Sunday, July 28, 2013

Issue #123- The Struggle Continues

The Struggle Continues…
. . . Everywhere for Everyone

What eventually was named the "Wisconsin Uprising" started in February, 2011 with the massive protests against Act 10.  What began as a response by organized labor to a direct attack on one of their last remaining strongholds, public sector employees, quickly became a more widespread movement that encompassed not only labor, but a wide range of other progressive causes.  This movement gained momentum and much of the energy shifted to the political realm with the unsuccessful recall of Governor Walker and the somewhat successful recall of multiple state senators.  The political energy from the recalls spilled over into the 2012 General Elections and helped President Obama and Tammy Baldwin win Wisconsin in a convincing fashion.  At the same time a number of important legal battles involving Voter ID, labor laws and the constitutionality of other pieces of legislation were also being waged.   

While the political and legal actions surrounding the Uprising got most of the press coverage and national attention, a number of frequently overlooked, but no less important movements involving civil disobedience and continuing efforts to put pressure on legislators and law enforcement was ongoing.  These smaller scale, lower profile efforts by small groups and individual citizens have kept the public aware of the fact that the issues that spawned the protests and the movement that arose from the conflict have not disappeared.  In many ways the continuing efforts of these protestors has galvanized support and provided inspiration for many to continue the fight against the extreme conservatism of the Wisconsin Republican Party.  These are things that anyone can participate in whether it's wearing a shirt or button, expressing opinions in the media, simply going to the capitol, or any other action.  They don't require huge amounts of money, extensive dedication of time or any other large commitment of resources (although many individuals have devoted substantial resources to the effort, above and beyond expectations). 

One of the most visible and consistent resistance efforts has been the Solidarity Sing that has been held in the state capitol building every week day for well over two years.  The Sing is simply what it sounds like, a group of people gathering at noon to sing songs of protest, solidarity and hope.  There are as many reasons to sing as there are individuals who participate, but one of the major goals of the Sing is to remind anyone at the capitol that the resistance is still alive and a part of the political and social fabric of Wisconsin. 

At various times the Solidarity Sing has been going on with little fanfare, but at other times the Sing bursts into the news.  It has always been an irritant to Republican legislators and conservative spokespeople.  They have tried, unsuccessfully, to ban the Singers and make the Sing illegal.  Now, fresh on the heels of a recent court ruling the Department of Administration is cracking down on the Solidarity Sing with renewed vigor.      

Along with the official actions against the Sing comes the usual attacks on members of the uprising through the media and directly in person.  Comments after news articles about the arrests this week brought back the angry emotions and vitriolic attacks from the protests and recalls of 2011 and 2012.    

"I wonder who can afford to keep showing up and protesting? Are they all welfare people? Out of work city employees? Maybe they are all union people who have someone covering for them at work? Regardless, A nice way to show some respect for our capitol building. Tried to visit the capitol bldg a few weeks past....protestors spoiled it all for me. Many needed a bath and haircut. Some smelled pretty bad. Guess that answers my first question eh!"

"I wish I had the free time to waste that these libtards do gathering at the capitol all day long."

"How come there are NO RICH or so called RICH REPUBLICANS at the CAPITOL singing.....Oh that's right they are working......MY BAD..........................​"

Unfortunately these emotional responses are not simply confined to words and online comments.  The climate that exists when people are exposed to such uninformed and inflammatory remarks spawns even more extreme actions.  

While some would argue that Singers and other protesters should give in and either comply with the regulations or even stop their efforts, the hateful and excessive responses to their protests make their efforts even more important.  It is only by continuing to highlight the restrictions on Civil Rights and the inequitable policies that are being implemented in Wisconsin that the general public will be aware of what is happening.  They not only inform, but they inspire others to continue in the long standing Wisconsin and American tradition of standing up for our rights.  As Zeb Page, visiting Madison from Ohio, said, "When we were in town for a family reunion, we really felt it was important to bring our kids here and show them, you know, what it is to be an American."  They have even helped inspire others around the United States to engage in peaceful civil disobedience.     

Those who oppose the Sing forget that the rights that the Singers espouse are the ones that allow them to live, work and express their opinions in modern America.  Most of us don't need to look too far back on our family trees to see some ancestors who were part of a group that was "undesirable" and excluded from power.  Whatever your ethnicity or race each successive wave of immigrants to our nation was considered less than those who were already established here.  While too many people are forced to continue to fight for acceptance into the upper echelons of American society, it is only through the promotion of equal rights and just policies that any of us (outside of a relatively small number of existing elites) can entertain hopes of achieving political or economic success.    

Simply criticizing the Singers and their supporters with unfounded attacks on their job status, intelligence and using insulting rhetoric is one thing.  In fact, while members of the Uprising certainly don't condone or appreciate the negative comments, we also recognize that the First Amendment is a statement that gives voice to all sides.  However, the use of force by the state is something much more sinister.  It is an example of exactly what many so called conservatives would argue against, excessive regulation of individual rights.  Instead of attacking protesters and hiding behind the very government power that they speak against it would be great if people from all political persuasions could look at facts and find common ground.     

If all of the uproar over the singing in the capitol can start the discussion moving in a positive direction then I'm sure that many Singers would feel like their efforts have been worthwhile. 

