“Meet me at the bottom, don’t lag behind
Bring me my boots and shoes
You can hang back or fight your best on the front line
Sing a little bit of these workingman’s blues”
— “Workingmen Blues #2-Bob Dylan
As soon as I got word that workers, students and others were going to protest the attempt by Governor Walker of Wisconsin to destroy the public sector workers’ unions I got in touch with friends and acquaintances I knew up that way. After a brief query as to their willingness, I sent them a set of questions. However, since the protests have been going nonstop since the first wave on Monday, February 14, 2011, I did not receive any responses the entire week. Between organizing and attending the protests, sitting in the Capitol building overnight and taking care of their daily lives, no one had the opportunity to sit down with their laptop and write out any responses. Finally on Sunday, February 20, 2011, I got an email from one of my contacts, Elizabeth Wrigley-Field, a teaching assistant at University of Wisconsin-Madison. She promised me that she would send me a completed interview by the morning of Monday, February 21, 2011. As it turned out, she did me one better. While she sat in the Capitol building Sunday night, not only did she respond to my questions, she also got three of her fellow protesters to respond. Here is the result. — Ron
(Responses collected between midnight and 2 AM (early hours of Monday, Feb 21) in the Wisconsin State Capitol.)
Ron: To begin, please introduce yourself. Are you all students? Are you employees of the Wisconsin government?
My name is Matthew Wisniewski and I’m an academic staff member for the University of Wisconsin. I graduated from the UW in December of 09. I am not a member of a union.
My name is Andrew Stefan. I’m a graduate student in the Latin American studies program at UW Madison. I’m not affiliated with a union but I’m a member of the International Socialist Organization.
My name is Philip Patterson. I’m a “house husband” from Ypsilanti Michigan.
My name is Elizabeth Wrigley-Field. I’m a graduate student at UW-Madison, active with the Teaching Assistant Association and the International Socialist Organization.
Ron: Can you briefly summarize Governor Walker’s proposed cuts to the state budget including, but not limited to, the proposals related to state workers?
Matthew W – Gov. Walker says he wants to help repair the budget by raising the percent of of our pensions we pay to 5.8%, and our healthcare to 12%. Most importantly, he wants to remove the public worker union’s rights to collectively bargain with the state about anything but salary, but he’s limiting the amount salaries can be raised to inflation and it can only be higher by public referendum. This decision has a ton of repercussions including the loss of federal funding for public transportation in Madison and possibly Milwaukee.
Elizabeth WF: The bill would double health premiums for many workers who truly can’t afford it. Because of rising health care costs, many public-sector workers in Wisconsin were earning less each year even during the boom — because they bargained to keep their health care costs low at the expense of wage increases to keep pace with inflation. Now they would lose their low health care costs to bear the price of the economic bust even though they never shared in the boom.
Part of what has most defined this particular struggle — almost as much as the continuous occupation of the state capitol building for six days now, or the four days of teacher “sick-outs” supported by students and their families — is the continual public testimony we have provided against the bill. This testimony was literally continuous from Tuesday morning until Friday night — at any time of day or night, someone was speaking against the bill — and has continued for the majority of each day since then. Well, when you listen to the testimony what you see is that this bill is a matter of economic survival for many, many people in Wisconsin. If it passes, they expect to lose their homes. Teachers who love their work may need to search for other jobs (whether they’ll be able to find them in this economy is another matter). This struggle is not only about economic survival — it’s also about a vilified group of workers asserting their dignity and pride in what they do — but it is about that.
Ron: How do you perceive these cuts, if enacted, would affect the citizens of Wisconsin, specifically those who do not work ofr the government?
Matthew W – Public workers would have significantly less income to spend on local business. More importantly, public unions having fewer rights and public workers making less opens private workers to wage cuts.
Elizabeth WF – There’s actually a fair amount in the bill that’s not about public-sector workers and that hasn’t gotten much attention–for example, the bill would remove BadgerCare (health insurance) from all undocumented children. So there’s that.
But the main point is this: at this point, if Walker succeeds in ramming this through, he’ll probably be able to ram through everything else he’s planning. We don’t know what all of that is — he’s delayed releasing his full budget, presumably because he doesn’t want to release it while thousands of protesters are occupying the state capitol — but media here have reported that the cuts to UW-Madison would result in a 26% tuition increase over just two years. People in this state can’t afford that, and that’s just one piece of the budget we haven’t seen. The flip side is that if this struggle wins, it’s going to reinvigorate the labor movement everywhere. Even having come this far is, to my mind, a real victory.
One thing that has distinguished these protests is the unity of labor unions who seem to understand that this is a battle of labor as a whole, not just a particular section of it. In fact, it feels like a battle of the whole town or the whole state: local businesses are pouring donations in to the capitol; walking toward the capitol in the morning, you can effectively end up in a feeder march as protesters converge, unplanned, from all side streets. The private-sector cafe workers I buy breakfast from when I haven’t stayed over at the capitol are so excited to give me a protester’s discount and free coffee and ask me if I have any new information. This doesn’t feel like a stand for particular people, but for everyone.
