A Note: This post has nothing to do with books. It’s about the current political situation in Wisconsin, which is also important to me. But if you’re not interested in that, feel free to skip this post and go about your day.
I used to be politically minded. In high school, I participated in regular mock legislative sessions. I always had an opinion in my political science and social studies classes. In college, I helped found a political magazine. I organized memorials for September 11 and wrote editorials in our school paper. I was involved.
But somewhere along the line I got cynical. I got tired of rhetoric and two political parties and name-calling. I started to think that politicians didn’t care, they didn’t listen, and they were just in it for the power. I started to feel like I could never know enough to have an educated opinion, so I just stopped voicing them.
Major happenings in Wisconsin this week have helped inspire me about politics again. A little background: Our Republican governor, Scott Walker, introduced a “Budget Repair Bill” designed to deal with Wisconsin’s upcoming budget shortfall of $136.7 million. (A shortfall he may have engineered himself). However, the bill went a lot further than just some fiscal issues. According to one newspaper,
Walker is looking to remove collective bargaining rights except for salary for roughly 175,000 public employees, from school teachers to garbage collectors — although local police, fire and the state patrol are exempt. Any requests for a salary increase higher than the inflation rate would have to be approved by a referendum. … The bill also makes union dues optional for state workers; requires an annual vote by union members to maintain certification and eliminates health care or pension benefits for any limited term employees.
The protests in response to this radical proposal have been going on since Monday, each day bigger than the one before. Hundreds of people testified to the Joint Finance Committee about the bill (it may have been thousands, I can’t find the number to verify). College students left class. High school students walked out of school. Teachers called in sick. School districts shut down. High school students, on a day off, joined their teachers. Police and firefighters — union members actually exempt from the bill’s crackdown — showed up for support. More than 10,000 people converged on the Capitol to voice their dissent.
However, Walker and the Republicans in both the Senate and Assembly refused to negotiate on most provisions of the bill. On Wednesday, Senate Republicans amended the bill, but the changes still left the substance — eliminating collective bargaining for public employees — in place. Walker threatened to fire 1,500 people and take 200,000 children off Medicaid if the bill does not pass, alternatives that are not legally possible but designed to scare people. After the Joint Finance Committee passed the bill, it seemed like a relatively quick path through the Senate and Assembly and on to Walker’s desk to be signed.
But then, something crazy happened yesterday: Democrats in the Senate didn’t show up for the vote. And without them in the chamber, the Senate didn’t have a quorum (enough people to hold a vote), and the bill was delayed.
From there, the story just gets hilarious to the point of being almost absurd. The Senate did a “Call of the House,” and sent the Senate Sargent at Arms to look for the missing Senators. After checking their Capitol offices and discovering they were, in fact, not in the building, the search expanded. Rumors abounded that state troopers were called in to help find them or that these Senators could be handcuffed and forced to return. At this point, it appears they are just over the border in Rockford, Illinois, where Wisconsin law enforcement can’t get them.
It was gleeful pandemonium — at least what I could pick up following the events from my computer at work.
Normally, I wouldn’t condone not showing up for your job as a way to get what you want. But in this case, I’m not sure what other options there were. Whether or not you agree with the substance of Walker’s proposal, the fact remains that he and the Republicans included union busting policy measures in a fiscal bill and refused to negotiate with anyone. That’s not the way to write or pass legislation, and, given their behavior, I think they know it.
After tens of thousands of people tried to make their voice heard, the Senate Democrats took the only course of action they felt they had left. It’s civil disobedience at its finest, and it makes me proud. I’m not sure how long this can hold out and, frankly, if it will end up making a difference as to whether the legislation passes or not. I hope it will, but I don’t know.
What I do know is that it’s a great time to see democracy in action in Wisconsin right now, and I’m proud to be here.