Walker’s Tools: Hammering Away at Workers’ Rights in Lodi

By Karen Vieth

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Judy Baenen’s story deserves to be told. It is at the heart of the battle in Wisconsin, where money is taking precedence over the livelihood of its people. Judy has been a custodian in the Lodi school district for 22 years. She has been a caretaker of the school buildings and she has protected the well-being and safety of the students, school employees and the community. In spite of this tremendous dedication, the decision was made by the Lodi school district Monday night to outsource 12 of its 16 custodians. This decision came after Judy had personally made the decision to retire to save the school district some money. She felt doing so would be enough to save a few of her associates’ jobs. Her efforts were made in vain. The custodial crew may have chosen to sacrifice some of their salary or benefits in these hard times, but they weren’t given that choice. With Act 10 in place, nobody sat down at the table to negotiate.

Lodi custodians are members of the Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC). They currently earn $12 – $15 per hour and contribute 15% of their insurance costs. The newest employees are part time workers, a hiring strategy that saves money on benefits. The 12 workers will be replaced by part-time workers from the private sector who will make $8 – $10 per hour without benefits. To put this into perspective, on the average McDonald’s workers also make $8 – $10 an hour to provide our nation with fast food.

Custodians are people who get to know our teachers and students. They know the inner workings of our schools and public safety. My first year of teaching, I received more information about the happenings at school from the custodian than from other teachers or administrators. Often times, these are the workers who are overlooked, even though they take great pride in the job that they do. That job includes cheering up students who are having a bad day, helping classrooms maintain a quality learning environment and maintaining our buildings.

The Lodi custodians are members of the community. They are parents and grandparents. Many of them have worked multiple jobs to make ends meet, so that they can keep working in the schools. Because of Walker’s budget cuts and the limitations placed on collective bargaining, these families are facing an incredible loss. This is a story that must be told and retold. It is time to put a face to those who are suffering due to Walker’s “tools.” The so-called reforms in Wisconsin are not working. It is time to pay attention to what is happening to our neighbors, our allies and our friends. We cannot sit idly by just because it is not our story this time. In the words of Martin Luther King, “We are bound by an inescapable garment of mutuality, whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

Election Day Peace

By Callen Harty

Crowd gathered at the Capitol for an Om the Dome gathering on recall election eve.  Photo by Callen Harty.
Crowd gathered at the Capitol for an Om the Dome gathering on recall election eve. Photo by Callen Harty.

Since February 16, 2011 I have been protesting the Scott Walker administration–not because I was a sore loser about him winning the election, but because he unleashed bills and policies on Wisconsin that were meant to undermine decades of social compacts.  In addition he had misled the public about his intentions, and the way he and his Republican allies in the Legislature pushed through their bills with no thought of compromise, no listening to the other side of the aisle or their constituents, and with no regard for the people to be affected, was as cynical and dishonest as anything I have seen in a lifetime of watching Wisconsin politics.  So like others, I did what I could to fight it.

Now it is election day and the citizens of Wisconsin will decide whether Scott Walker should serve out his full term or whether, as the recall law in the Constitution allows, the citizens of the state can remove him from office because they are unhappy with his performance.  The Constitution doesn’t require a politician to break the law–we have impeachment for that–but simply that the people of the state do not believe he is upholding his duty to the state.  I do not believe that he has served us well and that what he has done in just over a year is so antithetical to who we are as a society that he deserves to be stripped of the office.

For more than a year thousands of us have worked hard to help turn things around in this state.  We have protested.  We have campaigned.  We have sung, and we have made signs.  We have talked to neighbors and friends.  We have given money and time.  We have been arrested by police and harassed by others.  We have stood in the snow and rain, in the heat and wind.  We have expended incredible amounts of energy, all of it leading to this monumental day.

Now it is up to all of the citizens of the entire state.  It’s possible that all of the work that we have done will be for naught.  It’s possible that Scott Walker’s millions of dollars in campaign contributions will buy the election, that his relentless barrage of messages may have sunk in enough to make people believe him.  It’s also possible that we will make history by electing a new governor and become only the third state in history to recall a governor.

The thing is, I have done what I can.  My countless new friends that I have made in the last year have done what they can.  We’ve all done things in our own way, contributing in ways where we were strongest and letting others contribute in ways that worked best for them.  We have disagreed on tactics, on choices, but we have always had the same end goal in mind, to unseat the man we felt was destroying our state and all we hold dear.  And now, it is out of our hands.  We will vote, and we will wait for results that are out of our hands as individual voters.

