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Monday February 28th, 2011

It’s not always easy to cut through the deluge of information to figure out what’s going on behind the news, and what the real stories are of the people we see. Fortunately, while Wisconsin erupts, we have photographers on the ground ready to help us understand the situation.

John Sibilski is based in Milwaukee, but made the trip to Madison on February 19 to capture the story:

I decided to take my camera, and head over to the capital to see the “riots” that congressmen Paul Ryan spoke of… The opponents of the bill were there in huge numbers—I guess around 35,000, many had been protesting for days. The Tea Party held a rally at noon, most of the estimated 1,000 or 2,000 left the capital before 3pm.

You can see John’s images illustrating this post.

Madison-based photographer David Nevala decided that he wanted to focus on the stories behind the protests, and he co-produced a video with with Finn Ryan that explains how these politics affect everyday lives in Wisconsin.

The American historian Eric Foner gives a basic background for the stories told in the video:

As many commentators have pointed out, Governor Scott Walker’s plan to eliminate most collective bargaining rights for public employees’ unions has nothing to do with Wisconsin’s fiscal problems (which are far less serious than those of many other American states). Instead, it represents the culmination of a long right-wing effort to eliminate the power of unions altogether.

What is under attack, according to Foner, is the legacy of a “majority political coalition” built during the Great Depression that included “labour unions, white ethnic minorities (Irish, Italians, Jews), African-Americans in the North, liberal intellectuals, Southern whites and, after the passage of the Social Security Act in 1935, the elderly.” One of the “key achievements” of this coalition “was the Wagner Act of 1935, which gave most workers the legal right to form trade unions.” However, the Wagner Act “did not apply to people employed by state and local governments. Their rights are a matter of state law, and Wisconsin in 1959 was the first to give public employees the right to collective bargaining.”

Dan Kaufman, writing in the cheekily-named “Notes on the Cheddar Revolution” also emphasizes Wisconsin’s history of upheaval, ranging from the firebrand turn-of-the-century politician Robert LaFollette to the well-known movements of the sixties. But he also notes some interesting changes: “in many respects these protests are very different than those of the sixties. For one thing, the police appear to be quietly supportive of the protesters.” Even though police and firefighter’s unions were excluded from the bill, “Walker’s efforts to divide the unions appear to have backfired. Firefighters marched through the capitol last week, playing bagpipes in a dramatic show of solidarity.” You’ve already seen this in David’s video above (and see here for another amazing example of police solidarity, via Doug McGoldrick).

A great historian of American popular culture, Paul Buhle, reported from the crowd (another report here) on some of his favorite homemade signs. One read, “I WENT TO IRAQ AND CAME HOME TO EGYPT.”


2 Responses to “Wisconsin”

  1. Ben Weeks says:

    Unions are such a complex issue. Workers need to be treated fairly, but in a competitive global economy sometimes unions become so powerful they reduce their host companies ability to compete effectively. Management should be able to steward their brand and foster innovation though so their customers value their products for more than price point.

  2. Jon DeVaul says:

    As a commercial photographer I don’t belong to a union and I really wouldn’t want to be, but I see many times when clients try to take advantage of us, but I have the option to walk away from a bad deal if they’re not willing to negotiate. Before I became a photographer I was a manual laborer for a small local government…and thank God I belonged to a union! Without the union, I’m convinced workers would be abused and taken advantage of…I saw it all the time until the union stepped in. So many companies have their products made now in third world countries…ask yourself, would you want to work for what those people are getting paid?

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