Despite temperatures in the mid-teens and a steady snowfall, throngs of taxpaying citizens of Wisconsin assembled at the Madison capitol for the thirteenth consecutive day of the sustained protest of Governor Scott Walker’s budget “repair” bill. Saturday was not only the coldest, but the largest protest yet, with numbers reaching beyond the 70,000 in attendance last weekend. In addition, thousands more rallied inside the capitol building. Walker likely anticipated citizens would withdraw by now and opt for the warmth and comfort of our homes, but we all remain resolute. The loss of momentum that the governor expects does not appear to be imminent.
Though crowds at the capitol have waxed and waned over the past six days, the determination of all the members of the “Kill the Bill” contingent has remained steady. Because we public sector workers, who are most directly affected by the bill, are committed professionals, and because the public depends upon us daily, many have added “protest” and “rally” to our already long to-do lists. Our previously overwhelmed schedules have been adjusted to include not only fulfilling our responsibilities as teachers, nurses, service workers, etc., but shifting back and forth between our jobs and the Wisconsin capitol. We continue to stand in solidarity with both public and private sector unions, and with the many non-union people who walk beside us. It is a stressful, exhausting and exhilarating endeavor. We are fatigued, sick, and more overworked than ever, but our morale remains high and our resolve will not falter.
Besides the steadfast dedication of the alliance of Wisconsin protestors, what has made these past two weeks in Madison most inspiring is witnessing how the narrative has shifted from reactive to proactive, from local concerns to global awareness. As a student of environmental studies, the aphorism “Think Globally, Act Locally” is familiar to me, but it has taken on a profound and important meaning here in Madison. Previously, Governor Walker dictated (as he appears inclined to do) the points of discussion. The media largely followed suit, as did Walker’s detractors, who concentrated on countering accusations about lazy, greedy public employees who were unwilling to sacrifice, and answering Walker’s erroneous charges tit-for-tat. Walker controlled the conversation by speaking to specific details about budget shortfalls and collective sacrifices. He advanced the false dichotomy, perpetuated by most Republicans and Democrats alike (see Obama’s recent 2012 budget bill) which claims that the only possible means of balancing a budget are either to slash spending on public employees and public services or to lay off the workforce. Certainly, creative alternative policies exist to address excess government spending and to generate revenue without inflicting undue harm to the middle and lower classes. What most people here now recognize is that our fight is less about Wisconsin fiscal issues than it is about the consolidation of wealth in the hands of the few, both in our state, in our country, and around the world.
During the first week of our uprising and at the first large Saturday rally, discussions mainly focused on the rights of workers to collectively bargain and on the unfair, dictatorial character of Governor Walker and his bill. In the past week, the discourse has evolved substantially, placing the effort in Wisconsin into a broader context. Signs at this Saturday’s protests reflected the shift in awareness and the deeper comprehension of the profundity of the battle here in Madison. A sign from National Nurses United declared:
“Blame Wall Street - No Concessions.”
Inside and outside the rotunda, placards stated:
“Capitalism is the problem, not the public employees”
“Hands off workers! Make the banks pay!”
“Banks got bailed out! We got sold out!”
Most remarkably, perhaps, on an enormous banner cascading into the capitol rotunda was written the solution to the financial hardships facing every state and the nation as a whole:
“Tax the Rich.”
Most people here in Wisconsin now recognize that our fight is not about our personal stories, however heartbreaking and devastating they may be. The massive redistribution of wealth to the top echelons that occurred primarily in my lifetime marks the heart of this Wisconsin controversy. There is a reason that money, well-wishes, messages of support, and even people have flooded into this state over the past two weeks: this fight is about democracy and justice.
This particular bill not only takes aim at collective bargaining rights, it strips away provisions from state Medicaid programs, and allows for the no-bid sale of state-owned power plants. The plutocratic nature of this bill and the upcoming biennial budget bill is evident. An even more marked deterioration of worker rights, health care provisions, education, and social services is impending. Some of the people who have been sleeping overnight in the capitol have been able to remain there because they are already among the ranks of the unemployed. They recognize the social destructiveness of the administration’s agenda. Instead of bitterly complaining that public employees have it too good and should suffer as they have suffered, as laid out in the script set down by Walker and his corporate masters, these citizens maintain their solidarity. For this is a conflict between the haves – who continually acquire more and more – and the have-nots – who are asked to relinquish more and more. It is a fight against oligarchy. In a country where millionaires and billionaires could pay off state debts with their own personal checkbooks, there is no need to quibble over pennies from citizens who barely get by month-to-month. The demonization of hardworking, dedicated, essential employees as indolent, greedy sloths, and the acceptance, even reverence, of overcompensated, entitled, wealthy individuals - for whom rewards and hand-outs are a way of life - is exposing itself as a disgraceful, absurd fallacy.
One need not be a philosopher, sociologist, political scientist, economist, or an “expert” of any kind to understand the realities of the present global societal predicament. Though millions around the world constantly struggle with far worse conditions than most in Wisconsin, the line has been drawn here, now. The budget repair bill in the hands of the state senate does not need a systematic analysis of particular aspects and elements. Its relationship to the larger global class war has been exposed. The true battle here has been revealed as a distinctly moral one, so it is incumbent upon us to continue fighting to the end.
Those of us here, even as we periodically leave to teach our classes or to provide other necessary services to our fellow citizens, will not waver. On Friday, my union was evacuated from the capitol office that it had occupied for over ten days. As of this writing, the state Department of Administration has threatened to remove all people from the capitol building by 4pm Sunday. It is unclear yet whether people will go voluntarily or if they will need to be escorted off the premises. In any event, though Scott Walker hopes to construct the appearance of diminishing enthusiasm by the protesters and counts on media fatigue to propagate his own construction of reality, what is clear is that we will remain. You may not see us as often in the paper, you may not hear our voices on your television, but do not be fooled: we are here. We have the moral authority and the moral imperative. As one protest sign succinctly put it: “As long as it takes.”
(For more information, please visit: http://www.defendwisconsin.org)