Chicago joins protests in Madison

By Heather McGraw

Tens of thousands of people braved the snow and freezing rain, packed inside the Wisconsin state capitol building, surrounding Gov. Scott Walker’s office while banging drums and shouting chants like, “Talk to us” and

“We are Wisconsin”to protest union rights changes.

The protests, which have been ongoing for more than two weeks, began when Walker introduced his budget bill that would limit unions’ collective bargaining rights and increase the amount of money workers would have to contribute to their pension and health insurance benefits.

Despite protests, the bill was passed on Feb. 25 by the Wisconsin House of Representatives.

The legislation now moves to the state Senate floor but might not pass as quickly as it did in the House. When protests began, 14 Democratic senators fled the state—and were unreachable as of press time—preventing the Senate from having enough members present to pass any legislation.

Collective bargaining rights give teachers the ability to have a say regarding class size, something that has been shown to directly correlate to the quality of education, according to Kenzo Shibata, member communications coordinator for the Chicago Teachers Union.

“Traditionally, organized workers are the ones who bring up wages and benefits and working conditions for all people,” Shibata said. “If we were to take away the teeth of unions—our ability to negotiate with management—then this would bring down everyone’s quality of life.”

The protests have gained public backing, including multiple visits from Chicago union workers because many protest supporters agree this is not a Wisconsin problem but an issue spreading across the nation. Many states, including Illinois and Indiana, are considering similar legislation to deal with their budget deficits.

Walker introduced the legislation as a solution to help ease the $137 million budget deficit the state currently faces. In comparison, Illinois is trying to deal with a $13 billion deficit. Shibata said the legislation proposed in Illinois dealing with cuts to the public sector is on a much smaller scale than in Wisconsin, but comparable limits and reductions could affect Illinois.

The Chicago Federation of Labor chartered buses twice to bring nearly 300 workers to the northern neighbors in collaboration with the Chicago Jobs with Justice organization and the National Nurses United to join the protest.

“There’s been a tremendous outpouring of support from union members in Chicago for their brothers and sisters in Wisconsin,” said Nick Kaleba, director of communications for the CFL. “People see this as an injury to one is an injury to all, so there’s a real strong sense of solidarity.”

Terry Davis, board member of the Chicago JWJ and lifelong union worker, took the trip to Madison because she said her organization is always on the front lines when situations like this occur. The group is based in Chicago, but deals with issues nationwide.

“It was just so important that people are taking a stand against this insanity, and we wanted to be part of it. If we don’t stand up, we’re all going to get squashed like a bug,” Davis said.

Members of the CTU were also part of the first CFL bus trip to Madison on Feb. 21.

Shibata was part of the group in attendance at the protests on Feb. 21. He said he thinks this is a defining moment for the country.

“The reason why it was important for Chicago teachers to attend is because these are the types of policies coming down the pipeline right now,” Shibata said. “There’s no reason why we won’t be next. Although we are not from Wisconsin, we are part of a national union and we all need to stand up for each other’s rights.”

Kaleba said the protest is important because the issue is likely to spread.

“It’s something taking place across the country right now,” Kaleba said. “There’s a lot of anti-worker legislation being proposed in state legislatures like Michigan and Missouri.”

In a Feb. 21 press conference, Walker said these proposals were part of his campaign, and no one should be surprised by it.

Walker also addressed Illinois’ deficit and the state’s failure to make tough decisions that could lead to a better funded pension system.

While the issue is nationwide, Kaleba said Illinois will likely not turn out like Wisconsin because it is a different climate.

“I don’t know if anyone feels like we’re on the cusp of that,” Kaleba said. “But at the same time, it’s a chance for people to make their voices heard and show that working people will stand together.”

Some Chicago workers are concerned. Bill Hincks, member of the Chicago Sprinkler Fitters Union, who attended the protests on Feb. 21, said he thinks the risk of similar legislation is possible.

“I think everybody stands a chance of this,” Hincks said. “When you become complacent, bad things happen.”

According to Hincks, if Illinois followed Wisconsin’s lead, Chicago residents wouldn’t allow lawmakers to follow through with similar legislation.

“We’re a very strong union city,” Hincks said. “I don’t think they’d get away with it, but you don’t even want it to come to light.”