Everything you’re hearing about us is true. Our state workers’ rights to collectively bargain are being threatened, our governor was easily punked by a left-wing journalist, and our mass protests have been genuinely civil. In short, Wisconsin is an interesting place to be right now.
This morning my six year old daughter asked me, "Mama, what does democracy mean?" We had taken her to several local rallies to protest Governor Walker's budget repair bill where she had heard the chant, "This is what democracy looks like!" I explained, in very simple terms, that democracy means that people get a say in the decisions that affect their lives.
When I began teaching in Wisconsin in 1999, I was surprised that faculty were not unionized. Unlike my previous state job where we negotiated modest raises for all faculty, here we spent endless hours competing for a diminishing pool of “merit” pay. To say that the process was divisive and time-consuming would be an understatement. Finally, in 2009 faculty in the University of Wisconsin system were given the right to collectively bargain. This fall several of us on my campus formed an organizing committee and efforts were underway to hold an election. Some faculty members were leery of unions; after all, most of us were trained to work individually and believed that our hard work would be rewarded. Also, the strains of competing in a hyper-competitive academic job market trains us to be grateful for whatever conditions and salary we are given. Nonetheless, I had hopes that our faculty would see we were stronger together than apart.
Then on Feb. 11 we learned that Governor Walker’s bill would strip us of our newly-won rights to decide whether or not we wanted a union. Poof, just like that, our ability to make decisions affecting our own working lives would be lost. Is this what democracy looks like?
For state workers on the lower end of the pay scale, the cuts Governor Walker proposes will be painful. Last week, while waiting to testify in front of the Joint Legislative Finance Committee, I heard stories of home health care workers, snow plow drivers, teachers, and social workers who will struggle to pay their bills and some who might lose their homes. I find it hard to reconcile these dedicated, hard-working people with the stereotypes being presented in the media that characterize state workers as lazy, entitled, and overpaid. Never mind analysis that shows state workers’ total compensation is lower than their private sector counterparts, would reducing one group’s standard of living lift up anyone?
The protests in Madison – with drummers, high school students, and tea-bagging counter-demonstrators--have been much publicized. But there are less flashy protests occurring all across the state. Last Wednesday my family stood on the steps of city hall listening to a firefighter explain why, despite being exempted by the Governors’ bill, he was supporting other union workers: “There’s nothing to keep him from attacking our benefits and rights in the next bill!” There were prison guards, social workers, and teamsters standing in the crowd. My daughter was excited to see her favorite teacher. After the speeches were over and the rally officially ended, no one wanted to go home, our daughter least of all. We hadn’t brought signs so our daughter asked a weathered-faced older man if she could hold his sign. He smiled and gave it to her and she held it proudly as we stood shoulder to shoulder with our neighbors.
This is what democracy looks like.