Friday, February 25, 2011

Ode to public employees...

I need to write this now--who knows when I'll have time and access to a computer again at the same time! It's been percolating in my brain for about a week.

Maybe this is high-falutin' (and it shows I'm the product of a liberal arts education), but I keep thinking of these lines from Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice:
"Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions; fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh? If you poison us do we not die?..."

Public employees, in Wisconsin and beyond, are not facing anything near what people like Shylock, a Jewish moneylender in Elizabethan times, faced. But the sentiment's the same. The predominant sentiment for so long, it seems, is that all government workers do is take money from taxpayers. Like we're not taxpayers, consumers, family members, volunteers, supporters of charities, CITIZENS.

Like we're not WORKERS. I HATE the phrase "it's good enough for government work" as if all government workers have abysmally low standards for quality.

When I started working for a state university, my personality did NOT change. The kid who was proud of her academic work, who liked getting good grades, did not become a woman who could care less about the quality of her work. I like doing a good job, for a myriad of reasons.
* I like knowing that my efforts helped someone. I like feeling useful.
* I like recognition, from my colleagues here, and throughout my profession.
* I like the thanks I get from patrons and colleagues I help.
* I like seeing the light dawn in a student's eyes, as they see all the resources they have access to, or as they realize something, about a government, or an organization, or publisher, that they wouldn't have thought of if I hadn't pointed it out.
* Oh, yeah, I liked it when I got a good review, and got a merit raise or small promotion because of it. I'm thinking those days are over if I stick with the public sector.

My parents taught me to work hard and be honest, at work and at play. I don't always live up to the ethical standards they had for me, that I have for me, but I don't stop trying.

I work hard because I don't want to let my colleagues down. I respect them. I admire their talents and their hard work. I appreciate their support, their covering for me.

As a reference librarian, I work directly with the public. But I also work with catalogers and information technology people, who know that their work behind the scenes helps our users, who keep the users utmost in their minds. We recognize we have budgetary and administrative restraints. But we're creative. We LIKE solving problems. I see that in the committees I'm on, whether it's people who maintain our chat reference service, or who work with government documents.

The Wisconsin Idea, that the borders of the university are the borders of the state (ie, we serve the citizens of Wisconsin as well as the students, faculty, and staff of the university), is something that we talk about in staff meetings, that we keep in mind as we make decisions about services. Here's a slightly obscure example: Right now, patrons pay for printouts and photocopying with a card anyone can buy in our libraries. The university wants us to switch to a different card system that will be more convenient for students, but more expensive and inconvenient for non-students (and we have a lot of non-student patrons). Our IT department is working very hard to find ways that we can reduce the costs of this new system, and make it less cumbersome. Public service people didn't have to push the IT people to look for these solutions; the IT folks do it because they're thinking about our users.

Do some of us slack off from time to time? Yep. But I don't think that's unique to the public sector. Are there some bad apples in the bunch? Yep. Again, I think there are some in the private sector as well. But I don't think we're any less dedicated or creative overall than those who work in the private sector.

I not only work for the state, I benefit from good public services (and I pay taxes that support them). I love public parks--state, county, city. I like clean, functional bathrooms in public parks and public buildings. Of course I love my public library system. What a remarkable idea--communities banding together to buy books (and magazines, and audio materials, and videos) of all kinds to share among the community. And libraries also provide free computer and internet access, and cheap public meeting rooms! As a bicyclist, I appreciate roads without potholes, not to mention separate bike paths. I like clear signage on paths, streets, and highways. I like that I don't have to bribe city or state bureaucrats or inspectors. I like friendly, efficient employees at the city who accept my tax and water payments, or help me with absentee voting. The building inspector who inspected my house a few months after I bought it from my mom's estate said some very wise things to me (though she was wrong about how long my furnace would last). When I walk to work on snowy days, it's always a relief to get to the sidewalks that the university maintains. I can count on those being cleared. I wish I could say the same for the walks homeowners(including me) are responsible for.

I give back to my community, too. Not nearly as much as I should, but I do some volunteering. I've worked on a couple of service projects with my library colleagues, where we as a group gave up a weekend day here and there to pull weeds, and to paint someone's house (that was a two-day project for some of us). I contribute to the charitable giving program for public employees. I choose among charities, and specify amounts to go to each one, and have these donations deducted from my monthly paychecks. (Note: I also choose to have monthly union dues deducted from my paycheck. Walker's bill would eliminate the practice for union dues. Why that gets eliminated, and not the charitable deduction program, which presumably costs as much, if not more, to administer, is a good question.) I've volunteered at the blood drives held at my workplace. I've participated in food drives held at my workplace.

Yet, to listen to some right-wing pundits, all I am, all my colleagues are, are vampires, sucking the life out of our communities. And doing so not out of necessity, but spite.

I'm saddened by the fact that so many private-sector employees don't receive the benefits I do. I also get jealous of some of the salaries my friends in the private sector receive.

What's with the vilifying? To quote Rodney King, "Can't we all get along?"
Another week of protests...

So much to write about, and so little free time!