So on Monday night, on recall election eve, I went to one of the more unusual and uplifting events of the last fourteen months, a gathering of people to “om the dome”.  Hundreds of people gathered at the Capitol to sing and then to join hands in a large circle around the building.  With friends and strangers holding hands in an unbroken circle around the statehouse, with a full moon rising over the horizon, hundreds upon hundreds of voices joined together not in folk songs or protest songs, but in a meditative “om”, connecting all of us spiritually and offering up a prayer to the universe for this state we love so much.

This gathering brought me joy and I felt an incredible peace afterwards.  I know that I have done everything I could, and others have, too, and I was able to just offer up all of the work from the last year and give it over to the universe.  If we win, we win.  If we lose, we lose.  This doesn’t mean I’ll be happy if the election doesn’t go the way I want it, but I am at a place of peace with it.  I believe that the grass roots effort we have put forth will pay off, but if it doesn’t, it doesn’t.  Either way, the work will not end.  Whichever candidate comes out on top will have to answer to an awakened and incredibly involved populace.  Either way, we need to accept that what is, is.  And I am okay with that.  I am okay with being called upon to protest more, to write letters and essays, to photograph the next phase of this incredible journey, to be as involved as I can be in moving this state forward today, tomorrow, and for many years into the future, and I will do this no matter which way the electorate turns.

Today I hope the election goes the way I want it.  Today I wish peace and solidarity to my brothers and sisters in the ongoing struggle for equality, peace, and justice not only in Wisconsin, but in the world in which we are all equal citizens.  It is in the unending struggle that we grow, and for this I am thankful.

Promises to Keep

By Callen Harty

Brian watching a sunset at Brockway Mountain, Michigan.
Photo by Callen Harty.

I do not need marriage to prove my love.  It is, already, life-lasting.  It is, already, eternal.

For almost 21 years now my life partner, Brian, and I have shared our love without the sanctity of marriage.  We promised each other years ago that we would wait until the promise of equality was realized in our home state of Wisconsin.  We would like to be able to make a public declaration of our love and share that with our friends and family as others do every day without having to think about it.  We would like to no longer be considered second class citizens in the land we love.  We have waited patiently for that to happen.  Instead our neighbors enshrined a ban on recognizing our love into the Constitution.

We have waited patiently for the nation to mature into an understanding that our love is no less than that of a man and woman.  We have waited for political leaders to lead, to be courageous in taking a moral stand.  We have waited, and we have continued to grow in love while we waited.

Meanwhile, we have seen friends and relatives marry and divorce.  We have watched movie and television stars meet and marry within weeks and divorce in weeks more.  We have heard conservative radio commentators who have been married multiple times preach about the sanctity of marriage.  We have seen the divorce rate in this country rise to well over 50%.  My patience with the hypocrisy is wearing thin.  My love for Brian is growing stronger.

I do not need marriage to validate my love.  But I do need the opportunity of marriage to know that I am a full member of a society where we are all supposed to be created equal.  Just as I never had a desire to join the military, but felt it important that I be afforded the opportunity, so too, do I need marriage equality (and full equality in every way) to know that I am a fully accepted member of this society.

Like President Obama, my position on marriage equality has evolved.  Years ago, when I was newly out and when, as a gay man, I had virtually no rights at all–before Wisconsin passed the nation’s first gay rights law in 1982–I would tell people that all I wanted was to find someone to love and with whom I could spend my life.  The thought of marriage was not even a possibility back then, and I honestly wasn’t sure that finding someone to love was all that possible either.  But I was willing to settle.  I was willing to take less.  No more.  I no longer hope for marriage equality in this country–I demand it!

I demand full participation in the daily life of this country.  I demand acceptance–not tolerance–acceptance.  I demand the opportunity to join hands in love in a way that is not similar to marriage, but is marriage.  Anything less is no longer acceptable.

I am thankful that the President finally spoke out on the issue, but words are useless without action.  Now the action needs to follow.  And while we wait for that action, while we continue to wait, as we have for years, our love will continue to grow, as it has for years.  It is a deep river overflowing its banks, and it will not be contained any longer.

