Thursday, February 17, 2011

On Wisconsin. My (Extended) Two Cents.

Many of you may have heard about the situation affecting labor in Wisconsin. Our newly elected Governor Scott Walker put forth a bill just a week ago that would strip collective bargaining rights from the 175,000 unionized state employees and make over 320,000 state workers contribute more salary to their health insurance and pension plans, representing an average 8-10% cut in pay effective immediately. It is my understanding that police, state troopers, and firefighters are exempt, and may still collectively bargain for benefits, hours, & working conditions. Coincidentally, they were the only state unions to endorse Walker’s candidacy last fall. So that everything runs smoothly, Walker recently appointed the father of the newly-elected Republican majority leaders of the state house and senate as head of the state patrol. He also threatened to call up the National Guard if state worker protests get just a bit too caffeinated, or if a general strike is called.

Thirty-thousand people marched on the state capitol in Madison, Wisconsin yesterday, and 23 (possibly more by now) schools are closed today due to teacher sick-outs. 30,000 people. This is exciting and frightening and amazing and terrifying and I’m considering rearranging my schedule to join the march tomorrow, if it continues. Because we are balanced on a cliff right now; if Wisconsin labor falls, newly-elected politicians in other states will propose similar measures to strip public workers of their rights and income. Ohio. Florida. Michigan. State by state, the already-suffering middle class in this nation will fall like dominoes.

This bill has the votes to pass. We are waiting, holding our breath to see what happens.

I hesitated to write about this, because I don’t want to alienate any readers. But I feel I owe it to my family, to many of my friends, to the good people I’ve had the honor to work with in Wisconsin state prisons and public schools in the last 15 years. And seeing as how my primary source of income comes from my tax-funded state job and I’m one of the people taking it on the chin in the Governor’s proposal, and it’s my blog, please indulge me this one time. I promise to return to non-political, lighter fare in the future.

Let me tell you a story. In the beginning, it was my mom and me against the world. My grandparents took us in. Grandpa was a proud state worker, Superintendent of Kohler Andrae State Park near Sheboygan. In the war, he was a unionized truck driver; we recently found his brotherhood membership card among some old photos and papers. My grandfather’s pension will allow my 88 year-old grandmother, a staunch Republican, to live her remaining years in a comfortable, dignified manner.

When I was born back in the mid-seventies (ugh), unemployment and inflation were high. Jobs were scarce, but the prisons were hiring, so Mom took a job there. We’d been on public assistance, and work was work. Labor struggled even then, and I’m told I was brought to the picket lines when I was three and the unionized prison employees went on strike. Mom married my Dad when I was five; he too was a public servant, first working in the same prison as a guard then a sergeant then a social worker then moving into probation and parole. Right now he’s an adjunct English professor in the UW system.

I grew up in a union family, and I remember my Dad proudly saying things like, “I’m a union man.” I was so proud of him, and I loved bringing friends and boys over to dinner just to expose them to different ways of thinking. (Yeah, we were “that liberal family” in a sea of red, rural conservatism.) We didn’t have much money; I wore hand-me-downs, had a homemade Cabbage Patch Doll, and I remember seeing frost on my bedroom walls in winter. We never took fancy trips, and we lived paycheck to paycheck. But there was consolation in the fact that we didn’t go without food, we had good healthcare coverage, and my parents would have safe pensions in their old age. We felt secure and life was pretty good.

After my public education (I had wonderful teachers), I attended a public university. In my senior year, I took a part-time job in the same prison in which my mother worked. First as a teaching assistant with emotionally disturbed and mentally challenged inmates aged 16-21. I worked with the most inspiring, dedicated teacher I’ve ever known: Ellen Goeden. She single-handedly introduced a new program to help her students prepare for the civics portion of the High-School Equivalency Diploma. Though I had threats leveled at me (“I’m going to find you when I get out!”), I also felt the quiet satisfaction and sense of achievement when I helped several inmates study for and pass GED tests, one by one by one.

