On the ground in Madison, fighting for the American middle class

murphfeb2011marchbAll over the nation today, at noon, people held rallies in support of the men and women of Wisconsin’s public unions. The folks at MoveOn, who were helping with the logistics, where calling it “The Rally to Save the American Dream.” The photo accompanying this post comes from my friend Murph, who spent the afternoon marching in Lansing. (Here’s hoping, in the spirit of solidarity, he doesn’t mind my using the photo.) And he wasn’t the only local person doing good work this week. Aaron Stark, an Ypsilanti-area resident who grew up in Madison, Wisconsin, spent the last few days on the ground in Madison. He’s his first-person report:

I attended the Madison “Kill the Bill” rallies on Tuesday 2/22 and Wednesday 2/23, when I was in town for an impromptu family visit. (Full disclosure: one of my family members works for the State of Wisconsin.) Mark has already discussed the overall political context of these events, so I’ll just focus on the events in Madison that I took part in.

The rallies in front of the Wisconsin Capitol, and the Capitol presence itself, were pretty amazing. The participants were by no means all old Madison ‘60s hippies, as Governor Walker has claimed. Entering the Capitol for the first time around 6 PM on Tuesday, I saw a lot of Madison teachers coming in after work (this was the first day that they had been ordered back to school). I saw parents with their kids. I saw University of Wisconsin students, some unofficially representing the UW Marching Band (the next day, one young woman played “Solidarity Forever” on her trombone upon the request of a passer-by). I saw many UW-Madison Teaching Assistants, faculty and staff, as well as nurses and other health-care workers. On the Wednesday lunch hour, I saw many private-sector union members—people from a Harley-Davidson plant, union pipefitters, and retirees from many fields. I also saw several signs indicating that some people not in a union supported the rallies too. For example, one sign read: “Non-union contractor who supports collective bargaining.” On Wednesday, a contingent of teachers from Los Angeles arrived and marched around the Capitol square. Call them “outside agitators” if you want, but wherever people were from, they recognized that variants of Walker’s union-busting tactics are being spread to other states, with the help of both Republican and Democratic politicians, and that Wisconsin’s fight was their fight too.

The inside of the Capitol, or at least the public portions that I had access to, were decorated with a panoply of signs, fliers, and political art. There were political slogans—many of the creative and humorous variety that have already been posted around the web. These were not just about Walker and labor: there were also a fair number of signs and fliers about Bush’s and now Obama’s wars, and about the neoliberal takeover of the last 30 years. I saw several people reading many of the signs carefully—it was kind of like an art exhibition. The atmosphere was energetic and fun, not menacing. Official politicos in suits walked here and there, including probably some of Walker’s staff, without harassment as far as I could tell. There was also mutual aid: free food and drink with signs asking people to take only what they need, toiletries for those staying the night, and many signs (made by the protesters) asking people to pick up after themselves. Somehow despite the deafening noise, people felt safe enough and/or tired enough to rest in sleeping bags tucked into random corners of the Capitol at all hours of the day. Relations with the police were cordial at least when I was there, although there were rumors now and then that the occupation was about to be cleared by state troopers. Gov. Walker had originally tried to split off the police and the firefighters from the rest of the public sector workers, by not having the budget repair bill apply to police/firefighters. But they sided with the rest of the public sector workers. Accordingly, the firefighters’ union always got huge cheers whenever they marched in full gear playing their bagpipes, and the police got many “thank you’s” from protesters as well. It truly was an educational venue, a people’s building, in as non-ironic a sense as possible. This Facebook group has been putting up videos which give a sense of what it is like in the Capitol.

The overall presence in the Capitol was not coordinated by anyone. TAA-Madison (the AFT local for UW-Madison TAs) was coordinating a lot of the legislative work– requesting people to come to various rooms in the Capitol to testify, to serve on phone banks, etc. But as far as I know, the occupation of the Capitol started and was maintained by rank-and-file union members and students. It surprised the union leadership and the Democratic leadership as much as it surprised everyone else. Sure, big national speakers have come to Madison since it started, but I get the sense that they were responding to what was happening on the ground, rather than leading it. So far this has worked, but I think this may become problematic as the struggle goes on longer and takes a more national scope. I would not be surprised to see tensions growing in the days to come between the union/DP leadership and the people on the ground: the leadership may be more conciliatory to the Governor than the people in and around the Capitol.

Even outside the Capitol, the atmosphere was highly politicized. As I walked down Madison’s State Street from the Capitol to the UW-Madison campus, I noticed lots of people talking about this, not just those heading to or from the rallies. There were anti-Walker, pro-collective-bargaining signs along State Street and in the windows of many small businesses along State Street (whose clientele are mostly state workers). One slogan, which I wish I had seen in entrepreneur-hyping Ann Arbor/Ypsilanti, was “Smart innovators are happy to pay fair taxes for good government”. Admittedly, I didn’t have time to go many other places other than downtown on this visit, and the atmosphere may have been different there.