New Tactics of Control and Oppression: Walker’s War on Women

By Karen Vieth

WalkervilleWhile the Interstate Highways were becoming congested with families traveling for a three-day holiday weekend, the War on Women was ramping up. Many were taken by surprise when Walker signed three regressive bills behind closed doors on Easter Friday. These bills were slipped in among 51 bills signed that Thursday and Friday. The target of this legislation? Women. It can no longer be denied that the War on Women is real.

Among the most shocking of this legislation is Senate Bill 202, which reverses Wisconsin’s Equal Pay for Equal Work Act (Act 20). Act 20 had been instituted in 2009 as a result of Wisconsin’s poor standing with paying women for equal work, though it includes other oppressed groups as well. In 2009, Wisconsin ranked 36th nationwide in gender equality when it came to pay. Act 20 made it easier for women, and other parties who were discriminated against, to take their employers to court. Though there was not an obvious increase in court cases as a result of this legislation, the threat of lawsuits clearly made an impact. In 2010, Wisconsin moved up to 24th nationwide in gender parity.

Glenn Grothman, author of the bill, explained the rationale behind the SB 202 and the reason women in Wisconsin make $.79 to every $1 made by men in their same position, “You could argue that money is more important for men. I think a guy in their first job, maybe because they expect to be a breadwinner someday, may be a little more money-conscious.” Grothman also explained that women prioritize differently and their focus on child rearing is another reason that they receive less pay. It is clear that this type of sentiment is laden with gender bias and turns back the clock on how women are viewed in society and in gender segregated roles. Many women-dominated careers, such as nurse, child care worker and teacher, were targeted by Governor Walker’s extreme attack on workers last year. Now, during a time when women’s economic security is increasingly threatened due to Act 10, women will no longer have the assurance of seeking compensatory or punitive damages for workplace discrimination.

The same weekend women’s rights to equal pay were dismissed, Governor Walker also signed into law Senate Bills 92, 237 and 306. Senate Bill 92 bans any health insurance exchange from providing abortion coverage. This exchange is part of a marketplace for people looking for coverage that will begin in 2014. SB 92 wrongly dictates what services a private insurance carrier can or cannot provide. Senate Bill 306 also places new restrictions on access to female reproductive rights. This legislation requires a doctor to complete a physical examination and one-on-one conferences with women prior to receiving an abortion. During this visit, there are certain talking points a physician is required to address, such as asking patients if they are being coerced into an abortion. Doctors not following this protocol, even if those mandates don’t match standard of care, will face a Class 1 Felony Charge. Not only does this roll back the clock on women’s reproductive rights, it also restricts a doctor’s ability to advocate in the best interest of his/her patient.

Easter Friday’s legislative package wouldn’t be complete without an attack on education. Senate Bill 237 (SB 237) is an assault on sex education practices in our schools. This bill was passed, in spite of the fact that teen pregnancies in Wisconsin have gone down by 16% over the past few years under the Wisconsin’s Healthy Youth Act. SB 237 repeals Wisconsin’s Healthy Youth Act which required schools that teach sex education to use curriculum that is medically and scientifically valid and proven to impact teen behavior. This decrease in teen pregnancies is an effect of teachers educating their students on contraceptive use, sexually transmitted diseases and making positive choices. All of this is now threatened due to this new legislation which requires schools to teach abstinence as the only reliable form of birth control and the only way of preventing sexually transmitted disease.

These bills, though shocking, are just a piece of the larger picture. Back in June of 2011, Madison teachers had the following sign over the entrance to their tent in Walkerville, “$300,000 cut to cervical cancer screening.” At this time, we had already seen funding eliminated for Planned Parenthood, $1.6 billion cut from education, $300,000 cut from Sexual Assault Victims Services Grant Program and the list sadly goes on. This new assault continues that trend and serves as a reminder of how important it is for women to get involved in politics. This War on Women must not stand. Whether that involvement is writing your legislator, attending a rally, writing a letter to the editor, voting, or running for office, it is imperative that women everywhere fight back and stand united in Solidarity.

Courtesy of 
Scott Walker recently eliminated a law that protects women from being paid less. Walker’s action makes it easier for corporations to pay women less than men. It’s incredible that Scott Walker would want to take our state backward. We can’t support Walker because Walker just doesn’t care about women.

Links to Take Action:

Complete List of the 51 Bills signed into Law on Friday, April 6th.

