Madison-based journalist and Washington correspondent for The Nation magazine.
first-grade public school teacher in Madison, Wisconsin.
Democratic member of the Wisconsin State Senate, representing the 7th District since January 3, 2011.
Some 30,000 students and public sector workers rallied at the Wisconsin Statehouse in Madison Thursday to oppose Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s bid to eliminate almost all their collective bargaining rights and slash pay and benefits. Public schools in Madison are closed for a third day in a row today as teachers continue to protest. A vote on the measure was delayed after Democratic senators refused to show up and fled the state — leaving the Republican-controlled State Senate without quorum. We speak to John Nichols of The Nation magazine, Madison teacher Susan Stern, and Wisconsin Democratic State Senator Chris Larson. [includes rush transcript]
JUAN GONZALEZ: Massive labor protests in the state of Wisconsin have entered their fifth day. On Thursday, 30,000 teachers, students and state and municipal workers took part in a noontime rally at the Statehouse in Madison to oppose Wisconsin Republican Governor Scott Walker’s attempt to eliminate almost all collective bargaining rights for most public workers, as well as slash their pay and benefits. Another 20,000 people took part in a rally last night at the State Capitol. Public schools in Madison are closed for the third day in a row as teachers continue to protest.
The Republican-controlled State Senate was scheduled to vote on the measure Thursday. But Democratic senators took an extraordinary measure by refusing to show up for the vote, leaving the Republicans without a quorum. The Democratic senators have now left the state.
AMY GOODMAN: Joining us in Madison is John Nichols, the Madison-based reporter who’s the Washington correspondent for The Nation magazine, goes back generations in Wisconsin. Also with us in Madison is Susan Stern, a first-grade teacher who’s been taking part in the protest. And joining us on the phone is Wisconsin State Senator Chris Larson.
Let’s go first to Wisconsin State Senator Chris Larson. Can you tell us where you are and why you’re not in the Capitol in the legislature in session?
SEN. CHRIS LARSON: Right. Well, right now, we are — I’m actually moving between locations right now. And the big reason is, we’re not in the Capitol because Walker, the Governor, and the Republican legislature set the tone that they’re not willing to talk, they’re not willing listen. They decided that this is not going to be a negotiation; it’s going to be their way or the highway. So, we chose the highway.
AMY GOODMAN: Let me go to John Nichols to give us a little background. John, you’ve been in the center of this for all of these days. Explain the scene right now, how Wisconsin has come to this point.
JOHN NICHOLS: Well, what happened is that last November we had an election. The Republicans did very well. They elected a governor, and they took control of both houses of the legislature. In January, they passed a whole host of tax cuts for multinational, out-of-state corporations. And then, the start of February, they announced we’re broke and, as a result, implemented a — or brought forward a plan that would ultimately cut the pay, cut the benefits, cut the pension of public employees and do so by eliminating their collective bargaining rights. And the interesting thing is, this is not just state employees, this is also county and city employees and teachers. And so, they had this sweeping bill.
It came forward just last Friday, not something that was anticipated. They were going to vote on Thursday. And what happened, Amy, is that we saw something — I know you and I both were in Seattle back in 1999 at the WTO protest. It was something quite remarkable. People mobilized very, very quickly. And it was people power. They filled the streets. When I came downtown in my city of Madison on the first day of the big protest, the traffic started to slow down a little bit, and I didn’t know why. It was thousands of students from the high schools walking up the main thoroughfares to be at the Capitol. I really can’t tell you how remarkable it is. And there’s simply no doubt that these Democratic state senators, who were really expected to go along with the process — make some objections, be very angry about it, but ultimately go along — they looked out the windows of the Capitol; they saw these incredible, very peaceful, very positive protests, lots of kids, lots of families; and they did make this extraordinary gesture. It has, at this point, at least, stopped the process.
JUAN GONZALEZ: John, this is Juan Gonzalez. I wanted to ask you about some of the Governor’s proposals, because obviously he’s crying budget cuts, but many of the proposals have nothing to do with economics. They have basically to do with preventing unions from exercising their normal methods of representing workers, including eliminating dues checkoffs for union dues and requiring unions to be recertified every year, that they have the support of those they are representing. Could you talk about that?
