Illustration: Christiane Grauert
All of us have learned some lessons about the meaning of solidarity from the recent events in Wisconsin. Gov. Scott Walker’s so-called “budget repair bill” was a draconian assault on workers’ rights and unions. He followed this with what the Wisconsin education superintendent called “the greatest state cut to education since the Great Depression” and a host of other cuts that disproportionately affect poor people and people of color. Teachers and other public sector employees, along with parents, students, and many, many others, responded with an outpouring of creative, imaginative, and hope-inspiring acts of solidarity.
Solidarity is parents texting teachers to say: “I heard you were going to Madison today. Do you have space for one more in your car?” Solidarity is firefighters (who are not losing collective bargaining) showing up to parade among thousands of protesters every day for two weeks and sleeping on the cold, hard Capitol floors to keep the “people’s house” open for the people. Solidarity is people from as far away as Egypt and Antarctica calling in donations to Ian’s Pizza to feed protesters. Solidarity is strangers running up and saying “Thank you” as they sign a petition to recall their state senator in the most conservative, affluent white suburbs. Solidarity is when two educators can put together a protest on Wednesday night and get 200 picketers at a biased local news station Friday—after school and in the rain. The experience of being in the midst of something much larger than oneself—and realizing that we can change the world for the better, can take care of each other, can make decisions together—is life changing.
Acts of solidarity are growing in Wisconsin and beyond. And it’s a good thing, because solidarity is what we need to sustain us during the most difficult time for public employees and public education that our country has seen in our lifetimes. As the wealthy—and the politicians they have purchased—continue their pursuit of privilege and privatization, we need to be even more audacious in nurturing solidarity for survival.
The attacks on the public sphere go well beyond Wisconsin. Ohio recently passed a law that prohibits collective bargaining over health care and pensions for all public employees, including police and firefighters. Michigan’s Public Act 4, passed in March, allows the governor to appoint “emergency managers” for municipalities with “fiscal emergencies.” The governors of Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, and a handful of other states hope to replicate and expand the policies of Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels, who eliminated collective bargaining for state employees six years ago through executive order. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie is refusing to negotiate with state workers over health and benefits, and has proposed eliminating tenure, seniority, and civil service protections for teachers while imposing a mandatory test-based evaluation system not subject to collective bargaining.
In Wisconsin, the teachers’ union was a major force in getting people out to the Capitol, with the Madison local, Madison Teachers Inc., taking the lead. After the first day of sick-outs by Madison-area teachers, the president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council called on 98,000 Wisconsin educators to come to the Capitol to protest the bill on Thursday and Friday instead of going to work. The push and pull between rank-and-file union members and union leaders was evident. Activist locals pushed the state organization, and rank-and-file members pushed their union locals. On the flip side, many union leaders asked reluctant members to go beyond their comfort zones and get active to defend their rights.
When Wisconsin teachers arrived at the Madison Capitol to join the protests, they stepped into a powerful tradition of progressivism and unionism. The signs, T-shirts, and invited speakers made it clear that this wasn’t just about teachers, it was about all workers’ rights. As the days wore on and the fight drew increasing attention in the national media, protesters became increasingly conscious that losing in Wisconsin could be the beginning of the end for workers’ rights across the country. Walker saw the situation the same way. He told a prank caller impersonating billionaire donor David Koch that “Ronald Reagan . . . had one of the most defining moments of his political career . . . when he fired the air traffic controllers. . . . This is our moment, this is our time to change the course of history.”
Walker claimed that “Wisconsin is broke” but, as Michael Moore told protesters at the Capitol: “America is not broke. Not by a long shot. The country is awash in wealth and cash. It’s just that it’s not in your hands. . . . Today just 400 Americans have the same wealth as half of all Americans combined.” In fact, one of Walker’s first acts as governor was to give the rich another $140 million in tax breaks.
America’s wealth is not only held unequally, it’s also misappropriated in obscene ways. Virtually always ignored in these discussions is the looming U.S. military budget, which was $663.8 billion last year. What would that money and those human resources mean, directed to meeting social needs instead of poured into weapons and conquest, including the endless occupation of Afghanistan? The current crisis is not an “unavoidable” consequence of economic recession; it is a bill come due for bailouts, bombs, and unsustainable inequality. And it’s being delivered to the wrong address by the political servants of the rich.
