First of all, welcome. I don't know if I intend to keep a rolling list of thoughts here, but this past week, Wisconsin has been moved to action by our new governor's thoughtless desire to kill our public unions.
It's been a crazy week. Friday morning, February 11th, Scott Walker released his "Budget Repair Bill" at 10 AM. In a video I'll post in a bit, we found out that there were radio ads supporting it within minutes of the release, before our state legislators even knew it existed.
I honestly didn't pay much attention over the weekend. I elect my representatives to do that. On Tuesday, Virginia Welle, a teacher in Chippewa Falls, posted a stirring, self-shot video describing the impact of this bill on her and her family. I think this probably struck me most because I'm getting old. I'm 31. Virginia has got to be at least close to my age. I have a house that I've put some work into. Virginia was going to possibly lose her house that she and her husband built out of timber cut from her family's hunting land. Her husband worked extra hours in the summer time roofing houses to make sends meet. I hate roofing houses. It's hard work.
Virginia and many others are very likely going to lose a lot in this bill, and not only that, with the removal of their rights to speak at the bargaining table, it's the first of many setbacks she and others are going to receive.
You can watch her video here if you've got facebook.
My local City Council called an emergency meeting on Tuesday night, in order to discuss passing a resolution against the collective bargaining portions of the legislation. When I arrived, the place was packed. The chamber and the hallway outside were full. I tried to take a couple of pictures as I stood and watched my city council debate from a closed-circuit TV in the hall:
The council deliberated for about an hour. No public testimony was taken, but it was stirring to listen to the people we elected, who come from all stripes and political backgrounds, deriding the politics in this bill. Dyed-in-the-wool conservatives couldn't understand how taking away the right for city employees to negotiate our city services would help them solve their budgetary needs. One council-member recollected that it was the union's idea to assign a snowplow driver to our ambulance and fire crews during a record-breaking snowstorm we got in December. There was one member on the fence at the beginning, but after the other 9 spoke, he simply had no arguments to make. Unions in Eau Claire have always worked very well with the city, and in fact there are fewer city employees now than there were in 1981. While Governor Walker was trying to tell us that he wanted the city to have the tools to negotiate, the city was asking him not to take those tools away. In the end, the Eau Claire City Council voted 10-0 in opposition to the removal of their employees' collective bargaining rights.
On Wednesday night, a similar public hearing was held at the Eau Claire County Courthouse, this time for the County Board. The county board asked for public comment, and we spoke for nearly an hour. My wife and I both spoke at different times.
Sara emphasized the role that her teachers had in inspiring her to become a nurse. My wife's story is well known among friends. Her mother passed away when she was still young, leaving Sara and her sister to be raised by Tim, who worked hard at the Uniroyal tire factory in Eau Claire. Tim's hours limited the time between the girls and him to late evenings and weekends. Because of this, Sara relied almost 100% on her teachers when it came to homework, reading, arithmetic, and other things that parents often find time to teach their children outside of class. Sara's speech was emotional and heartfelt.
I grew up as the son of a public works director. My father actually crossed picket lines at one point when the highway workers in my county went on strike. Even still, he always had a good relationship with his employees, and ran a tight ship with the help of union stewards. Often times the unions were the first on the scene when it came to disciplinary actions against their employees. I grew up in this environment, and it's been imprinted on me from an early age. Hard workers exist in both the public and private spheres. I made sure to stress this in my words to the county board. We know that they are be willing to negotiate wages. But don't take their voices away.
In the end, Sara and I both drew applause from the public for our words. The County Board voted 20-7 in opposition to the removal of bargaining rights. Of the seven, none was able to come up with a good reason to abolish collective bargaining.
Sara and I both got our faces on the news, though they didn't get any of our words.
As this was all taking place, we learned that tens of thousands of people had descended upon the state capitol to protest. On Tuesday, the number we heard was 10,000. Pretty impressive! On Wednesday, they added another 5,000. The public hearing for the bill extended late into Wednesday night. I found myself staying up well past midnight, discussing the bill on facebook with supporters and detractors, debating the need for collective bargaining with my friends and neighbors. We learned with dismay that the public portion of the hearing was cut off in the wee hours of the morning. I also learned that the bill had been amended to only include the salary cuts, but was rejected in committee. In other words, we could have had a bill that saved the exact same amount of money, with no end to the rights of the workers, and that still wasn't good enough. The line has been drawn, then, eh?
I spent all day Wednesday trying to call my elected officials. Warren Petryk's line was busy all day. When I finally did get through, his voicemail box was full. I emailed him twice, and got a courtesy bounceback both times.
Thursday rocked. First of all, I actually got to leave a message in Rep Petryk's voicemail so at least he has heard from me in a couple of ways. That morning, the bill was about to be called to the floor. The Republicans had enough votes to destroy 50 years of Wisconsin history. There were now 30,000 people there shouting and making their voices heard. Scott Walker was on the radio talking tough. "We've got the votes." People were starting to lose hope. Democrats have a reputation of being spineless in the face of such bullying. Suddenly all that changed. Right before the vote was to be called, our Democrats left the state. This included my State Senator, Kathleen Vinehout.
