In February 2011 my buddy Matt Thompson asked me to write something about the Wisconsin Act X protests for an anthropology blog called Savage Minds. That site is apparently offline for some reason, so I figured I’d make a mirror of the article I wrote. This is mostly for my own reference (guess who’s working on another book?) and posterity. Feel free to ignore it.
A Whirlwind Week of Wacky Workplace Wreckage in Wisconsin
by Eric S. Piotrowski
I wanted to join Scott Walker for his Fireside Chat on Tuesday evening. (Transcript here.) I was ready for some exciting debate, especially since the riots and chaos I had been promised by FoxNews were either exaggerations or (though I find it hard to believe, coming from such a reputable news organization) total lies. Alas, I was not allowed anywhere near Mr. Walker’s fireplace.
The past couple of weeks have been exhausting. Even more exhausting than my usual school schedule, which — I don’t mind telling you — is exhausting enough already. By Friday evening, my wife and I are usually worn out to the point where an evening out with dinner and a movie is usually replaced by delivery food and a rental DVD. On weekends we grade papers and try to regain our sanity before school starts again. (I teach at Sun Prairie High School; she works at the Wisconsin Network for Peace and Justice, and teaches at Madison Area Technical College.)
So when our pugilist governor announced his plan recently to (among other drastic measures) abolish collective bargaining rights for public-sector employees (which have been protected by Wisconsin law for 50 years), I knew I was facing a whole new level of physical exhaustion and psychic fatigue.
It began when the state teachers’ union WEAC urged us to protest at the capitol building during the day on Thursday 17 February. In ten years as a teacher, I have never chosen to be absent from school, so (like all my colleagues) I thought deeply about this decision. Wouldn’t I be letting my students down? Didn’t I have an obligation to my fellow teachers (and workers)? In which direction did the compass needle of conscience point?
I decided to join the protests, and because so many teachers were gone, the schools were closed. Although I originally claimed my absence was due to “illness”, I wrote an open letter to the district superintendent and my building principal on Friday explaining the truth about why I was gone. (Fortunately, they have both been very supportive; I will probably have my salary docked for the day, and possibly face a letter of discipline, but my job is not in jeopardy.)
As I said in that letter, I wish to apologize to the parents and families in Sun Prairie whose lives were made more difficult by my decision. I know some last-minute childcare/supervision arrangements had to be made, and I hate making other peoples’ lives more difficult. I consider teaching more than a mere job or profession: it is a calling, one which I approach with zest and passionate conviction. (I learned this from my mother, a relentlessly devoted lifetime educator.)
But those of us who do what we love (and love what we do) — even those of us who are prepared to sacrifice wealth, luxury, and material comfort in order to make the world a better place — must still insist on a decent standard of living and some power over workplace decisions. As I’ve said elsewhere, we need a revolution on the way to the revolution. We must sustain our spirits as active participants in this grand democratic experiment, and not abandon our right to leisure as guaranteed by Article 24 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Who Gets to Bargain and Why?
Anyway, back to Walker’s Fireside Chat. I would love to sit down with our C-student governor and discuss the nature, purpose, history, and legitimacy of collective bargaining among public-sector employees. I feel strongly that Wisconsin law is correct to protect the rights of collective bargaining among public-sector employees, but I also recognize that our employment context is very different from that of workers in the private sector. (The collective-bargaining rights of the latter are enshrined in the 1935 National Labor Relations Act.)
Early in this process, I fell in love with a quote from Franklin Delano Roosevelt, from 1937: “The right to bargain collectively is at the bottom of social justice for the worker, as well as the sensible conduct of business affairs. The denial or observance of this right means the difference between despotism and democracy.”
As I quickly learned, however, President Roosevelt was in fact opposed to collective bargaining among public-sector workers. Also in 1937, he wrote a letter in which he declared: “All Government employees should realize that the process of collective bargaining, as usually understood, cannot be transplanted into the public service. [...] The employer is the whole people, who speak by means of laws enacted by their representatives in Congress. [...] Particularly, I want to emphasize my conviction that militant tactics have no place in the functions of any organization of Government employees. [...] Since their own services have to do with the functioning of the Government, a strike of public employees manifests nothing less than an intent on their part to prevent or obstruct the operations of Government until their demands are satisfied. Such action, looking toward the paralysis of Government by those who have sworn to support it, is unthinkable and intolerable.”
