From the Streets of Madison: A Crash-Course on Collective Action

1100224-wisconsinprotestBefore last week, we'd rarely thought about unions or union rights, but living in Madison these days, it seems that we hardly make it through an hour without hearing the words "unions" and "collective bargaining." In the past week, we've tried to give ourselves a crash course on what exactly these words mean and why they are important to so many people. Although we are far from experts, we feel as though the conversations we've had with people at protests, in the classroom, with employers, and while waiting for the bus, have shed light on why this bill is personal to many people in Wisconsin.

It is important to note that the unions are trying to compromise. They have conceded to pay more towards their health care costs and pensions, but they are not willing to give up their rights to collectively bargain. These are union rights to negotiate with their employers for fair working conditions. These are rights that any individual should have, but the ability to negotiate with an employer is much more effective when there is a group of people behind you. While talking to a Ph.D. student on campus the other day, she explained how collective bargaining rights had allowed her parents and grandparents -- who belonged to unions -- to have health care and living wages. In turn, this enabled her to go to college, and eventually graduate school to pursue her Ph.D. Now, as a Ph.D. student and teacher's assistant, she is provided with health care benefits for her family.

It's been inspiring to see the camaraderie among the protesters at the capitol and people throughout the city. While protesters wave signs and shout, "Kill the bill!," no one is violent. Yesterday the city buses were late because they had to detour around protesters on Capitol Square. We noticed that no one seemed upset or frustrated by this, though. People just talked with one another about their experiences at the protest and why they were there. Another morning, we rode an overflowing bus down to the capitol building. Again, the only complaints we heard were people saying things like, "I wish you had told me we were going to the protest today -- I would have brought my sign from the weekend!"

One of the most selfless things we witnessed the past few days was the local firefighters marching around the capitol. The firefighters, along with the police and state troopers, are exempt from the increased contribution to health care costs and pensions as well as from the proposed bargaining restrictions. Despite this, the firefighters were one of the first unions to show up to protest the proposed bill. They are not losing anything in this bill, yet they stand with other state employees in reminding Governor Walker that taking away bargaining rights is an unnecessary cut.

While Governor Walker's unwillingness to compromise is disheartening, the attitude of the city and the spirit of the protesters are truly inspiring. It is neat to see a city and many parts of the state rally around the rights of their fellow citizens. It has been a moving experience to take part in.

Kelli Blackmore and Peg Zizzo are graduate students at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. They are both advocates of Wisconsin cheese and union rights.

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