and colleagues from around the country were eager to discuss the political theater. What we saw was an attack on women, workers, families, the poor and the middle class. It was time to share our views.
A Republican tea party candidate, Walker won election in November 2010 with 52% of the vote. His campaign promised to cut state spending and create 250,000 jobs in the private sector. After inauguration on January 3, he cut $140 million in corporate taxes. Then claiming that Wisconsin had a $137 million budget deficit, he introduced an “Emergency Repair Bill” on February 11, after fewer than six weeks in office.
Among other insults, the 140-page bill increased state workers’ health insurance cost and pension contributions, bring about an 8% decrease in take-home pay. It also eliminated collective bargaining for all state workers except on wages, which could not exceed inflation.
Unions would not be able to bargain for working conditions, benefits or raises beyond inflation. Union dues would no longer be collected from paychecks; employees would, by choice, pay their dues directly. And unions would have to win yearly votes on whether they could continue to represent workers.
It was union-busting, plain and simple. Although union reps quickly agreed to the financial concessions, Walker refused to budge on the collective bargaining issue. He also threatened to call in the National Guard to keep peace among workers.
The bill was sneaked in late on a Friday afternoon, when most reporters were ready to go home, and the day before a huge athletic event: the Wisconsin-Ohio State men’s basketball game. Democratic senators didn’t get a copy of the bill until Monday, February 14, with the vote scheduled for three days later.
On the day of the vote, 14 of the Democratic state senators fled to deny their Republican counterparts the quorum needed to pass the bill. Their intent was to find a compromise, and to give Wisconsin residents the opportunity to discover what was in the bill.
While they were gone, Walker held press conferences stating that he would not negotiate. The 14 Democratic senators said they would return to Wisconsin only when the issue of collective bargaining was off the table.
We knew the “budget crisis” was manufactured, and that budget problems stemmed from Wall Street and the financial and housing crises, not “overpaid” state employees—who had traded better benefits in exchange for lower salaries. And we were outraged that the governor would give tax breaks to corporations and then try to balance the budget on the backs of the state’s working women and its most vulnerable citizens: children, the elderly, the disabled and the poor.
We also knew that Walker’s actions were in direct contrast to the Wisconsin Idea, a progressive series of political and social reforms of the late 19th and early 20th century championed by Governor Robert M. La Follette.
A political philosophy that universities should be well-funded and used to benefit all of the state, the Wisconsin Idea also involves crafting well-constructed legislation to benefit the greatest number of people. Progressives created it to reject monopolies, trusts and predatory wealth, with the goal of making Wisconsin “the laboratory for democracy” and a model for government. Its national legacies include unemployment and workers compensation and progressive taxation.
We also knew that about 20 other states were watching to see whether the bill passed, making Wisconsin ground zero for workers’ rights. We were outraged that our state, with its progressive Labor history—including being the first state to allow state workers to collectively bargain in 1959—would be used as a testing ground after 50 years of labor peace.
And we knew that the union-busting was really about destroying the Democratic party and President Obama’s reelection chances in 2012, later admitted by Wisconsin Senate Majority Party Leader Scott Fitzgerald. This battle was about preserving democracy and rejecting oligarchy or plutocracy— and preventing Republicans from destroying unions, the traditional Democratic power base.
Once word leaked out, citizens quickly mobilized. Members of UW’s TAA graduate student union delivered valentines to Walker on February 14 that said “We ♥ UW: Don’t break my ♥,” and demonstrations increased daily, averaging to 35,000 to 50,000 on weekdays and 70,000 to 100,000 on the weekends. Madison closed its schools for four days.
Protesters declared their support for the “Wisconsin 14” and their opposition of the bill. Some camped out in the Capitol. Retail businesses displayed signs supporting workers in their windows, and residents put up signs in their yards.
Inside the Capitol, votes were held without Democratic senators being given the chance to vote. Bills were changed and amended and not published before votes. Open meetings laws were violated and Wisconsin’s state Constitution was all but ignored. Every day brought new atrocities.
Was this really our state government?
As the days unfolded, Wisconsin residents learned details of the bill, such as no-bid sale of up to 37 of Wisconsin’s power plants, and drastic cuts to services for the disabled and the poor. Many would result in privatization of government services.
On February 23, Walker took a 20-minute prank phone call from a blogger pretending to be billionaire David Koch, who had funded Walker’s campaign. Walker admitted to considering planting troublemakers among the protesters to make them look bad, but vetoed it because it might appear that he didn’t control the situation. He committed several labor law and ethical violations by requesting money for commercials, admitting conspiring against unions, and accepting an offer for a trip to California after “crushing those bastards”—all from the public phone in the governor’s office.
