28 February 2011

A view from inside the capitol - Madison 2.27.11

As some of us, unfortunately, break from the capitol grounds to teach, take mid-terms exams, and otherwise fulfill our unrelenting obligations, others remain firm in the WI statehouse.

Even as the fledgling governor tries to disperse the wholly peaceful, non-violent, democratic protesters in an attempt to buoy his image and minimize their impact to the media when he announces his new and ever more draconian budget, this determined bunch holds ground.

(by TAA member Shahin Izadi, with sound by Jason Nolen)

Stay strong, brothers and sisters! We'll back back with you soon!


27 February 2011

"We Are Wisconsin"

Fantastic video by Finn Ryan and David Nevala

We Are Wisconsin from Finn Ryan on Vimeo.

Day 13 – On the Ground in Madison: “As Long as It Takes”

Despite temperatures in the mid-teens and a steady snowfall, throngs of taxpaying citizens of Wisconsin assembled at the Madison capitol for the thirteenth consecutive day of the sustained protest of Governor Scott Walker’s budget “repair” bill. Saturday was not only the coldest, but the largest protest yet, with numbers reaching beyond the 70,000 in attendance last weekend.  In addition, thousands more rallied inside the capitol building. Walker likely anticipated citizens would withdraw by now and opt for the warmth and comfort of our homes, but we all remain resolute. The loss of momentum that the governor expects does not appear to be imminent. 

Though crowds at the capitol have waxed and waned over the past six days, the determination of all the members of the “Kill the Bill” contingent has remained steady. Because we public sector workers, who are most directly affected by the bill, are committed professionals, and because the public depends upon us daily, many have added “protest” and “rally” to our already long to-do lists. Our previously overwhelmed schedules have been adjusted to include not only fulfilling our responsibilities as teachers, nurses, service workers, etc., but shifting back and forth between our jobs and the Wisconsin capitol. We continue to stand in solidarity with both public and private sector unions, and with the many non-union people who walk beside us. It is a stressful, exhausting and exhilarating endeavor. We are fatigued, sick, and more overworked than ever, but our morale remains high and our resolve will not falter.

Besides the steadfast dedication of the alliance of Wisconsin protesters, what has made these past two weeks in Madison most inspiring is witnessing how the narrative has shifted from reactive to proactive, from local concerns to global awareness. As a student of environmental studies, the aphorism “Think Globally, Act Locally” is familiar to me, but it has taken on a profound and important meaning here in Madison. Previously, Governor Walker dictated (as he appears inclined to do) the points of discussion. The media largely followed suit, as did Walker’s detractors, who concentrated on countering accusations about lazy, greedy public employees who were unwilling to sacrifice, and answering Walker’s erroneous charges tit-for-tat. Walker controlled the conversation by speaking to specific details about budget shortfalls and collective sacrifices. He advanced the false dichotomy, perpetuated by most Republicans and Democrats alike (see Obama’s recent 2012 budget bill) which claims that the only possible means of balancing a budget are either to slash spending on public employees and public services or to lay off the workforce. Certainly, creative alternative policies exist to address excess government spending and to generate revenue without inflicting undue harm to the middle and lower classes. What most people here now recognize is that our fight is less about Wisconsin fiscal issues than it is about the consolidation of wealth in the hands of the few, both in our state, in our country, and around the world.

During the first week of our uprising and at the first large Saturday rally, discussions mainly focused on the rights of workers to collectively bargain and on the unfair, dictatorial character of Governor Walker and his bill. In the past week, the discourse has evolved substantially, placing the effort in Wisconsin into a broader context. Signs at this Saturday’s protests reflected the shift in awareness and the deeper comprehension of the profundity of the battle here in Madison. A sign from National Nurses United declared:
            “Blame Wall Street - No Concessions.”
Inside and outside the rotunda, placards stated:
            “Capitalism is the problem, not the public employees”
            “Hands off workers! Make the banks pay!”
            “Banks got bailed out! We got sold out!”
Most remarkably, perhaps, on an enormous banner cascading into the capitol rotunda was written the solution to the financial hardships facing every state and the nation as a whole:
            “Tax the Rich.”

Most people here in Wisconsin now recognize that our fight is not about our personal stories, however heartbreaking and devastating they may be. The massive redistribution of wealth to the top echelons that occurred primarily in my lifetime marks the heart of this Wisconsin controversy. There is a reason that money, well-wishes, messages of support, and even people have flooded into this state over the past two weeks: this fight is about democracy and justice.

