Assistant Democratic Leader
Monroe County Legislator
On Sunday morning, my mom and I began our journey to Madison, WI. We hadnít planned to visit Wisconsin over Presidentís Day weekend but the events of the previous week left us feeling like we had no other choice. My mom is a retired teacher and Iím a Labor Relations Specialist for NYSUT &mdash needless to say, we are both supporters of unions and the right to collectively bargain.
After traveling 13 hours through snow, sleet, rain, and ice we arrived in the Wisconsin capitol. We were greeted at the hotel by an eager receptionist who said, "Wow. You drove all the way from New York to come here! Which side are you on?" We told her we were on the side of the workers and she then explained how she was a student teacher and had spent the past five nights sleeping in the Capitol building. She also said the anti-union contingent had been very small and insignificant in its presence. She was very excited to have us there. And it was the first of many times we were asked if we had really come from New York State to be there.
On Monday morning, we headed to the Capitol building to join the rally. The show of support from local businesses was the first thing we noticed as we walked the streets. Many businesses had signs in their windows saying, "Small businesses support Unions." A local pizzeria, Ianís, had been giving free pizza and soda to protestors since the rallies began. In one day alone, Ianís had received enough donations from countries around the world and people in other states to allow it to donate more than $10,000 of free pizza to the protestors. Other shops accommodated the protestors and were changing menu items to names like the "union burger."
At the rally, we met thousands of sheetmetal workers, steelworkers, postal workers, teachers, AFSCME members, students, parents and countless others who were joining the fight to save collective bargaining for public sector unions. It was the sixth day of the rallies and they were still going strong. Teachers were there for one more day but had decided to return to their classrooms on Tuesday after four days of closed schools. Happily, others were coming to take their places during the day. The atmosphere was nervous, but excited, and incredibly peaceful and well-organized. We had pickets surrounding the Capitol building and were allowed inside it as well, where people had been camped out for days. Inside, signs of support were hanging on all the walls. The three floors of the building were fully occupied by all the protestors. The chanting of our favorite union rally songs echoed throughout the building constantly. And, on occasion, the firefighters and deputies would walk through the building in a procession with bagpipes to support the cause. It was an amazing show of solidarity as the Governorís proposed legislation wouldnít strip firefighters or police unions, or any private sector unions of any of their rights.
Wisconsin is the battleground for the fight to preserve collective bargaining for public sector workers. The Governor is using the budget shortfall as a pretense for stripping unions of their rights. The Wisconsin public sector unions have already made concessions to meet his calls for higher contributions to pensions and health insurance to solve the budget gap. But eliminating public sector workers of their right to be in a union would be a political victory for anti-union forces that would be felt around the country. Ohio, Indiana and Tennessee are already proposing similar bills. And, it wonít stop there.
Most significantly, they are trying to divide us. They are trying to pit private sector workers against public sector workers. They are trying to convince non-unionized workers that itís wrong that unionized workers still have pensions, decent health care and good wages. And unfortunately, that message is resonating among too many of the American public. The workers of this country are not the cause of our budget woes. We, who are believers in the labor movement, know itís about all workers, regardless of who they work for or if they are in a union or not, having good wages, affordable, quality health care and good pensions. We all deserve to be able to support our families and have a decent standard of living.
The fight continues in Madison and it is too early to say who will win. My mom and I left Wisconsin knowing our trip was well worth it. We are all in this together and we need to stick together. We cannot let them succeed in dividing us, and taking away rights that so many have fought so hard to earn.