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Lily Eskelsen's picture
Photo by Emily Mills

Fifty years ago saying you were a “poor teacher” was redundant. Teachers were mostly women who wanted to teach, not to get rich, but because they loved kids.

However, 50 years ago, teachers and education support staff such as school secretaries and lunch ladies were expected to be polite and obedient and accept what they were given. They had no power to come together and bargain a better salary with administrators, who were, coincidently, mostly men. They were constantly exploited and underpaid.

Wisconsin, 50 years ago, became the first state in the country to do something about that.

They gave public employees, like teachers, the right to come together and negotiate for something better. When you negotiate, you have to work within a budget; you don’t get everything you want, but it stopped the exploitation of individuals. It meant that teachers and school support staff could move into the middle class and be treated with respect. Wisconsin should be proud of that.

And Wisconsin should be ashamed of a governor who threatens to reverse that proud history.

Governor Scott Walker says it’s all about the budget. But that doesn’t make sense. The teachers and support staff and their unions have already agreed to sit down and work together for what schools need, acknowledging that it will have to fit within an austere budget. They’re not at impasse. No unreasonable demands have been made.

This is about politics and payback. This is about punishing people who didn’t support his election, and it’s shameful.

Teachers today are still mostly women. They are still modestly paid. They still become teachers because they love kids. But because they have had a voice in education issues, they have become a powerful force in making Wisconsin public schools some of the best in the country.

What possible good can come from silencing that voice?

And all of us, whether in a union or not, should care about what’s happening here. In fact, maybe it’s more important for those who don’t have a union. The ability of modestly paid people to collectively bargain something better has helped build the great middle class of our great country, even among non-union members.

Because of the collective action of unions over the past 50 years, all of us enjoy a 40 hour work week, overtime, a weekend! We have a minimum wage. We have health and safety protections in our work places and protections against discrimination because of our age, our gender, our religion or our race. Who will provide the balance – the check - to the power of politicians if our unions are silenced?

Many with corporate and political power supported Governor Walker. Many of these powerful supporters don’t like unions. They don’t like the check and balance unions provide for the middle class on their power.

They believe they have found a pretext to destroy it by gutting unions that have been the most powerful voice standing up for the middle class. Laugh when these politicians tell you it’s about the budget. Wisconsin has balanced tight budgets before without destroying the rights of ordinary people to come together. This is a partisan attack. This is about punishing certain unions for having the temerity to speak truth to power.

In Wisconsin, the good people who work for public schools will never give up their responsibility to challenge the powerful when they are wrong. We will never give up our responsibility to fight for a better life for our children and our communities’ children.

We may seem an easy target to powerful politicians. We are mostly women. We work with children. We are not wealthy. But we have a treasure worth fighting for. We have each other. We will never give up our collective voice to speak the truth.

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