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Letelier-Moffitt Domestic Award: Wisconsin Progressive Movement

October 14, 2011 ·

Remarks by John Matthews, executive director of Madison Teacher Inc., representing the Wisconsin Progressive Movement at the National Press Club on October 12, 2011.

It is indeed thrilling for us to be here with you tonight. The Institute for Policy Studies has a long and highly valued reputation of promoting and protecting human and civil rights.   For MTI to  be recognized by your organization is an honor for our Union; and to have been selected, among many equally qualified to receive the Letelier-Moffit Award, on behalf of the Wisconsin Progressive Movement, adds a hundred-fold to the honor.  The list of recipients of past Awards is not only most impressive, but causes us to be humbled.

While our fight is often looked upon as occurring over two bitter-cold months last winter, such is not the case. Our fight continues.  We cannot and will not let up, until both individual worker rights and Union rights of representation, both stolen by a puppet governor at the behest of the right-wing American Legislative Exchange Council, have been restored.  Wisconsin has long been a progressive state, the origin of which began with Governor Fighting Bob LaFollette, early last century.

It is funding by the Koch brothers, Amway, Walmart, and the like, which has, in recent years, stolen our elections, including that of Governor, the U.S. Senate, both houses of the Legislature, and even the Supreme Court.  I’m glad to say that the Wisconsin Progressive Movement is on its way back, having won two State Senate seats in solid Republican areas in this fall’s recall elections, and preserving three Democratic seats, which were also challenged by recalls. We must now remove Governor Walker.

Our protests changed the electoral landscape.  Totaling the votes in the 9 recall districts, and comparing it to the votes the Governor received last fall in the same Districts, his vote count would fall by 65,000, more than half of what provided his victory only 10 months prior.  And, we came within one-tenth of a percent of winning a Supreme Court seat, and that with a candidate who likely would have lost by 30% without the surge in the Progressive Movement.

Ironically the Governor and his cronies across the country got elected by hoodwinking the middle class and inducing them to vote against their own interests.  Their campaign was a slick one – effectively pitting the private sector workers against public sector workers, by painting public sector workers as the “haves” and private sector workers as the “have nots,” when it was the corporations which stripped private sector workers of their benefits and broke their unions.

MTI is a member driven organization.  Organizing which usually takes weeks, if not months, was accomplished by MTI leadership in a matter of two days in mid-February.  On a Monday, when I was advising the MTI Board of the Governor’s anti-worker, anti-union agenda, the response was immediate, “we need to call our school representatives”.  They promptly divided the names and began calling Representatives to a meeting the following day.  At that meeting, the over flow crowd of representatives sprung to action and began calling Members advising, “The Governor is taking our rights - be at the Capitol in the morning! Madison’s schools were closed the next four days while MTI members engaged in political action.  Unions of Madison’s Firefighters, Police Officers, Deputy Sheriffs, State County and Municipal Employees, and University Teaching Assistants joined the demonstrations.  Soon it was thousands, then tens of thousands and finally 135,000.  Public and private sector unionists were joined by progressives from across the country.  The Capitol was occupied 24/7 for 3 weeks.  Support also came from freedom loving people in more than 50 countries around the globe.

In fear of the mounting demonstration, the right-wing legislative majority created a bogus committee to act on the Governor’s proposed legislation.  His minions in the State Assembly acted immediately, and without following legislative rules.  To put the brakes on, all 14 Democratic members of the Senate left the state, and without them the Senate Republicans lacked the necessary quorum to act.  The Democratic Senators stayed in Illinois for 40 days.  This caused a delay in moving the right-wing agenda.   It also gave the progressive movement time to become better organized, engage in legal action to attempt halt the legislation or at least amend it.  Because of the heavy handed politics it was not possible to defuse it.  Unfortunately, it passed and when the Secretary of State refused to publish it, the last step to make it official, it was finalized by a publication method not enabled by legislative rules or Statute.

Former President Eisenhower said “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog”.  When it comes to the rights of people, we cannot be deterred by those who want to further improve their lot at our expense.  We must fight on.  Those like Governor Walker may prevail in the short term, but the people will not stand idly by while he moves to steal their rights, quash our freedom of assembly and freedom of speech.  It is well known that the existence of a middle class is the result of effective unions, and society depends on unions for the middle class to continue.

Unions enable workers to speak collectively as regards a fair wage for their labor, to assure that work is under safe conditions, and to assure that workers enjoy dignity.  Why are those on the far right not respectful of those who work for a living and wish to benefit from collectivism.  Recognizing this, U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice Hughes observed, “Long ago we stated the reason for labor organizations.  We said that they were organized out of the necessities of the situation: that a single employee was helpless in dealing with an employer;… that union was essential to give laborers opportunity to deal on equality with their employer.”  Remember it was the Union that brought the weekend, the 40 hour work week, the eight hour day, sick leave, worker safety, and the ability to live the American dream.

One of the interesting things that is now surfacing is that the Right wing failed to take into consideration the negative impact on the local economy of wage reduction caused by workers having to pay more into retirement plans and more for health insurance.  Because of his legislation, Governor Walker has reduced by one billion dollars per year Wisconsin public sector workers’ disposable income.    Wages were reduced by approximately 15%, because of the legislated mandatory payments in retirement deposits and health insurance.  That has had a huge negative impact on local businesses, and they are reacting – public workers have less to spend on food, clothing, and the essentials – restaurants are hurting, as many have cut back on eating out.  There is such distaste for the Governor that he  has been asked by proprietors to leave their establishments.

For those of us who have spent our careers, championing  human and civil rights, and working to expand them, experiencing the planned and willful trammeling of these rights is gut wrenching.  Thus, being invited to receive the Letelier-Moffit Award on behalf of the Wisconsin Progressive Movement is indeed rewarding.  In closing, let me thank you again, on behalf of Madison Teachers and the University of Wisconsin Teaching Assistants Association.  We must stand firm against those whose aim is to take away our rights and destroy our unions; the vehicle which provides power and equity to working people.  It was the shipyard workers in Gdansk whose action caused the first crack in the Iron Curtin. 

Together – we shall overcome!