Now for a little speculation as to why this began in Madison. Although Madison is a liberal college town comparable in some ways to Ann Arbor, Ann Arbor is smaller and richer than Madison. My impression is that Ann Arbor does not have as much of a labor base as Madison does. Being both the state capitol and the site of the state’s flagship university, as well as the site of large plants like Kraft-Oscar Meyer, Madison is not as much of a one-industry town as Ann Arbor, and it has much more “class diversity” than Ann Arbor. My high school (Madison East, the one whose students walked out early on in the rallies) includes neighborhoods with large working-class Black, Hmong, Laotian, and Latino populations; in addition to white working-class neighborhoods, the old 60s radical areas along Williamson Street, and (oddly) also one of the richest areas in Madison, Maple Bluff. As I mentioned above, the idea of Madison as a paradise for old rich liberals is off-base. The grain of truth to this is that there are left institutions that have survived in Madison which have died out in many other U.S. cities. One example is WORT-FM community radio, a non-NPR, non-profit, community-run radio station that has provided crucial support for left and labor movements—including the anti-Walker protests– for 35 years. The state’s history also plays a part: a Democratic Socialist mayor of Milwaukee, Frank Zeidler, was in office from 1948 to 1960; Governor and then Senator “Fighting Bob” LaFollette pushed many early 20th century progressive reforms (workers’ compensation, direct election of Senators, women’s suffrage…), and in the 19th century Wisconsin was a center of abolitionism in the Upper Midwest. Left commentator Doug Henwood, in a recent blog post on Wisconsin, asked UW professor Joel Rogers “[how the] same state could have spawned Joe McCarthy and Robert LaFollette, or Scott Walker and Russ Feingold. Rogers explained that politics in Wisconsin has historically been driven by an alliance of industrial workers and capital-intensive dairy farmers on the left, opposed on the right by a mainly Catholic rural population. They’re pretty evenly divided, thus the contrasting figures and tight elections.”

Given the energy that I saw on the 9th and 10th day of the protests, I don’t see this ending any time soon. As just one example, on Friday a disability rights group occupied the Madison GOP headquarters to protest another portion of the budget repair bill– what appears to be a power grab intended to drastically change Wisconsin’s Medicaid program with little legislative oversight.

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Who did a better job of interviewing Donald Rumsfeld?

Both Jon Stewart and Louis C.K. had the opportunity to interview former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld yesterday. (He’s on the circuit, promoting his new book “Known and Unknown: A Memoir“.) Both interviews are being widely discussed today, and I’m curious as to who you feel did a better job, Stewart, who held Rumsfeld’s feet to the fire over the evidence used to justify the invasion of Iraq, or C.K, who, on the Opie and Anthony radio program, repeatedly asked the former Bush cabinet member if he was one one the humanoid lizard people that David Icke is always talking about. Here are the videos.

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A post about Charlie Sheen self-destructing because I need a break from politics

Word on the street is that it only took 20 minutes for Charlie Sheen to lose his television show after the following interview with his friend Alex Jones went live. Apparently you can beat the shit out of all the prostitutes you want after snorting down bowling ball-sized rocks of cocaine, but when you call your show’s creator “a stupid, stupid little man and a pussy punk,” you’ve gone too far.

You know how people ask you things like, if you could have dinner with any four people from throughout history, who would they be? Well, this video has me seriously reevaluating my standard response. With all respect to Jesus and Salinger, I don’t see how I could possibly turn away Sheen and Jones after this performance. Can you imagine what it must be like to share a bottle of wine with those two?

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The Koch brothers, their plans for the public utilities of Wisconsin, and whether Michigan might be next

By now you’ve probably heard that Wisconsin’s union-busing governor, Scott Walker, got fooled into taking a call with a degenerate blogger posing as conservative billionaire activist David Koch. The call, which can be heard in its entirety on the Buffalo Beast website, is interesting for a few reasons. First, Walker confesses to having thought about planting trouble-makers among the peaceful protestors now occupying the State Capitol in Madison. Second, Walker seems to agree enthusiastically to the-fake-Koch-brother’s offer of flight to California to be “shown a good time,” as a kind of reward, once the unions are done away with. This is of particular interest as it’s likely Koch Industries will make a play for Wisconsin’s power utilities, once Walker privatizes them… But I’ll get to that a little later… First, though, I wanted to note Walker’s mention of Michigan Governor, Rick Snyder. Here’s that part of the transcript:

WALKER: Brian [Sadoval], the new Governor of Nevada, called me the last night. He said he was out in the Lincoln Day Circuit in the last two weekends, and he was kidding me… He said, “Scott, don’t come to Nevada, because I’d be afraid you beat me running for governor. That’s all they want to talk about is what are you doing to help the governor of Wisconsin.” I talk to Kasich every day—John’s gotta stand firm in Ohio. I think we could do the same thing with Rick Scott in Florida. I think, uh, Snyder—if he got a little more support—probably could do that in Michigan. You start going down the list there’s a lot of us new governors that got elected to do something big.

FAKE KOCH: You’re the first domino.