This particular bill not only takes aim at collective bargaining rights, it strips away provisions from state Medicaid programs, and allows for the no-bid sale of state-owned power plants. The plutocratic nature of this bill and the upcoming biennial budget bill is evident. An even more marked deterioration of worker rights, health care provisions, education, and social services is impending. Some of the people who have been sleeping overnight in the capitol have been able to remain there because they are already among the ranks of the unemployed. They recognize the social destructiveness of the administration’s agenda. Instead of bitterly complaining that public employees have it too good and should suffer as they have suffered, as laid out in the script set down by Walker and his corporate masters, these citizens maintain their solidarity. For this is a conflict between the haves – who continually acquire more and more – and the have-nots – who are asked to relinquish more and more. It is a fight against oligarchy. In a country where millionaires and billionaires could pay off state debts with their own personal checkbooks, there is no need to quibble over pennies from citizens who barely get by month-to-month. The demonization of hardworking, dedicated, essential employees as indolent, greedy sloths, and the acceptance, even reverence, of overcompensated, entitled, wealthy individuals -  for whom rewards and hand-outs are a way of life - is exposing itself as a disgraceful, absurd fallacy.

One need not be a philosopher, sociologist, political scientist, economist, or an “expert” of any kind to understand the realities of the present global societal predicament. Though millions around the world constantly struggle with far worse conditions than most in Wisconsin, the line has been drawn here, now. The budget repair bill in the hands of the state senate does not need a systematic analysis of particular aspects and elements. Its relationship to the larger global class war has been exposed. The true battle here has been revealed as a distinctly moral one, so it is incumbent upon us to continue fighting to the end.

Those of us here, even as we periodically leave to teach our classes or to provide other necessary services to our fellow citizens, will not waver. On Friday, my union was evacuated from the capitol office that it had occupied for over ten days. As of this writing, the state Department of Administration has threatened to remove all people from the capitol building by 4pm Sunday. It is unclear yet whether people will go voluntarily or if they will need to be escorted off the premises. In any event, though Scott Walker hopes to construct the appearance of diminishing enthusiasm by the protesters and counts on media fatigue to propagate his own construction of reality, what is clear is that we will remain. You may not see us as often in the paper, you may not hear our voices on your television, but do not be fooled: we are here. We have the moral authority and the moral imperative. As one protest sign succinctly put it: “As long as it takes.”

(For more information, please visit: http://www.defendwisconsin.org)

20 February 2011

The Real Story Behind the Battle in Wisconsin

As someone who has been involved in the protests in Madison for the past six days, I find the news media coverage of the momentous events in this town to in no way portray the reality of what is going on here. In their attempts to constantly be balanced, the news media seem to have lost all ability to be accurate.

The mass protests by unions and their allies that have occurred in Madison, WI, resulted after an abrupt announcement by Governor Walker late last Friday, Feb. 11, that he was introducing and fast-tracking a so-called “Budget Repair” bill, which would not only deeply cut benefits to public workers, but effectively strip unions of all of their collective bargaining rights. The response to the Governor’s move was rapid and in no way orchestrated or long-planned – there was absolutely no possible time for that. By late Monday, Feb 14, the WI state legislature announced a hearing of the bill in the Joint Finance Committee which was open for public testimony. It was then that unions and affected public sector workers began to try to organize to fight the bill.

Interestingly, members of the public, including myself, arrived early Tuesday morning to have our positions heard in the committee hearing on the bill. When the public testimony began, numerous media outlets were present to cover the proceedings. The media portrayed the hearing as a chance for “both sides” to have their voices heard, as if this were an even dispute between two viewpoints with equally numbered constituents. That was not the case. The clerk’s office documented testimony against the bill versus for the bill to be roughly 20 to 1, at least. Moreover, I know first hand that many of the bill supporters who spoke before and after I did had not been waiting in line with the rest of us. Where did they come from? They seemed to be placed into the queue somehow, conveniently, very early in the day when the media was present. As the proceeding wore on, few if any supporters of the bill were present at all.

These six days of protests have been completely non-violent and peaceful. There have been rumblings that protesters have “trashed” the capitol. That is completely false. Members of unions, particularly the Teaching Assistants’ Association (TAA) and the Milwaukee Graduate Assistants’ Association (MGAA), have been regularly organizing volunteer crews to clean up trash and litter.

As crowds swelled from approximately 13,000 on Tuesday, to around 70,000 (some estimate 100,000) on Saturday, the media finally began to take notice. But curiously, most media outlets only began to show up when the Tea Party announced its plans for a counter-rally on Saturday. Contrary to sources, these Saturday rallies did not consist of a meeting of disputing views in virtually equal numbers, nor were they a “clash.” The Walker supporters numbered roughly 700-1000 at most, while the anti-bill, pro-union activists outnumbered them nearly 100 to 1. Furthermore, there was no violence and no confrontation between opposing sides. (But interestingly, it was the first day that the capitol police posted signs on the capitol building stating “No Firearms Allowed.”) The Tea Party contingent barely made a blip with their paltry turnout.