Here's what happens when you bring your anti-budget bill sign on your bus commute in Madison:
1) strangers driving down the street stop and offer to give you a ride downtown
2) people jump up and offer you their seat on a crowded bus
3) people in cars and bikes honk their horns/ring their bicycle bells in support.

Okay, so #1 and 2 each happened once to me this week; #3's totals were two car honks, and one bicycle bell ringing. And I live in a neighborhood with a lot of state workers. Nevertheless, all incidents were awesome! (For the record, my sign says "We [heart] our parks, and the public employees who maintain them.")

I went to a concert headlined by Tom Morello (of Rage Against the Machine) on Monday night. It was in support of the protests. I don't think I'd heard a RATM song before in my life. The crowd was pro-union, but it was a younger one than I've been seeing at the Capitol, and had more men in it. One of my favorite parts of the concert was at the end, when all four of the bands/musicians played "This Land Is Your Land" and asked the audience to sing the chorus at the top of their lungs. They sang all the verses, including my favorites:

"As I was walkin' - I saw a sign there
And that sign said - no tress passin'
But on the other side .... it didn't say nothin!
Now that side was made for you and me!


In the squares of the city - In the shadow of the steeple
Near the relief office - I see my people
And some are grumblin' and some are wonderin'
If this land's still made for you and me."

This is my favorite patriotic song. It was awesome to sing this with 5,000 other people. Another highlight of the concert was Morello's comments to the effect that "What I'm seeing here in Madison right now is the world of my dreams." I feel proud and humbled by that statement. And I agree with it. I am continually amazed at the peacefulness and joy at the Capitol. It's not mindless joy; people know what's going on. And it's not manic, frenzied joy, though with the salary cuts public employees are facing, it'd be understandable. Most of us don't want to be doing this, but there's a sense that, while we're here, we might as well have fun!

People from different walks of life are living together--some literally--at the Capitol. The way protestors have organized the Capitol is amazing. There are food stations, an information station, a family area, a medical area. The TAA organizes crews to clean up the Capitol. If you want to testify at the Assembly hearing, there are volunteers there explaining how you register, telling you how long the wait might be, and what to expect in the hearing room. There are paper directional signs taped up around the building, pointing to bathrooms, hearing rooms, and so on. There are signs--by protestors--spelling out the rules for staying overnight: no alcohol or drugs, quiet time after a certain hour, etc. There are corners of the Capitol where they're holding dances! Tuesday night I saw a violinist standing on a kind of balcony on the second floor, playing along with the music coming from a boom box. Some of the overnighters have air mattresses as well as sleeping bags. Students do homework there; TAs do grading. The K-12 teachers organized a "grade-in" one morning. When organizers ask for quiet, the crowd quiets down. People hold their fingers up in the "peace" sign to ask people to quiet down (I think that's a trick from the K-12 teachers).

And nobody's yelling at each other. They're respectful of each other, and supportive of each other. If you slip on the ice, someone steps forward to grab you. People stand patiently in lines. They don't push forward to get a better view of anything.

I've seen significantly fewer signs on State Street the past couple of days. What I do see a lot of, especially today, are high school wrestlers, cheerleaders, and their families from around the state. Madison is hosting the state wrestling tournament, the start of tournament season here. That's a season that deserves its own entry sometime!

I have definitely seen more trade union folks at the Capitol and on State Street. There was a significant presence of folks from the United Food and Commercial Workers at a Tuesday evening protest. I noticed some people from the Communications Workers of America last night. This is good, because most K-12 teachers are back at work. They made up a huge part of the crowds last week.

The presence of protestors in the Capitol has been smaller too--but there's a reason. Evidently last weekend, some structural engineers took a look at the Capitol, to see how much weight the different floors could hold. As a result, the police closed off two of the four public entrances, and for a few days, they only let a certain number of people in the building. So you'd have to line up to enter the Capitol, and, as a certain number of people left the building, the same number could enter. But in addition to the people inside the Capitol, there are always people with signs walking around the Capitol, and around the larger Capitol Square. But there's definitely been a gradual move in restricting access to the Capitol, and to moving the protestors out overnight. I will admit that, after about 10 days of people living in an office building/museum, there's a slightly rank smell developing in some areas of the building. I'm okay with shutting the building down ONE NIGHT, for cleaning. But I hope the occupation is only briefly interrupted.

There are constantly rumors about when the building is open or closed; what parts of the Capitol are open or closed to the public; whether the Capitol will be closed to protestors...It's also hard to pin down exact times of major events. For instance, today we'd heard that Saturday there was going to be a rally at noon (sponsored by plus another rally at 3 p.m. (unions). We'd heard of various nationally-known musicians coming to play, but weren't sure when they'd play. Now it's pretty clear that there's a concert at 1 p.m., followed by speakers at about 3 p.m.

To my immense relief, I saw lots of new phone-bankers at the TAA office today. I hope and think people are realizing that we have to work in the districts. I'm so happy that a couple of other unions are doing phone-banking at Madison offices. All last week, the only organization I could find doing phone-banking was the TAA. Obviously, some people were organizing canvasses and meetings in towns and cities around Madison, because as phone-bankers, that's what we were telling people about! But there are so many people in Madison who are supportive of this cause. We need to harness that support and energy. Plus, the TAA is on the second story of a building with a steep staircase. I know people who wanted to phone-bank, but couldn't get up to the TAA office.

