Bus tour with teacherken: Ground zero for worker rights, aka Madison


Ken Bernstein is a recently retired National Board Certified Social Studies Teacher who was a 2010 Washington Post Agnes Meyer Outstanding Teacher. Nationally known for his blogging as teacherken at Daily Kos and elsewhere, he served until his retirement as the lead building representative (NEA) at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt MD.

I do not mean to offend in using the term Ground Zero, which since 9/11/2001 has assumed a particular meaning. Yet if one considers what happened in Wisconsin when people occupied the Capitol and began the pushback against the Greed Agenda put forth by the likes of the Koch Brothers, clearly the label is appropriate.

This was also a personal moment for me, which I will explain anon.

The site for our event was appropriate: the Madison Area Labor Temple:


While our rally was in the parking lot behind, I decided to go into the building. I’m glad I did, because just inside the front entrance are some magnificent fresco work. Here are two photographs to convince you that if in Madison it is worth a visit:



If you continue through the building, you will see that it is a facility shared by multiple unions:




We were in the parking lot behind the Labor Temple, so we had lots of labor people who wanted to participate:


After introductions by Mariah Hatta of Patriot Majority, our first speaker was former Dane County Executive and Gubernatorial candidate Kathleen Falk:

The other woman in the picture was our final speaker, Kristen Crowell, Executive Director of We are Wisconsin.

Ms. Falk told those assembled that the 99% of us should write the rules, that when the 1% do it turns the nation into an oligarchy, which becomes a “de facto ruling party” that is unelected by anybody and therefore unaccountable. We should be governed by people elected by 100% not anointed by 1%. She was the first of several people to bring up the taped phone call where Scott Walker thought he was talking to David Koch and was candid about his beliefs in a way he had not been with the voters of Wisconsin.

Our next speaker was Scott Ross, Executive Director of One Wisconsin Now


Ross argued that the Koch Brothers represent “a clear and present danger” to the people of Wisconsin, and “a credible threat to democracy.” He said that their Wall Street Agenda as attempting to undermine our most basic right, the right to vote. He talked extensively about a meeting in Marshfield WI in which he said there was a conspiratorial plan to deny the people the right to vote. Reince Preibus, now chairman of the Republican National Committee and then chair of the Wisconsin Republican Party, was one of those at that meeting.

One outcome of the meeting was the appearance in black neighborhoods of scary-looking billboards in the 2010 cycle warning that voter fraud was a felony with severe penalties, exactly like the billboard this cycle in a black neighborhood in Cleveland. In both cases the billboards were labeled “paid for by a private family foundation” so that those advancing the Greed Agenda could hide their involvement. Ross was quite clear on one point – the Koch Brothers are well aware that if the 99% of us go out and vote they will not get their agenda through.

Our next speaker was popular local radio personality Sly Sylvester, whose show on local station WTDY Sly in the Morning proudly claims is is Standing with Wisconsin Workers. He riffed on the pronounciation of Koch, which sounds like an addictive illegal drug, coke, for example,

Too many people are addicted to “Koch.”

He described how companies are being able to build in environmentally sensitive areas because of their political participation and connection with those seeking to implement the Greed Agenda. He told us that the only opposition has been unions, which is one reason the Koch Brothers and their fellow supporters of the Greed Agenda want to destroy the unions, because workers rights were in the way. He said that

we have politicians so addicted to their Koch that they go to conventions to thank their Koch addiction.

According to Sylvester, the Koch Brothers want to turn the US and Wisconsin into another gilded age, which is why

We are fighting for the very existence of the Middle Class.

The Koch Brothers are to him the real radicals and Un-American in what they want to impose through their Greed Agenda and how they are going about it.

Our penultimate speaker was Marty Beil, Director of the Wisconsin State Employees Union (AFSCME):


He pointed out that the average worker in a unionized state made 3.2% more than the worker in a right to work state. This comes out to about $1,500/year, which while it might be chump change to the likes of the Koch Brothers, can make a real difference for ordinary working families. He reminded the audience that through Americans for Prosperity, the Koch Brothers oppose cutting tax subsidies for shipping jobs overseas.