Less than one-quarter of the pro-union activists

Entire Tea Party contingent

Sign that only emerged, after five days of entirely peaceful protests, when the Tea Party arrived

As far as the actual issue at hand, most media outlets merely mimicked the talking points repeated ad infinitum by Governor Scott Walker, and did no investigating into the veracity of his claims, nor any critical questioning about the situation in Wisconsin. Here are some facts:

1. The state of Wisconsin is not facing a financial crisis. Though specific numbers have been continually disputed and some even claim that the state faces a surplus at the end of the 2009-2011 budget, what is clear is that Wisconsin’s financial woes are moderate at most, and do not constitute a dire situation. The $3.6 billion shortfall that Walker keeps repeating is based on the State Budget Office Analysis which calculated the 2011-2013 biennial figures based on agency requests. These requests always exceed actual monies allocated. The 2011-2013 actual budget has not even come out yet. Walker is misrepresenting these details. Moreover, Governor Walker was unconcerned about budget matters when he offered over $140 million in tax incentives to out-of-state multinational corporations, but now he is suddenly unable to afford to take care of his in-state workforce. The “crisis” is manufactured.

2. The government employee unions bargained for and ratified contracts late last year that provided numerous concessions, including but not limited to freezes in compensation for two years and increased health insurance premiums. Unions are not opposed to “sacrifices”; in fact, they had ALREADY agreed to them.

3. The erosion of collective bargaining rights has nothing at all to do with the contrived “Budget Repair.” Stripping unions of their freedom to negotiate will do nothing to help alleviate deficits.

4. The workers in the private sector have not been voluntarily sacrificing for the public good; pay cuts and loss of benefits have been thrust upon them without any say on their part, precisely because they do not have unions to support them.

5. The rhetoric spewed by the right, such as “I lost my pension, so should you” is akin to saying “My legs were cut off, now yours should be, too.” Unionists would prefer that our legs not be cut off – and we would like to see all non-union workers walking again too. Our battle is for the rights of ALL workers, and our victories are YOUR victories. This is trickle-up economics – and it actually works.

6. Union workers are not lazy slackers; indeed they do some of the most difficult jobs imaginable, such as being home-health care workers, factory laborers, and teachers.

7. The gap between rich and poor started to increase in the 1970s and has reached its widest margin today. Coincidentally, during that same time period, massive tax cuts for corporations and for the wealthy have been mounting.

8. The people who have not sacrificed are the wealthy and corporations. They have the ability to repair these purported budget deficits, yet those who can barely make a decent living are instead called upon to lose what little they have. All the while, Wall Street flourishes and the rich continue to accumulate more and more of the financial wealth of the nation.

9. The struggle in Wisconsin is not about my union or any other union; it is class warfare, plain and simple. It is a battle for decent human rights and against the systematic, concerted and well-orchestrated effort to remove all the rights of workers in this country. Anyone and everyone who makes less that a six-figure income – i.e. the poor and middle class - should be outraged by this immoral and unjust bill and united in our effort to protect our right to a decent living.

Why is it that those who have never had to worry about money, never had to sacrifice, and never had to fight for anything in their lives continually get more and more while working folks get less and less? And why, inexplicably, do other working folks support this race to the bottom?

The corporatization of America has already occurred; now we are well into the third-worldification of America.

We Wisconsin workers are fighting for you and fighting for this country. We must win.

15 February 2011

Speech to the Wisconsin State Joint Finance Committee Hearing


I am a graduate teaching assistant with the TAA at UW Madison. As we’ve heard already, this bill has very little to do with repairing the state budget and everything to do with rescinding workers’ rights. The right to collective bargaining is in no way connected to balancing a budget. Taking away workers’ abilities to bargain for their contracts is completely undemocratic and dictatorial. Moreover, even if this bill had anything at all to do with repairing a budget, taking what small scraps are still held by those who have the least (and have the least to do with the deficit) while extending benefits to those who have the most—as the governor recently did by passing tax cuts to big businesses—is an unwise and misguided path toward destruction for the state. President George H. W. Bush called it “voodoo economics” and over the past two decades, he has consistently been proven correct. At no time in American history has the gap between rich and poor been so wide and the unfounded rhetoric against workers and unions been so vitriolic.

There was a time in America when people like my grandfathers—with barely a high school diploma—could raise families, send them to college, protect them with access to health care, and then also comfortably retire on either a public or private sector income. That was because workers enjoyed protections provided by unions, which afforded them a decent life. Those protections have already been systematically destroyed in the private sector, as CEOs have amassed record wealth while employees have suffered record losses. Now, public sector workers’ rights are at risk as well. This constitutes a race to the bottom. It is an unethical and immoral way to run a business or a government. It is also an enormous political miscalculation. As people lose all rights, they also lose all fear. There will be nothing more left to lose. And as we’ve seen in recent weeks, people around the world are no longer tolerating their lack of freedom under dictatorial regimes. With this bill, Wisconsin will not be “open for business”; it will be closed, indefinitely, for repair.

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