Education Opinion

Weekend Warriors

By Nancy Flanagan — February 19, 2011 2 min read
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Never poke a badger in the eye. ~ Rachel Maddow

I admit that I’m a sixties kind of person. I find what’s happening in Wisconsin stirring my deepest beliefs about open democracy and well-justified civil disobedience--and part of it is just the sheer exuberance of being aligned with a movement to stand up for principles that made America great: freedom of expression, and the soul of the middle class.

More than once, over the past week, I have literally been in tears, watching Wisconsin’s firefighters pushing strollers and led by bagpipers, and seeing high schools students finally moved to care about something besides whether the vending machines offer Twinkies or a prohibition against cell phones in class. More than once, I have thought about what happened when the National Guard showed up on the campus of Kent State.

I keep reminding myself that a lot of the Tea Partiers I saw sitting in their lawn chairs at the Brighton (MI) Mill Pond last summer probably thought they were demonstrating in support of glorious democracy, too--and it certainly must have been a huge effort for them, getting on and off their buses and settling down to hear Joe the Plumber (who got $10,000 a pop for speaking) once again.

What makes this uprising different? For one thing, it’s not pre-packaged and funded by billionaires. And it’s not a struggle over divvying up the public money pie. Wisconsin educators know they’re going to have to make concessions. It’s much bigger than that, says Linda Kaboolian, in the NY Times Opinion Pages:

The playbook has been written: block the appointment of Elizabeth Warren who argued for consumer protection against credit card and mortgage predators. Gin up fear about the federal deficit to defund student loans, home heating oil assistance, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the National Labor Relations Board, federally guaranteed home mortgages. Change layoff rules so better paid workers go first, revoke public sector collective bargaining.

Governor Walker isn't interested in saving money - if he was, he'd sit down with the unions and work out a deal. He's interested in crippling the unions that didn't support him last fall - while protecting the unions that did.
Governor Walker is betting that private sector employees who have seen their wages decline and who rarely enjoy the benefits of union contracts will rise up in disgust against their public sector neighbors. He's betting the images of rallies will disturb those who love order and work stoppages will outrage citizens. What he risks is that other citizens will make common cause with these middle class workers, be inspired by them and join in.

Robert Creamer thinks the demonstration in Madison may have crossed the line from an organized protest--a dramatic event--into a genuine movement.

For many years, Wall Street and its allies on the right have tried to portray labor as just another "special interest." The movement that has followed Walker's outrageous action has redefined the right to collective bargaining for what is -- as a moral question, a question of human rights. It has transformed the frame through which ordinary people view the labor movement. Instead of "big labor" focused only on wages and working conditions, it has once again become a "movement" for social and economic justice -- a movement that inspires our belief that we can take the future into our own hands -- that a truly democratic society is in fact a possibility.

I’m not sure Creamer is right--yet. But I’m hopeful. And by a 2-to-1 margin, the citizens of Wisconsin believe that Walker’s proposal is clearly wrong or “goes too far.”

While the general public has heard plenty of negative talk about greedy, lazy unions, not too many parents really want to see little Tyler’s kindly and hard-working veteran teacher booted because she wants to negotiate a fair wage and benefit package. Walker has gambled on a shaky hand, holding police and firefighters sacrosanct but betting the public will agree that teachers “deserve” to lose their democratic rights.

What will come of this? Eventually, Wisconsin teachers will go back to school, of course. And unions in other states--including mine--will be prepared for similar gubernatorial power plays. But maybe--just maybe--there may a breakthrough around the restoration of a common mission. On the face of it, all governors and all public schools teachers should (note the subjunctive) have the same goal: improving the educational prospects of students who attend state-funded schools. Rhetorically, they do. In practice, not so much. Says John Thompson:

The beauty of our constitutional democracy is our culture of the "loyal opposition," where we see our opponent as an opponent and not as an enemy.

Here’s to the concept of the loyal opposition, which has extricated many a politician from a bad situation. And here’s to the teachers of Wisconsin for modeling peaceful protest.

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.