As I made the 10-minute walk up W. Johnson Street from the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus toward the Capitol on Tuesday, it never occurred to me that anyone outside of the state would know or care what was going on.
I was headed to participate in a rally in opposition to new Republican Governor Scott Walker's deceptively named "budget repair bill," with the intention of meeting up with some of my fellow teaching assistants. In a nutshell, Walker's bill purports to close a budget deficit by eliminating the collective bargaining rights of all state employees (except police and fire fighter unions), including UW graduate student teaching assistants, while requiring annual union certification.
I couldn't help but view the proposed legislation through two of my own lenses: as a UW grad student and teaching assistant, and as someone intensely interested in politics who occasionally relates his thoughts in this space.
As a student and teacher, Walker's plan seemed idiotic, even beyond left-right ideological disagreements. Walker was elected based on his campaign stressing his business sense, but the legislation is bad business. The UW is one of the state's largest employers, and, beyond that, one of its most successful operations, taking in, as many of the faculty members of the School of Journalism and Mass Communication noted in a letter opposing the bill, three times more money in federal grants and other out-of-state revenue than the state invests each year (the UW is second only to Johns Hopkins in obtaining federal research grant money). Walker's plan would kill the golden goose. Those grants don't come in abstractly, but rather are earned by top professors doing cutting-edge research (one professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication, where I study and teach, regularly brings in more than a million dollars a year in such grants). Losing these top professors means losing money. Losing the top grad students means losing top professors and losing money. By attacking grad student benefits, Walker makes the UW a less attractive option. As the SJMC professors wrote, it took 150 years to build up UW's reputation, but it would take less than a decade to destroy it.
Walker claims to be a businessman, so he must realize that in any industry, if you don't provide the standard compensation package, you won't get the top people in the field.
(And this is just a business analysis. It doesn't take into account the lack of morality in taking away the collective bargaining rights of teaching assistants, who make so little in salary they qualify for food stamps if they are unable to supplement their incomes.)
What I didn't realize on my way to the rally was the national implications of the Wisconsin protests. I admit that in my head, as I walked toward the Capitol, I expected to see a lot of students, teaching assistants, teachers and soccer moms. I really thought that, given the fact that Walker was elected by a healthy margin just three months ago, the protesters would represent a fairly small demographic of individuals who probably didn't vote for Walker in November.
Upon reaching the Capitol, I was shocked to see that the crowd was nothing like I had imagined. For starters, the Square was packed like I've never seen it before (even on the most beautiful summer day for the weekly Saturday farmers' market). The idea that I would be able to find my colleagues became instantly laughable (and, in fact, I never ran into a single person I knew). There were clearly students sprinkled throughout the crowd, but the vast majority seemed to be working-class and middle-class people: taxi drivers, construction workers, maintenance workers, prison guards etc. Honestly, they looked like the kind of people that, in my mind, probably supported Walker in November.
Then I saw members of the police union marching around the Square, and, later, a seemingly endless parade of firefighters went by, all expressing solidarity with the workers at the Capitol even though their collective bargaining rights were not at risk. When the crowd applauded, I got chills.
It was the appearance of the firefighters, in their matching shirts, that really triggered something in my head. This protest was way bigger than I had imagined.
What it showed is that everyday people had realized something that political junkies have known all along: The Republicans that surged to power in November are completely full of it. They campaigned on jobs and the deficit, unfairly (and often untruthfully) putting blame at the feet of the Obama administration, but the GOP agenda of the last month has amounted to a traditional far-right wish list, with jobs and deficits not even passing concerns.
In Washington, John Boehner's priorities have been to repeal health care (which the GAO scored as deficit reducing legislation) and preserve tax cuts for the wealthy (again, increasing the deficit), as well as to redefine rape and restrict abortions.
And things are no different in Wisconsin. Walker's "budget repair bill" isn't about deficits in Wisconsin. In fact, a nonpartisan commission found that the deficits are not severe and do not require any kind of austerity action. And what is the main cause of the current budget shortfall? Walker's own tax cuts. In other words, the new governor created this "problem," and now, conveniently, he is offering a solution.
Only, his solution has nothing to do with the alleged problem. Instead, it's an attack on state employee unions. Walker is using the concocted budget issue as a smokescreen to eliminate the collective bargaining rights of unions, a long-time item on the right-wing wish list. He is trying to eliminate five decades of collective bargaining rights in one week.
And it's not just liberals like me who are upset. According to a recent poll, less than 32 percent of Wisconsin respondents support Walker's union-busting, with more than two-thirds saying he has overreached.
So the battle going on in Wisconsin is part of a larger war. It is about Republicans across the country trying to use voter anger at the economy to institute out-of-the-mainstream, far-right policies by pretending they are related to jobs or deficits (like the insane argument that tax cuts for the wealthiest one percent of Americans will somehow translate to significant job growth). The battle may be in Madison now, but I hope it serves as a wake-up call to Americans around the country to see what the Republicans are trying to do, namely using the pain of the nation's workers to justify policies that hurt most Americans but please the party's true constituents, big corporations and the wealthy.
Taking away the collective bargaining rights of teachers and nurses doesn't help the average citizen, but it sure does make CEOs happy.
I played only a tiny role in the protests. Two hours after reaching the Capitol, my growing flu symptoms got the best of me, and I headed back to campus. I have been in bed trying to recover ever since, leaving the harder fights in the Capitol -- the all-night vigils, the marathon public hearings, the sit-ins, etc. -- to my committed and steadfast colleagues, to whom I am eternally grateful and for whom I have unmatched respect and admiration.
What has gone on in Madison the last week has been truly inspiring, as people from all walks of life have made personal sacrifices to exercise their democratic rights to oppose capricious actions by the governor that are not in the best interests of the state.
And I take pride in knowing that their fight isn't just for the UW, Madison or Wisconsin. In the end, they're fighting a local battle in a national war the Republican party is waging against the average American. I hope that history notes the protests in Madison as a turning point, the moment American citizens began pushing back against right-wing attacks.
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