The second job I held in the same prison was as a limited-term assistant for the Program Review Committee. In the face of exploding prison populations, we were shipping many of our better-behaved inmates out of state to private facilities in Oklahoma, Texas, and Tennessee. My job was to transcribe minutes from these committee meetings. I was privy to entire lives, and I found it fascinating. Here’s where I talk about unions again: our prisons? Staffed by highly trained, unionized, supported correctional officers. Those private, out-of-state prisons? Staffed by non-union guards making half the pay…turnover was phenomenal, and they were incredibly dangerous places to work. Riots and attempted prison breaks were nearly unheard of where I worked, but in Texas? Common.

After I graduated from college I found another job for the state: this time writing grants for public schools. I’ve done this for the last 13 years. As a non-union state worker, my salary is modest (have I mentioned my house is worth just $75,000 and I drive an old Honda?), but the total compensation package, which includes benefits, makes up for that. And I love what I do. I love to write, and if I can use my skills to bring millions in Federal dollars into our state for educational programs benefitting low-income students, fantastic. There is a dignity in this, and I am lucky as hell to have this job.

My entire life has been the result of union negotiations affording my family a decent middle class standard of living, a decent public education. I thank unions and union workers for all of this.

So. This brings us up to date, and back to the new Governer’s budget bill. I’ve spent the last few days alternating between shock and anger and despair. Not for myself, actually—we have no children, we live frugally, and the other income in my household is from the private sector. We’ll weather this storm. I’m actually worried about my sister’s family—my three year-old nephew and four month-old niece will lose their health insurance, because there is a clause in the bill pulling coverage from T.A.s employed by the University of Wisconsin. I’m worried about the single parents I work with, and their children. They’re already talking about finding more affordable housing and second jobs. I’m worried about two other people I work with who face a double-whammy hit, as their spouses are also public employees.

My parents, both state workers, will also face this double hit. My mother has busted her ass for the state for over 35 years, putting in unpaid overtime as a supervisor, taking unpaid furlough days, going into work on weekends and holidays as part of a new requirement by management. Thanks to this bill, her workplace will be even more dangerous and hostile, AND she gets paid less to be there.

I’m worried about the more than 320,000 people in this state who had no warning about this bill: who just bought new homes, got pregnant, had a baby, or sent their kids to college, wondering how they’ll pay their student loans and mortgages and car payments and daycare providers with an unexpected 8% pay cut.

I’m worried about prison guards who, without protection from the union, will have little recourse when inmates make accusations against them. I’m worried about the best teachers, their spirits and incomes broken, defecting from our schools—which are facing even bigger fiscal hits down the road. I’m worried that diminishing what has made state jobs palatable in the past—salary objectivity, security, good benefits—will drive the most dedicated and brightest professionals from those positions. I’m worried that our excellent university system will lose innovators and researchers to other institutions, that the quality of life in this state will decline, and that the only businesses attracted to Wisconsin will offer minimum wage salaries.

I’m worried that despite the Governor’s promises, layoffs are indeed coming even if this passes. I’m worried that—by crushing the unions—corporations and special interest bullies have effectively silenced their opposition, distorted the truth and manipulated the message, and locked up political power in this state for a generation. Yes, Wisconsin is open for business. Hope you like working for $9 an hour. Our middle class is shrinking, more high school graduates are arriving at college needing remedial help, but we have all the beer you can drown your sorrows in.

We all deserve a decent, living, fair wage. We all deserve a pension that keeps us out of the cat food aisle in our golden years. We all deserve affordable, quality health coverage. Frankly, it sickens me that we live in a society in which some people have to throw fundraisers to pay for their daughter’s chemotherapy.

I feel like George Bailey from that scene in It’s a Wonderful Life, when he’s urging people to stand up to Potter during the bank run: “If Potter gets hold of this Building and Loan there'll never be another decent house built in this town. He's already got charge of the bank. He's got the bus line. He's got the department stores. And now he's after us. Why? Well, it's very simple. Because we're cutting in on his business, that's why. And because he wants to keep you living in his slums and paying the kind of rent he decides.” I feel like the middle class is barely holding the line here, and that in ten years I’ll wake from this nightmare to find that Bedford Falls has actually turned into Pottersville.

