Sunday, February 27, 2011

Watching Wisconsin

On Friday I decided to take a personal day to visit the protests in Madison, WI, a state-wide movement which may be shut down by the time you read this, if the authorities carry through with their promise to clear out the Capitol building. Some of my colleagues arrived on Saturday, the 12th day of demonstrations, where crowds were estimated to have swelled to 70,000 people.

The reason for this journey was to document an event that many in the media and at home (including myself) do not fully understand, though this Q & A-formatted article from USA Today is a decent, if not flawed, start. The controversy is said to be about a "budget repair bill" that Governor Scott Walker wants to pass in order to help balance the state budget. I wanted to cut through the rhetoric of politicians and pundits and talk to (and interview) as many people as possible who were circling the city center in the cold.

I started with a simple question: why are you here?

Early in the morning, I spoke to Jane and Erin, two elementary education teachers (and mothers) who were off work that day and who had their energetic kids in tow. As I made my way to the Capitol building, I saw some other parents point to a statue of Governor Robert "Fighting Bob" LaFollette and explain to their children how LaFollete's progressive "Wisconsin idea" (of the early 1900s) is somehow still relevant today. I interviewed elevator construction workers and rubbed shoulders with ginormous plumbers and pipefitters as they politely marched passed me. Finally, after the camera batteries depleted, I used my phone to record a conversation with two passionate college students from Milwaukee (who had slept there for two nights) in a dark corner of the nearly deafening Capitol interior.

I never saw any counter-protesters, unfortunately. But over and over, the people I spoke to answered my question the same way: we are here because of collective bargaining. Nothing about wages or pensions or layoffs. What makes this such an important issue both nationally and historically that would inspire this kind of response? What do you understand about the protests? What's at stake? How does this fit into a larger story of what has been happening in our country?


Kristen O. said...

While I'm not one hundred percent clear on the situation going on in Wisconsin, I know that workers are protesting for their right to collective bargaining. If this was taken away they wouldn't have the right to strike for higher wages amongst other things. I believe that so many people are protesting this because they feel if this is taken away in Wisconsin, it will set a precedent. I agree with the workers and feel that what the government is doing is wrong.
On a lighter note, my dad's friend Steve Rashid is a composer who grew up in Wisconsin, and he wrote this song for the workers protesting.

ReedKO said...

Like Kristen, I do not know a lot about what is currently taking place in Wisconsin. Other than bits and pieces of interviews that I have seen and heard on the tv and radio and what my parents have said about it, I have no knowledge of the events. Reading the Q&A from USA today helped me to understand the situation better. When I found out that John Kasich, the new Republican Governor in Ohio, was close to passing a similar law, I was a bit taken aback. I thought at first that the law was just a poor decision made by Scott Walker, but to know that others are following in his footsteps worries me. I personally feel that this law is unconstitutional, due to the fact that it takes away certain rights from some people, and not from others. In response to the question of what's at stake, I feel that Scott Walker is just the tip of the iceberg. If this law stays active, it may pave the way for more states to make similar laws. I went to my Dad's office on Friday, and heard some people go as far as to say that this public unrest could be compared to what took place in Egypt, with a leader upsetting his people. Regardless, this law must be stopped before it spreads farther.

HenryD said...

Scott Walker expresses his reasoning behind the removal of collective bargaining of benefits in an interview:

I am not siding with him or the strikers; I just thought that everyone should know WHY Walker wants to employ these ideas.

Emma said...

Thanks Henry, that interview was really helpful. I think Walker's main point in the interview was that the state can't afford collective bargaining anymore, because when they pay union members, the money is yet again being funneled in to the union to use collective bargaining to get higher salaries, and it creates a "vicious cycle". With that being said, I still don't think it's right to endanger collective bargaining. I understand the state's worries that they can't handle it financially, but when you limit the rights of a group of people, like Kristen mentioned, it openes the doors for more rights to be limited. If other states see that this could help Wisconsin limit their spending, they will surely follow.

Doc OC said...

Good discussion here. As a critical reader, I want to make a distinction between Scott Walker's reasoning and what Scott Walker says his reasoning is. This is not a trivial distinction, particularly since this info-mercial is being carried by the staunchly conservative Heritage Foundation site. They're own website crows about their commitment to "limited government, free enterprise... and a strong national defense."

It seems to me he is striking a definite persona with his open collar shirt. He wants to appeal to a certain demographic, one that sees the governor as "the CEO of the state.

Revealingly he twice quotes himself as saying, "We're broke, and I think it's about time somebody stood up and told the truth." Walker goes on to say that "when [he] asked unions for 'a little bit more in pensions or contributions' they basically said, "Forget it. Go ahead and lay 500-600 people off. That's what their mindset is." Does that seem like a reasonable characterization?

Leland L. said...

