April 2011

Letters to the Editor
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Letter From Madison

Kurt A. Roberts, the writer of the following letter, is press secretary of Madison, Wis., Local 965 and a maintenance mechanic/welder at the Columbia Generating Station (owned by Alliant Energy, Wisconsin Power & Light). He wrote this in the midst of the historic protests in Madison.

What's Going on in Wisconsin?

In mid-February teachers, nurses, parole officers, firefighters, prison guards, state workers and local government employees flooded into the Wisconsin state capitol building and surrounded it in protest. Joining them were thousands of ordinary Wisconsin citizens. A representative cross section of America, the mix of genders, ages, ethnicities, professionals, tradesmen, public and private sector employees, all demonstrated that this was the people of Wisconsin exercising those rights that are not only guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution but, as is so often expressed by conservatives, protected by our brave young service members fighting overseas. Not surprisingly Gov. Scott Walker and his allies called the protesters "thugs."

What brought these citizens of Wisconsin out in spite of the cold winter weather is a budget bill whose most contentious provisions include changes to the state's relationship with its employees. Some will tell you that the protesters are out there because they don't want to pay their fair share toward their medical benefits and pensions. But the unions who represent the employees affected have already agreed to the financial concessions.

This bill makes it illegal for Wisconsin public employees (except for police officers, firefighters and state troopers) to negotiate any aspect of their employment with the government, except for wages, which would be capped at the rate of inflation. Working conditions, seniority, promotions and grievance resolution are to be no longer negotiable. It will also be illegal to have their union dues deducted from their paycheck; they will have to mail their dues to their union every month.

Gov. Walker's refusal to negotiate any portion of this bill implies that this is but a stepping stone to a greater goal of destroying the rights and protections afforded working families across the state, not just those of the public sector. After all, he did campaign on a promise to make Wisconsin friendlier for business. It's a shame that Scott Walker insists that this be done at the expense of working families.

The environmental movement has Greenpeace, human rights advocates have Amnesty International, and the voice, the force, the movement for real family values, is America's workers bonded together in solidarity for living wages, safe working conditions, fair treatment, and adequate benefits. The impact of union affiliation has always gone beyond the members covered by an agreement and set the standard for many nonunion workers in the same industry, if for no other reason than to keep the union out.

So much of what our union forefathers fought to achieve is now taken for granted. Safe working conditions, Saturday as a day off, the 40-hour work week, overtime pay, sick leave, seniority, and grievance resolution were all concepts championed by the workers themselves and made possible by those workers finding strength in numbers.

Rome wasn't built in a day, as the old saying goes. Well the United States wasn't built by an individual. Farmers didn't and couldn't raise a barn by themselves; pioneers couldn't cross the plains alone, and no single individual ever built a railroad, a bridge or a skyscraper.

One of our earliest slogans at the founding of this nation was based on the realization that union equals strength: "United We Stand, Divided We Fall." Americans standing together for their rights is the most natural and most American thing they can do. To deny them that right is a slap in the face of not only those labor pioneers of the past but also the founding fathers of this nation who gave us the right to assemble, freedom of speech and the press, and whose Constitution was written to give us the tools to control our own destiny and "pursue happiness." Happiness cannot be pursued by those who are little more than slaves and have no seat at the table to control their working conditions.

This is a moment in history where the U.S. Supreme Court is controlled by those who stand with corporations, declaring those non-human entities to have the same rights as citizens.

This is a moment in history where the rights of ordinary citizens to collectively bargain are threatened as never before.

This is a moment in history where we can chose to let the corporate bosses destroy the American way of life, let the super-rich like the Koch brothers buy our government, and let ourselves go quietly down the road to slavery.

Or we can do what Americans have always done: we can stand by our fellow workers, our teachers, our firefighters, our state workers, our neighbors, our sisters, our brothers. American families are stronger with labor unions; Wisconsin is stronger with labor unions; and this country is stronger with labor unions. With faith in each other and support for those under attack we have the opportunity to show America what unity and solidarity really mean.

Kurt A. Roberts
Local 965 member, Madison, Wis.