Let me just say this about Kathy Vinehout. This woman is tough. She runs a dairy farm with her husband near Alma when she's not serving in the Senate. She is 6 feet tall and tough like any country girl - no one pushes her around. I have never been so impressed with the spine of my legislator as I am with Mrs. Vinehout right now. Many people on the right are trying to argue that she is not doing her job. On the contrary: she is standing up for what the people in her district want her to do, including the city and county that she represents.
On Friday, apparently the Republicans in the assembly tried to kick off a vote a few minutes early, raising the ire of one of our assemblymen (sadly, Warren Petryk is fine siding with the billionaires here):
After a Friday of waiting and watching, I decided to head to Madison on Saturday. My neighbor Josh Miller walked to my house at 6AM yesterday morning and we drove down to witness a part of Wisconsin history.
There were buses coming in from all parts of the city. Josh and I took a shuttle from the East Towne Mall that AFSCME was running. We had a great time on the shuttle, and many people we spoke with had been coming in from all parts of the state.
When we arrived, one of the first things we bore witness to was the firefighters union, marching up State Street in support of the unions under threat.
There's another wonderful video of them coming in to the capitol rotunda for the first time on Thursday, in support of the workers. This is extremely significant, as the governor decided that the firefighters somehow deserve to be heard, but the teachers don't. The firefighters, and their bagpipes, respectfully disagree. Upon seeing this overt act of solidarity, many people here were moved to tears.
At 10:30 there was the first of two rallies. I was able to tape one of the speakers. You can see that the crowd is quite huge, even at 10:30.
We had heard that the tea party was planning a rally today, sponsored by the Koch Brothers. These guys are billionaires, and they own the pipeline that runs through Clearbrook, MN where I hunt. A couple of guys died from an explosion on their pipeline a few years back, not far from where we hunt. Kind of makes you wonder, why would these guys be so opposed to the formation of groups of people that, if they had the chance, might ask for better working conditions?
I left being a bit nervous about this whole thing. Would there be trouble? Luckily, there was not, as only about 2,000 showed up for the rally, which started at noon. Because our rally ended at 11:30 or so, a few people managed to make their way over to the tea-party side. There were quite a few great signs related to the Koch Brothers. One of them said, "Hey Scott, your money's on the nightstand." Pretty juicy.
By 12:30 or so, the 70,000 demonstrators were already beginning to surround the teabaggers:
We did end up in the capitol a couple of times. The atmosphere in there is one of jubilation, and it's constant. I tried to get it all here - I had to walk up and down some stairs a few times! Good exercise, though.
I talked to a couple of students who were camping out in solidarity with the workers. I promised I'd only tape them for a minute, and we honored that. They were two among hundreds of students and other supporters there to help out for the cause.
At 4:00 there was another rally. By the end of the afternoon, most of State Street was packed with people showing their support for the voices of the teachers. We actually had a patriot band at our party this time! And here I thought the constitution was written for the Koch Brothers.
We walked out of our supper/lunch (is that lupper?) to a crowded, jubilant street. I think I still have the mint in my mouth from the restaurant in this next one:
Unfortunately I didn't get much video of the second rally, but it was uplifting to see the crowd and hear the chants supporting our teachers, firemen, snowplow drivers, cops, and other public employees. Finally the rally ended:
As the we left rally, we meandered over to the south steps, where the teabaggers had been. There was almost no one left to stand up for those downtrodden billionaires. I took this video as a memorial:
Josh and I left shortly after this. As we rode a crowded, standing-room only bus back to the mall, the sun set. We talked with workers from Green Bay about the possibility of breaking this. Some people are not sure we can. Others think differently on the matter. It is well known in labor circles that workers have put up with much worse. We've had our heads bashed in, we've been killed, we've been blacklisted. I say WE because, although I am not a union member, WE as average, working Americans have always had to struggle for our basic liberties. Powerful interests do not surrender their control without coercion of some kind. Peaceful protest, as we see here, can and does work. There is a reason that we celebrate Martin Luther King Jr., Russ Feingold, and Fighting Bob La Follette. These men stood for the rights of you and I, and not on the side of the powerful or the wealthy.
It is important to realize that some strikes last for long periods of time. The Birmingham Bus Boycott did last a full year. I think, once the movement here in Wisconsin hunkers down, we will be in for a long, hard-won victory. We need to keep vigilant and strong. We need to remind the "Wisconsin 14" - those legislators in exile - that we appreciate every ounce of strength they have shown. We need to investigate options for recalling those elected officials who will not listen to us, including Governor Walker.
So far we've got the president, the catholic church, and the Green Bay Packers on our side. We're winning hearts and minds because people across the state know that their public servants are worthy of our respect, and deserve a place at the bargaining table. Never, in my life as a citizen, have I been so proud to live in this country, where we work hard to gain and preserve our fundamental rights as citizens. Our workers deserve a voice. Their voices are what makes our state the best place to live in the union, beer, cheese, superbowl rings, and all. If we dedicate ourselves to this, there's no stopping us.