WALKER: Yep. This is our moment…

It kills me that the guy posing as Koch doesn’t press Walker further on this point and others, but I don’t guess he had much time to plan before placing the call and trying to bluff his way through multiple members of Walker’s staff. And, I also don’t think he wanted to say too much and tip his hand. I would have loved to have heard if Walker and Snyder had talked about the chances of doing something similar in Michigan, though. And, more importantly, I would have loved it if the fake-Koch-brother had gotten Walker to talk about his plans for Wisconsin’s power plants.

You see, hidden in the 144-page Wisconsin budget bill, behind all the union-busting stuff, is a clause that would give the Governor the right to privatize the state’s public utilities. And, not just that, but to do so without first collecting bids. Here, with more on that, is a clip from Firedoglake:

…Andy Stern frames the debate in Wisconsin correctly as a 15-state power grab to take away worker’s rights. Under the cover of a fiscal crisis created by Wall Street and a deep economic recession, right-wing politicians in Wisconsin and elsewhere are trying to pin the blame on public employees and strip them of their bargaining rights. This is a power grab.

But this wouldn’t be a Republican power grab without some profit-taking for corporate allies, now, would it?

The fight in Wisconsin is over Governor Walker’s 144-page Budget Repair Bill. The parts everyone is focusing on have to do with the right to collectively bargain being stripped from public sector unions (except for the unions that supported Walker running for Governor). Focusing on this misses a large part of what the bill would do. Check out this language, from the same bill:

16.896 Sale or contractual operation of state−owned heating, cooling, and power plants. (1) Notwithstanding ss. 13.48 (14) (am) and 16.705 (1), the department may sell any state−owned heating, cooling, and power plant or may contract with a private entity for the operation of any such plant, with or without solicitation of bids, for any amount that the department determines to be in the best interest of the state. Notwithstanding ss. 196.49 and 196.80, no approval or certification of the public service commission is necessary for a public utility to purchase, or contract for the operation of, such a plant, and any such purchase is considered to be in the public interest and to comply with the criteria for certification of a project under s. 196.49 (3) (b)…

Oh, and did I mention that the Koch brothers, who contributed $43,000 toward Walker’s campaign for governor – making them his second biggest backers – are in the power generation business? Oh, and the $43,000 they contributed directly to Koch’s campaign is just the tip of the iceberg. Here, by way of Mother Jones, are a few more of the ways the Koch brothers found to buy the election for Walker:

…According to Wisconsin campaign finance filings, Walker’s gubernatorial campaign received $43,000 from the Koch Industries PAC during the 2010 election. That donation was his campaign’s second-highest, behind $43,125 in contributions from housing and realtor groups in Wisconsin. The Koch’s PAC also helped Walker via a familiar and much-used politicial maneuver designed to allow donors to skirt campaign finance limits. The PAC gave $1 million to the Republican Governors Association, which in turn spent $65,000 on independent expenditures to support Walker. The RGA also spent a whopping $3.4 million on TV ads and mailers attacking Walker’s opponent, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett. Walker ended up beating Barrett by 5 points. The Koch money, no doubt, helped greatly…

So, that should kind of explain why Walker made the time to take the call from David Koch. He owes him some utility companies.

Welcome to 2011 America, where corporations can buy elections and be paid back with public utilities.

Oh, and here, for those of you who are interested, is that call between Walker and the man he thought was David Koch…. Enjoy.

Posted in Michigan, Other, Politics, Rants, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 20 Comments

Detroit to close half of its public schools, bring high school class size to 60

Robert Bobb, the emergency financial manager of the Detroit Public Schools, just announced that he plans to shut down 70 of the city’s 142 remaining public schools in oder to close the much-talked-about $327 million budget gap. This move, he acknowledges, will bring high school class sizes to approximately 60. I’d like to write a wonderful, thoughtful post on what this means for Detroit and the rest of the country, but it’s late. So, I’ll just leave you with this question… Who in the fuck would teach a class of 60 high school students, in Detroit, or anywhere else for that matter? And, here’s an even better question. At what point do the people of Detroit take to the streets and demand that their children be given the same opportunities that the students of Ann Arbor are given? Putting 60 kids in a classroom is a joke. It’s an insult. I’m sure some right wing consultant will point to Harvard lecture halls where one professor lectures to a classroom of 200, but let’s be realistic. The inner city high school isn’t Harvard. Even in the best of circumstances, if none of the kids have discipline issues, and if they all have perfectly healthy family lives, with supportive parents, the math just doesn’t work. Teachers cannot effectively teach in an environment where they have less than a single minute to spend with each student per day. This is warehousing. This isn’t education. And the only thing it’s going to accomplish is better revenues for our for-profit prison industry. One way or the other, we’re going to spend money on these kids. I cannot believe that we’d rather pay to house them as criminals than teach them as children, but it looks like that’s the choice we’ve made. If anything, in my opinion, areas where the kids are most at risk should have the smallest class sizes, not the largest. There should be a law… I don’t know if you can tell, but I’m incredibly pissed off right now.

Posted in Detroit, Economics, Education, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 33 Comments


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