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Eugene Weekly : Viewpoint : 2.24.11

On Wisconsin

A letter from labors front lines

Cameron Macdonald

We thought it was bad when he gave away our train, returning Wisconsins federal funding for a proposed Midwest high-speed rail network.

Cameron Macdonald on right. Photo by Robert Beattie

Photo by Bill Cronon

Gov. Scott Walker, in office only six weeks, inadvertently set off the largest labor protest in recent U.S. history when on Feb. 11 he proposed the so-called "Budget Repair Bill” in the state of Wisconsin. The bill calls for many things, including drastic cuts to Medicaid, unilateral reductions in state employee benefits, and ã by the way ã busting state and local public employee unions. No wonder he put the National Guard on alert when he announced the bill.

In another state these measures might have passed quietly through the Legislature, but not in Wisconsin. What began as an "I &#9829 UW” delivery of 2,000 Valentines cards to the governors office on Monday the 14th quickly swelled by Saturday the 19th to over 60,000 protestors chanting, "This is what Democracy looks like!”

A few heartening tidbits in the midst of the mobilization: During the full week of protests, fewer arrests have been made than at an average UW Badger football game. Ians Pizza Delivery near the Capitol has delivered over 300 pizzas to occupying protesters ã pizzas from donors in Egypt, Belgium and almost every state in the union. Protesters have cleaned up garbage around the Capitol lawn leaving it cleaner than normal for snowmelt season.

Wisconsinites are unfailingly nice. We won the Superbowl and didnt overturn a single car. The atmosphere inside the Capitol, while smelling a bit like a dairy barn by day seven, has been noisy and friendly. When the firefighters union (who were exempted from the bill) paraded through the protest with bagpipes, they were met with hugs and high-fives. The AFL-CIO delivered bratwurst to cheers (yes, there is a food theme here). So we are polite, we have a sense of humor and we eat a lot.

But dont mess with our unions. The first public employee union in America, AFSCME, was founded in Wisconsin in 1932. We also take seriously our state motto, "Forward.” We dont want to become a "right to work state” with low wages, oversized classes, and understaffed hospitals. We are proud of our public schools, ranked number two in the nation in standardized tests.

Union leaders and average citizens made clear that the protest is not about the money; it is about protecting bargaining rights. Citizen testimony in opposition to bill has continued almost nonstop since Feb. 15. The Capitol has been peacefully occupied 24 hours a day since hearings began. When the Republicans in the Senate, who hold a 19-14 majority, called an early vote on the bill on Thursday, Feb. 17, with 35,000 protesters in and around the Capitol building, the Democratic senators faced a dilemma ã turn their backs on the protesters or, as one protester put it, "make the ultimate sacrifice” and go to Illinois. They left Wisconsin and have not returned ã leaving the Republicans one vote short of the quorum needed.

Ironically, none of this needed to happen. While there are budget problems, Walkers "repair bill” is about power and paybacks, not finance. Facing his so-called "budget emergency,” one of Walkers first acts was to quickly pass over $110 million in tax breaks for corporations and the rich. For those watching from afar, remember, 1) Walker worsened the deficit, and 2) the state unions have already offered to help him fix the budget. The unions will take his cuts if he leaves their bargaining rights alone. He refuses.

So while our high-speed rail runs in California and Illinois, we Wisconsinites can proudly say that we have given our fellow states another gift: The rebirth of the labor movement.

Cameron Macdonald is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. She studies the service sector and care work more broadly. Her most recent book, Shadow Mothers: Nannies, Au Pairs and the Micropolitics of Mothering, is available from University of California Press.