JOHN NICHOLS: Sure. Juan, the thing that you know is that most unions in this country are protected by national collective bargaining protections that are in the Labor Relations Act, all sorts of rules at the federal level. But public employees and state employees operate under state-based laws in this case. And as a result, their collective bargaining rights are extensions of the state. In Wisconsin, where I live, the Collective Bargaining Act was put into place in 1959 by Gaylord Nelson, who was governor at the time, and a Democratic legislature. It’s been here for a very long time. But it is still something that a governor can, with the support of the legislature, take away, not by a three-fourths vote or some sort of extraordinary effort, but a simple majority vote. And amazingly enough, Scott Walker put it into a minor budget repair bill, a bill that traditionally might have been voted on after like 15 minutes of debate, not even noticed. And he put in massive rewriting of our state collective bargaining laws.
And the key thing to understand here is that if this goes through, our unions in Wisconsin — and this is the state where AFSCME was founded, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, been around for a very long time — but our unions in Wisconsin will be dramatically disempowered. And that’s what they want. The unions in Wisconsin are very, very strong political players. We don’t have strong political parties in Wisconsin. It’s our independent tradition. But the unions have been a part of it, often endorsing Republicans and Democrats, but stepping into the debate on behalf of a public sector, on behalf of the commons, and also on behalf of public education. And I cannot emphasize the extent to which this is a fight by Republican power brokers to weaken those institutions that defend our very strong public education system in Wisconsin.
AMY GOODMAN: I want to get the State Senator to respond to President Obama, who weighed in on Thursday by describing the proposed Wisconsin legislation as a, quote, "assault on unions."
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Some of what I’ve heard coming out of Wisconsin, where you’re just making it harder for public employees to collectively bargain generally, seems like more of an assault on unions. And I think it’s very important for us to understand that public employees, they’re our neighbors, they’re our friends. These are folks who are teachers, and they’re firefighters, and they’re social workers, and they’re police officers. They make a lot of sacrifices and make a big contribution. And I think it’s important not to vilify them or to suggest that somehow all these budget problems are due to public employees.
AMY GOODMAN: Then there’s Republican Congressman Paul Ryan of Wisconsin who appeared on MSNBC Thursday defending Governor Walker’s anti-union push, comparing the protest in Madison to the uprising in Egypt.
REP. PAUL RYAN: He’s asking that they contribute about 12 percent for their healthcare premiums, which is about half of the private sector average, and about 5.6 percent of their pensions. It’s not asking a lot. It’s still about half of what private sector pensions do and healthcare packages do. So, he’s basically saying, "I want you public workers to pay half of what our private sector counterparts are." And he’s getting, you know, rioting. It’s like Cairo has moved to Madison these days. It’s just, you know, all of this — all of this demonstration, it’s fine; people should be able to express their way. But we’ve got to get this deficit and debt under control in Madison if we want to have a good business climate and job creation in Wisconsin.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Congressman Paul Ryan. State Senator Chris Larson, your response to both, and what your plans are now, when you plan to come back to Wisconsin?
SEN. CHRIS LARSON: Right. I think it’s great that the President is speaking out on the situation. One of the things that we’re dealing with here in Wisconsin is something that’s going to be dealt with across the country, and it’s going to be a matter of whether governors and legislatures decide to tackle things in a measured response or try and use it as an attack on their political enemies and say, "This is the excuse I’m going to use to try and take out anybody who might object to me in the future." So I think it’s great that the President is standing with us. We’ve heard from the Archbishop in Milwaukee, as well as members of the Green Bay Packers. And when you’ve got the President, the Archbishop and the Packers against you, I think you might want to reconsider your position. And we hope that Governor Walker and the Republicans are doing that.
And we’re still in Wisconsin — or we’re still outside of Wisconsin, rather, because we haven’t heard from them. They are calling what we’re doing a stunt. They’re still not listening to the thousands of people that are stepping outside of the Capitol and inside the Capitol trying to be heard, people who spoke for over two days straight at a public hearing. Actually, the Republicans shut that down at 3:00 a.m., and the Democrats picked up the gavel and kept it going for another 24 hours. And they still decided not listen to them or make any of the changes, and still trying to ram through, as John mentioned, over 50 years’ worth of history they tried to reverse in about five days.
And I think what Congressman Ryan was referring to, trying to change the pensions and pay, I listened for hours to the public hearing, and I did not find one public employee who is not willing to sacrifice in this, to give up some pay, to give up something. But what they don’t want is to be dictated to. What they don’t want is their seat pulled out from under them at the table and saying, "Sorry, you’re going to have to sacrifice." And this, after they’ve spent the last month and a half carving out tax breaks and giveaways for the richest people that actually created this mess that they’re trying to — they’re purporting to fix now. That’s just not fair, and that’s not the democratic way.
