Madison in Protest: a law librarian’s perspective

A friend wrote on her Facebook page, ” I don’t know what I’m hated for most, being gay, being Jewish or being a state worker.” If I were to take the news media and blogosphere seriously, it appears to be all of the above in Madison, which people are beginning to call Ground Zero for union workers. Even our governor, in a now infamous prank call, was recorded as saying his union busting bill is Ground Zero for the Republican mission to finish off all these despised union thugs. The Cheeseheads of Madison, every last one of us, have all become bit players in an Edward G. Robinson film or is that James Cagney?

I’ve heard that the protests are actually the result of violent left-leaning Vietnam War protesters who live in Madison and dominate its politics. Madison is famously liberal. I think those who make this claim have a point. Vietnam War Vets and Vietnam War protesters are part of the crowd. However, if we were to call those war protesters by another name here in Madison, that name is, “Grandpa.” By my estimate, the majority of protesters are far too young to remember the Vietnam War and one Vietnam Vet I know just happens to be a 3rd grade teacher.

For the sake of all public employees and private employees who risked life and limb at Ground Zero, I would like to bank down the hyperbole surrounding this event in history.  Let’s all agree that there is nothing else that compares to what happened in New York City on September 11th, 2001. Or if you must make a comparison between the Madison protests and Ground Zero , let’s go with this: police officers, rescue workers and fire fighters, public union members all, are showing once again how much we need them, and every time the fire fighters march at the square, I feel an emotion I don’t often feel: Pride in my state. Normally, I take my state and its occupants totally for granted.

Things I’ve enjoyed about the protest. I love the funny signs and the humor that surround the protests. One afternoon on the square, a small union group marched passed me in their union t-shirts, and man called out, “I’m with you, my brothers.” A woman in the group shouted back, “And sisters!” He looked rueful, but another marcher said it was hard to tell the women in his union apart from the men.

The signs are fun, “Walker is a weasel not a Badger,” declares one UW student’s sign. “Not Koch, Pepsi,” says another, mocking the Koch Brothers connection to this mess. “100 percent of teachers have more education than our governor,” Gov. Walker left Marquette University without a degree, so the teachers have a point. Another sign by a young man read, “My parents can’t afford to send me to college, but they say don’t worry, I can still be governor.” I love the wit.

Librarians are part of the protest, as are the SLIS students.  Most librarians don’t even belong to a union, and yet we are coming to the Capitol with our signs, and inside the Capitol is a lending table. Protest signs, flyers and pamphlets are the badges of our working class, we, the not so lazy rabble, the not so idle middle.

Social media is part of this protest.  Web sites have sprung up quickly, as have Face book pages, Twitter accounts, and blogs. Posting pictures about this event and videos is all part of the process. Misinformation and hysterical opinion pieces seed the Internet, but there is a lot of good information and debate going on as well.

The Law School hosted a “Forum on the Budget Repair Bill,” that was so highly attended they had to create an overflow room and stream the discussion. Several professors, experts in their chosen fields, spoke about aspects of the bill and its affect on this state. Andrew Coan, a constitutional law professor, told us that the bill was sound enough constitutionally. One of my favorite professors at the Law School, Carin Clauss, labor law specialist, spoke about collective bargaining in Wisconsin and the effect this bill could have on our workers. It will not be pretty, which partly explains the financial aspects of this protest, but certainly doesn’t explain the passion. A history professor, Will Jones, spoke about the history of unions and the history of strikes in this country. Collective bargaining put an end to that turmoil by creating a fair playing field for low wage earners, but we may be returning to those days.

As a side issue, there was a discussion about the amount of debt students take on at the university and the salary of professors. The faculty is affected by this bill, but faculty are not about to complain about having to pay more toward their benefits. This bill is about money and it is not about money for almost everyone. It certainly speaks to power, those who have it and those who do not, and it speaks to what is fair. Wisconsin workers, in general, would all be happy to kick in more if it balanced the budget. That’s the irony here, we love our state. The last thing we would want is to see it struggle financially.

I read that the Koch Brothers, our resident billionaire troublemakers (or is that policy makers?) told the media this is an issue of freedom and they won’t back down. Such an amusing thing to admit to: After your first billion, how much more freedom do you need?