But what really sticks in my craw is this: whenever private sector jobs are cut, I am terrified on behalf of those families. I worry about their kids. The spiteful, gleeful, bitter, vengeful comments I’ve seen on blogs –people celebrating this proposed hit on over 300,000 working families in my state—disgust me. State workers receive a fair compensation in exchange for providing necessary, quality services to state residents. Salary concessions were made years ago in exchange for solid benefit packages.

We educate your children, serving in many cases also as de facto parents, feeding and counseling and in some cases, even clothing these children. We bathe and care for the forgotten, mentally ill, or impoverished elderly, sometimes serving as the only witness to their death. We administer medication to the sick. We pick up the trash, clear the streets, monitor and keep watch on countless criminals, some of whom assault us and throw bodily fluids in our hair. We attempt to rehabilitate those criminals so when they return to your neighborhood, they don’t shoot heroin in your garage or steal your TV. We maintain parks and manage natural resources so families can always enjoy them. We train the next generation of workers to have the personal and career skills needed to be productive employees in state businesses. We are social workers called to rescue infants crawling with lice from abusive homes in the middle of the night, using our own cars and our own toddler’s car seat.

Make no mistake. There is a class war happening, and the latest tactic is to pit worker against worker, and to the victor go the spoils. (Hint: the victor is not us. The victor is not even those making $200,000/year.)

There are those on the right who have been beating this drumbeat for years, whispering in the ears of the disgruntled who are itching for a scapegoat, itching for a more specific place to direct their fear and rage: “There’s a black drug dealer hiding in your closet, coming for your women” …. “There’s a gay man in there with him, coming for you” … “The muslims want to build a mosque in YOUR BACKYARD, right next to the kids’ playset” … “There’s a truck full of illegal aliens in the Home Depot parking lot—they’re coming for your job” … “There’s a Jew working at your bank; he’s the one who made sure you were denied that loan” … “Here comes Michelle Obama—she’s going to take away your donuts and force-feed you KALE” … “There’s Al Gore—he wants you to drive an electric car; good Lord, he may as well castrate you!” … “The atheists are at it again—this time one of them pissed on the baby Jesus in your church’s live nativity scene” … “I heard a rumor that a consortium of scientists with French accents are trying to brainwash your children into believing they—wait for it—descended from monkeys” … “This morning Nancy Pelosi broke into your house and took all of your guns, right after she gave Nancy Reagan the finger” … “There goes a unionized prison guard—he’s the very reason your property taxes went up…Flag pins activate---GET HIM!

And the unionized prison guard listening to Rush suddenly stops nodding along in righteous indignation, puzzled…hey, wait a minute!

Where do I feel we should be directing our anger? How about greedy lobbyists? How about unethical, power-hungry politicians, past and present, who have cumulatively made the bad decisions that deregulated industries, lost jobs, and ruined our economy? How about rapacious speculators, shady fund managers, bloated military contractors that charge our deployed service people thirty bucks for a case of Pepsi? How about professional athletes? THE KARDASHIANS?

This bill sucks 1.2 billion from our collective paychecks in just one year—this vanished income will not be taxed and therefore will not contribute to state revenue. It will not be spent in local restaurants, stores, salons, or car dealerships. And as a result of that, it will not produce sales tax revenue for the state. The Wisconsin Home Builders Association just heartily applauded our Governor’s plan to reduce my income. Therefore, though we just attended a seminar on building our dream home, I heartily endorse not giving them my business. Change of plans. Well, I don’t have the money to hire them now anyway.

Wow. See how easy it is to get ugly and vindictive? Worker against worker. It’s so simple.

So why the sudden, surprise cuts now, Governor Walker? And how will busting the unions and eliminating workers’ rights to bargain for fair employment and workplace safety help the budget deficit? Last December the union already offered over $100 million in concessions. Also, I hear the economy is improving—why the urgency to ‘balance the books’ on the backs of middle class working families? I also hear, from the non-partisan Legislative Fiscal Bureau, that our state would actually finish the year with a budget surplus of $121 million if our Governor hadn’t just granted $140 million in tax cuts and incentives to special interests and businesses to ‘possibly’ create jobs here. Fully 2/3rds of corporations in this state PAY NO TAXES AT ALL. Governor Walker himself said that he could find $165 million to fill in budget holes simply by restructuring existing debt. Is this a manufactured crisis? Perhaps. If I put my tin-foil hat on, I can go wild with theories.

