It’s not about money, it’s about freedom: voices from Wisconsin

MADISON, Wisc. — There is one thing Wisconsin union families want everyone to know: the protests are about workers’ freedom to organize into a union and bargain collectively.  These protests, they say, have nothing to do with “fixing” the Wisconsin state budget. Union leaders have called GOP Gov. Scott Walker and told him they would accept his economic package (big concessions) if he dropped the ban on collective bargaining. He refused.

“We are willing to tighten our belts,” said middle school band director Kim Hoffman, “but don’t you dare take our rights away!” Hoffman spoke at the Feb. 18 rally in front of the state Capitol here, saying she wanted to put a “human face” on what Walker is “taking away from the citizens of Wisconsin.”

A 17-year veteran of the Army National Guard, Hoffman said her husband, also a teacher, and her three kids were here with her. “I joined the Army to pay for school. To be able to do one thing I dreamed of doing my whole life.” Hoffman’s father is a retired band director, too. “This budget repair bill will take away my dream,” she said.

“I am not here to arrest anyone here tonight. I’m not here to take the place of any correction officer. They are my union sisters and brothers!” she said, referring to Walker’s threat of calling out the National Guard.

Walker is in the pocket of the infamous Koch brothers, multi-billionaire oil tycoons who support fringe far-right and racist causes like the John Birch Society, which have moved into the supposed mainstream through the tea party and GOP.

“Koch-backed groups like Americans for Prosperity, the Cato Institute, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, and the Reason Foundation have long taken a very antagonistic view toward public-sector unions. Several of these groups have urged the eradication of these unions. The Kochs also invited Mark Mix, president of the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, an anti-union outfit, to a June 2010 confab in Aspen, Colo,” reports Mother Jones.

Americans for Prosperity, a Koch Brothers front, has put up a website called Stand With Walker. The website is so extreme it attacks all collective bargaining – not just for public employees’ unions. Americans for Prosperity was behind the so-called tea party Saturday rally, which drew a pathetically small crowd compared to the tens of thousands of union workers, students and supporters.

The Koch brothers have big financial interests in Wisconsin. According to Think Progress, “Koch owns a coal company subsidiary with facilities in Green Bay, Manitowoc, Ashland and Sheboygan; six timber plants throughout the state; and a large network of pipelines in Wisconsin. While Koch controls much of the infrastructure in the state, they have laid off workers to boost profits. At a time when Koch Industries owners David and Charles Koch awarded themselves an extra $11 billion of income from the company, Koch slashed jobs at their Green Bay plant.” (Check out Boycott Koch Brothers website.)

Even the New York Times, not a friend of unions and working people, said in its Feb. 17 editorial that Walker’s budget plan had “an ideological goal dear to his fellow Republicans: eliminating most collective bargaining rights for public employees” that has nothing to do with allegedly fixing the budget.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson said at the Friday night rally that Wisconsin workers and students are “winning the Super Bowl of workers rights.”

He called it a Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi moment, referring to the nonviolent nature of the Wisconsin protests — and linking it to the peaceful Egyptian protesters who overthrew their dictator Hosni Mubarak. “You have captured the integrity of the nation” like the civil rights marchers did in Selma, Ala.

“Workers have the right to be at the table,” he said to the roar of the crowd. “Today it is Wisconsin, next week it is Ohio. We have a great president, but he cannot do it alone. When we don’t fight back it weakens him. When we fight back, we win!”

“This is a Martin Luther King Jr. moment. This is a Gandhi moment. Don’t submit to hate. Say no to violence. Say no to racism. Don’t let them break your spirit. Don’t submit to homophobia. This land is your land, it was made for you and me,” he orated.

Then taking on the ideological thrust of the attack, Jackson said, “America was a liberal idea. ‘Give us your poor and huddled masses yearning to be free’ was a liberal idea. You are not the reason why banks collapsed. You are not the cause, you are the solution.”

He then led the audience in prayer and rousing rendition of “We Shall Overcome.”

Public employee union, AFSCME, announced their willingness “to accept economic concessions called for in Governor Walker’s budget repair bill, including pension and health care concessions.”

But, they said, we “are not willing to give up [our] fundamental right to have a place at the bargaining table or to let the Governor throw out the table.

“State and local public employees are making clear, as they have all along, that they are willing to find a sensible budget solution.  But they will not compromise on protecting the rights of nurses, teachers, EMTs and other public employees to have a voice.” (Story continues after video.)

The protesters are not just union members, but their families, high school and college students, professionals, retirees and small business owners. The Democrats in the state Senate and House are all fighting on the legislative front. The Democratic state Senators have left Wisconsin, and have given the “ultimate sacrifice” by going to Illinois in an effort to stall the effort by the governor and GOP lawmakers to ram through the proposal.

The President of the United States has expressed support.

There have been smaller solidarity rallies across the state from Racine to Green Bay. Players from the Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers have issued statements in support of teachers and other public employees. Madison-area local businesses have offered discounted food, cab rides and hotel rooms for protesters.

Solidarity has extended beyond Wisconsin’s borders. One local pizza place had to suspend taking local orders because they had their hands full processing out of state orders donated to the protesters. “By our (rather harried) count, we’ve heard from 30 states and 5 countries (including Egypt, Korea, and our northern friends, Canada…). Wow,” said Ian’s Pizza on their Facebook page. “To our regular customers: We really apologize, but… wow.”

Photo: Wisconsin protestors listen to AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka during a Feb. 18 rally in Madison. (Teresa Albano/PW)


Teresa Albano
Teresa Albano

Teresa Albano was the first woman editor-in-chief of People’s World, 2003-2010, leading the transition from weekly print to daily online publishing and establishing PW’s social media presence. Albano had been a staff writer for People’s World covering political, labor, and social justice issues for more than 25 years. She traveled throughout the U.S. and abroad, including India, Cuba, Angola, Italy, and Paris to cover the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference. An award-winning journalist, Albano has been honored for her writing by the International Labor Communications Association, National Federation of Press Women, and Illinois Woman Press Association.