I've spent the last few days almost entirely immersed in the ever-growing protest on behalf of worker's rights and against Gov. Walker's attempt to take them away. Tuesday I found myself in the middle of a 10,000-plus crowd of students and workers, union and non-union alike, as they stormed the Capitol building and filled its halls with the almost overwhelming echoes of their chants and cheers.
It's been intense, but incredibly inspiring.
I don't know what the outcome will be whether Walker and his cronies will simply ignore the deafening will of the people of their state and push the budget repair bill through as is, or if reason and compassion will actually win the day and force them to at least delay and reconsider.
What I do know is that there are tens, if not hundreds of thousands of people in Wisconsin who are out there walking the line, showing support for their friends and families, and doing so peacefully but passionately.
I walked with over 700 students from East High School as they marched up East Washington Ave. and to the Capitol building to join the protesters there. While I'm sure there were some in the crowd who simply found themselves swept up in the moment and the opportunity to miss class, the vast majority knew what the issue was and knew what was at stake. I spoke with several who expressed a desire to fight for the rights of their teachers and family members who worked for the state. There will always be those cynics who dismiss the activism of youth as nave and pointless, but this is our future, folks. As far as I could see yesterday (and again today, as yet more students joined the throngs), the future's looking pretty damn good.
Today I stood on stone pillar on the King Street side of the capitol and craned my neck in every direction and couldn't see a single patch of ground unoccupied by someone. I saw union workers, both state and private sector, from every occupation nurses, steelworkers, teachers, sanitation workers, law enforcement, social workers, prison guards, civil servants. A group of firefighters, though exempted from Walker's scheme, came out in force, bagpipers and all, to show their support for their fellow union members. Children stood with their parents or schoolmates and waved handmade signs in support. Music blasted, people danced, and all around there was an all-encompassing sense of determination.
If Walker's goal was to galvanize the organized labor movement in this state, he's succeeded admirably. But that's about all I'd be willing to give him credit for.
Talking with a couple of local teachers who turned out to the rally, it became all the more clear the damage this bill will do on the ground not just for the teachers themselves, but for children across the state who rely on them for education, for a second home, for security even.
Jesse Wiedmeyer, a substitute teacher at Madison East High School, was handing out Wisconsin Teachers, Inc. support stickers to fellow picketers when I asked him what the bill's passage would mean for him, personally.
"New job or a new state," he answered with a rueful chuckle. "That's what we decided, y'know, if we want to keep teaching maybe Wisconsin's not the place."
Two women who are teachers in Madison but preferred not to give their names expressed serious concern over what the bill would mean in terms of how they actually did their jobs.
"Without collective bargaining rights we can't negotiate curriculum, other important safety and school issues that are important to students and that's why we teach," said one.
Mostly, they were concerned with just how much remained unknown about the bill's particulars, rushed through in just under a week as it's been. If collective bargaining rights for everything but salary are to be taken away, will teachers have a say in what they teach their students? Or will the Governor have the ability to legislate curriculum?
It's just one of a slew of serious questions that are being asked regarding the bill and, so far, going unanswered by Walker.
State workers have stated time and again that they're more than willing to share in the burden of balancing the budget through concessions. They made a series of them at the end of contract negotiations that were ultimately struck down by the lame duck session of the Legislature that bowed to the wishes of the incoming administration.
This isn't about money, though. As Brad Lutes, a teacher from Sun Prairie and one of the speakers at today's rally said, "As much as this is about salaries and benefits, it's much more about the loss of worker's fundamental rights."
Stripping 50 years of established labor law in less than a week is a dangerous and, frankly, disgusting act of stubborn, compassionless, short-sighted governance. Walker says he doesn't want to negotiate and seems completely blind to the massive outpouring of opposition coming from his constituents. That to me indicates a person not interested in being part of a democracy, but rather someone more concerned with personal gain and autocracy.
That's not the Wisconsin I've come to love in the 10 years I've lived here, and there are tens of thousands of people (at least!) who visibly agree with me.
Keep it up, Wisconsin. Solidarity!