JUAN GONZALEZ: I’d like to bring into the discussion Susan Stern, a first-grade teacher in Madison, Wisconsin. Your reaction to what this proposal would mean to you and your ability to do your job, and also the decision of your union to conduct a strike now, for three days now?
SUSAN STERN: You know, I am so proud of the teachers and the workers in Wisconsin. And I’m also worried, a little nervous, and I’m jubilant. There are over 30,000 people out at the Capitol saying, “We’re not going to lose our voice. This is really important.” And I really want to thank the senators for walking out. Sometimes it’s necessary to walk out to be heard, and that’s allowing us to stand up and be heard. And that’s what we’re doing.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to ask John Nichols — people voted for the Republican governor. He was elected, Scott Walker. He won. Is this part of his platform? I mean, is this what people voted for?
JOHN NICHOLS: No, it isn’t. And that’s the incredible thing. I’ve done a few national interviews where I’ve had CNN anchors and others saying, “Well, why was anyone surprised that a conservative Republican governor did this?” And I said, "Well, you know, as somebody who’s known Scott Walker for the better part of 20 years, I was surprised. And I’ve covered him in all sorts of settings. He never said he was going to take away collective bargaining rights from our public employee unions. He never said that he was really going to really rip the state apart." And I cannot emphasize to you, Scott Walker was elected as a conservative, no doubt about that, but he was elected as somebody who most people thought of as a commonsense conservative. He beat the guy in a primary who we all thought was a little bit out there. As it turns out, Scott’s a little bit out there.
And the thing that’s important to understand here — a lot of people don’t understand the Wisconsin tradition. We had a governor in Wisconsin, Robert M. La Follette, who had a great phrase: “Democracy is a life.” What he meant by that is that democracy doesn’t end on Election Day. You don’t elect a king to rule you for four years. Democracy begins on Election Day. You elect someone, and then that person, that legislator or that governor, is supposed to listen to you, to represent you, not to rule over you. And I think what Susan Stern and other people have done over the last three days is a reassertion of the Wisconsin tradition, which is very engaged, very passionate democracy. But it isn’t just a Wisconsin thing, to be honest, as you folks know. People across the country are watching this. Students at schools in other states have walked out in solidarity with the students and the teachers here. On a radio show this morning that was taking calls from around the country, a guy from South Carolina called in and said, “We are all cheeseheads now.”
JUAN GONZALEZ: John, I wanted to ask you, one of the things, apparently, that the Governor has done is to try to divide folks within the labor movement by exempting certain unions — the police union, the fire unions — from the same kind of proposals. Could you talk about how that is playing out in Wisconsin?
JOHN NICHOLS: Yeah, and I do hope you’ll bring Susan in on this one, too, because she’s been a part of this remarkable experience. At the start of the week, the firefighters and the police, very strong unions in Wisconsin, were protected. It was said, well, the governor has exempted them. And frankly, it’s because he didn’t want to have a fight with them. As the week went on, because of the very, very close relations between Susan’s union, Madison Teachers Incorporated, and the Madison Firefighters Local, Local 311, an alliance was forged. And the Madison Firefighters, with allies around the state, basically said, “We don’t care if we’re exempted. We are going to stand in solidarity.” And those moments when the firefighters walked into these huge rallies, often in uniform, behind bagpipers, it was a sense of solidarity and commitment that — it was chilling. And it also, I do believe, was another part of what shook these Democratic legislators into acting.
JUAN GONZALEZ: Susan Stern, how your union handled that, the attempt to divide the labor union by the Governor?
SUSAN STERN: I’m sorry, pardon me?
JUAN GONZALEZ: Could you tell us about how your union responded to that, the attempts by the Governor to divide some of the municipal unions from firefighters and police and other unions?
SUSAN STERN: Thank you. Sorry, I was having a hard time hearing you.
When the firefighters walked in yesterday to the Capitol, I was standing with a huge group of teachers. It brought tears to people’s eyes. We’re not divided. And the police officers have been standing with us. The firefighters have been standing with us. There are steelworkers out there. There’s nurses out there. And it’s a really — it’s a loud environment out at the Capitol. It’s very peaceful. And we feel really united.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk about the education cuts that have been proposed, Susan Stern.
