On the Front Lines in Wisconsin

by Gwen Kelly

Last Monday, February 14th, having heard a preview of the budget proposals to come, the Teaching Assistants Association (TAA) of the University of Wisconsin, Madison decided to try a different sort of tack in protest. Perhaps one that had never been tried before. They organized a campaign to get thousands of undergraduate and graduate students to sign valentines, big cards with hearts on them, saying “I <3 UW. Governor Walker, Don’t Break My Heart” (image below). It was a great idea, or at least it seemed so at the time, when we didn’t realize just how uncompromising Governor Scott Walker was going to turn out to be.  It goes to show how naive we were.  We knew something bad was coming, but we didn’t know how bad it would be.

Gwen Protesting

At first, I think, like many other TAs at UW-Madison, I was convinced to protest this farce of a “budget repair” bill because we looked at it and saw how it might negatively impact our own personal lives, financial stability, and the future of the university in which we have invested so much of our energy and ourselves. We looked at it and thought about the prospect of losing our health care and tuition remission, benefits and good working conditions that only exist as the result of collective bargaining over the past 40 years. But given just a week to watch the situation unfold, and to step outside of narrow self-interest, I think we all, or at least I, have come to realize that this isn’t about us. It’s not about the budget, and it’s not about ‘fiscal responsibility’.  It’s about an attack on the right to collectively bargain, an attack on the rights of all Americans.

Tuesday February 15th was the day the s**t really hit the fan. It was the first day of protests, the first day we tried to find our footing. It was the first (and only) day that both Republicans and Democrats of the Joint Finance Committee of the Wisconsin State Government actually heard the public testify about their thoughts and feelings on the bill. That day, we were suddenly thrown into gear, and nearly two thousand people signed up to testify. The testimonies were limited to two minutes, though early in the day, they were often allowed to go on much longer. I don’t know the exact numbers, but the vast majority of them were against the bill. At first I don’t think I understood what it was we were trying to do. I had never filibustered before. But then, as the word spread, I came to understand that the point was to stall the committee vote, and therefore the State Senate and Assembly votes, to give the TAA, the other unions, and the concerned public, a chance to sway some of the Republicans to vote down or amend the bill.

That night the Joint Finance Committee heard testimony until 3am, when the Republican chair Senator Robin Vos, declared that they would adjourn. In the hallways echoing through the Capitol building, we chanted “LET US SPEAK!” It was around 1am, that Democratic Senator Lena Taylor came out to let us know the Republicans were planning to end the hearing and go home, but the Democrats would continue to hear us out.

At 2am we were quiet, listening to hearings. Senator Taylor tweeted out “Are you still there?”. I tweeted a reply “Yes, we’re here!” with a picture I’d taken on my phone of some of the masses of students sitting and listening. At 2:12am @sentaylor replied “@gwendok WOW! Look at yall! Thank you – you inspire me!”

I testified that night at 4:10am, having found a relevant quote by Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1937 on Wikipedia, I read it to the committee:  “The right to bargain collectively is at the bottom of social justice for the worker, as well as the sensible conduct of business affairs. The denial or observance of this right means the difference between despotism and democracy.” I cited the source, and told them they might want to verify that, as I always tell my students not to trust wikipedia as their only source. Though they were tired, they still laughed.

I’m a graduate student teaching assistant in the Anthropology department at the UW, with a new-found awareness of my identity as a public-sector worker. Because the University of Wisconsin is a public institution, and I’m a member of the TAA, the teaching assistants union, I find myself in the good, but somewhat unexpected position of shared solidarity with firefighters, cops, snow-plow drivers, health care workers, and more.

Though we find ourselves in the shared position of being under attack, we obviously come from different backgrounds in terms of class, education, and urban/rural upbringing, among other things.  As TAs, we are future (hopeful) members of academia, a position and trajectory which might represent upward mobility for many, or at least the maintenance of middle to upper-middle class position. We are also faced with the possibility that such hope of tenure-track jobs may not pan out for all of us. Given the current economy, and the fiscal policies of the current Governor of Wisconsin and many other Republican governors and policy makers, we are confronting the very real possibility of downward mobility. As a result we share the anxiety of so many about our financial futures.  We will likely end up in precisely these kinds of jobs, if it turns out we can’t get academic positions.