Ron: How will they affect you?
Matthew W – I will have to pay 5.6% more to my pension and double what I pay for healthcare.
Philip P. – What happens in Wisconsin is going to set the momentum for the coming struggle against austerity measures across the nation, and especially my home state of Michigan.
Ron: I live in North Carolina and work for a county library system. There is no union. We were recently told to prepare for a ten percent budget cut. Already, we have seen our medical insurance costs increase about 35%, have had two vacation days per year taken away, and face the possibility of reduced hours, the layoff of part time staff, and perhaps even some closings. For those on assistance, the maximum income level has decreased, thereby throwing hundred if not thousands off the rolls of grants and medical care, even for their children. In addition, hundreds of schools throughout the state are threatened with closure. Yet, the outcry has been nowhere equivalent to the destruction of the social fabric thse cuts will produce. I noticed that you are involved with a group of people determined to fight similar cuts in Wisconsin. What can you tell us about that?
Elizabeth WF –
The most important thing to say about the protesters here, I think, is their breadth. There are four main groups:
blue collar workers, mostly white union workers relatively rural parts of the state;
educators and unionized professional workers from around the state;
high school students, many Black and Latino/a students from cities like Milwaukee and Racine, who have poured out to support their teachers and have been some of the most energetic and enthusiastic protesters.
These are not really social segments who would have been all represented in the same protests before. Now we are protesting together all day long, day after day, talking to one another, cheering each other one, organizing together and debating strategies (especially on Thursday, when we sat in to try to prevent the Senate from voting, before we were certain that the Democrats were all over state lines).
Ron: With the ongoing revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia in mind, what do you say to people who tell you that protest won’t work in this country?
Matthew W – We are the battleground for democracy in the US. We will not fail.
Andrew S – Historically, rights and significant advances in living standards have been won by people almost exclusively through protest and social movements. US history shows that effective organizing takes place outside the system, and in resistance to it. The US political system was designed to exclude, marginalize and repress a vast spectrum of views and ideas. Protest serves as a means by which people with such views and ideas can resist marginalization and actively participate in politics that matter, for the construction of a better world. Protest produces outcomes. The recent victories in Tunisia and Egypt only reinforce this point.
Philip P. – Protest and social movements do change society and history proves this. Taking action is the only way the change things. It’s common sense. Collective action against injustice is the only way to end it.
Ron: In terms of the current economic situation, where should the blame go for the situation many US states find themselves in?
Matthew W – The rich, the banks, and corporations who don’t pay taxes. But mostly to the politicians who allowed us to get into this situation.
Andrew S – Capitalist economics and the US political system itself. Massively disproportionate amounts of federal spending (of public resources) on genocidal military endeavors, the systematic gutting of social welfare programs, vicious attacks on labor, publicly-funded corporate welfare, regressive taxation; all are long-standing policy practices in the US and all are closely linked to the US’ declining living standards and tendency toward authoritarian, corporate governance.
Philip P. – The organized right, who have actively and successfully been waging war on the working class since the eighties, and all of the banks and corporations who have been benefiting from it.
Ron: Given this, why do you think so many overtly pro-business/anti-corporate tax politicians won the recent elections? Or do you think there are any politicians that don’t fit that description?
Matthew W – Because the only people who fund elections are corporations, conservative groups and unions. And unions are being destroyed.
Elizabeth WF – I think it was largely a reaction to the Obama administration having done virtually nothing about unemployment. And the main way the populace has to react is to just vote the other guys in. Hopefully, this protest will invigorate better ways of reacting than that.
Ron: In the immediate wake of the first protests, the GOP legislators have said they will modify the governor’s proposals. Is this true and , if so, will the modifications satisfy the organizers of the protests?
Matthew W – If by modify you mean they will basically do nothing except allow LTE’s to get their healthcare back, and say a Bass Pro Shop can be built on a wetland.
Philip P. The protests will not be satisfied until justice is won. Merely “allowing” the fundamental human right of collective bargaining without leaving anything to meaningfully bargain over is the negation of that right to begin.
Elizabeth WF – We haven’t been allowed to even see all the modifications, but we know they’re a joke. The bigger question is what kind of modifications the Republicans are currently unwilling to consider, but that the unions will be satisfied with if they can get them. At this point, the two most important unions involved in the struggle, AFSCME and WEAC (the statewide teachers’ union), have said that they would accept the full bill if the attacks on collective bargaining were removed. My feeling is that that is very, very far from what people here feel they are fighting for. They are fighting because they don’t feel they can survive the attacks in this bill and because they are tired of being told they have “too much.” So the question of what people will be satisfied with is not really settled.
Ron: Thanks. Hang in there. Working people like me appreciate what you all are doing!
Ron Jacobs is the author of The Way the Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His first novel, Short Order Frame Up, is published by Mainstay Press. His most recent book, titled Tripping Through the American Night is published as an ebook. He can be reached at: email@example.com