Look. I get it. Taxes are high. Trust me, I know this all too well, since we were hit with an unanticipated special street assessment of nearly $9,000 last year. But state workers pay the same high property, gas, sales and other taxes and fees that everyone else does. I hate it too. I also hate that my job is tied to tax revenue, which politicizes it and makes me and other state workers easy and favorite targets when the economy takes a beating. But…when I was locked into my modest salary in the earlier part of this decade, when times were good, I didn’t begrudge the much higher wages and bonuses my friends in the private sector took home.

I don’t know the answer to the budget crisis. But I know it’s not to shove this down our throats in a week’s time . It’s not to bust the unions. There has got to be a better way to deal with this.

Yes, I know, it’s become quite fashionable to bash unions. It’s also become popular to quote Ronald Reagan. So though he’s not known as a big friend to organized labor (air traffic control strike, anyone?), let me close with a link to a video that proves that in some cases, he was.

Solidarity indeed. Thanks for reading.

Rant off, and peace out.


  1. Denise in Madison1:24 PM

    Join us, Jess! We would love to have you!

  2. Excellent writing Jess!

  3. Penny8:20 PM

    Another GREAT blog, Jess. You always amaze me with your insight. I miss you!

  4. Thank you so much! I definitely will be sharing your blog with my fellow teachers here in Northern Wisconsin.

  5. Thanks Jess! Your words and support mean a lot! I'm going back to Madison tomorrow to protest again.

  6. The in-law10:14 PM

    Well done Jess. Everyone should read this!!

  7. Guess who Obama is backing on this mess. What a fricking surprise!

  8. Denise in Madison6:34 AM

    Municipal workers and teachers across the state will also be profoundly affected by this bill (not just state employees). I'm proud to say that our firefighters (who are exempt [for now] from this bill) marched with us last night, in full Class A uniforms. They get it that their exemption is only a divide-and-conquer tactic and they'll be next. And I'm proud to say that Madison's Mayor Dave and the City Council called an emergency meeting last night to ratify & sign all remaining unsettled union contracts for City workers so that at least we'll be ok till the end of 2012. These are frightening times we live in.

  9. Anonymous9:03 AM

    Compared to what many private employees have gone through an eight percent pay reduction really isn't that much.

    If the money isn't there, how will the state pay to maintain benefits?

  10. Well, thank you for your story and point of view. Enjoy what you have proudly demanded, and proudly deserved. Have faith that you and your class will endure, with dignity, any deprivation you may suffer. Consider, if your anxiety and fear can be held in check for a moment, how blessed, lucky, perhaps even spoiled you've been. I wish you strength and courage with your struggle. Bob L from Illinois

  11. Anon, thank you for your comment. You’re right, private sector workers have taken their share of blows over the last few years, for sure. It sucks all around. The proposed pay cut is more a blow to some families than others, depending on the circumstances. It breaks my heart to see ANY family take pay cuts, lose their health coverage, lose their jobs entirely. Personally, I don’t mind contributing more to my pension and healthcare plan. I would love to see a living wage, good pension, and access to affordable healthcare for EVERYONE. This is the goal we should be working towards, and most reasonable people would agree. Unfortunately, there is tremendous disagreement on how to get there.

    The pitting of private and public sector workers against each other is alarming. We are being trained to stand in a circular firing squad so we don’t pay attention to what’s really going on at the top. I’ve already read and heard the talking points on TV, blogs, talk radio… the selective vilification of our neighbors, family, and friends is getting pretty ugly.

    But here’s the real issue. What’s really gotten under people’s skins here is the unnecessary, strong-handed, politically-motivated push to eliminate collective bargaining for 175,000 people, most of whom did NOT vote for the governor. In December, before the new Gov took office, there was an agreement, to the tune of $100 million in concessions, to settle for what Walker is asking for. Walker asked that it not be passed in the Lame Duck session, and promised to return to the table with the unions to bargain after he was sworn in. He went back on his word. I would rail against this no matter WHICH party Walker belonged to, because it’s just plain wrong.

