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What Would Bob Say?

March 11, 2011

Photo Credit: Robert "Fighting Bob" La Follette, founded the Progressive Party and ran for president on that ticket. He also served as a Congressman, senator and governor from Wisconsin.



Perhaps I should be writing about new journalism technology, the future of newspapers, what I did in my classroom last week or what I hope to do next. But I can’t. I’ve been planted in front of my computer screen for the last three weeks as I watch Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and the Republicans in the Wisconsin State Legislature kill the state’s public employees’ union.

Not in Wisconsin! It’s political sacrilege in the home state of “Fighting Bob” La Follette, founder of the Progressive Movement, who fought to curb the influence of corporations over government. Not in Wisconsin, the birthplace of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees union. Not in Wisconsin, which has prided itself on open, honest, clean government.

As a March 10 editorial in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel states:

Reason has taken a holiday in Wisconsin politics. Civility along with it.

In their place is a nastiness rarely seen in a state that long has
believed in good government as a guiding principle.

Republicans got what they wanted Thursday: a flawed and divisive bill that strips public employees of most of their ability to bargain collectively. Gov. Scott Walker’s party may now reap the whirlwind.

I grew up in Wisconsin and attended journalism school at the university that’s just eight blocks from the state capitol. As a student, I marched in candlelight processions from the university to the capitol to protest the Vietnam War. With my friends, I chanted, “Hell, no, we won’t go,” on the public square in front of the capitol and got mowed down by riot-gear-clad police wielding non-negotiable batons when we exercised our First Amendment rights.

To hear protesters inside the capitol recently yelling, “Hell, no, we won’t go,” when they were asked to leave the public building was like déjà vu – eerie and sad. Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. Yes, I was a desultory French student, among other things, at the university.

The assault on public employee unions in Wisconsin is part of a plan by the American Foundation for Prosperity to go after public employee unions in Wisconsin, Indiana, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, according to the New York Times. Charles and David Koch, billionaire oil tycoons and libertarians, founded the foundation and reportedly are pulling many of the strings of the Tea Party movement, report the New York Times and The New Yorker, among other publications.

I no longer live in Wisconsin so I won’t be bearing the immediate brunt of what’s happening there. I do live in Pennsylvania, however. Our newly elected Republican governor, Tom Corbett, has just released his budget for next year. Like most states, Pennsylvania has a budget deficit. Corbett is calling for many cuts, but the most severe are to K-12 schools and public universities. He is proposing the universities will receive 50 percent less in state money. How are you going to run a university on that much less money without slashing programs, hiking tuition, and firing staff and professors?

In a press release, Corbett calls upon “the best-educated people” to “face up to a hard economic reality.” As he states, “The system in which you have flourished is in trouble. We cannot save it by individual efforts. … The sacrifice must be collective…”

I don’t know about you, but I’m not much into group sacrifice. I’m especially not into sacrifice when the pain I bear is not equally shared. For instance, Corbett wants to hire 230 additional state troopers. He refuses to tax the drillers of our state’s Marcellus Shale layer, a mother lode of natural gas that energy companies just now are beginning to tap.

There are ways to raise revenue in Pennsylvania when increasing the taxes of the rich becomes an option. Gouging public workers and stripping them of their rights should not even be a choice.
The Milwaukee Journal tells how the Rev. Jesse Jackson recently compared protests in Madison to voting-rights protests in Selma, Ala., in 1965.

“In many ways, Selma was a defining moment for the right to vote,” Jackson said. “Madison is the defining moment for workers’ rights.”

Time will tell.

Margo Wilson
California University of Pennsylvania

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