War On Women Rally, April 28th

Contact Your WI Legislators 

Leymah Gbowee: Unlock the intelligence, passion, greatness of girls

Courtesy of  
http://www.ted.com Nobel Peace Prize winner Leymah Gbowee has two powerful stories to tell — of her own life’s transformation, and of the untapped potential of girls around the world. Can we transform the world by unlocking the greatness of girls?

Homeless in the Heartland

By Callen Harty

Housing is a Human Right. Photo by Callen Harty.

Let me state the obvious: Pretending a problem doesn’t exist doesn’t stop the problem; it only delays dealing with it. Yet there is something in us, or at least some of us, that causes us to look the other way, to prefer ignorance to knowledge, and to dwell in a Pollyanna world where everything is coming up roses and there are no weeds. And maybe that’s okay for a while, but eventually the weeds will choke off the flowers if they are ignored.

The other day there was an article on Madison.com about a day shelter for homeless people where they can get out of the weather, enjoy some coffee and company, and feel somewhat secure. The thrust of the article was that some of the neighbors weren’t happy with the shelter being located in their neighborhood. The article noted there had been many more police visits to the neighborhood for public intoxication, public urination, and the like, but it also seemed like the majority of the people using the shelter were just looking for a place to be and were not causing any disruption in the neighborhood, unless one counts the additional foot traffic as a disruption. Some of the neighbors didn’t seem to have a problem with the shelter, but several of the people quoted were clearly unhappy to have it so close to them. Instead of using the discomfort to examine the underlying issues of poverty and homelessness, these neighbors just wanted to shuffle the problem off to another neighborhood where they wouldn’t have to deal with it. It was a classic example of the “not in my back yard” syndrome. Don’t solve the problem, or even begin to discuss solutions; just shift it elsewhere. Yes, we should have nuclear power—just don’t put the reactor anywhere near my town. Yes, mining is important—but please do it in the next county. Yes, homeless people need to get out of the winter wind—but not in my neighborhood; they’re scary.

If you don’t have to confront the problem head-on then you can glide by in your life, blissfully unaware that there are homeless people all over the city. Put them somewhere where we don’t have to look at them. Create panhandling and loitering laws that allow the police to keep them off of Main Street, U. S. A. That way they’ll stay in places where people can’t see them and nobody but the homeless themselves will have to deal with the reality. They will be out of sight. Though they may no longer be on Main Street, they will be on other streets, under bridges, and in parks. But at least they won’t destroy the look of the beautiful cityscape and the human garden we have created.

The thing is, homeless people are not the weeds in the garden. They are simply flowers unable to bloom. They need to be tended and nourished.

According to The State of Homelessness in America 2012, a report published on January 17 by the National Alliance to End Homelessness, there are an estimated 672 homeless people in my city of Madison, Wisconsin, a northern city where it can be incredibly difficult to be homeless due to the cruelty of winter, wetness of spring, and the hot and humid summers. The number for Wisconsin’s largest city, Milwaukee, is 1,466. In 2011 there were an estimated 636,017 homeless individuals nationwide. Shockingly, almost four in ten of those were unsheltered and living on streets, in cars, alleyways, abandoned buildings, and elsewhere. In some cities there are tent villages and cardboard cities in places where no one else ever goes. Most of America’s homeless are invisible to commuters, office workers, shoppers, and others going about their day-to-day business. I have stumbled across tents and fire pits deep in the woods and underbrush of public parks here in Dane County that were clearly living spaces, not temporary encampments. Most people would never know they were there.

Almost every day I am confronted with the reality of Madison’s homeless when I see a group of men gathering on the Capitol Square across from Grace Episcopal Church. They start gathering around 4:30 and by 5:00 there are generally three or four dozen of them there. The moment it hits 5:00 the whole group crosses the street en masse, as fast as they can, to get to the church, which opens its doors at 5:00 for those seeking shelter. Fortunately, there are a number of places like this in Madison, some for men, some for women, some which are mixed, and some that take in entire families. Whenever I see these men just waiting for the minute hand to arrive at 5:00 I start to tear up as I look at the Capitol building behind them and fancy office buildings all around the Capitol Square. I understand that in this country it is not that we don’t have the wealth to feed, clothe, and house them, but that the wealth is so concentrated it doesn’t trickle down to those truly in need.