    From Crooks and Liars:

    "It's important that people understand this: This is a fight Gov. Walker picked for the specific purpose of breaking the unions. Wisconsin had a SURPLUS, and as soon as he was sworn in, Walker gave it away to special interests in order to put the state into deficit. Is it a coincidence that every Republican governor is suddenly going after the unions and the pensions? Is it simply bubbling up from the ground for no special reason? Hell, no.

    Wisconsin's new Republican governor has framed his assault on public worker's collective bargaining rights as a needed measure of fiscal austerity during tough times.

    The reality is radically different. Unlike true austerity measures -- service rollbacks, furloughs, and other temporary measures that cause pain but save money -- rolling back worker's bargaining rights by itself saves almost nothing on its own. But Walker's doing it anyhow, to knock down a barrier and allow him to cut state employee benefits immediately.

    Furthermore, this broadside comes less than a month after the state's fiscal bureau -- the Wisconsin equivalent of the Congressional Budget Office -- concluded that Wisconsin isn't even in need of austerity measures, and could conclude the fiscal year with a surplus. In fact, they say that the current budget shortfall is a direct result of tax cut policies Walker enacted in his first days in office."

  12. Vanessa2:45 PM

    My mother is one of the women you work with, and possibly one of the people you mentioned who is getting a double hit from this budget bill, considering my father is a teacher. Your blog entry is written beautifully; you are a fantastic writer and all of the things you spoke out on are things I agree with deeply. I’m not very much into politics, but after reading your entry, it makes me want to stand up and fight for what I think is right. This is one of the best pieces of writing I have ever read and the way you put into words exactly how others are feeling, how I am feeling, brings me close to tears. I commend you for your courage to stand up and speak out on what you believe, despite the negative comments that may be thrust your way from dedicated viewers of your blog. Overall, I just want to say thank you. Thank you for the way you write, for your exceptional use of words and language. Thank you for the way your heart is, because I can tell you have a great one. Thank you for standing up for other families, for MY family.

  13. Anonymous6:09 PM

    Thank you for saying all the anger and frustration I couldn't seem to put into words! It was a wonderful, well written article. I hope the supporters of this bill take a step back and take a look at all they are about to lose if the bill comes to fruition!
    P.S. If you can read this, thank a teacher!

  14. How issues like health care ever became a "benefit" versus a right amazes me. We all have to share this society, the growing disparity between have and have nots has never in the course of history ended well.

    Take care and keep us posted.

  15. Vanessa, thank you for the kind thoughts; your mom is an awesome lady, and she's raised some thoughtful, good-hearted kids. :)

    I appreciate everyone's comments. Here's to better days for all of us!

  16. I. love. You. : )

    I'm a women's fiction specialist, and I've spent a lot of time championing your book, and now I simply bow to you for posting such a well-thought out commentary. Who knew you weren't just good at writing comic scenes and one of my favorite novels of 2008, but good at writing a manifesto, as well? : )

    As a WI girl (and former public servant), I too have been just heartsick over all of the nastiness that this has brought about.

    most of the people who think that WI state workers need to contribute their "fair share" are the same people who would call me a Socialist because I think that wealthy politicians and corporations need to play fair, as well... hmmm.

    It's part of the strategy. Get us to fight each other over crumbs so we don't notice while they quietly feast.

  17. Anonymous6:51 PM

    Hey Jess, I'm a retired teacher,social worker, maintainance supervisor, so I have been in all camps. Your focus on the lobbyists and special interests is right on. As you know, our lame duck legislature and present governor enacted a tax increase from 3-5%. It was supposed to go to education, and pay down the debt. Just this week the governor announced the creation of a new department to "oversee" the existing education departments. In addition, he gave his administrative staff raises. The democrats control the legislature and the governor's office, so it doesn't matter which party is in power, they answer to the lobbyists and special interests here too. Keep up the pressure, it's the only thing politicians understand. Jerry

  18. Jess, my friend, I'm so proud of you.

    and not surprised in the least.

    Brava, my friend. Brava!