SUSAN STERN: Well, I’m glad you brought that up, because this is a much bigger issue than the money. But the money is important, and there are teachers who are not going to be able to pay their rent or pay their mortgage with these cuts. There are teachers talking about needing to take second jobs or getting different jobs. And that’s really important. Teachers and the other workers are not the people who are making big money in this state, to begin with. And they work to take care — the teachers work to take care of the children in our state, to educate them, to give them a quality education, and it’s hard work. And we do it because we love it. And to take pay cuts and think about having working conditions that would be really difficult to teach in, because, you know, when we bargain it’s not just for financial issues, it’s also for things like class size, it’s also for things like prep time. And so, I know you asked about the finances. I mean, that’s a big hardship. And people are thinking about that, and people are worried. And it says a lot about the teachers who are out there by the thousands, because they’re losing money. They’re not getting paid these days that we’re out there protesting. But they know, we all know, that this is a much bigger issue. And people are willing to do that for our students and for the people of Wisconsin and for ourselves.
JUAN GONZALEZ: John, could you put what’s happening in Wisconsin in the national context? We were talking with Noam Chomsky yesterday on the show about, in the past few months, this enormous campaign that is going on against workers’ pensions, against demanding the elimination of tenure for teachers in many states, and of course anti-union laws being introduced in a variety of states.
JOHN NICHOLS: Yeah, look, the Republicans had a good election last November. They swept to power in the U.S. House of Representatives. They also swept to power in a lot of states. And unfortunately, most of our national media tends to cover what goes on in Washington. They don’t pay as much attention to the states. That’s why what’s happened here in Wisconsin is very exciting, because it’s sort of forced some of these, what are thought of in Washington as, second- or third-tier issues into the forefront.
And the fact of the matter is, no matter what happens in Washington, the real front-line battles on the delivery of services, the delivery of education, how we maintain a public sector and a public sphere, occur at the state and municipal level. And these are where the cuts have been most severe. And the interesting thing is, public employee unions and teachers’ unions have been the force that has pushed back, often without much support from even some of our mainstream progressives, because they think, “Oh, those unions can do it. They can handle it. They’ll can take care of themselves.”
Well, what’s starting to happen, I believe, is that folks, much beyond the union sphere, are beginning to recognize that these unions do a lot more than just represent their workers. They stand up for a public space, for any kind of delivery of services for low-income people, middle-class people. And that’s also what a lot of conservative think tanks and very wealthy and powerful players notice, as well. They know that if they can undermine the unions, if they can destroy the ability of public employee unions to collectively bargain and to participate in our public process, to petition for the redress of grievances, if you will, then they are going to have a dominant power that won’t just go from one election to the next but could extend for a long time. That’s what this fight is all about.
AMY GOODMAN: John Nichols, is their a financial crisis in Wisconsin?
JOHN NICHOLS: No, there is no financial crisis in Wisconsin. I’m not the person saying that. The Wisconsin Fiscal Bureau, a nonpartisan agency, said that, you know, without Governor Walker’s tax cuts for big corporations that he passed last month, Wisconsin would have ended this year with a surplus.
Also, State Senator Fred Risser, the senior state senator in our legislature, elected in 1956, the guy who helped to sponsor the first law putting in collective bargaining back in 1959, still serving in the legislature, says there is absolutely no problem. You know, certainly we’ve had a drop in revenues. We’re going to have to take cuts. We’re going to have to deal with stuff. But this is something that the legislature has dealt with many times in the past. It’s easily done. And the thing that I think is very important to point out here, Fred Risser, a very dignified man in his mid-eighties, who doesn’t get angry and doesn’t shout about things, has said, “There’s not a crisis. Governor Walker is acting as a dictator to achieve political ends.”
AMY GOODMAN: Finally, we’re going to Peter Rickman, activist in the Teaching Assistants’ Association at University of Wisconsin-Madison. We just have 30 seconds, then we’re heading to Cairo to cover the uprising there. But I wanted to ask, Peter, you’ve been camping out at the State Capitol since Tuesday. We’re going to go to break, then come back, and then we go to Egypt. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. His phone died, so we’ll try to get him back. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: Just before we go to Egypt, we did say we’d try to get Peter Rickman on the phone. The cell reception in the Capitol is bad, because there are so many people. There are tens of thousands of people. Pete Rickman is an activist in the Teaching Assistants’ Association at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. We thought we could get him, but we just can’t do it, so we will continue to cover this, certainly, on Monday. But right now we go to Cairo, Egypt.