It was moving, inspiring, and dizzying. It allowed me to be present at what may come to be recognized as a turning point in U.S. history, a moment when the three-decade tide sweeping over and drowning the middle class was finally stemmed. It is the North American version of what’s sweeping the Arabic speaking world. It’s a case of the knife reaching the bone. It is the uprising of the people of Madison, Wisconsin, and the U.S. against the corporatist leeches whose wanton greed has hobbled the economy and spirit of the U.S.
Last week I was contacted by my union, EAA, asking if I could go to Madison, Wisconsin for a labor action that would probably be a once-in-a-generation opportunity. I had just gotten sick, but by the next day, I felt I could go. I joined 160 others from 39 other unions on a chartered flight to the current epicenter of the ongoing civil rights struggles of the U.S. I didn’t have a very good sense of what was transpiring before going. Now, I know why. The corporate owned media supposedly liberal-biased, is barely covering this critical issue.
The governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker, supported by Republican majorities in both houses of the state legislature, is pushing a bill in the legislature to eliminate unions. Of course that’s not what these corporate lackeys are saying. They’re claiming it’s about saving money. Really? But the unions, fully aware of the difficult times we are in, have agreed to ALL the financial concessions asked of them. What the bill under consideration would do is to eliminate “collective bargaining,” i.e. the right of workers to deal with their employer as one negotiating team, that being the union. This ability is what enabled the building of a middle class starting in the post-Depression era. Now, the richest want even more and have systematically dismantled unions so that they represent fewer people today than ever, weakening both unionized, represented, workers and others. You see the decent wages and benefits unions secure also help others receive the same levels of compensation, exactly what the fat-cats DON’T want.
Right now, the only thing stopping passage of this bill is the fact that all 14 of Wisconsin’s Democratic State Senators have left the state to deny the 19 Republicans a quorum (60 percent, or 20 senators are required on budgetary matters), blocking passage of this bill. It turns out Abraham Lincoln once jumped from a second-story window to deny quorum but was caught and returned before long. The absolutist statements of the governor, his and his partisans’ total unwillingness to negotiate on the matter, make them seem more like the nominally elected, but in reality despotic, leaders now being toppled in the Arab world. While the state Assembly considered some of the proposed amendments to the bill (I heard part of the deliberations while in the capitol where they are audible outside of chambers too), none of those I heard passed. The Democrats presented them, spoke in support of them (maximum ten minutes) then they were voted down, mostly by 50-something to 30-something margins. And, this was done through a marathon, day-and-night session as if a few days would make a difference. The real reason is to pass this horrible proposal before people become fully aware of it. Get the picture?
This cross-country action took 43.5 hours from the time our plane took off in LAX to the time we landed back at the same airport. Upon arrival in Madison, everyone got settled in then reassembled a couple of blocks from Madison’s capitol building. We then proceeded to and entered the building to a loud and incredibly grateful reception from the people who had been staying in the building for days or had come to support them. The chant of “thank you” was profoundly moving as a path was cleared through the center of the rotunda for us to march through. Throughout my time there, I was frequently moved to tears by the emotion and profundity attached to those two words as they were spoken to those of us from LA repeatedly. People’s livelihoods and families are at stake.
The capitol rotunda was dizzying—the intense solidarity, the emotion, the hundreds of signs hanging from columns and balconies. (Please see the picture and a sampling below of the tremendously varied, often very creative, signs people had made up and were carrying.) Numerous signs reminded people that this was a PEACEFUL demonstration. No one was going to be duped by provocations. Such an attempt had been made, unsuccessfully, by Tea Party counter-demonstrators (pathetic in number compared to the tens of thousands who had demonstrated against the bill over the previous weekend).
The dedication of the students, largely from the local University of Wisconsin campus, had effectively set up a functioning “city” within the capitol. There was a first aid station. There were quiet areas for parents who’d brought infants with them. Of course there was a food station. The most interesting story to come out on the food front is about a pizza joint called “ian’s.” Of course when I first saw this, I thought “Armenian?” but quickly realized it was just a first name. This restaurant has received so many donations to supply pizza to the strikers that they’re now giving pizza free to all comers (reports had it that money’s come from all 50 states and 14 different countries, with 28,000 slices served last Wednesday)! The stacks of full pizza boxes in the capitol rotunda were impressive. Interesting, though not something being added to my “favorite pizza toppings” list, was mac-n-cheese pizza! Also on the food front, bratwursts were being cooked and served free to all comers across the street from the capitol building. I finally got to taste one of those famous sausages!
Inspiring is the variety of support from “future doctors” to farmers, from the AARP to the Sierra Club, from huge unions (AFSCME, SEIU) to small (a pilots’ associations), from private to public sector, and, most importantly from those immediately impacted —teachers, municipal employees— to those currently spared — firefighters, law enforcement—divide-and-conquer tactics have failed. Also interesting are the stories of law enforcement folks (brought in from all over the state) shedding their uniforms at the end of their shifts to help their union brothers and sisters, not to mention all the pictures they were taking (and this was not the type of photography we’re used to from demonstrations at Turkish embassies and consulates). Clearly their photographic intent was supportive of the actions. Also inspiring was the support I saw from Oklahoma, Minnesota, Illinois, Massachusetts, Vermont, and Michigan, in addition to our presence from Los Angeles.
Gov. Scott Walker has managed to unify otherwise disparate, often bickering, groups and interests. It’s worth hearing him toady-up to right-wing billionaire David Koch (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WBnSv3a6Nh4). He was recorded by The BEAST’s Ian Murphy pretending to be the arch-conservative money-bags. You’ll remember that the Koch brothers were also big funders of the effort to overturn California’s climate change law in last November’s election. And, it’s not just big money types who are behind this conspiracy to destroy American prosperity. Some of the Republican legislators have privately confided that they are under TREMENDOUS pressure from “higher up” to follow Walker’s policies. I got the impression they might even have been threatened with serious consequences if they didn’t toe the line.
It’s clear this is a political power grab that must be stopped at all costs. Already, there’s a Utah-based effort to recall the Democratic Senators. Unfortunately, for now, the good guys have chosen not to pursue the recall-election-path against the Republicans. It seems foolish to not do so. But Walker is safe for a year anyway. Based on Wisconsin law, a recall cannot be put in motion until one year after someone takes office. Then, in one month, signatures have to be gathered, equal in number to 25 percent of the number of votes cast for the office in question in the previous election.
While Armenians in unions may not number large today, we were a huge presence in the 19th century. Unions were the avenue to a decent, dignified living from many of our earliest immigrants. They also enabled, as I’ve already written, the creation of the middle class where most Armenians firmly exist—socio-economically speaking. Plus, in recent years, Armenians working in carwashes and as taxi drivers have needed support against their tormentors. Unions are the best solution to their problems. It’s very important that we support unions in their struggle against the forces that would create a third-world country in the United States. Please engage in this battle. Your, and all our, futures are at stake.
Here are some of the slogans at the sit-in:
“Cold, but not as cold as Walker’s heart”
“Retired, but not too tired to fight for workers’ rights”
“Compassion, not union bashin’”
“Kill the bill”
“14 have true grit”
“I support the Wisconsin 14”
“Sanitation workers say this bill is garbage”
“Small business owner for workers rights”
“Walker + Wisconsin= brain drain”
“Walker is a weasel, not a badger”
“This bill is so bad my republican husband agrees with Rachel Maddow”
“90 year old rabble-rouser, ex-teacher”
“Where’s Robin Hood when you need him”
“Walk in our shoes, don’t tread on our rights”
“Farm boy for workers rights”
“Wisconsin in solidarity with Libya”