Clearly, there is room for discussion. I’m still thinking about these matters, and I don’t enjoy a secure certainty about my arguments against Mr. Roosevelt’s articulate statement. However, as Paul Krugman recently noted: “In principle, every American citizen has an equal say in our political process. In practice, of course, some of us are more equal than others. [...] On paper, we’re a one-person-one-vote nation; in reality, we’re more than a bit of an oligarchy, in which a handful of wealthy people dominate. Given this reality, it’s important to have institutions that can act as counterweights to the power of big money. And unions are among the most important of these institutions.” Given the power that corporations and wealthy individuals exert on government decisions, I believe that collective bargaining is a necessary counterweight, even for public-sector employees.
Finance: State, Local, National, and International
Where was I? Right, Walker’s Fireside Chat. I keep imagining what I would say to our Koch-brothers- and Wal-Mart-supported governor. I would try using logic, I suppose, since that’s what I usually start with.
I would remind him that this isn’t about the money, and never has been. As the Economic Policy Institute recently reported, public-sector employees in our fair state actually make less in wages and benefits than their private-sector counterparts. Most of us could probably make more money if we so chose, but we’re drawn toward professions that help make the world a better place. (As one superb lyricist said in a song about the protests: “I’m not here for the paycheck, but I can’t live without it / Could Walker do what we do? Somehow I kinda doubt it.”)
We teachers make concessions and sacrifices all the time, for the sake of state and local budgets. Every time we negotiate a contract, we accept larger class sizes; fewer teachers and education support personnel; less-frequent resource renewal; more personal payments into health and retirement accounts. Not long ago teachers in Sun Prairie agreed to consolidate our health-care package into a more restricted plan with Dean Health Systems, Inc. I, personally, am pretty happy with Dean, but I’ve heard that others face delays, limited doctor choice, sketchy controls on what is and is not covered, and other complaints not uncommon to HMOs.
I would remind Mr. Walker that labor leaders have indicated that we’re willing to accept the cuts in benefits, if the collective bargaining rights remain unmolested. On Wednesday 23 February, Wisconsin state superintendent Tony Evers made an identical statement. Walker has refused to consider the offer.
If I had the time, I would go into the root causes of our state’s budgetary crisis. I would remind readers that Walker has promised corporations (in the estimation of State Assembly Representative Mark Pocan) $5.3 billion in tax breaks. If I were feeling especially verbose, I might explore the national and international implications of our money woes. I might cite Richard Wolff in The Guardian, who explains how corporations shifted the tax burden onto the middle class after World War II. (And I would encourage everyone to read Donald Barlett and James Steele’s vital 1992 text America: What Went Wrong?)
I might also remind the US public that economies across the nation are suffering largely because of the reckless and insatiable lust for profits among Wall Street executives, as detailed in the final report of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission. I would point out that we’ve seen only minor surface-level baby-step regulatory changes since that catastrophic house of cards came crashing down, and we are probably 99% as vulnerable to a future economic apocalypse as we were when this all began.
If I wanted to get really crazy, I might even connect our current struggle to the transformation of the global economic superstructure that has taken place over the past 30 years, particularly with a focus on the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the World Trade Organization. I would urge people to read Noam Chomsky and Ha-Joon Chang and Jon Jeter.
I would remind working people around the world that these changes are not inevitable, nor are the outcomes (particularly the concentration of wealth into a few hands, and the ubiquitous demands for austerity made of everyone else) a matter of chance. We are all suffering from a deliberate, concerted campaign of policymaking and global rulebook revision.
The Personal is Political
Wow, that was quite a tangent! Back to Walker’s Fireside Chat. Maybe logic wouldn’t be enough to convince Mr. Walker to alter his budget-repair bill. Maybe I should go for a personal approach if I ever get the chance to speak with our campaign-rule-violating governor.
After all, Frederick Douglass famously said, when discussing a somewhat more dire situation than the one we now face: “At a time like this, scorching irony, not convincing argument, is needed. O! had I the ability, and could reach the nation’s ear, I would, to-day, pour out a fiery stream of biting ridicule, blasting reproach, withering sarcasm, and stern rebuke. For it is not light that is needed, but fire; it is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind, and the earthquake.”
