"Tell me what democracy looks like. This is what democracy looks like!" That is a chant that could just as easily come from the millions of Egyptians in Tahir Square in Cairo as it has from hundreds of thousands of citizens in Wisconsin.
I had the privilege to go to Madison, WI with 161 union members from LA. We were a planeload of people who looked like LA -- not the Lindsay Lohan kind of LA, but the hard-working, punch-a-time-clock kind of LA that makes our city run from sunup to long after most people have gone to bed. A longshoreman with his tattoos side-by-side with a nurse still in her hospital scrubs. An immigrant janitor who scrubs floors all night with a teacher who teaches the sons and daughters of the great army of immigrant workers who make the beds, clean the floors and scrub the toilets in LA's hotels and office buildings.
I could go on and on, but you get the point. We were LA. We were our part of America going to another part of America. Maybe not as brown, black or yellow as our part, but America, too.
We marched our group through the rotunda of the Wisconsin State Capitol that by then had been occupied for two weeks by protesting workers and students. And we chanted that chant over and over again, "This is what democracy looks like!" We didn't just chant it, we felt it. Where but in America could an immigrant worker from LA join arms with a Wisconsin dairy farmer in a common cause?
This cause had long transcended anything to do with a state budget or even a labor dispute. The workers, the students, the dairy farmer, the small business people that I talked to were there because something more precious to them was at stake. This was about freedom.
This was about a governor, Republican Scott Walker, who had already gotten concessions from public employees. He had already given millions in tax breaks for corporations. He was out to destroy what he and his corporate right-wing buddies see as the greatest threat to civilization as we know it -- math teachers, lunch ladies, and the guy at the animal shelter who rescues lost dogs.
Take away their basic right to engage in collective bargaining, take away their basic right to even belong to a union and you've eliminated one of the essential checks and balances that makes our democracy work. The lunch lady by herself doesn't stand a chance against billionaires but when she has the right to join with other lunch ladies, she just might have an opportunity to get her shot at the American Dream.
The other part of my experience in Wisconsin had to do with pizza. In this case, pizza as a metaphor for democracy. I never ate so much pizza in my life as I did those two days in Madison. You see, the pizza was free. Ian's Pizza, a locally owned small business, was feeding free pizza to thousands upon thousands of protesters. They were delivering boxes by the hundreds to the state capitol, or you could walk into their shop and order whatever you wanted, all for free. Ian's, besides being a great small business that supports the rights of public employees in WI to belong to a union, was able to afford to feed everyone for free because donations were pouring in from big cities and small towns across this country. But it didn't stop there. Donations were coming from around the world, including Egypt. You have to love people that aren't too busy fighting a dictator to send a pizza donation across the world to protesters in Wisconsin. Ian's Pizza kept a big sign out front listing where the donations were coming from. It brought tears to my eyes to see that soldiers in Afghanistan were sending donations.
That's why Wisconsin matters to LA. Because a soldier in Afghanistan understands it's about freedom.
On March 26, in LA, the labor movement will continue this march for freedom. We will be marching for Wisconsin. In fact, a leader of the Wisconsin firefighters will be our special guest, joined on stage by his brother and sister firefighters from LA. We may not have free pizza but in one loud, clear voice we will be saying "This is what democracy looks like!"
Maria Elena Durazo is a leader of the Los Angeles labor movement, representing over 300 local unions and 800,000 workers.