Today I did a couple of short calling stints. We were calling people in southwestern Wisconsin, in the district of Republican Senator Dale Schultz, who's considered a swing vote. I can say that, of the three districts I've phone-banked, I've liked Schultz's the best. I've called in Fitzgerald's and Olsen's, and I'd get more unpleasant (in number and in tenor) responses. Today I got several very positive responses. In my rap (such a 60's term, but that's what we call it), I say I'm calling about the budget repair bill, and I ask people if their familiar with it. I'm amazed when people say "not really." It could be a way to sound me out, to find out what side I'm on, but sometimes I think they really haven't been following it. But why should I be surprised?? I'm a public employee, working less than a mile from the Capitol. Of course it consumes me, but others have quite full lives of their own, thank you very much. I know that even as union members and sympathizers are up in arms, other businesses are lobbying the legislature on their own issues, on other bills floating around out there.

I'll close, for now, with one site I'm recommending, from the TAA: Defend Wisconsin. I truly believe that's what we're doing.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Taking a breather...
So, it took an assault on workers rights in Wisconsin to update this blog!! I've just transferred a LONG Facebook "note" to this blog, 'cause I don't think Facebook is meant for essays!

Here's something to think about, that doesn't fit on a poster. I wonder how many private-sector employers save money by not having to pay for health care benefits for their employees covered by a public employee spouse's health care plan. (See, it really doesn't fit on a poster.) I know my mom's employer, a private trade association, couldn't begin to match the health care plan my dad got through the state. (They did use the dental benefit my mom's employer offered.)

It's a dreary day in Madison. We have what the weather people call a "wintry mix." In the space of a few hours, it's snowed, sleeted, and rained. There was a rally today inside the Capitol--a good turnout on a rotten weather day, but crowds were definitely not as big as at the formal rallies on other days. My favorite displays this time around: a sign comparing Jimmie Walker ("Dy-no-mite") and Scott Walker ("troglodyte"), and 6 people in inflatable deer head costumes. They walked around the rotunda, then unfurled a banner that said "It's not about the doe. Haven't you herd?"

State Street is way quieter today as well. Memorial Library, on the other hand, is busy. I think students are catching up with homework. But there are hardy souls marching around the Capitol. Two women were holding a banner in front of a statue on the Capitol grounds. With great cheer, they stood in the cold rain in their sweatshirts, thanking people for coming.

As usual with the rallies in the Capitol, it's hard to hear the formal speeches. The speakers are using portable electronic megaphones, but are not connected to the building's sound system. That's okay. The drumming is fun to listen to, and the chants are energizing. What's best is looking at the different people there, and all the cool signs. Thursday I saw a few signs saying "Private school teachers 4 public workers." Today I saw quite a few signs along the lines of "I don't work for the state/non-union member/self-employed, but I support the unions."

The activity around the Capitol grows more organized by the day. Lots more volunteer marshals were there today, wearing day-glo vests, directing people, keeping an aisle clear on the second floor of the rotunda. There's an "information station" near one staircase, with people providing--what else--information. They have a homemade mini-pamphlet rack, with sheets of info on testifying and other things. They can direct you to places where you can recharge your phone. In a remarkably clean, well-stocked women's bathroom, there were notes on the sink and the tp dispensers saying "Dear fellow protesters, Don't vandalize our beautiful Capitol building." I describe the conditions of the bathroom as remarkable because THOUSANDS of people have been through this building over 6 days. Hundreds have spent at least one night there.

When I took the bus to the Capitol this morning, one couple got on at the Greenbush Bakery, holding a box of donuts. At the Capitol, they walked around, offering protesters donuts. Someone else was offering some kind of yogurt bar, and I saw some in the center of the Rotunda passing around pre-packaged veggie trays. The TAA has a list of businesses who've made physical donations. Evidently, people from around the world have been calling Ian's Pizza and ordering pizzas to be delivered to the Capitol.

I also spent about 90 minutes making phone calls at the TAA office. The previous two times I've phone-banked, my fellow callers have mainly been TAA members. Today there were some retired state workers, and UW students. That was encouraging. I was calling people in Ripon, asking them to contact their state senator, Luther Olson. I got a few hang-ups or quick brush-offs, but also some very supportive people. And then, the usual wrong numbers and answering machines. One of the supporters asked what the plans are if this bill does pass as is. That's the big question that I think a lot of us don't want to face.

I hope that at least some of this energy carries over to local and state elections. I hope we remember how angry we are at Gov Walker and the Republicans in the legislature. I hope we learn that state and local elections matter as much as, if not more so, than national elections. I'm not big on the recalls--I think Scott Walker was pretty up-front in his campaign about his dislike of unions and state employees. His tactics may have caught us off-guard, but they make sense, from his perspective.

I also hope we remember all those who supported us, and how that support lifted us and inspired us. I hope we stand in solidarity with private-sector unions around the state and country, and public-sector unions around the country, and the immigrant rights activists standing with us.

Now it's time to go home and do some laundry!
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.