PSEA staffers answer Wisconsin’s call
Published June 2011 Voice
Getting a sudden request to head to the frozen landscape of Wisconsin in February to deal with a crisis situation isn’t exactly most people’s idea of a winter vacation.
And make no mistake, this was no vacation. Even colder than Green Bay in mid-winter was the harsh desperation of the Wisconsin Education Association Council. The collective bargaining rights of teachers and other public employees in the Badger State were under attack by a new anti-union governor and state assembly.
Five PSEA staffers—John McKiernan, Terry Burnett, Cori Fecho, Mark Lynn, and Jeff Grinaway—voluntarily headed to Wisconsin to help. In addition to descending on the Capitol in Madison to assist with and take part in huge rallies, they crisscrossed the state, including a stop at a place called Winnebagoland Uniserve.
Public employees had offered steep concessions to help Gov. Scott Walker address a budget crisis: a 5.8 percent contribution rate to the state’s retirement system, and 12 percent in health care contributions. All told, the concessions amounted to an 8 percent salary cut or $3,000 per person.
Despite that, Walker demanded what amounted to the end of collective bargaining for public employees. They, like their counterparts in Pennsylvania and a number of other states, are being demonized and attacked with misinformation over budget problems resulting from an economic downturn caused not by their public service, but by Wall Street greed.
“It was chaos when we arrived,’’ Grinaway said.
Burnett was sent to Green Bay, and he joked: “It was somewhat cruel to send a person from Pittsburgh to Green Bay right after the Super Bowl.’’ What he found, however, was no laughing matter.
“Things were moving at a rapid pace,’’ Burnett said. “I was handed a list of members to call at 11:00 to get to a rally at 4:00.’’
Burnett said local offices under the Wisconsin EA have a lot of autonomy, and as a result coordinating the message from the state EA required extra attention to detail.
But the Wisconsin EA, other public employee unions in the state, and many other union brothers and sisters from Wisconsin and across the country quickly got things together. Building meetings, multiple rallies across the state, member emailing, and phone banks were quickly set up.
So, too, were protests organized at Wisconsin businesses and companies that had contributed large sums of money to Walker’s campaign. In addition, public employees in towns throughout the state hammered home that “money we earn in this community, we spend in this community.’’
One of the most effective public messages, however, was something that Grinaway says PSEA members should heed.
“We told reporters it wasn’t about the money, it was about collective bargaining and what that means to workers,’’ Grinaway said.
Eliminating collective bargaining means public school employees lose such things as seniority, extra duty pay, prep time, sick days, duty-free lunches, continuing education assistance, and safe working conditions.
“What do you have left when you lose collective bargaining?’’ Grinaway asks. His emphatic answer: “NOTHING!’’