One of my colleagues seemed baffled by the rallies in Wisconsin.
"Isn't it cold there for them to be out protesting?" he said.
As a Wisconsin native, trust me, it's a dry cold. Plus 20s feel balmy after single digits. But that's not the point. What's going on in Wisconsin is huge. It is the talk of every coffee shop, small town bar, university campus and community center. Heck, even the (collectively-owned) Packers are talking about it.
It's rightly the talk of the nation too, because the ramifications -- whether people stand up for the rights of the middle class or let corporations steadily erode them -- affect every state.
Gov. Walker's "budget repair" bill came after he passed two business tax breaks putting the budget in worse shape than it needed to be. But it's not about the money. The Democrats and unions have already said they are willing to compromise on workers' health care contributions. What's at stake in Wisconsin is the collective bargaining rights of public unions, which affect the quality of the schools and the quality of life for thousands of families across the state. That's why people have been marching in Madison and even sleeping in the capitol building for over two weeks now.
Tradition of quality education
Public schools are important in Wisconsin, because in most cases, they're all we've got. Outside of Milwaukee, which is different, most private schools are known for simply being religious than for being good. I grew up in a fairly rural part of the state and the public schools I attended offered me the full complement of art, music and physical education, as well as enough advanced placement classes that I was not only well prepared to attend the University of Wisconsin-Madison, I was able to test out or receive equivalency credits for a full year of college work.
That kind of quality from schools requires some state funding, but the cuts to that funding are so deep in Gov. Walker's budget that he insists the teachers will have to give up their collective bargaining rights for school districts to have the flexibility to deal with the cuts.
Ellen Ranney, an ESL teacher in a Madison elementary school who also happens to be my aunt, told me some of the items her union has successfully negotiated in the past have a direct effect on the quality of lessons. These include planning time, safety issues in middle and high schools, class size, and the number of classes instructors are required to teach. The prospect of losing the ability to negotiate on these issues is sobering.
"It's scary to be looking forward at my career," she said. "I have 15 or 20 more years to teach."
The governor's attack on unions brings an added sting because Wisconsin holds a proud place in the history of worker's rights. In 1911 Wisconsin became the first state to pass a worker's compensation law. In 1932 it was the first state to pass a law for unemployment compensation. In 1959 it was the first state to allow collective bargaining for state employees.
"In the state of Wisconsin before collective bargaining teachers could be told they had to quit as soon as they announced they were pregnant," said Ranney, who has had two babies while working for the Madison public school district. Protections that people now take for granted, are at risk in the very birthplace of those rights.
That's why Wisconsin's unions, representing both public and private workers, are out in full force in Madison. These include firefighter and police unions, some of whom actually endorsed Walker, and who, incidentally, are exempted in his bill from giving up their bargaining rights.
"When you mess with one union other unions are going to back them up," Ranney said. "People who would not socialize together or agree on a number of other issues, agree on this one."
It's been inspiring, she said, to see the firefighters march in full uniform, led by bagpipers.
So why did Wisconsin elect Gov. Walker in the first place?
Wisconsin is a deeply purple state. While it has not gone red in a presidential election since the early 1980s, the governor and state congress switch back and forth between Democrats and Republicans and are often mixed. In this most recent election the Democrats didn't generate sufficient enthusiasm to win much of anything. There were lots of negative ads, on Walker's part paid for by the Koch brothers' political action committee, who also were his second largest campaign contributor. Walker used a divide-and-conquer-the-middle class strategy, portraying state workers as selfish and overpaid, and pitting the private and public sectors against one another. And while Walker did hint at some of the things in this bill, "I don't think people paid enough attention to what this guy was about," Ranney said.
Everyone in Wisconsin who I have talked to has told me that there is more to protest in this 144-page bill.
"The horror of this bill is not just labor rights," Ranney said. It includes repeals of environmental protections and changes to the way Medicaid is distributed. It has other consequences as well, including the loss of federal transportation funding because the federal government only distributes these funds to state agencies who allow their workers collective bargaining rights. The governor sought to pass this bill with his Republican majority in less than a week. The senate Democrats remaining out of state are allowing time for these details to come to light.
The people's house
Last week Heather Walder taught her "Intro to Archeology" sections in a building off campus as a part of a teach-out in support of the protests. Walder, a teaching assistant at the University of Wisconsin-Madison working toward a Ph.D. in Anthropology, also slept in the capitol building one night as part of an around-the-clock presence.
"This is my first protest. It's bigger than anything I've ever been a part of," Walder said.
Besides the regular rallies at noon and 5 p.m. which have swelled to thousands, Walder described how people were signing up every day to sleep in the capitol, one night a group of high school students, another the firefighters. It's become a "makeshift city" she said, with a food table, aid station and signs directing people to the restrooms.
There's a communal atmosphere, and everyone is being kind and polite to each other she said.
Still, marble and granite don't make for the most comfortable sleeping conditions. "Everyone's tired, everyone looks like zombies," Walder said.
A nearby local pizza shop has been giving away free pizza to the protesters, sometimes delivering directly to the capitol, thanks to financial donations that have been coming in from all over the world. Between that and a lack of showers, "It's a little smelly at this point," Walder said.
Nonetheless the protesters are keeping the building clean and are even careful to use painter's tape with their signs to protect the walls.
While Madison is known for protests, this one is drawing people who haven't been active before.
Ranney, who has lived in Madison most of her life said she's only participated in a couple of protests.
She called in sick for four days as a political action with her union in support of the protests. The first day she went down to the capitol there were a few thousand people she estimated, the next day 10,000, and Sat. Feb. 19 the conservative estimates were 70-80,000.
On Saturday, Feb. 26 people gathered in solidarity in all 50 state capitols. If the nation is going to keep what remains of its middle class that momentum needs to continue.
And if Wisconsin is going to keep the things that make me proud -- high quality public education and workers' rights -- Gov. Walker's bill must be defeated. If I were still living in Madison right now, I know exactly where I'd be.