. . .For Worker's Rights
We keep having the same arguments around other topics as well.  Among the most prominent of these is Worker's Rights.  In modern America one of the most important aspects of an individual's life is their occupation and all the issues that surround it.  We rely on our jobs for income, important benefits and social status.  Having a voice in your employment conditions would seem to be a non-issue, or even "common-sense".  Yet, a significant number of conservatives and other anti-labor groups continue to wage war against unions and organized labor.

The Walker administration and GOP led legislature have taken the attacks to a new level over the past couple of years.  They have made a special effort to target public sector unions, but have not hidden their dislike of any organized labor.  The conflict has been bitter, divisive and costly.

Unfortunately, Wisconsin isn't the only state that has been enacting strong anti-labor measures, and the efforts are clearly visible at the national level.  

Anti-union rhetoric follows a few basic lines of thinking.  One is that since the economy is struggling and many people are suffering in the private sector it is only fair that public employees lose their rights, wages and benefits as well.  Another tries to paint unions as anti-freedom and anti-American.  They use language to portray their "reforms" as in the best interest of individual workers.  Or, as Scott Walker said about his policies, "We were trying to empower workers and give them a choice.  If workers saw value out of their union, then they have every right to stay put. But if they didn't, they could make that choice." 

Yet, while expressing ideals of "Freedom" and "Choice", the anti-labor policies of our political leaders actually promote outcomes that are exactly the opposite of the words they use.  They create an unequal and biased playing field where union membership becomes a punishment and not a choice.    

This anti-union thinking is parroted by everyday citizens who voice their resentment, bitterness and misguided thinking in attacks on those fortunate to enjoy the benefits and protections of a union.  Unions provide a great deal for all workers, not just those who they represent directly.

There is a certain amount of irony and a sense of inevitability that looms over the current anti-union legislative and policy fights.  While modern conservatives fight to eliminate union from the workplace, it is clear that they will ultimately fail in their efforts.  The irony is that, by undermining decades of labor law and a relatively peaceful labor climate the conservatives are giving life to a movement that was faltering.  They are also increasing the intensity of the movement and the actions that are supported by workers.  Had Governor Walker taken more time and slowly implemented his "reforms" would there have been 100,000+ people on The Square in 2011?  Would there have been a record number of recalls in 2011-12?  Just like the crackdowns on the Solidarity Singers increase the dedication of those involved, so too, attacks on organized labor cause many workers to see the value of organizing in their workplaces. 

The sense of inevitability comes from the recognition that history is often cyclical in nature.  No single idea or philosophy is able to achieve complete domination for very long.  We see movements and ideals rise and fall throughout history.  Organized labor is a thread that can be traced throughout our history and it is one that continually resurfaces as workers struggle for their rights in the workplace.  It is a battle between the small number of wealthy elite who seek to maintain their hold on power and the larger number of workers who seek fair compensation, safe working conditions and a voice in their place of employment.

Organized labor promotes policies that are good for our entire economy.  It makes no sense to concentrate a vast majority of our wealth in the hands of a small number of people and corporations.  Economic policies that promote this type of concentration of wealth are doomed to failure.

Not only do we see conservatives using rhetoric against progressive ideals, but they also use numbers to justify their resistance to progressive policies.  However, just like the rhetoric that says one thing and accomplishes another, the data that is used is often manipulated and questionable.  

The impact that unions have on the workplace can be clearly seen in the differences between public and private educational employment opportunities.  The predominantly non-union private school educators make almost $15,000 a year less on average than their more unionized public educators.  They also typically have fewer protections and less of a voice in their school's curriculum and policies.  Eliminating educator unions won't make the educational job marketplace more competitive, it will simply lower the standards for employment in the field.   

In order to recruit and retain high quality educators some districts are realizing that they must include educators in discussions around wages, benefits and working conditions.  While some districts, usually in more conservative areas, continue to resist the inevitable, most districts recognize the need for their employees to be respected and listened to, at least to some degree.  While conditions in Wisconsin are still unfavorable to educators, there is always the hope that we are seeing a shift in the climate.  In order to continue the progress educators across Wisconsin need to continue their efforts to organize and speak out about important issues and concerns that they have.     

. . .For Public Education
The attacks on public educator unions are political in nature.  Unfortunately, one consequence of the efforts to destroy public educator unions and undermine public education is the inevitable harm that it does to students.  Eliminating teacher tenure ends the ability of educators to speak out against the "reforms" that hurt our students.  Voucher programs provide false promises of educational opportunity for too many.  These efforts are ongoing in many states across the nation. 

The end result is a segregated and unequal system of schools, and an educational system driven by political goals and profit margins, not educational opportunities. 

However, just like the attacks on organized labor provoked a strong response, we are seeing signs of "open rebellion" in many places.  More and more people are becoming aware of just what their public schools do for the communities they live in and how important it is to defend our schools.    

Here in Madison we are continuing to look for ways to improve the quality of our schools for all students, while still preserving the things that make our school valuable assets and places of opportunity.  I was part of the group that worked on this Framework, and while there is always room for improvement in any plan, the discussion around the Framework represented a very positive effort from my perspective.  The fact that so many voices were included in the discussion and that the tone of the discussion focused on optimistic, student and school centered changes means that we are headed in the right direction.  We can continue to move away from heavy handed "reforms" towards real a transformation of our schools that blends new knowledge and valuable experience into a cohesive whole.         

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