The headlines for my local newspaper today–while not unexpected–were still stunning. “Wisconsin Assembly OKs Bill Taking Away Rights!” What’s more, Wisconsin’s governor and state assembly–by their actions today– may have created shockwaves that will be felt nationwide over the next year to three years.
At the February 22 Boston Solidarity Rally for Wisconsin Workers, I was able to observe up close and personally how the actions of the Wisconsin governor and the Republicans in the legislature have divided our country. On (mainly) one side of the street adjacent to the Boston Statehouse were the unions—the teachers, the firefighters, the ironworkers, the nurses, the Teamsters, and others who were protesting the attempts by Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker to not only force public employees to contribute more to their pensions and health insurance plans, but also to totally eliminate collective bargaining with the single exception of bargaining over salaries. In the event this scenario passes, one might assume that bargaining over such rights as pensions, health care, working conditions, hours, sick leave, vacation time, promotions, layoffs and termination—all of these and more would no longer be subject to collective bargaining.
On the other side of the street–adjacent to the Public Gardens, were the Tea Party members and like-minded individuals who were supporting Governor Walker and seemed to feel that the unions had too much power and that union members possessed too many benefits which were bankrupting the states.
While the rally was peaceful, there was little love lost between the union members and the tea party members. Those with union ties see their benefits and family security being threatened. Teachers spoke about needing the best possible working conditions–including reasonable class sizes–in order to provide the best education for their students. They pointed out that Massachusetts has the best scores in reading and math in the entire country, words echoed by Governor Patrick in his speech near the end of the rally. Other workers spoke about unions having secured safe working conditions in dangerous industries. Many hearkened back to the time of their parents, grandparents, or great grandparents who had to struggle with unsafe conditions prior to the advent of unions.
For the Tea Party members, their focus was on what they see as excessively generous benefits of those in the unions, especially those in the public sector. They repeatedly shouted that unions should have to give up money and benefits–just like others have done in these difficult economic times. To this argument, many union members noted that unions had already sacrificed salary and taken furlough days at difficult economic times in the recent past—that their benefits were hard-earned–often at the expense of no raises or raises which barely met the cost of living increases.
What seemed to be particularly galling to the union members to whom I spoke (some on and some off-the-record) was that the tea party members and their families were all profiting from the work of unions in demanding decent pay and benefits for all—a 40-hour week, a decent minimum wage, safe working conditions, sick leave, protection from unreasonable termination—all benefits that many people simply take for granted today. That these Tea Party members should now be attacking those unions who secured them these benefits that we often call working rights seemed not only extraordinarily ungrateful, but even outrageous.
While union leaders have declared that they would make concessions in both retirement and health care contributions–concessions that would amount to an 8 percent pay cut– as long as they could maintain their rights of collective bargaining for working conditions and benefits, the Governor has turned down that offer and has refused to sit down and negotiate. Governor Walker, for his part, has “refused to either negotiate or compromise.” He is quoted in USA Today as retorting, “We don’t have any money. You can’t negotiate in good faith if you don’t have anything to give…For us, negotiating about not balancing the budget is not an option.”
It is clear that all of the vitriol leveled toward teachers and public workers on radio and television talk shows is having an effect. I heard many of the tea party members mouth words heard on shows featuring Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck. While driving to the rally, I tuned in to talk radio to pass the time, and managed to hear Rush Limbaugh tell his audience that he compares the situation with public workers and teachers to that of bank robbers who have been robbing banks for 30 years and suddenly find that they can no longer rob banks for a living. ” This level of mean-spirited and vicious hyperbole is unacceptable and even contemptible in a democratic society which at one time prided itself on its ability to discuss even the most controversial topics with not only rational thinking, but also at least a modicum of civility and decency.
At this important juncture in Wisconsin’s history, I urge the Governor and the legislature to reconsider. Sit down together. Talk. Surely the words of the Bible would resonate with many of the conservatives in the midst of this battle. “Come now; let us reason together.” (Isaiah 1:18) If all of the stakeholders in this dispute could sit down together–the best and the brightest–who’s to say that better, more equitable solutions would not be in the offing? Some have suggested that perhaps some concessions might be more palatable and more fair if they wer made effective only for workers who entered the profession in the future, while those with 10 or 20 or 30 years of service would be grandfathered under the current benefits packages. There are many creative ideas out there—some offered by politicians, others by teachers or firefighters or nurses or administrators. Yet as long as people shout at one another and rely on threats instead of rational discourse, these ideas may never come to light.
To view the video highlights of the Boston Solidarity Rally for Wisconsin Workers, please see my 3-part video series at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o7jNKgFP78Y and
or just Google “mrgrosky1” –That’s mrgrosky with the number 1 attached at the end!
To view photos from the rally, go to Mitch Grosky flickr website: http://www.flickr.com/photos/mrgrosky/sets/72157626010505141/show/