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What has been happening in Madison, Wisconsin, should cheer anyone who has lost hope in American democracy. It is even balm for the despair many of us feel about the often passive Democratic Party.
While the Democratic state senators Governor Scott Walker needs to kill collective bargaining remain holed up in an Illinois motel, thousands of protestors?public workers and their supporters? fill the public spaces of the Wisconsin?s rococo capitol building. Many of them have brought their sleeping bags to the rotunda.
This should not surprise us.
Wisconsin was the home of the LaFollette family?Robert Sr. and his sons, Robert and Paul? who helped birth the Progressive Party there in 1934, and served the state in the governorship and the U.S. Senate before the party was disbanded in 1946.
It is also home to the Henningsen women whose efforts on behalf of women?s rights and other progressive causes are more familiar to me. Mary, the mother who died in 1988, and her daughters Nancy and Ellen sometimes rallied together with Ellen?s daughter, Kate, in tow. Kate is an attorney in Washington now, but her mother, also an attorney, sent me this report Sunday from Madison.
?I?ve been at the capitol for an hour to two Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Didn?t go today. There are thousands upon thousands of demonstrators both inside and out ? all the streets immediately around the capitol are closed so people can be in the streets ? yesterday the paper said 60,000 ? I was there late in the day and I think that number was high. But anyway, lots of folks.
?It?s very peaceful. The various unions have designated their staff as ?marshals? and they wear special vests and watch over the crowd. There are police everywhere but they have little to do since the crowd is peaceful. One day there were nine arrests, but other than that, none. At first the City brought out police on horseback but they?re now gone because crowd control isn?t needed.
?The crowd is also very neat ? there are people who go over the grounds of the capitol picking up litter, including litter that the melting snow is revealing. Only signs without pickets are permitted inside the capitol and everyone is very good about leaving the pickets outside the capitol and picking them up outside when they leave.
?The signs are the best part! Very funny and creative. Many are hand-lettered. I think there?s a sampling of them on Talkingpointsmemo.com. My favorite is, ?Screw us and we multiply.?
?The atmosphere is almost festive. The crowd listens to music and sometimes there are speakers. People parade through the street. People are still talking about the firefighters in full fire gear parading around lead by bagpipers! There are chant leaders who call out chants. ?Kill the bill? is a popular one. Or ?What?s disgusting? Union busting,? is another. And ?This is what democracy looks like.? There are drummers here and there. And whistles being blown. One day I was inside the rotunda and had to leave because it was too loud for me!
?All of this is wonderful except for the reason it needs to be done.?
All I can say, Ellen, is I?m glad they picked Wisconsin for this fight. By ?they? I mean the Republican Party and its Tea Party adherents well funded by the Koch brothers and R.J. Johnson of the Club for Growth. The Tea Partiers they bused in were outnumbered 35 to one, it was reported. In Madison, let's hope the true grass roots are going to demonstrate to the people of this country that we depend on the very people the governor is trying to disenfranchise.
Craftily, he exempted police and fire fighters from his list of people who should lose their right to bargain collectively, but I suspect they are smart enough to see that once other public workers?in sanitation, health care, transportation and education?are unable to bargain, they?ll be in a far weaker position. Here?s what the Madison police said in a statement issued after Saturday?s protests:
"On behalf of all the law enforcement agencies that helped keep the peace on the Capitol Square Saturday, a very sincere thank you to all of those who showed up to exercise their First Amendment rights. You conducted yourselves with great decorum and civility, and if the eyes of the nation were upon Wisconsin, then you have shown how democracy can flourish even amongst those who passionately disagree."
Divide and conquer doesn't seem to be working for the governor these days.
All over this country, unionized teachers have been demonized as the reason our schools are failing. It seems that a teacher protected by tenure, a pension and health care benefits is just so less fit to perform than one for whom these benefits are denied or greatly reduced. Even in Wisconsin, the teachers? union offered give-backs on their contracts, but the governor wasn?t interested. He wants to deny their right to negotiate those contracts. Similar moves are underway in Indiana, Ohio and New Jersey.
But, as former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich points out, collective bargaining does NOT necessarily lead to higher state deficits. ?Some states that deny their employees bargaining rights, such as Nevada, North Carolina, and Arizona, are running big deficits of over 30 percent of spending. Many states that give employees bargaining rights -- Massachusetts, New Mexico, and Montana -- have small deficits of less than 10 percent.?
Here in New York City, Mayor Michael Bloomberg has ?found? an extra $2 billion in revenues that he says will make many municipal worker layoffs unnecessary. Still he wants to ax 6,000 teaching positions, many of which were filled by an ambitious recruiting program early in his tenure.
So a lot hangs on the outcome of the Wisconsin confrontation. People everywhere will be looking to see who the tough guys and women really are.
Hang in there, Ellen!