Cuts Target the Most Vulnerable
Compounding public employees’ anger at the attacks on their jobs and unions has been growing anger about the debilitating budget cuts that destroy public services and make it impossible to serve the needs of students, patients, or clients. Among Wisconsin teachers, this led to a feeling of “What do we have to lose?” Late one night, as dozens of teachers debated whether to organize a sick-out, one teacher remarked: “If one-third of your building calls in sick tomorrow, you’ll have the same staffing levels as you’ll have every day next year after the budget cuts.”
Attacks on the public sector—teachers, nurses, social workers, librarians, public health workers—are in essence attacks on the people they serve: children and those who are sick, elderly, homeless, disabled, jobless, newcomers, or otherwise in need of public services. In state after state, budget cuts have targeted those who are most vulnerable. The racial and class injustice of the cuts is undeniable. In Michigan, proposed cuts would close half the schools in Detroit, where 95 percent of the students are African American, and increase class size to 60. The Texas budget proposal would eliminate pre-K funding for almost 100,000 children. In Washington, cuts would eliminate prenatal and infant medical care for 67,000 poor women and their children. In Wisconsin the governor’s new budget hits Milwaukee Public Schools, the state’s largest and most impoverished district, particularly hard. The proposal denies health care coverage and food stamps to many more people in need, including both documented and undocumented immigrants. It will take away college opportunities from undocumented immigrants by repealing the current state law that allows any resident to pay in-state tuition.
Also in Walker’s proposal is a huge expansion of public support for private schools. Milwaukee would become the first city in the United States in which any child, at any income level, could attend private school (including a religious school) on the public dime. And lest we think that this is a peculiarly Wisconsin development, the spending deal to avert a federal government shutdown in April included a plan to provide federal money to low-income students in Washington, D.C., to attend private schools.
This insistence on spending money on vouchers in the midst of a “fiscal crisis” exposes the right’s real goals. This is the future that many people with great wealth, and those who do their bidding, have in mind: the decimation of workers’ rights to organize, the withering of the public sphere, wealth and power increasingly concentrated at the top. The signs that proclaimed “We are all Wisconsin” and the solidarity protests across the country were a recognition that—as the Industrial Workers of the World said more than 100 years ago—an injury to one is an injury to all.
No doubt, in the face of these increasingly aggressive right-wing attacks, frustration, depression, and even desperation are widespread. But here, too, communities around the country can draw inspiration from Wisconsin. Months after the first protesters marched into the Capitol, people continue to organize. A few examples: massive recall campaigns aimed at state senators who voted to destroy collective bargaining; street protests dogging the governor’s footsteps; teacher “grade-ins” at local malls to make weekend grading and planning visible to the community; campaigns to get out the vote for progressive candidates; a boycott, led by the Wisconsin Firefighters Union, against M&I Bank, whose executives are major funders of Gov. Walker.
Yes, this is no time to despair. There is too much on the line. But it’s also no time to ignore very real and enduring problems in our schools. Too often, the enemies of public education have taken advantage of schools’ failure to meet the needs of disenfranchised communities to push privatization schemes and market reforms—from vouchers to Teach for America—as the alternative. As educators, we need to listen to students’ and parents’ genuine grievances about public schools and respond with engaged imaginations and a determination to work together as school communities. We need to build labor-community alliances that directly confront racial injustice. Moving in that direction were May Day celebrations this year in Wisconsin, New York, and other states built by conscious collaborations of labor and immigrant rights organizations with demands for human rights that were explicitly pro-immigrant, pro-labor, and anti-racist. We need more cross-union alliances like Jobs with Justice to organize the unorganized and support all workers’ rights—here and around the world. We need more teachers’ unions that defend communities as well as contracts, and political organizations that see electoral campaigns as one aspect of a permanent mobilization toward democracy and justice.
As the articles in our cover section point out (see p. 14), we need to equip our students to recognize what’s at stake—and to look at history and current social movements to see what people, including young people, can do when they act on their beliefs. If Wisconsin’s Scott Walker has taught us anything, it’s that what is at stake is the kind of society we want to live in.
These past few months in Wisconsin have shown that consciousness-raising and organizing can be filled with humor, imagination, and a bold spirit of resistance. We can build on this work, deepening and multiplying our expressions of solidarity, to sustain us through this intensely difficult time and propel us toward a more humane and just future.