Several hundred LGBT Wisconsinites and their allies marched with Fair Wisconsin Feb. 26 to show solidarity with union workers protesting Gov. Scott Walker’s effort to strip them of collective bargaining rights.
“Why would Fair Wisconsin wade into a labor fight? Because our government should never be in the business of taking away people’s rights,” Fair Wisconsin executive director Katie Belanger told the cheering crowd gathered for a pre-march rally at Madison’s Library Mall.
Out U.S. Rep. Tammy Baldwin, D-Madison, also addressed the rally. “I have never been so proud to be a Wisconsinite and to represent you in the U.S. Congress as I am now,” she said. Baldwin compared the historic protests in Madison over the past several weeks to the state’s leadership role in gaining voting rights for women.
Baldwin and Belanger warmed up shivering listeners with chants of “Show us what democracy looks like, this is what democracy looks like,” before leading them down State Street toward the Capitol waving pro-labor signs.
“Stripping away (gay) people’s rights, union busting, what’s next – gas chambers?” asked Patty Thompson of Madison, who marched with Fair Wisconsin. “If we let this happen, who knows where it would stop?”
A state worker, Thompson said she’s already taken off 14 furlough days without pay to help alleviate the strain on the state budget. She said it’s wrong for Walker to take away collective bargaining rights after state workers already agreed to all the concessions he demanded from them.
Support for the protesters, including LGBT support, seems to have increased as the battle has raged on.. Despite 14-degree temperatures and light snow, the Feb. 26 demonstration attracted the largest crowd since the protests began more than three weeks ago, with various sources estimating between 70,000 and 100,000 participants. Not since the anti-war protests of the Vietnam era has Madison seen such large and sustained demonstrations.
Supported by progressives in all 50 states who have organized local demonstrations, Wisconsin protesters show no sign of giving up. On March 5, documentary filmmaker Michael Moore went to Madison to urge them on, saying, “Madison is only the beginning.”
Moore implored thousands of listeners to keep up the struggle, comparing their fight to the revolt in Egypt. He also thanked the 14 state Democratic senators who fled the state to block a vote on Walker’s bill, saying history will remember them fondly.
Moore said the wealthy have overreached, first taking the working class’ money and then taking their souls by shutting them up at the bargaining table.
The governor’s controversial budget bill, which besides banning state workers from collective bargaining also drastically cuts funding for health and education while offering tax cuts to the wealthy, has dominated news reports, public dialogue and the blogosphere.
At a Feb. 24 performance by Lucinda Williams at Milwaukee’s Turner Ballroom, the singer/songwriter told the audience how proud she is of the people of Wisconsin. “The entire crowd spontaneously began cheering and chanting, ‘Kill the bill!’” WiG reader Tami Green wrote on Facebook. “Suddenly it was their auditorium and their show – and she just stood back and smiled. It was an extraordinary thing to witness.”
Public opinion polls indicate the governor is losing the public debate. Walker, who was elected in November 2010 with 52 percent of the vote, has seen his approval rating slide into the low- to mid-40s. A tavern in Madison reportedly asked him to leave a few weeks ago after customers started booing him.
Of course, there have been strong emotions on the other side of the issue as well. Media reports have documented how the unrelenting debate has divided neighbors, co-workers and even families.
The LGBT community, however, appears to be firmly in the anti-Walker camp. Although there have been no surveys, activity on Facebook and other social networking sites show overwhelming support for workers’ rights among open gays and lesbians. Fair Wisconsin and Equality Wisconsin have publicly backed the protests, as have the national organizations Pride at Work and GetEqual.
Like Baldwin, gay state Rep. Mark Pocan and gay state Sen. Tim Carpenter have been out front in criticizing Walker. Pocan has delivered some of the most withering and frequently quoted attacks on the governor.
“Clearly Gov. Walker will go down in history as far more extreme than any prior Wisconsin Governor,” Pocan said in one of many recent press releases on the subject. “Walker’s quest for national attention comes at the sake of his constituents, the people of Wisconsin. … Walker lied to the voters last fall, and now we all have to pay the price.”
In supporting the protesters, the LGBT community ironically finds itself in the same column as the Roman Catholic Church.
“These are not just political conflicts or economic choices; they are moral choices with enormous human dimensions,” Bishop Stephen E. Blair, chairman of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Committee on Domestic Justice and Human Development, said in a public letter. “The debates over worker representation and collective bargaining are not simply matters of ideology or power, but involve principles of justice, participation and how workers can have a voice in the workplace and economy.”
Even right-wing Milwaukee Archbishop Jerome L. Listecki has weighed in on the unions’ side, although tepidly.
“Hard times do not nullify the moral obligation each of us has to respect the legitimate rights of workers,” Listecki said.