Rally for the Wisconsin Workers
By Reginald Johnson
February 28, 2011
HARTFORD ---- More than 400 union members, retired state employees, activists and concerned citizens converged on the State Capitol Saturday to raise their voices on behalf of state workers in Wisconsin, whose bargaining rights, pensions and benefits are under attack by the state’s Republican’s governor, Scott Walker.
Normally it would be difficult to get a sizeable crowd of people out on a day with biting cold weather to rally in support of union workers locked in a struggle 1500 miles away.
But the Wisconsin battle is not your typical labor fight. The struggle in Madison has come to symbolize a wider attack by the right-wing and big corporations to tear down all unions and reduce the rights of American workers in general.
That attack, if successful, will further erode the power of the middle class and people’s ability to earn a decent living, those at the rally said.
“What we’re seeing in Wisconsin is the ultimate manifestation of corporate capitalism,” Edward Vargas, former president of the Hartford Federation of Teachers, told the crowd. “Corporate capitalism is trying not just to destroy the unions, but the very fabric of democracy. I have friends who are retired in Florida. Everytime I visit, I see the future of America. There are no 40-hour jobs anymore down there. You gotta work 20 hours for this guy, and then 20 hours for that guy, just to get by. And no benefits.”
Vargas thundered, “Is that the future we want for our children?”
“No!” the crowd roared back.
“Then we have to stand up and fight for Wisconsin,” he said, finishing his speech by shouting “Somos Uno!” (‘We are One’ in Spanish)
Speaker after speaker denounced the effort in Wisconsin as well as other states to weaken unions and demanded that the rich and big business pay their fair share in taxes and stop making workers shoulder the burden of funding government budgets. Speeches were often interrupted by chants like “Make the rich pay!” “Make the rich pay!” and “Fair Share! Fair Share!”
The Connecticut rally was one of dozens around the country on Saturday organized by Moveon.org and affiliated groups aimed at showing solidarity with the Wisconsin workers. State employee unions have been warring with Governor Walker for over two weeks over his demand that they not only agree to pay more for pensions and health benefits, but that they give up their power to negotiate collectively for contracts. Walker has maintained that the changes are needed to bring the state’s deficit under control.
The unions have agreed to kick in more for pensions and health care. But they have refused to accept the demand to give up collective bargaining, seeing that as an existential issue. Thousands of workers have been sitting in at the Wisconsin state capital in protest.
Union supporters claim that the battle is not really over the deficit, otherwise Walker would accept the union concessions, settle the budget issue and go home. But they say the governor’s aim is more than that --- break the unions.
Republican governors in other states, such as Ohio and Indiana, are trying similar hardball tactics in dealing with public employees. And they sound a similar refrain: bring union costs under control, because they’re breaking the bank. No mention is ever made of tax cuts for the wealthy and big business as being a factor in the deficits.
Connecticut’s Gov. Dannel Malloy --- though elected with strong union support --- has also talked of “sacrifices” to erase a state budget gap. He says he needs $2 billion worth of concessions from unions, although no specifics have been laid out yet.
No one at the rally criticized Malloy, but the perceived double standard about who is being made to suffer through difficult economic times, was clearly on the minds of many.
David Burke, a member of the theatrical workers union, said that the middle class is being made to sacrifice a lot in today’s economy --- whether through contract concessions or in paying higher prices for goods and services ---- while big corporations raise prices without restraint and enjoy high profits.
“I demand to know why it’s easier to have us pay more for health insurance than it is for the legislature to regulate health insurance costs?” he said.
Some of the nation’s biggest insurance companies, like Aetna, are based in Hartford. Their rates in Connecticut are supposed to be controlled by the state.
“Aetna made $1.7 billion in profit in 2010. That was up from $1.5 billion in 2009. Where the hell is Aetna’s sacrifice?” Burke shouted.
Burke a moment later said “We will not bow to these corporate-sponsored political hacks. We will never let our rights be taken away easily. Let’s stop these bastards now!”
Union activist Deborah Ellerman also commented on the point that Republican policies, such as the Bush tax cuts, have created large deficits which working people are supposed to pay for. But at the same time, she noted, the many people in wealthy Connecticut who earn over $400,000 a year “will enjoy a 3.7 percent tax cut.”
Bob Kingsley, director of organizing for the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers (UE), said his union is fully behind the Wisconsin workers.
“The barons of big business have wrecked the economy and now they’re trying to blame us for it,” he said. “The folks who teach our kids and clean our streets are not to blame for the current crisis.”
He noted that the average public worker pension in the U.S. is only $20,000 a year.
Kingsley urged people to keep the battle going, either by sending financial support to the Wisconsin unions, getting their towns or cities to pass resolutions expressing support for the workers or “get on a bus and go to Wisconsin.”
The UE official said the union’s northeast council had just agreed to back the idea supported by some unions in Wisconsin for a nationwide general strike.
As the rally wound down, a chant erupted of “Obama show some guts! Obama show some guts!” There’s been disappointment on the part of progressives with President Obama, since he’s only spoken once on the Wisconsin battle, saying two weeks ago Governor Walker shouldn’t bust the unions.
Felipe Flores attended the rally with his wife, Suzanne. He is a retired community college teacher, while she is a retired high school teacher.
“What’s happening in Wisconsin is important. If they can take away union rights there, it will spread everywhere,” he said.
Despite the size of the rally, mainstream media coverage of the Hartford demonstration was poor. Channel 3 did cover the rally and ran a short report. But other TV channels like WTNH, sent no reporters. The Hartford Courant, supposedly the state's paper of record, didn't cover the rally in its backyard. The Courant did run an AP piece about the nationwide rallies, but failed to mention the Connecticut protest. The Courant ran a front-page story Sunday on what it means for Connecticut to be "business-friendly."