On March 1, Walker introduced his new budget, which cut $900 million from Wisconsin’s schools, and prohibited local governments from raising taxes to make up the difference. It also eliminated funding for Title V, the only state funded family planning and reproductive health care program, and repealed Wisconsin’s Contraceptive Equity law, which forces insurance companies to cover contraception. It also eliminated recycling and BadgerCare for the low-income uninsured, and jeopardized SeniorCare.
Wisconsin residents were livid. The budget contradicted the Wisconsin Idea, which recognizes the need to care for those more vulnerable, and the value of providing education for all. State residents pay higher taxes, knowing the tradeoff is good public schools.
On the ground
Set against the backdrop of the protests for democracy in the Middle East, where Egyptians carried signs in support of Wisconsin workers, the protests were unique.
Walker’s efforts notwithstanding, they were very peaceful; Madison’s police chief repeatedly issued press releases thanking the protesters for their civility. There were no arrests. UW’s TAA organized cleanups of the Capitol. The demonstrations were a family affair, from infants to great-grandparents.
One of my favorite days of protesting included me, my mom, my best friend who was six months pregnant and her 76-year-old mother-in-law. Madison’s Ragin’ Grannies staged daily sing-a-longs on the Capitol steps. Farmers milked their cows in the morning, came to town to protest, and went home to milk again at night. Supporters from around the world donated food from area restaurants to feed the protestors.
Those who had never before been politically active showed up to voice their feelings. The positive energy at the demonstrations was phenomenal. Protesters chanted “This is what democracy looks like” over and over, roused by car horns tapping it out.
The protests were also incredibly creative. Participants took great care with their signs, crafting them to explain what they considered most outrageous. Some staged flash-mob performances at the Capitol, including songs from Les Miserables and gospel songs about overcoming oppression. Farmers staged a “Tractorcade” to show solidarity between farm labor and organized labor, driving their tractors from across the state to circle the state Capitol.
As the protests wore on, Walker ramped up his pressure on the Democratic senators and on protesters by imposing petty restrictions on Democrats, and by locking the doors of the Capitol—an illegal act under Wisconsin law, which states that the doors to the Capitol must remain open when hearings are taking place. Democratic senators responded by moving their desks to hold meetings with constituents outside, in winter.
The illegal Capitol lockdown actually prevented Wisconsin Democratic senators from entering the building. Police tackled one who was trying to get to his office. Firefighters were denied access when responding to an emergency call. These actions enraged taxpayers and protesters, who stood outside the Capitol chanting “Whose house? Our house!”
The ‘nuclear’ option
On March 9, Walker and his cronies exercised the “nuclear” option of stripping the bill of its fiscal components, which allowed them to vote without a quorum. They held a quick meeting—so quick that many Democratic legislators didn’t have time to vote; some were locked outside the building— and repeated the process the next day. Governor Walker signed the bill into law on March 11, 2011.
That day, I and thousands of Wisconsinites stood in the Capitol, outside Walker’s door, and screamed “SHAME!” and “Wisconsin’s not for sale” and “What’s Disgusting? Union Busting!” and booed whenever his door opened.
On Saturday, March 12, more than 100,000 protesters assembled in freezing temperatures to stage the largest political demonstration in Wisconsin history. They came to dispute his assault on democracy, chanting “Recall Walker!” The energy was incredibly positive.
County officials have filed lawsuits claiming the bill was passed unconstitutionally and a judge has issued a temporary stay on the bill. The judicial branch has stepped in to put the brakes on the power grab by an unethical coalition of the executive and legislative branches of government.
Meanwhile, recalls have been started against Governor Walker, eight Republican state senators and eight Democratic state senators. Protesters are now focusing on the recalls, and boycotting businesses that donated to Walker’s campaign.
While the last few months have been a tumultuous time in Wisconsin’s history, creating deep philosophical divides, it has also been a very teachable moment.
Children are leaning first-hand about democracy, First Amendment rights and Wisconsin’s Constitution. Residents are exploring the Wisconsin Idea and how it has shaped their values. The nation is discussing class warfare, the disappearing middle class and the value of unions and workers’ rights.
Many learned to question the media, after what was reported on TV (palm trees in Wisconsin?) and in newspapers contrasted with what they saw themselves.
I hope the discussions will continue, and that this experience will help citizens around the country to recognize and mobilize against the continued assault on women and working families. It was union-busting, plain and simple.
Farrington, Elizabeth L. (2011, April). IN HER OWN WORDS: The Wisconsin Protests: Up Close and Personal. Women in Higher Education, 20(4), 19-20.
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