Thursday, March 17, 2011

Wisconsin: the fight isn't over yet

Cross-posted at Feministe

This past weekend, I had the opportunity to join a couple friends for a short road trip to Madison, Wisconsin for the rally against Walker’s assault on workers’ rights on March 12, and to welcome back the 14 Democratic State legislators, who fled to Illinois in an attempt to stop the assault on workers’ rights by denying the legislature the required quorum needed to vote on the bill that was sure to pass due to the newly-elected Republican majority.  The turnout at the rally was huge.  And while I’m used to so-called “Minnesota Nice” (read: passive-aggression), never before have I encountered such a kind andhappy group of incredibly angry people.  And I can understand; it was hard to wipe the giant grin off of my own face while I was there.  The sheer number of people coming together, people of all ages, from all walks of life, and from several surrounding states was overwhelming and brought tears to my eyes.  I’m normally the kinda gal who keeps to herself in public, but I couldn’t help but look up and smile, wave, or say hello to fellow protesters and passers-by around me.  While it was my first time in Madison, I’ve never felt more at home.
A gloved hand is holding up a black sign with taped-on white pieces of paper with black writing on them: 'Walker converted me! Now I'm a DEMOCRAT'. There is a tall building behind, and a blonde head in the foreground.Wisconsin was the first state in the US to provide collective bargaining rights to public employees, back in 1959, so it should come as no surprise that they are among the loudest to fight for their right to keep those very rights.  And even though the 14 Democrats and the State workers didn’t win this battle (although, keep your ears peeled, as the method used to pass the modified legislation was likely illegal), the war wages on in the Midwest– the heart of working class America.  Not only are there similar labor-busting battles waging in Ohio, Indiana, and other states, Michigan governor Rick Snyder has managed to quietly get passed several pieces of dangerous legislation that will essentially allow Michigan cities and towns to be completely taken over by corporations, should they be declared to be in a state of fiscal emergency.  Rachel Maddow discussed this on her show last Tuesday:
“Gov. Rick Snyder’s budget in Michigan is expected to cut aid to cities and towns so much that a lot of cities and towns in Michigan are expected to be in dire financial straits. Right now, Gov. Snyder is pushing a bill that would give himself, Gov. Snyder and his administration, the power to declare any town or school district to be in a financial emergency. If a town was declared by the governor and his administration to be in a financial emergency they would get to put somebody in charge of that town, and they want to give that emergency manager that they just put in charge of the town the power to, “reject, modify, or terminate any contracts that the town may have entered in to, including any collective bargaining agreements.” 
“This emergency person also gets the power under the bill to suspend or dismiss elected officials. Think about that for a second. Doesn’t matter who you voted for in Michigan. Doesn’t matter who you elected. Your elected local government can be dismissed at will. The emergency person sent in by the Rick Snyder administration could recommend that a school district be absorbed into another school district. That emergency person is also granted power specifically to disincorporate or dissolve entire city governments.”
Make no mistake about it; not only is the GOP engaged in a full-on assault on women’s rights, they’re wasting no time coming after everyone else, too.  And who better to start with than the only hope the Democratic party has left since the Citizens United ruling: unions.
More protesters milling around. In the foreground, one is handling a green drum on which the words 'Scott,' 'is' and 'dung' are visible, the rest obscured by the glare of sunlight.Because no matter how many Republicans and well-meaning Democrats and even self-identified progressives want to complain about how unions are run, corruption within them, or their supposed incompetence, the fact is, as long as we remain in a system where workers and employers have competing goals, we need unions.  And frankly, with reports coming out every week about how corporate profits and productivity are up and private sector hiring remains stagnant, I’m sick and tired of hearing about how much more money public sector employees make compared to their private sector counterparts (see this article in the NYT for a good analysis), and how union employees’ striking over better working conditions and health care greedy and lazy.  It’s time we flip the dialog, and instead of getting angry that public sector employees are actually being treated decently, let’s ask private sector employers why they refuse to show their employees the same respect.
More protesters. The sign centred in the photograph is a picture of a man's head attached to a cartoon body with its pants on fire. These are on a cardboard backing, which has the caption 'It's A Fiscal Issue!'One thing that these protests and the other various State capitol occupations is proving is that, even if we don’t win every individual battle, we’re remembering how important it is for us to actually get out and fight, as presently as possible.  Until now, I’d forgotten that the Capitol is a public building.  I’d forgotten that it is my right to peacefully protest and petition my government.  I’d forgotten that I can do more than send over an electronic petition to my Congressman who probably won’t read it (although, online petitions and other “virtual” actions are certainly useful).  It’s as if, until now, since the massive protests in the Middle East began and spread in various forms to the US and elsewhere, that we progressives in the United States have forgotten that democracy and fighting for the rights of marginalized people is messy work, and tiring work.  And we’ve forgotten that it’s often more worthwhile to get out and do it in person if we can, where they can’t ignore us.
A picture of a street leading to the capitol. There's a street sign saying 'Left lane must turn left' in capital letters, with the 'must' in bold.It’s well-known that the most apathetic non-voters here in the US are probably more aligned with the left than the right.  And, obviously, the right continues to bank on that every election season.  But getting out to vote?  It’s only one piece of the larger puzzle.  We have to keep being loud, and present.  Don’t forget that our various State capitol building are ourhouses.  And the streets surrounding it are our streets.  And our elected officials are our employees, because it’s our job to hire and fire them.  When it comes to politics in the United States, I’m not usually very optimistic.  But, right now, since the demonstrations in Egypt and through my trip to Madison, I feel very confident that we’re finally waking up, and that we might start seeing some real progressive change in the coming years.  Just so long as we keep on fighting!
Keep an eye on your state legislators.  You know where to go!