It is hard to put into words my reactions and feelings regarding what has been happening here in Madison. As the son of two State of Wisconsin employees, a recent University of Wisconsin graduate, local elected official, future teacher, and someone with future interests in public service, I have seen and experienced the happenings here through many different yet interrelated lenses. This post isn’t meant to be a holistic reflection on what is happening but a few thoughts on a few main topics.
I have been up at the State Capitol every day since Monday, Feb. 14th (and slept under the beautiful dome one night) and will continue to do my part to stand with and for the people and future of Wisconsin. I have been able to participate in some truly amazing times in Madison over the last few years. From being part of the events that brought President Obama to campus, twice, to rushing the field at Camp Randall, to hearing the Dalai Lama, to celebrating in the streets after the 2008 election and Packer Super Bowl win, the past few years have been eventful to say the least. But perhaps no cause or gathering has been more hard-hitting and thought-provoking than the events surrounding Gov. Walker’s proposed “budget repair bill.”
Anyone who has been around and in the Capitol lately can’t help but be deeply humbled by the passions and sense of unity and solidarity shared by all who share in this historic experience. While the chants are getting old, the weather cold, and the outcomes unknown, what keeps people going isn’t the free pizza or drum circles, it’s the overwhelming sense of pride. (the pizza does help though) Pride in Wisconsin, pride in the work people do, and pride because we know what we are doing is right.
Wisconsin has a long and proud history of leading the nation in expanding the rights of organized labor, working people, and the middle class. Unfortunately what Gov. Walker is proposing is not only in conflict with this history, it is a direct attack on the rights and freedoms that workers, both public and private, have earned here in Wisconsin. It is clear that what Gov. Walker is proposing isn’t about the money. It isn’t about the budget. It is about an ideology. This ideology prioritizes politics over people, the few over the many, and the self over the public good. While the state’s largest public employee unions have agreed to the financial concessions of contributing more for their health care and pensions, what they won’t concede is their right and ability to collectively bargain.
Public employees are willing to share in the sacrifices just as private employees and all taxpayers of the state have done. But don’t forget that, contrary to Gov. Walker’s rhetoric, public employees are taxpayers too. While the tenants of his plan use a strategy of divide and conquer, the public knows the value of treating its employees with respect because they know that those on the state’s payroll (teachers, nurses, police, firefighters, snow plow drivers, parks workers, etc…) work for the betterment of our communities, hence the term public employees. These aren’t just paper-pushers, these are our families, friends, and neighbors. These are the people who educate our kids and keep our communities safe. Gov. Walker has wrongly framed this debate as public haves vs. private have-nots. What a false, disingenuous, and calculating premise. While Gov. Walker may be skilled at repeating his veiled arguments on TV, just because he says something over and over again doesn’t make it true. And when what is being said seeks to divide people over a false sense of austerity, especially at a time of financial unease, it is politics at its worst. It is a race to the bottom, the lowest of the low.
While there are undoubtedly policy conversations about the way our public employees are compensated and contract for services, vilifying them as the most responsible source of our financial problems is irresponsible and irrational. I’m not here to rant about capitalism, tax policy, or Wall Street, but the fact that Gov. Walker is advancing his ideological battle to disband public unions under the guise of responsible budgeting is beyond ridiculous.
Gov. Walker claims that his proposal gives local governments and school boards the “tools” to deal with budget challenges. Please. The only “tools” given by Gov. Walker’s plans are a wrecking ball and sledge-hammer when what local governments and school boards need is a scalpel. This proposal even goes against what I thought was a Republican principle of local control, revealing it as nothing but a Trojan horse for an extreme and ideological agenda. Local governments and school boards didn’t ask for this and don’t support it. That’s why hundreds of local officials (including me) have signed a letter against the proposed changes to how WE bargain with OUR public employees. Collective bargaining works. It has worked with our public employees for over 50 years and there is no reason why all of a sudden it cannot work for another 50. I have yet to hear of or read about five local officials in Wisconsin in support of the proposed policy changes to collective bargaining. So spare the breath, Gov. Walker, you can’t say you are doing it for us (local officials) when we repeatedly say we don’t want it.
Gov. Walker may say what he is doing is FOR local governments, but really he is doing it TO local governments.
Responsible budgeting doesn’t allow those writing the balance sheets to choose what we want as the source of our problems and exploit this manufactured scapegoat for political, ideological, or personal reasons. Beyond the fact that Wisconsin has one of the strongest and most financially stable public pension systems and the reality that things like health benefits and pensions are negotiated as part of a total compensation package public employee unions have again said they are willing to accept the financial concessions. Talk about a shared sacrifice. Public employees don’t take the jobs they do because they are looking to get rich or to scam the system. They do their jobs to better their communities, the state, and the public.
What bothers me perhaps as much as the misguided policy is the lack of adult leadership provided by Gov. Walker. The childish, disrespectful, and unprecedented game playing by Republican legislators, led by the Fitzgerald brothers, is enough for an additional post on how they stained the history, traditions, and character of the Wisconsin legislature. But Gov. Walker’s unwillingness to sit down or even talk with public employee unions, unwillingness to negotiate contracts, unwillingness to compromise with legislators (of either party actually), and unwillingness to acknowledge the accepted financial concessions of the unions is absurd. Leadership? Hardly.
Leadership, especially political leadership, isn’t about dividing people into us vs. them. Leadership isn’t about exploiting the economic woes and concerns of families or state budgets to pursue an extreme policy agenda. Leadership isn’t about playing chicken or playing War. Leadership doesn’t willingly offer people’s rights or livelihood as ammunition or accepted collateral. If you look at history, what defines some of our greatest leaders isn’t their stubbornness or unwillingness to negotiate with anyone, it’s their willingness to make principled compromises. There is the saying that you should never compromise on your principles but you should never be unwilling to make a principled compromise. I feel like a middle-aged parent by saying this but, “It’s not so much that I’m mad, it’s that I’m disappointed in you Gov. Walker.” (ok, I am mad too but…) Through his actions, Gov. Walker has revealed that he is not, nor is he interested in being a leader. So far, his actions reveal him to be nothing more than a shameless ideologue.
It is disappointing. It is infuriating. It is shameful. But what we cannot do is let our passions and efforts end at the conclusion of this fight surrounding the rights of public employees to bargain collectively. Win or lose this particular battle over workers’ rights, letting our experiences here serve as the spark and motivation for future and sustained involvement would be the most meaningful “win” possible. Our participation, our contributions, our voice, and our vote in future endeavors is going to be the true measure of what has been happening here in Madison. When all is said and done, looking backward will provide important reflections and lessons on our efforts to organize, our shared pride and passions, and our stand for what is right. But we must take these lessons and reflections and turn them in the only direction our great state tells us, Forward!