The furor over Wisconsin’s budgetary “crisis” continues to escalate, demonstrated by the fact that as I write this, the state’s law enforcement is searching for Democratic legislators who have crossed state lines and gone into hiding as a way to stop passage of the bill or at least force serious negotiations. The budget bill, now infamous across the country, would force state employees to pay into their pensions at a higher percentage, would raise the price of health care for said employees, and also effectively end collective bargaining rights for state-level public employee unions. Of course, much of this debate is not about budgetary crisis, but about how to move towards effectively ending the public sector as Wisconsinites know it so that Walker can funnel tax money to political cronies or corporate investors.
The end of collective bargaining rights for unionized public employees is something that strikes me as odd as I write from Milwaukee on what is an otherwise wet, gray, and depressing day, one of many I expect over the next several weeks in a city that takes forever to heat up in the springtime. What is so odd is that the view on the public/private divide as presented by the city’s corporate media so easily does away with any concept that residents pay taxes so that public-sector employees can perform services deemed necessary. Television viewers and readers of newspapers, such as the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel or the myriad websites set up to mirror the reporting of the city’s dominant media, learn that without Walker’s budget bill, the state can expect a deficit of over three billion dollars during the next couple of years, and are forced to make “common sense” decisions about “fiscal responsibility” and flushing their children’s financial opportunities down the drain.
In fact, many Milwaukeeans and suburbanites have picked up on this, as reader comments on, for example, the Milwaukee JS website, spew vitriol about the slothful and parasitic nature of public employees, and point out that apparently the gravy train is coming to an end. I am unsure to which gravy train they refer, as my colleague Joe Walzer has pointed out in the UWM Post that much of Walker’s cuts would have the effect of trying to “squeeze blood from an orange.” Interspersed through the comments on the budget bill are other assaults on the notion of the “public,” such as ugly racist statements about the purposes of welfare in one of the country’s most segregated cities, along with accusations that public employees are communists and thugs. Particularly suggestive of the power of the rigidity and narrowness of discourse on this issue are the ways that residents have appropriated protest. For example, Walker’s threat to call out the National Guard is justified in light of demonstrations outside his home or because of the escalation of opposition in Madison. There is no mention of the fact that low-paid public sector work such as the kind I perform as a teaching assistant is one reason that the state can subsidize low-cost higher education.
In the Milwaukee metropolitan area, based upon the ways the city’s corporate media tends to portray the state’s budgetary situation, and based upon the responses of those who read, watch, or listen to news reporting, one would think that it would be pointless to protest the passage of the bill. Republican state legislators reassure everyone they have the votes to pass the bill, and they are probably right. Residents of the metropolitan area descend upon the great democratic space of the twentieth century, the internet, to opine that notions of the public are dead and that privatization is the key to the future. Recent developments in Madison have the state’s flagship institution breaking away from the rest of the system, likely leaving the state’s periphery colleges in a bind, while education news in Milwaukee is even more grim, as city school officials discuss the reality of massive teacher layoffs and inner-city school closings. In other words, the view from one of Wisconsin’s metropoles is depressing: one would think opposition is useless, as the framing of discourse is top-down enough not only to make dissent pointless but also to invert opposition to make the threat of force justified.
Yet, my experiences over the last several days have shown that despite the support for Walker in Milwaukee and its suburbs, the long-term implications of the passage of the budget bill will likely have a negative effect on the state’s Republican Party and actually could result in the radicalization of thousands of young Wisconsinites.
Yesterday, Wednesday, February 16. I attended the protests in Madison. Students at UW-Milwaukee were provided with buses to head there, and once settled I immediately struck up a conversation with a student much younger than me. A second-year student from outside of Stevens Point, my traveling neighbor was an intelligent, conscious, and sensitive young person, the type of person I wish I were six or seven years ago. We discussed music and literature, sharing thoughts on Don Delillo, David Foster Wallace, Chuck Palahniuk, and a musician who only records in the winter so that his work reflects the desolation of that season in the North.
In the seats ahead of us, four undergraduate students who knew each other discussed peak oil and anarcho-primitivism with a couple other young students who became interested once the discussion of consumerism, waste, and the problems with industrialization came up among the original four.
Upon arriving in Madison, we were told where the protests were being held, directed there by city police, an important show of solidarity from Wisconsinites who have not yet been threatened by their governor. Throughout the late morning and early afternoon, firefighter squadrons from across the state marched, another critical show of support from a group not yet affected.
Most importantly, though, were the young people who descended on the state capitol, yelling slogans that, for example, reminded those of us there that union busting is, in fact, disgusting. On the website for one Milwaukee Right-wing radio show, there is a video of high school students being asked why they were protesting, and giving confused answers. This was not the case in Madison, as students barely as tall as my shoulders and flashing the colors of the bands on their braces each time they yelled, became part of a tradition that is hallowed, rightly or not, within this country. The passion with which they yelled suggested they were not simply forced to be there by their teachers, and this is even less likely the case considering Madison schools were closed so teachers could be at the legislature.
After arriving home yesterday, it was made known that unionized teaching assistants at UW-Milwaukee were to take a sick day along with many other teachers throughout the state, and that undergraduates would walk out of class in solidarity. Today at noon, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty, often times at odds over grades and workloads, came together in support of the right for unionized people to collectively bargain and for their teaching assistants to be compensated at what might be above a hopelessly impoverished level. The crowd ebbed forward and flowed backward, jamming the commons and becoming impassable and immovable in places; the sea of bodies provided a warming effect, blocking the cool, humid wind that often blows on campus and was made worse today by the melting snow. I saw students of mine chanting, many of whom covertly use their cell phones when we discuss history in the classroom, as a well-respected Marx(ish) labor historian held a banner in support of, well, labor.
Of course, despite the actions of Wisconsinites young and old, there is every indication that Walker’s bill will pass. Milwaukee’s Right-wing radio will cast this as a victory for democracy, as the elected governor will get his way, and at the same time they will mock the actions of activists and protestors while likely calling for the firing of teachers up and down the spectrum for encouraging students to protest. In some cases, termination of educators will occur. Dominant, corporate discourse will do what it does.
What is less clear, however, is the lesson young people will take from the events of this week. They might view the possible failure of their actions to change politicians’ minds to demonstrate the futility of American politics, and they would be partly correct when one considers the incredibly narrow and corporate-crafted nature of this country’s political structures. In this regard, will they retreat to their iPhones, laptops, and other insular ways to alleviate the constricted opportunities they will face in a society that decreasingly values the “public,” or will they consider the failure of protest as a fundamental lesson that radicalizes them and pisses them off? What happens when their teachers are fired for budgetary reasons and they lose writers of college recommendation letters, or when their teaching assistants are laid off and they do not receive a grade for which they paid thousands of dollars of tuition? Will the notion of togetherness and mutual obligation be stronger than the competitive individualism this country’s discourse seems to favor?
This marks a pivotal moment for young people in Wisconsin. The political lessons learned this week could create a large contingent of new voters and citizens that experienced the conceptual break necessary to understand the corporate domination of the country’s political institutions. Many Americans of all ages buy into notions of individualism, competition, and private life. This prevents them from asking important questions about how corporate interests frame public debate both in politics and the media, and leaves many people feeling disempowered or unable to cause change. In Wisconsin, however, the lie is clear. This is not hegemony: young people are not consenting, force is being used against them, and the channels of dissent and American democracy are not responding to them. Scott Walker is attempting to create a friendly environment for private profit, but he is also creating a climate in which knowledge about, and experience with, politics are being transmitted to youth in such a way that what is learned this week will have an effect on the consciousnesses of young people that could have a radicalizing potential for decades to come.