Sunday, February 20, 2011

So, here's an update on what it's been like to be in downtown Madison this past week. I've been splitting my time between work (6 blocks down the street from the State Capitol), the Capitol, home, and the office of the TAA, UW-Madison's grad school union. At work, it's hard to concentrate, but work is getting done. Mostly, I've worked reference shifts, taught library instructions sessions, and worked on finding homes for some Australian gov docs we no longer have the room for ('cause we don't have approval yet to build a storage facility). The last week, State Street has constantly been busy, at least from 10 a.m. till 7 p.m. Every day has been like the first warm Saturday in spring, with the sidewalks full of students, adults, and families out walking, usually to or from the Capitol. At least a fifth of the pedestrians are carrying signs, usually pro-union and/or anti-Gov Walker. Many of the State Street businesses, especially restaurants and coffee shops, are PACKED. Some shops, like Anthology and Shakti, have pro-demonstrator signs up. At eating and drinking establishments, patrons are often resting their signs next to the windows. University Bookstore has a sandwich sign up advertising the availability of posters and markers. Whenever I walk up or down State St, I see co-workers going the opposite way. It's like we're rallying in shifts.

A few times there have been marches from campus to the Capitol, with police stopping cross traffic, and making sure we can walk in the street. The streets around the Capitol are closed to vehicles, as are the first blocks of the streets leading to the Square (think Farmers Market Saturdays).

There are always protesters milling around the Capitol, outside and inside. There are set times for rallies (more frequently as big names from out of town come in). I talked to one friend and mentioned a rally starting at a certain time, and she said "Oh, there are set times? I just go down whenever." And that's what a lot of people do. Go down for a while, go back to work (after lunch hour, or some vacation time), get something to eat, or go home. Then they come back. We've lucked out with the weather--it's been unseasonably warm--40's and 50's in the daytime. Temp started dropping yesterday, even as the crowds increase. Some of the rallies are outside; some inside the Capitol. Well, the outside events are more like rallies--with speakers that most people can hear. Inside, rallies consist mainly of crowd chants. There are always drummers playing. The chants can be deafening. One evening I was there when a procession of firefighters marched through the crowd in support of the protests, led by some bagpipers. Not that you could HEAR the bagpipers over the din of the chants.

A few protesters-leaders have electronic megaphones, but they don't work very well in that echo-ey building. The leaders try turn as they speak, to address every part of the crowd. This just means you hear the few words they say in your direction! The rotunda is packed at times, and can get stuffy, especially the higher up in the building you go.

It really is a festival atmosphere up there. People are angry, at the governor and the Republicans in the legislature, but with each other they're friendly and cheerful. I don't think most of us WANT to be there, but we're inspired and energized when we are there. With the Tea Party demonstration today, I've heard my friends express concern about possible violence. No protester I've talked to or overheard wants violence. At today's noon rally, there were volunteer marshals on every corner and street leading to the Capitol, and circulating through the crowd, stressing that this was a peaceful protest. There's definitely a police presence, on State Street, on the Square, and in the Capitol. Usually the police are observing, or chatting with people. Some of the protesters thank the police (I have).

The crowds are mainly white, mainly middle aged or middle/high school or college-aged. There are senior citizens and retirees, and and there are definitely children, of all ages, but they're in the minority. I've certainly seen a lot of my friends from my leftist political work, but for a pleasant change, they're a small minority of the protesters! (I love seeing these friends, but sometimes I feel like it's "protesting to the choir" to alter a metaphor. Also a pleasant change: I don't see ISO folks or other folks there pushing their own agendas. There were some communists passing lit out last night, and some socialists doing the same today--I think it's a socialist group up from Chicago (not saying there aren't socialists in Wisconsin...). In general, my sense is that most of the crowd is from Wisconsin. Today is the first day I've heard people talking about coming from Illinois, or holding signs saying they're from Illinois. I would guess teachers and K-12 and college students are the biggest groups within the crowd. There are people from public unions, and from different private-sector unions as well. Obviously, there are lots of people from Madison, but I'd be surprised, judging from signs and insignias on clothing, if Madisonians made up half the crowds by now. The teaching assistants from UW-Madison have been doing a fabulous job of leading events. Oh, and yesterday, after one of the rallies, there was a big volunteer clean-up done by the crowds.