Kristen Cowell, Executive Director of We Are Wisconsin, was our final speaker. She began by saying

I am not a corporation. I am the proud mother of four children and they are not corporations.

She pointed out that what is happening is not just an attack on Wisconsin families, it is an attack on American families. We have in the last decade seen 400 families quadruple their wealth while the rest of us worry about putting food on the table, buying clothes for our children, and on a chilly morning in Wisconsin (it was in the low 30s that morning) how they are going to pay to heat their homes. She made a comparison to the film “A Bug’s Life” in which the average workers were the ants and the Koch Brothers were the greedy grasshoppers and told us “The Koch Brothers are stealing the fruits of our hard labor to line their pockets.”

I called Madison “Ground Zero” and I said that this particular stop was personal for me. That is because of this woman: IMG_1055

Here she is between Kristen Cowell and Kathleen Falk:

Her name is Marguerite, and she is the youngest sister of my wife. Of greater relevance, she is a doctoral student at the University of Wisconsin, and thus one of those who helped begin the pushback against the Greed Agenda when it was grad students from Wisconsin that began the occupation of the Capitol in Madison.

Remember, that was in February 2011 that the protests in Madison began, starting with teaching assistants from the University sending cards to the Governor to protest Assembly Bill 11, called by its proponents the “Budget Repair Bill” but by its opponents a “Collective Bargaining, or Union Busting Bill.” The cards went out on Valentine’s Day, and by the following day there were 30,000 protestors outside the Capitol, and by February 20 the Capitol itself was occupied. Occupy Wall Street, which is also a pushback against the Greed Agenda, did not begin until September 17, 2011.

The protests in Madison led to many things, starting with truly making many Americans realize how radical the Greed Agenda is. In a state with a proud history of unionized labor it was a transparent attempt to bust public employee unions, and there was no doubt in the minds of many that the Governor if successful would move towards turning the state into a Right to Work state to take away the rights of workers that had been won and protected by unions.

We saw state senators flee the state to deny a quorum to enact the bill.

We saw an outpouring of support not only from those in this country, but from around the world. You may remember things like Ed Schultz broadcasting from the early protests, President Rich Trumpka of the AFL-CIO joining local labor leaders to warn that what Governor Walker was doing was part of a broader Republican agenda. Protests spread to Columbus Ohio against the similar Senate Bill 5. Some protestors carried Egyptian flags because they saw a commonality with the Arab Spring uprising in Tahrir Square.

When the Capitol was occupied, a local pizza parlor became internationally known when people called in to buy food for the protestors.

We know that the bill ultimately was passed.

We know that the recall movement in its first efforts failed to recall enough State Senators to flip control of the Senate back to the Democrats, and the later effort to recall the Governor and Lt. Governor fell short. But even in those unsuccessful attempts the seeds of something larger were planted. In Ohio voters were able to repeal Senate Bill 5. In Michigan there are Proposals on the ballot to repeal their legislation and also to protect collective bargaining by an amendment to the state constitution.

Meanwhile around the country there have been organized efforts to push back against the attempts to disenfranchise voters by imposing voter ID laws and changing procedures for early voting. As the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of law has noted, so far all voter disenfrachisement efforts that have been challenged in court have been blocked for this election, although not all cases have yet been fully resolved (for example, the Ohio Secretary of State is now appealing to the US Supreme Court).

Wisconsin has a proud tradition of collective bargaining, for all workers, including public employees.

We owe a real debt to those who began the protests in Madison in February 2011. They sparked something that has spread across the nation.

It was meet and right and proper that the Stop the Greed Agenda Bus Tour came to Madison. We are continuing to spread the message that the Koch Brothers, despite all their money, can be successfully opposed. America began to learn that lesson at Ground Zero of this struggle, Madison, Wisconsin.

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