To this end, maybe I should describe the demoralization, suspicion, and fear that will surely result in every Wisconsin school — elementary, middle, and high — when our collective bargaining rights are abolished. Despite Walker’s claim to the contrary, local governments and school boards have not been asking for the elimination of collective bargaining. The executive director of the Wisconsin Association of School District Administrators said such steps will “create a very problematic work environment because right now we have an established system and everyone knows how the systems works and there’s a comfort with everyone having a seat at the table. If you take that away, it leads to an uncertain work environment”.
Which leads to some fundamental questions about the nature of workplace democracy. We all seem to agree that citizens should get some say in how the government is run. So why should the same not also be true about the workplace? We deserve a voice in determining the conditions of our work, the distribution of materials and supplies, personnel decisions, and other key areas. Without collective bargaining, our voice is harshly weakened.
Or maybe I should discuss the money. (After all, as the Wu-Tang Clan said: “Cash Rules Everything Around Me”.) Maybe I should tell Walker about the veteran teachers who keep informing me that they won’t be around next year. Every time I hear this, I become more and more saddened. Last year I had to bid goodbye to a good friend and a great teacher named Jim Dahm. He was smart, funny, dedicated, and compassionate. The soul of our district constricted a bit when he left.
And now our district’s soul will wheeze painfully as many of our most experienced, talented, and wise women and men are forced out because of cold economic realities. The soul of our district will be further constricted as young teachers leave to find the aforementioned private-sector jobs that don’t require such painful personal financial sacrifice. One new teacher recently explained to me in precise numeric detail why she simply cannot afford to teach next year. All of this is before the inevitable layoffs.
These things matter. Esprit de corps is important to us as educators, and watching it wither in the face of a partisan powergrab makes me sad. (This is a good spot to drop in a George Washington quote I recently encountered, from his 1796 farewell address: “The alternate domination of one faction over another, sharpened by the spirit of revenge, natural to party dissension [...] is itself a frightful despotism.”) We teachers sometimes describe ourselves as being “in the trenches”, and although I lack the courage or endurance (or view of violence as a legitimate means to resolve political disputes) to join the military, I often think of myself as a kind of soldier, doing battle against the deadly hordes of ignorance and apathy that threaten to consume our civilization.
Miso Soup (and Free Pizza) for the Soul
Fortunately, the explosion of warmth, solidarity, and friendship in and around the capitol building has been glorious. The protests have been remarkable, as they often are. I feel my heart smile when I see my fellow Americans (or humans anywhere on the planet) come together to demand peace and justice. I draw strength from the young people chanting angrily against unchecked executive power, and from the burly men (and women) decked out in workboots and hardhats, telling The Man to get off their backs and respect their rights.
When I arrived in the morning on Thursday, a trickle of yawning students (and other people) traipsed past, clutching sleeping bags and pillows. We applauded and thanked them loudly for burning the midnight oil. Later in the day, boxes of hot pizza appeared and we joyously inhaled slices of cheese and pepperoni, a generous antidote to the bitter cold and lunchtime hunger. These gifts continue to arrive for protesters, funded by supportive citizens in Wisconsin (and elsewhere). Hot chocolate may not do much to sway the powers that be, but it’s a splendid balm for the soul of a frustrated teacher.
And as frustrating as it has been to watch government leaders scapegoat a vulnerable workforce, I have been encouraged mightily by other state legislators working overtime to fight back. After I sent my first wave of emails to all assembly representatives and state senators, I got back many encouraging messages promising solidarity and resistance. While I am troubled by the sight of elected officials fleeing the state, I feel that this is a courageous act of defiance against a legislative body that has subverted the process of democracy.
We are sustaining each other, and these past few weeks have shown the loving spirit of solidarity. It is the same loving spirit that drove William Lloyd Garrison, Cesar Chavez, Harvey Milk, Paul Robeson, Emmeline Pankhurst, Bertrand Russell, Wangari Muta Maathai, Jody Williams, Utah Phillips, the people of Egypt, and countless others to push human civilization forward.
Wisconsin has a proud legacy of progressive activism, and I am proud to stand in the river of tradition that includes Bob La Follette, Tammy Baldwin, and Russ Feingold. I am lucky to find myself at this unique crossroads of history, where the people have stood up and recognized the power of their own voices. Whatever the outcome of this particular battle, we will continue working for a better tomorrow. In a state with such wealth and opportunity, there is no reason for us to accept mediocre public services, inadequate funding for education, or draconian assaults on the rights of working people.
The struggle goes on.