02/22/2011 01:01 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

National Collaboration Conference In Denver Eclipsed By Wisc. Protests

The events in Wisconsin over the last few days have captured the attention of the American people. The images are inspiring, as tens of thousands of workers stand up to be heard. But while the peaceful protests were taking place in Wisconsin, another event was happening in Denver that didn't grab as many headlines and is equally significant. Let me explain.

In November, Gov. Scott Walker rode the Tea Party wave into office with a Republican-dominated Legislature on his coattails. But right after he took the oath of office, he started playing the same old partisan politics. He proposed and passed $117 million in tax giveaways to special interest groups, then offered up legislation -- giving it the Orwellian label of a "budget repair" bill -- that would slash funding to public schools and public services, and undercut Wisconsin's progressive and democratic values, including workers' right to negotiate. Both the absurdity and the recklessness are captured by the headlines: "Gov. Walker's Pretext" (New York Times) and "Walker Gins Up 'Crisis' to Reward Cronies" (Madison's Capital Times).

Walker is using the fiscal crisis he created to advance an extremist agenda against public employees. In an all-out attack on teachers, nurses and firefighters, he has perverted the truth and disdained Wisconsin's proud and progressive traditions and values. He has sought to intimidate and suppress the voices of workers by threatening to call out the National Guard as they peacefully demonstrate against his draconian policies. By doing so, he has undermined the democratic process -- a process that all Americans have a right to engage in. Given his way, Walker would roll back workers' rights to what they were in the 19th century, and cut the pay and benefits of workers as much as 10 percent -- at a time when many public employees have taken freezes and furloughs already. (They took another furlough today.)

Let's be clear: Gov. Walker's extremist agenda won't create one job. Stripping workers of their rights won't bring economic recovery. Suppressing workers' voices won't fix the fiscal crisis. In short, it will hurt workers and the Wisconsin economy, and cause a loss of revenue in communities across the state. What the governor is doing is an abuse of power. Simply put, he wants to eliminate the labor movement and, with it, the opportunity for middle-class workers, like teachers, nurses and firefighters, to try to make a better life.

Workers have repeatedly offered to sit down with Gov. Walker to help solve the fiscal problem, and they have offered to compromise by proposing over $100 million in potential cuts and savings. But he's boasted in the press that he won't sit down with workers. He seems hell-bent on paying back his deep-pocketed corporate friends with tax breaks, and he's attacking the hardworking people who keep our communities safe and livable.

It's no wonder, then, that Wisconsin residents from all walks of life -- teachers, nurses, cops, firefighters, janitors, stay-at-home moms, faith leaders, bus drivers, students and even members of the Super Bowl Champion Green Bay Packers -- have risen up and aggressively opposed Gov. Walker's attack on workers. The images from the Statehouse in Madison clearly show that tens of thousands of workers and their supporters are fighting back. As I saw with my own eyes while in Madison, they were demonstrating peacefully but with the determination that comes when you know something is deeply unjust and unfair.

A recent statewide poll in Wisconsin reflects that, 2 to 1, voters across the state are strongly opposed to the governor's proposal to weaken collective bargaining.

The recklessness of Walker's actions was especially striking juxtaposed against the National Collaboration Conference in Denver, which highlighted people working together to improve public services, especially public schools.

What a contrast. The gathering reminded us all that, while pitched battles may steal the headlines, it's the collaborative, problem-solving approaches that are really getting the job done for students nationwide. Folks came to Denver as teams -- made up of a superintendent, a school board member and a union leader -- and the trust and willingness to work together was palpable as they talked about what they have accomplished or need to accomplish.

I was heartened by the great work featured at this conference. These were not individual schools -- they were school districts embarked on systemic change for all the kids they serve. The team from St. Francis, Minn., explained the wonderful work they're doing that has transformed teachers' professional development, which is a joke in many places, into an effective way to improve instruction. The team from New Haven, Conn., described how their innovative and collaborative approach not only has brought about much-needed changes in their schools but also has led to greater community support for schools (for example, the New Haven Promise Initiative, which provides financial and academic supports to make college affordable and accessible for every New Haven student). From Plattsburgh, N.Y., to the ABC Unified School District in Los Angeles County, and from Tampa, Fla., to Douglas County, Colo., public officials and public employees are working together to transform their schools so students can succeed in the Knowledge Age.

The hunger to do this kind of work is so great that the conference could not accommodate all the teams that applied to attend. The teams from the 150 school districts that did participate pledged to work even more collaboratively in the future to find creative solutions for the challenges facing our schools and students.

The contrast couldn't be more apparent. And the choice for Americans couldn't be clearer. One course of action is to stand idly by as politicians clamp down on teachers, firefighters, nurses and others, muzzle them, disrespect them and scapegoat them. Another is to respect these workers, and use collective bargaining and working together as the engine of reform -- to value the expertise of these workers who are making a difference in people's lives every day, and to fight for their dignity and respect. That means we have to pressure our leaders to find a way through these difficult times by working together, respecting each other and resisting the temptation to point fingers.

Please join us in our efforts to support the people of Wisconsin. Go to and take action!