When I spoke with my parents last week about the situation, my mom was more concerned with telling me about the history of labor unions, and she began a long rant about the Haymarket Square incident in Chicago more than a century ago:

I believe it is important to understand the origin of the unions' rights to negotiate their terms of work to fully understand the Wisconsin issue. The 8 hour workday, 5 day workweek, and mandatory offered breaks were products of this revolution.

When one worker demands a pay increase, an employer could easily replace that insubordinate worker with another willing to work for the same wage. But when an entire industry bands together to fight for their rights, and no one is left to fill that employer's void, the employer is forced to negotiate. To the best of my understanding, that is a basic interpretation of what is being fought for.

HenryD said...

Now that you mention it, Doc OC, I did notice he contradicted himself more than once. At the beginning of the video, Gov. Walker states that “for us this is about balancing the budget...” However, the proposed legislation isn’t about balancing the budget because as Gov. Walker said (at 4:15), “The unions have already given in on pensions and healthcare.” This appears to be more about taking away the right of unions to collective bargain on benefits and pensions than "balancing the budget".

Dani C. said...

Like many of you, I don't know that much about this topic either. When I read some articles, I came to a similar conclusion to Leland's, regarding industries banding together, "forcing the employer to negotiate".

I may be misinterpreting, but the thing that I don't understand is, even if this law was put into effect, how would it be enforced? I always think that if the entire class decided not to write a paper, what would happen? Probably nothing. The same thing I question here. If an entire company goes on strike (or an extremely large percentage), doesn't the company essentially have to oblige?

trevork said...

I too have limited knowledge of this. This weekend I went on a college visit to UW completely unrelated to the strikes. I did visit the protests however, and found that many posters were saying not only to "kill the bill", but also asking if this is a democracy (meaning America). At first I thought of course this is, Scott Walker was elected into office by the people of Wisconsin. But, if there is such strong support against an issue why would there not be at least a discussion to change parts of the bill? I understand that I do not know everything behind the bill, but it seems strange that Walker is not considering the protests significant enough to make some changes to the bill.

David said...

I understand how this can be taken as a wrong idea to limit the power of the unions, but I don't think so. The way I understand it, the unions will lose money, but will still be able to bargain for pay. Isn't that what its all about? I understand that we don't want our workers to have terrible conditions and such, but don't we now have laws to prevent that kind of thing? I won't pretend to understand what collective bargaining is completely, but I gather that it is just when a group of people go to their employer and ask for better wages and benefits and stuff. I think that's fine. I don't have a problem with the unions losing strength. Who needs a union if the people are all together to collectively bargain? The only problem that I have with all of this is that it is about power. It seems like all this is trying to do is to cause the Democrats to lose power. That seems unfair and underhanded, but it is entirely legal. It just shows that both parties get kind of drastic when they want their way.

Kevin S. said...

David, you raise a good point that this conflict is a power struggle. However, there are some things about the bill that I would like to clarify for you and the other commentators.

It is being reported by many major news outlets that the bill eliminates collective bargaining for benefits, working conditions, overtime, and vacations, but allows unions to negotiate pay. This is true only in the most superficial sense. The fact is that the bill severely restricts public-employee unions’ right to bargain for pay as well. Unions would not be allowed to negotiate raises above the rate of inflation unless they pass a public referendum. There is almost no chance that a referendum for pay raises would be successful, so that is not really an option. This means unions would not be able to raise their pay enough to compensate for cuts in benefits and other things that they are forbidden to negotiate. Because even the right to negotiate pay is restricted, unions will never get what their members want. It is only logical that public-employees will decide not to pay their dues because they will not be getting any services from their union.

I hate to be a polemicist, but in this case I think that the argument is essentially whether public-employee unions should exist or not. The middle ground is extremely fragile because a weak union quickly becomes no union at all. It is great to debate the issue of public-employee unions, but we need to know the real consequences of our decisions.

S. Bolos said...

@Kevin: thanks for illuminating the finer points of the bill that so often are obscured by over-simplified media coverage. It's gratifying to know that someone is doing some deeper digging.

@David: I talked to one Wisconsin construction worker who said that collective bargaining was important because his group was able to negotiate schooling into their contract. Police officers were able to negotiate bullet-proof vests into their contracts.

Without this valuable right, both of these workers would have to pay for these critical tools out of their own pockets and I doubt the quality of either would be as high.

Lizzy said...

I just finished reading a NY Times article about this topic. (See it at

It sounds like what basically ended up happening yesterday is that the Republican senators "removed elements of Governor Walker’s bill that were technically related to appropriating funds, thus lifting a requirement that 20 senators be present for a vote". The line of the article that bothered me the most was that many of the Democrats apparently were not aware of the vote that was about to take place. It was called a "violation of open meeting laws".

I think one key issue is whether the rights of American workers are more important than a state being able to balance its budget. The country has been in debt at almost all points throughout its history and we are still a major superpower, almost indisputably due to our emphasis on human rights. Judging by the fact that, Wisconsin should be careful about killing unions to save some cash.