Jim Oakley is a fellow Returned Peace Corps Volunteer who served with me in the Eastern Caribbean in the early 1970s. Jim and I got to know each other in 1971 while rooming with a wonderful Barbadian family during our training before we were sent off to teach Spanish in different parts of Grenada. Since then Jim has been teaching Spanish in the Wisconsin public school system. Jim is, naturally, heavily invested in what's been going on in Wisconsin, and he has written about it. Below is part 1 of his thoughts and observations; Part 2 will follow shortly.
Which Side Are You On?
By Jim Oakley
I was proud to be part of two big demonstrations of democracy recently, one
in Madison and one in Washburn (aka "Madison North").
On Saturday, February 26, in Madison, we marched for workers' rights and
for other changes in the "budget repair bill." It showed Wisconsin at its
best. As one of the chants went, "This is what democracy looks like!" I
had never before been part of such a large group of people. It was
peaceful, organized, civil, and positive. And unlike the view of State
Senator Glenn Grothman (whom I know well, having previously lived in his
district), not a single "slob," union boss," or "thug" in sight.
Crowd estimates varied from 70,000 to 100,000. I do not know how one
estimates crowd numbers, especially in this case since people were moving
around all the streets and sidewalks adjacent to the capitol, plus they
were inside the building and on some of the nearby streets. And some folks
were leaving the area as others were arriving. I heard there was a Tea
Party counter-demonstration in the area. I did not see them, but I hear
they also were peaceful and civil.
I am dismayed at the intransigence of our governor. If he has his way
Wisconsin is in a race to the bottom --in education, health, environment,
and human rights. As one of the signs said, "If you think education is
expensive, watch what stupid will cost!" I cannot imagine any previous
governor --including Republicans Dreyfus, Thompson, and Knowles-- acting in
such a dictatorial manner as Mr. Walker. The politics of division and "us
versus them" are not worthy of Wisconsin.
The 2,000-plus people gathered in Washburn on March 12 displayed a similar
sense of community, determination and respect. They greeted Governor
Walker and others attending the Republican dinner at the Steak Pit
restaurant with a strong message of people power. There was not a single
untoward incident, for which we can be grateful to the local and guest
police, the organizers of the rally, and everyone who volunteered and
pitched in to do what needed to be done.
I have been trying to reconcile two apparently contradictory notions in my
mind. One is the concept of compromise, including the common good and the
politics of inclusion. The other is expressed in the old union song "Which
side are you on?" which was sung both in Madison and Washburn.
Our society values both concepts, but in our political system, the latter
is currently dominant, and the politics of division is rampant. Our
governor and his enablers seem bent on destroying the Wisconsin we know and
love. I wish I could say --as I have in the past over other contentious
issues-- "Oh, I'm sure they mean well." Nope. They seem to see value in
dividing different groups of public workers against each other, and trying
to pit public employees against private workers. I don't think it's working.
Basically he has declared war on public unions --and thus on the middle
class. It is clearly a "war of choice". As a teacher, I feel personally
attacked every time a union is attacked. My grandmother worked in rural
Iowa almost a hundred years ago. She was dismissed from her teaching job
as soon as she married. Years later when she was in her 90s it rankled her
still. In the 1960s and 70s my mother served on the school board in Beaver
Dam, Wisconsin. When she began, women teachers were paid less than men,
single men were paid less than married men, and no teacher had collective
bargaining. By the time she left the school board they did.
No institution is perfect -- no union, no political party, no church, no
family-- but they all have valid roles to play in civil society, and I
believe that in the marketplace of ideas the common good should rise to the
top, no matter who has more money.
There are many types of rights, and of course the Bill of Rights of our
Constitution is where the most essential ones are enshrined. There are also
basic rights promoted by the United Nations --including the right to form
unions. But of course, governments can grant and take away rights. That
any rights exist is because at some point people banded together and fought
for them; it never has been automatic. But the general trend in most
societies has been toward greater rights, not fewer, and toward respectful
inclusion and cooperation.
The price of rights is eternal vigilance. That is why the latest
initiatives of our current governor have struck a nerve. Wisconsin has
enjoyed fifty years of labor peace. The collective bargaining process has
been a major factor in the quality of life we enjoy in Wisconsin. Our
education system continually ranks in the top ten states. I do not believe
in worshiping test scores, and we are not perfect, but we regularly
outperform the so-called "right-to-work" states.
People deserve more rights, not fewer. If public employees enjoy benefits
gained through collective bargaining, so also should all other workers.
Public workers deserve strong unions. So do workers in Mexican sweatshops
and Chinese Wallmart suppliers.
I consider myself a person of faith. And people of faith often agree to
disagree respectfully. As I was watching the people on the streets of
Washburn and the cars arriving for the dinner at the Steak Pit, I asked
myself a few WWJD questions, which now I will ask you:
Would Jesus have marched in support of teachers and other public workers?
Or would He caucus with the Tea Party folks?
Would He pay $200 for a Lincoln Day dinner with the Pharisees? Or would He
help cook for the volunteers who kept the rally safe for everyone?
For that matter, what would Lincoln do? Of course he was not perfect. Even
FDR has been quoted as not favoring collective bargaining for public
employees. But given a choice between oligarchs and their minions on one
side and public servants on the other, where would Lincoln or Roosevelt
(Teddy or Franklin) come down?
Which brings me back to that old union song, "Which side are you on?" While
there is still room for compromise and still hope for the common good, the
governor has forced us to choose. When we have our regular elections, and
possible recall elections, you decide: Which side are you on?
By the way, "Which Side Are You On?" is a union song written by Florence Reece. You can hear her sing it here, probably recorded in the 1940s.