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Guest Column: Is democracy coming to America?
Reflections on my trip to Madison
Editor’s note: Thousands of protesters have gathered outside the capitol building in Madison, Wis., the past couple of weeks to rally against a bill that would eliminate collective bargaining rights for most public workers in the state of Wisconsin.
The bill would allow unions to represent workers but restrict unions from seeking pay increases above those attached to the Consumer Price Index, unless approved by a public referendum. It would also force unions to have annual votes to stay organized and eliminate union dues. Local police, firefighters and state troopers would retain their collective bargaining rights under the bill. Additionally, public workers would have to pay half the costs of their pensions and at least 12.6 percent of their health care coverage under the bill. That would equal an average of an 8 percent increase in state employees’ share of pension and health care costs.
Public employees were promised no furloughs or layoffs if the bill passes. Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) has said he would have to lay off up to 6,000 state workers if the measure does not pass.
In an MSNBC interview, Walker called the bill “incredibly fair” and said it would help the state avoid sweeping job cuts.
The bill is projected to save $30 million by July 1 and $300 million over the next two years to address a $3.6 billion budget shortfall, as projected by Republican leadership.
By Dan Kenney
History is being made in Wisconsin. The world is watching, and a line has been drawn in Madison. The state has once again become what former Wisconsin Gov. Bob La Follett (R) once called “a laboratory for democracy.”
The capitol truly has been transformed into the “house of the people.” The air filled with unique electricity that only a large number of people gathered together with a common purpose—full of strength and hope—can generate.
One can feel the hair stand up on your neck as you stand in the rotunda with hundreds of all ages, all colors, singing the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” the united voices echoing off the marble walls.
I often found myself just standing there smiling, looking around me and soaking up the energy that only a democracy in action can generate.
Supporters of the “Tea Party” and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) were also there, but all heated debates I witnessed were civil. One man I spoke with held a sign that read, “Teachers and Senators get back to work.” He told me his story and why he was against unions. His father died when he was 5. He had very little education. He always had to work to support others. And even though he had carpentry skills, he could not get in the union because he didn’t know anyone who could set him up as an apprentice. So, he was against unions because he had been shut out of them. And he was against across-the-board pay raises for all teachers, regardless of their ability.
As I listened to his story and the stories of others, it was clear many who are speaking out against the protests are actually just expressing what the liberal class or a true Democratic Party once provided. The ones I spoke with Saturday, Feb. 19, were being affected and beaten down by the same system. They were speaking from their individual pain, but had just been listening to the right-wing pundits for their talking points.
I hope the national debate will move from the present divide of union vs. non-union. Instead, we need to have a conversation about why, for so many years, an increasing share of our national wealth is going to the richest 1 percent while the vast majority of Americans, union and non-union, have seen their own incomes stagnate or decrease. Or why corporations in the U.S. that have outsourced jobs to foreign countries pay little or no taxes.
At any rate, while I stood in the capitol building of Wisconsin, banners everywhere, posters taped to the walls, with the music and singing echoing off the marble, I felt that change, real change might be possible. This time, there is no one charismatic leader; there isn’t any personality cult to distract, it is just honest, hard-working people coming together on a public square, in a public government house, debating the issues of the day and standing up for their rights to gather, to voice their grievance, and to participate in their government.
Dan Kenney of DeKalb, Ill., is a fourth-grade union teacher and co-coordinator of both the DeKalb Interfaith Network and No Private Armies.
From the Feb. 23-March 1, 2011, issue