By Brad Werntz
“Jobs before the environment.” That was our worst fear at our quarterly board meeting last December, a month after Scott Walker was elected. I’m on the board of a small environmental organization, and our meeting came just after the election. Walker at that point had effectively killed high-speed rail in Wisconsin, though he had not yet taken office.
“They are going to come in with sticky messages,” we said. “Jobs before environment,” was one that we thought we might hear. From our coffee-napkin math, we figured that about 75% of the people who supported us may just nod and say,”Yeah, I don’t like that, but I guess I can see it, what with things being as tough as they are, and all…”
We brainstormed our own sticky counter-messages, and tried to develop strategies for dealing with what – we thought – was sure to be an onslaught of attacks on the environment.
We were naively – and significantly – off-base. Oh sure, there were attacks on the environment, but in the scorched-earth world that followed Walker’s inauguration, that was the least of our concerns.
On February 11th, Scott Walker and his team unveiled “the bomb,” a suite of legislation that they called “The Budget Repair Bill.” This package of laws stripped away seventy-five years of workers rights, crippled unions, cut pay and benefits to state workers, capped taxes on land-owners and the wealthy, slashed education spending, and – yes – had some provisions that attacked the environment.
What the document said was clear: “Jobs before rights.”
The ground had shifted beneath our feet. Our own sticky messages about wetlands and water pollution seemed quaint and earnest, by comparison. At the height of the melee that followed, I e-mailed a state legislator who also serves on that board with me, calling out a provision in the Budget Repair Bill that allowed the governor to declare any land in the state a “Development Zone,” including and specifically protected wetlands. I realized even in the moment that my little e-mail was somewhat like asking him to grab my goldfish bowl on his way out of Fukushima. It became clear how underprepared we were for what we are facing.
As the long winter of marching around the Capitol here in Madison gave way to a spring and summer of meetings for planning, engaging, networking, and finding common cause, the wheels of the world turned elsewhere. Congress came to loggerheads with the White House over the debt ceiling, holding the world economy hostage with a message that was clear:
“Profits before jobs.”
The ground had shifted again. While the debt ceiling showdown was not specifically about profits, the inference couldn’t be mistaken: “No new taxes – for rich people.” The poor had already been engaged in a battle over “shared sacrifice,” and “paying your share,” here in Wisconsin and in many other states across the country.
Both in Wisconsin and in our nation’s capital as well, our lawmakers have been quite busy on a number of fronts. They’ve done everything they can do to create jobs, or so they say, except actually address the issue.
The Wisconsin state legislature passed concealed-carry legislation, stripped away healthcare for the poor, axed public transportation, broadened private-school vouchers, created more charter schools, and passed the most restrictive voter ID bill in the country. For good measure, they re-districted the state (in highly partisan way, not incidentally), two years ahead of schedule.
Meanwhile, Congress has been just as busy: In addition to blocking anything and everything that the White House wants to do, Congress tried to reinstate DADT, killed a jobs bill that would’ve created two million jobs by the end of 2012, and is now looking at new ways to block abortion and gay marriage.
It appears both at the state and national level that our elected officials either will not – or more likely can not – do anything about jobs, so they are pushing purely ideological legislation because – well, you know – they CAN.
So if “jobs” are off the table completely, the ground shifts again.
The new message is, simply: “Profits.”
As our nation’s lawmakers ignore the greatest world and national financial crisis in over seventy-five years, they seem bent on doing two things: Protecting “profits” at all cost, and pushing their partisan and ideological agendas.
In the face of this, everyday people from all across the country are gathering at financial districts, government buildings, and city centers to take back ground. This urge to occupy the shifting grounds of our time is in recognition that it’s impossible to care about phosphorus in our waters, or radiation in our air, or worker’s (or for that matter human) rights, much less JOBS in a system that is so transparently aligned with such narrow self-interests.
Because – really – the message is now: “Profits before [anything else].”
While it will keep shifting, we can, we will, we must stand our ground. We must be the rock around which everything else moves, and – eventually, when we grow large enough – stops.
Brad Werntz both lives and works on Main Street in Madison, Wisconsin, with his wife and three kids. He is an entrepreneur – yes, a “job creator” – and sometimes a blogger.