You have to leave signs with wood handles outside the Capitol building. So there are lots of signs piled by entrance doors, and in snow banks. You can carry signs and banners into the Capitol--there are also plenty propped up against walls and railings throughout the building. Last night, the corridor leading to State Street had turned into an art studio/gallery, with lots of people drawing and writing, then taping their artwork to the marble walls. Over the week, the signs have gotten more creative, and more dimensional. Today I saw a woman carrying a cardboard Holstein cow, with a sign on it that said "I'm the only one allowed to poop on Wisconsin." A colleague of mine found a couple of days ago a yellow sign that says "Wi [hearts] librarians." When she carries it (and when I've carried it), people stop and ask to take a picture of it, often saying that some relative is a librarian. Or kids say "Librarians yay! I love librarians." Overall, protesters compliment each other's signs a lot.

The base reason everyone's there is to protect our rights to join unions and collectively bargain. The chants are about worker power, union power, and democracy (oh, and "Kill this bill"). (The most danceable chant is "Show me what democracy looks like! This is what democracy looks like!.") That's the main message we're sending out. But the financial aspects of the bill will really hurt a lot of people. I've talked to colleagues who've worked for the university for decades. They've already taken pay cuts--through furloughs, and increases in what they contribute to benefits. We haven't had raises in at least a couple of years. Some people are barely making it as it is. These aren't people living extravagant lifestyles. One person's barely making ends meet working two jobs--one full-time, one part-time. While fundamentally this is about workers rights, it is about pay, and working conditions, and respect for our work too.

The jobs the signs and the speeches most often refer to are teachers, nurses, and snowplow drivers--all very worthy jobs, of course. There are some signs that refer to other professions, but I wish there were more. I've been trying, for the last few days, to think of a slogan to express support for state clerical workers, or the people that maintain the state parks--not only buildings and grounds folks, but foresters and wildlife biologists. I think of my friends who adjudicated claims for unemployed workers--a stressful and often thankless task. My dad used to write computer programs that made sure unemployment and workers' comp checks got distributed. As a gov docs librarian, I've been on panels that give awards to the best state publications of the year (and there have been WONDERFUL ones).

How do we recognize the people who conceived of, wrote, and designed those publications on a placard? I remember one woman who worked for the Supreme Court of Wisconsin. For years, she had recommended that the Court create a publication that described, in everyday language, how the Supreme Court worked. Her bosses finally agreed that they should create such a document. They did, and it was great. I learned so much about the Supreme Court. This document has probably saved hundreds of hours of effort: by citizens who previously didn't know the Supreme Court was not the place to bring their grievances; and by Court employees, who didn't have to explain, time and again, the process citizens should follow. This publication was the capstone of this woman's career. Every year, we invite the creators of the winning documents to a small ceremony, with about 30 people. We give them a certificate. They're so excited! They bring their department's public affairs people, and their spouses. Every year, at least one of these documents earns national recognition. But who else recognizes these workers?

This post is WAY long, but I have to say something about the awesome Teaching Assistants Association, the TAA, the teaching assistants' union. Some are leading the protests, sleeping at the Capitol night after night. Those are hugely important efforts. Many more are doing just as important work behind the scenes. They are calling union households around the state, in districts where we think the Republican senators might be swayed to vote against this bill. They're asking strangers to come out for events, and to contact their legislators. Last weekend a group of us went to a small town, Richland Center, and knocked on the doors of union members' households, asking them to sign postcards. A TAA member and I walked around for 3.5 hours (in great, if muddy, weather) doing this. I've spent maybe four hours making phone calls. Some people are great at these one-on-one conversations with strangers about a controversial topic; some of us are okay with it; others hate it, but they know that's how we'll win this fight. We deal with some hang-ups and rants (supportive and not); we delight in the supportive comments; we sound cheerful and understanding when we hear excuses. We figure out how to condense all the complicated info we have to impart on answering machines. We ask people to do canvassing, and it turns out they're 82 and have arthritis, or nursing a husband just home from the hospital, or going to a funeral the next day. We cringe, apologize, feel guilty, wish them well. Then we take a breath, pick up the phone and dial another number.


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