Speaking of freedom, the forum discussed free speech, but there was not time to discuss a free press. The protest itself was described as historic. I think it is safe to say that the passions that are being expressed are global, and that as the concerns of ordinary workers everywhere are being expressed in the streets, the leaders in our midst must react and overreact and, in general, prove that governing is harder than it looks. Yet maybe, just maybe, leadership isn’t about who is on your side. Perhaps leadership works best when it can bring both sides to reasonable agreement.

In the Midwest bringing people together is not easy to do. We are a pigheaded lot and Governor Walker’s pigheadedness is on national display, so I don’t envy him or his family, although right now he appears to be proud of his behavior. He’s compared himself to his personal hero, Reagan, when Reagan fired the air traffic controllers. As if Reagan’s firing so many talented workers was an act of mythical heroics rather than just another fine example of how bad things can go when good citizens do not sit down at the bargaining table.

Societal stress is showing up all around Madison. Doctors gave out sick notes to some of the protesters, and immediately the media questioned if this was a violation of their medical ethics. Teachers in Madison called in sick by the hundreds and it closed the schools here, their ethics and even their dedication to children was questioned. Firefighters, exempt from the repeal of collective bargaining for state workers, show up every day to march in solidarity with their fellow union members, some play bagpipes. 14 Senators fled the state and almost all of Wisconsin’s senators are being recalled. By this time next year the governor will be under recall. You can count on it. So, what exactly is going on to cause all this chaos? They say it is a budget crisis, but we’ve had unbalanced budgets before in this state without going absolutely wacky. I doubt this is only about money.

On Monday, a general library meeting is being held to discuss how we will handle a strike, a looming possibility in this turmoil. Many library employees are members of a union. We who are not part of a union are being asked if we want to be scabs or unemployed librarians. We are being asked to make a choice between our devotion to our student population and our conscience. Those are tough choices.

The university itself may be partly privatized. You can just imagine the passionate debate about this decision that is being promoted by our administrative leadership. Toss in the fact that the governor has not yet released his state budget. In anticipation of the budget gap, pink slips have already been issued, just to add to the air of calm.

This will, of course, not end well. Our governor will never remove the stain on his character. Yes, there are those who passionately believe he is a Tea-party darling and have romanticized out of all proportion a man with an evident bald patch. I’m a librarian, middle aged, glasses, with a bit of a tummy pouch since I had kids, so I’m not throwing stones at his looks. I’m just saying Governor Walker is not the stuff to pin your dreams on and his leadership skills, now tested, have proven to be lacking. Pigheadedness is not leadership.

In turn, the unions are toast after this bill becomes law and they know it. The Democratic party is about to become the permanent minority party in this state, and I’m not really sure who is holding the purse strings, so I’m more than a little nervous about all this change. I think we all are, even the intellectuals among us who cheer these events as a “creedo,” moment in our history.

We are divided. Divided in our loyalties, divided against our neighbors: Lazy lefty thug union workers! Tea-party wing-nut crazies! We are unsure of our future and confused about what is the right thing to do to help our state recover from a recession that was not of our making, but brought down upon us by forces beyond our control. My guess is that if we all sat down and used our heads, we could work this out and come out of it a better state, but that’s not going to happen.

Where do I stand in all this? I stand with the teachers, the police officers, the firefighters, and all the state and union employees. I stand with the students and faculty who need my specialized skills as they continue to produce a quality education for everyone. I stand with our business community, because I am a talented business law librarian and I never feel more useful than when I help a business find the resources it needs to thrive, and in the end, I stand with my government, my legislative officials, and the executive branch of Wisconsin. Not that any of that matters in the slightest, darn it all.
Finally, I stand in the Capitol, eating free pizza donated from across the globe, carrying a sign my daughters’ made. “Save our Schools. Please Support Teachers.” SOS…SOS…SOS.

Disclaimer: This opinion does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the University of Wisconsin Law Library or Law School

posted by Genevieve Zook, Reference & Instructional Services Librarian

1 Response to “Madison in Protest: a law librarian’s perspective”


  1. 1 JOHN THOMSON March 7, 2011 at 4:33 pm

    Love it! Shared with our neighbors the other day and they loved it as well. Your next career!


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