A steelworker on Walker: 'He's going to go after everybody.'
What if the governor declared war on working people and everybody came? That's how it felt today at the state Capitol rally against Gov. Scott Walker's jihad on public employee unions.
There were thousands upon thousands of people -- pressed onto the steps on the Capitol's State Street entrance, spilling off to the sides in three-foot-deep snow drifts, extending all the way to the 100 block of State Street and onto the sidewalks on either side. And all of them were united in their shock and anger at what the governor and state Legislature are poised to do.
As the crowd thickened, I made my way up the Capitol steps, talking to as many people as I could.
A.J. Moll, however, could't make it up the steps. He was sitting on a planter down by the sidewalk, a portable oxygen tank beside him. For more than four decades, until his retirement a few years ago, the Madison resident was a proud union member, an electrician with Local 159.
"What do I feel about Walker?" he said, posing a question I hadn't asked. "He's like all Republicans. They want everybody working for minimum wage." Except, of course, themselves.
Ramona Tenosorio was on the steps with her two oldest children, carrying a sign branding Walker "Bad for Education." A grad student at the UW-Milwaukee who belongs to the teaching assistants union there, she said the changes Walker wants to unilaterally impose -- doubling her health care costs -- threaten her ability to survive.
"I make less than $20,000 a year supporting a family of six," she says. "These cuts would cause devastation for my family."
But Tenosorio feels the "real tragedy" is Walker's determination to strip public employee unions of their right to collective bargaining, and ultimately their ability to survive. She noted that even the remaining ability of public employee unions to collectively bargain for salaries is a farce, as any increases above the rate of inflation would have to go to a voter referendum.
Also on hand from Milwaukee was Ike Edwards, who works for a private sector union, United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1473. His union is not affected by Walker's changes, but like many others in the crowd, he was there in solidarity with those who are.
"We're pretty much united in terms of our position that this bill is ridiculous and goes way too far," said Edwards. He called it "a power grab."
Sue Cameron, an employee of WEAC who came to the event from Waterford, in northern Racine County, had a similar take: "We're looking at this bill as killing a flea with a sledgehammer. I don't know what gutting collective bargaining rights has to do with balancing a budget. It's one thing to [ask for] sacrifice. It's another to bash."
Dave Carrid of Madison is a retired employee of University Hospital, where he was a member of AFSCME for 25 years. He has worked one other union job and some that were nonunion.
"The jobs that were nonunion that I held in Madison were terrible compared to the union jobs," Carrid told me. "Unions made my life better. They make every worker's life better."
I spoke to several people who work as prison guards at Oshkosh Correctional Institution, members of AFSCME Local 18. They told me that about 50 members of their 275-member unit -- everyone who had off or was able to take off by using vacation pay -- was at the event.
The guards were aghast at the idea of losing the right to collectively bargain for workplace issues, like how grievances are handled. "Working in prison, there's a lot of ways you can get in trouble," said one guard, Scott Kinnard, as when "inmates make accusations." He says Walker's plan will leave guards with "no protections."
"Our employer is going to be able to do whatever they want and we'll have convicted felons to worry about, too," he said. "We're going to get it from both ends."
I asked the guards if they thought the Wisconsin National Guard might be able to do their jobs, as Walker has suggested, should they strike in protest. "They'd be able to come in and lock the place down," said Kinnard. "But to do our daily jobs, not a chance." He said inmates would immediately recognize and exploit inexperience.
Another guard chimed in on what would happen should inmates find themselves guarded by the National Guard: "They're going to riot."
I spoke to two men who had especially "out there" signs, both the brainchild of one of them, Charles Simonsen, a member of the International Workers of the World in Milwaukee. One sign had the beaming image of Justin Bieber, declaring "Hell No!" The other used a South Park caricature of Walker with the words, "Scott, He's a Dick!"
"I'm going for the youth demographic," Simonsen said.
Just then the loudspeakers played "Living on a Prayer," and the crowd enthusiastically joined in. "Could Bon Jovi have ever imagined this?" I wrote in my notes. A moment later, a man with a thick foreign accent asked me if I knew the name of the song that had just played and had me write it down for him, presumably so he can obtain it for his own collection. I imagined him cranking up the Victrola, fist thrusting in air.
I spoke with a couple from Stoughton -- Mike Hansen and Linda LaPorte. Hansen, a member of United Steel Workers Local 904, in Sun Prairie, was especially irate.
"This is just the beginning," he said of Walker. "He's going to go after everybody." LaPorte was appalled that Walker launched his attack without ever attempting negotiations with the union: "He could have gone to the bargaining table."
It was a sentiment shared by Patty Fuhrman of Reedsburg, a school secretary who belongs to an arm of the Wisconsin Federation of Teachers. "Scott Walker needs to come to the table," she scolded. "This is not the way to handle this. We would have made concessions if we were asked, but we weren't."
Making my way back down the steps, I spoke to Art Hackett, formerly of Wisconsin Public Television, who was there as an observer. He made an interesting observation: "This is easily the most broad-based demonstration of its kind I've ever seen." All unionists were represented, and all were united.
That point was also driven home by an off-the-record conversation I had with some of the law enforcement officers policing the event. They made it known their sympathies were with the protesters and not the governor.
Indeed, they noted proudly, some of their colleagues were in attendance.
I've written some discouraging words about the limitations of protests. And of course, if that's all there is -- people gathered to publicly reinforce what they collectively believe, with signs and chants -- Walker and the Republicans have nothing to fear.
But it was impossible to be at Tuesday's rally and think that was all there is, or all there will be. It wasn't an event so much as an omen, resonant with the enmity that Scott Walker has caused. And that absolutely is something he and the Republicans should fear.