There are those in this country who believe that homeless people should not get handouts, that they need to pull themselves up out of their situation and rise up to the American dream, that somehow it is their fault that they are in that situation and that if they were just willing to work harder everything would be okay. These are often people who have gotten handouts from parents or come from some kind of privilege themselves. There are also people who believe that the homeless all choose to be homeless, that they are making a good living without having to work for it by panhandling, and that they all just have convenient hard luck stories to explain away their plight. Of course they have hard luck stories. They’re living on the streets. They should have hard luck stories. And no, they don’t get rich from panhandling, although even if they did it wouldn’t be because it was easy–standing on the street in all kinds of weather begging for change is not a job most of us would want.

Some of the homesless have mental issues that prevent them from working. Others couldn’t control alcohol or drug issues. Still others lost jobs and homes due to the economy. The likelihood of finding even one who would prefer to live homeless than to have a warm and comfortable bed of their own is pretty slim. And there are many, many of us in this economy at this time in our history who are merely a paycheck or two away from joining that crowd waiting for the shelter to open at 5:00.

I wish that I had a solution for this. I wish that someone did. But it’s not that easy. There are countless people who, through no fault of their own, have lost their homes or apartments. If we could just take a small portion of our current military budget and put it toward this we could eliminate the problem of homelessness in this country. Every city has more than enough empty buildings that all of the homeless in the city could be housed. We need to find ways to move toward an end to homelessness in this, one of the richest countries in the world. We can’t turn our eyes from those men and women on the street any longer. We have to see them. We have to understand their plight. And then we have to begin to talk about what we can do.

This is a link to the homelessness report noted above: http://www.endhomelessness.org/content/article/detail/4361

The Cost of Free Speech

By Lisa Wells

“What have free speech rights meant to you in this last year?”
“How have you stood up for your first amendment rights?”

Lisa Wells

The right to free speech was not really something I thought about before. In March 2011, however, I began to take notice. That was when I found out that citizens were given citations for holding protest signs on the first floor of the Wisconsin state capitol. The cost of free speech apparently was over $200.00 per occurrence. That just didn’t seem right. Many of my fellow citizens came out to protest the citations. On March 29, there was an event at the daily Solidarity Sing Along that I attended. We gathered. We sang. We held signs. We were not cited. The police eventually came to an “agreement” that the ground AND first floors would be allowed as public spaces and we would be allowed to protest there. The second floor, we were told, would still be off limits. So we took our signs to the second floor. Mine says: “2nd Floor 1st Amendment.” I still carry it to the second floor every day I attend the Sing Along, often I drape a banner over the balconies as well. I have not been cited for this.

Our assembly and senate rules do not allow you to display signs in their galleries. Many of us believe this is unconstitutional. Especially when your sign IS the constitution. Many people have been cited for this conduct. I received a citation on November 3 for quietly holding two pictures of Jesus in the assembly gallery. Others who were cited that night held pictures of apple pie, Mother Teresa, Ronald Reagan, the US Constitution, and a post card pink slip for Scott Walker. Everyone who has been cited for this “other conduct prohibited” or “disorderly conduct” has had the charges dismissed.

The Dept. of Administration went so far as to create new policies that limit our rights to free speech and assembly. They claim that four people who come together for any reason are considered a rally and need a permit to use the capitol and other state buildings. By applying for a permit you also consent that you are able to be held liable for or sued for any costs the DOA associates with your “rally,” including police presence. I want the DOA to recognize our rights instead. The DOA was even nice enough to set up three “education sessions” on the new policies. I was able to attend one of them. Talk about riling up the masses! The citizens repeatedly expressed concerns to the DOA about the unconstitutionality of the new policies. The DOA representatives would respond with the pat “we believe what we are doing is legal.” The DOA was told to expect a large crowd in protest of these new policies. Our daily Solidarity Sing Along draws 50 to 150 people a day. On the first two days the new “policies” were to take effect, 500 to 1,000 people joined in the Sing Along! The DOA released a statement that no arrests would be made and no citations would be given, but they would encourage voluntary compliance. To date, we still show up. We still sing. We still hold signs. We will keep this up until our government “of the people” actually starts listening TO the people.

It’s been a crazy year here in “Fitzwalkerstan.” I will continue to exercise my free speech rights as often as I can, lest I lose them. As one of the songs at the Sing Along goes…I never knew how much I loved Wisconsin, till I stood in the capitol dome. Signs on the walls, and drums in the halls. Cries of “Freedom” ringing out all night long!”

Freedom. It’s about freedom.