Scott Walker’s bill is clearly designed as a divide and conquer tactic, aimed at taking advantage of the fractures that exist in the lower middle class. He’s using a rhetoric of a widening economic gap between public sector workers who he calls the “haves”, and private sector workers, the “have-nots”. Whether that economic gap really exists is still up for debate.

A number of non-partisan studies have been shown that unionized public sector workers in Wisconsin are actually compensated less than private sector workers of comparable education by about 8%, even with benefits taken into account. But unfortunately those who still support Walker and this bill are not convinced that these are valid or unbiased. They seem to have been persuaded by Governor Walker’s and others’ (Republicans, Tea Party, Glenn Beck and Fox News) rhetoric that their suffering is the fault of the public sector workers. Or at least that they have suffered, while the public sector workers have had it easy.

At the same time, regarding the rhetoric of “fairness” it may be fair to say that those “private” (i.e., industrial, agricultural and service) sector  workers have indeed borne the brunt of the economic down-turn in terms of layoffs, mortgage foreclosures, and more. For those that are not unionized, they have had no other recourse, no protection. They technically have the right, but no actual ability to collectively bargain.

Even while Walker has attempted to use divide and conquer tactics on some part of the lower middle class (splitting the public sector workers from the so-called private sector workers), this bill has also served to unify a lot more people, including TAs like myself. Until recently I did not see myself as a “worker” in the Marxist sense, and of course I’m not really. But because we are now unified by this bill, and the attack on our collective bargaining rights, I can now say I feel the solidarity, and it is good.

I am proud to be a member of the TAA, proud of our co-presidents Alex Hanna (PhD Student in Sociology) and Kevin Gibbons (PhD Student in Geography), and proud of the Anthropology Departments TAA Stewards Alison Carter and Katie Lindstrom (who has made a big difference even though she’s in the field in Pakistan). I am proud and grateful for the many others who have been working without rest over the last week to try to kill this bill.

When it became clear that Governor Walker could not be swayed, and likely that the other Republican Senators won’t either, I started to feel some despair. I wondered what it is that we had accomplished. But then I thought back to Senator Taylor’s tweeted reply to me: “WOW! Look at yall! Thank you – you inspire me!” and I realized it is true. Without the amazing response and passion of the TAA, the other unions, AFSCME, AFT, AFL-CIO, the Firefighters, Cops, and the generally concerned and supportive citizens, we wouldn’t have the “Fighting 14”, now famous 14 Democratic state senators who fled the state of Wisconsin to prevent a quorum which would have allowed the senate to vote, and the bill to be passed. We wouldn’t have protests on the order of 80,000 people marching on the Wisconsin Capitol, with more protests in Ohio and beyond. We wouldn’t have national and international media attention.

We have accomplished something, and so has Scott Walker. This bill has galvanized a new movement of people to support the rights of workers, to support the right to bargain collectively. And I’m proud to be a part of that. I also hope it’s also more than that. I hope that this is the beginning of an opposition movement across the country to push back against the right-wing agenda in its many forms.

Gwen Kelly is a Ph.D. Candidate and Teaching Assistant in Anthropology at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. Her research is primarily on the organization and technology of craft production in Southern India during the Late Iron Age and Early Historic periods. She is also interested in the archaeology of European colonialism, missionary activity, and tribal cultures in India. She is the founder of IAWAWSA, the International Association for Women Archaeologists Working in South Asia. She blogs and can be found on twitter @gwendok.

Adam Fish

I am a cultural anthropologist and media studies scholar currently teaching and researching in the Sociology Department at Lancaster University, UK. I investigate media technologies, digital finance, and network activism. @mediacultures

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