Wisconsin: the role of students in the struggle

Into the second week of
protests, Wisconsin educators and students have taken to the streets to stop
Gov. Scott Walker’s criminal budget proposal. The proposal would gut public
workers’ collective-bargaining rights and cut the compensation of teachers,
nurses and other public workers by increasing what they pay for their health
and pension plans. It further would cut education funding by about $900
million. The right-wing legislators want to force teachers and other public
workers to accept inferior health care packages and pay more out of their
pockets in premiums.

The proposed cuts have
spurred massive protests of teachers, students, union members and supporters
numbering in the tens of thousands. The struggle, however, has not been limited
to teachers and state workers in Wisconsin – public- and private-sector workers
and students from around the country have come to Madison to show their

These protests have
brought increased national attention to the importance of unions and the labor
movement. According to recent USA Today/Gallup poll, over 60 percent of people
in the United States are against measures that limit collective bargaining for

In the case of Wisconsin
teachers, the attempts to pit working parents against teachers have failed.
Students and their families have come out by the thousands in support of their
teachers. In the days immediately following the first “Kill the Bill” protests
in Madison, Wis., thousands of students all over the state walked out of school
in support of their teachers.

Teachers called in sick
by the thousands, forcing the Madison and Racine school districts to close
schools for four days. They organized buses of teachers and students to travel
to Madison, where the main protests were being held at the Capitol Building.
Teachers, students and parents signed up by the thousands to testify against
the bill, forcing the legislators to take testimony throughout the night.

At the heart of the
matter are teachers who are standing up not only for their rights as workers,
but also for the rights of their students to receive much-needed services.  Greg Brumfield, an educator who works with
students with disabilities, explained: “We are really being devastated by the
proposed budget cuts. … A lot of teachers are losing money, but a lot of people
with disabilities would lose services as well. … It’s not only about the
teachers.  It’s about disenfranchising
people. … My clients are not getting the care they need.”

Watch an interview with Greg Brumfield.

The teachers who
attended the protests have felt unity and support from their students and from
other workers. Felicia Pendleron, a special education teacher in Madison,
explained: “[I am here] fighting for my rights. … [My students’] parents are
with us right now. … There have been students of all ages here. … There is
power in unity.”

Watch an interview with Felicia Pendleron.

In Appleton, Wis., a
city over two hours from Madison in northern Wisconsin, students from Appleton
West High School walked out of school and marched downtown to hold a rally in
support of their teachers. They held signs demanding “Kill the bill” and
calling for funding for education. In Vernon County, hundreds of students from
Viroqua High School walked out and marched to the county courthouse demanding
that the state stop the assault on teachers and fund their education.

Read an
interview with Samantha Hooser, a high school student from Oak Creek, Wis., who
was part of a walkout on Feb. 16.

Meanwhile, students from
around the state flooded the Wisconsin capitol in Madison, staging an
occupation of the capitol building. Students from the University of
Wisconsin-Madison walked out of school by the thousands, with over 1,000
students walking out in just one day of protest this week.

Watch interviews
with University of Wisconsin-Madison student Damon Terrell.

Watch interviews
with University of Wisconsin-Madison students Sarah Steele, Theresa Gerber, Andrew Steele.

Students, teachers and
supporters continue to occupy the capitol, posting political signs around the
rotunda. They have held political rallies during the day, organized food and
maintenance of the occupation at night, and set up organizing centers in
conference rooms. Students also participated in speak-outs held inside the
capitol rotunda throughout the week, where students spoke out on bullhorns
explaining why they supported their teachers and the right of all workers to
organize. The occupation of the capitol has been sustained mostly by those
students who are in their teens and twenties.

Students rightfully fear
that the proposed budget cuts would cause larger classes and shorter class
periods. They also fear that their teachers, struggling to support their
families while carrying out very demanding duties, would be affected in the

Tasha Blaircobb, a high
school student who participated in a student walk-out, travelled to Madison to
protest the proposed cuts and attacks on union rights. She told Liberation: “On Tuesday of last week, we
had a walk-out at our school in opposition to the bill. … [I am against the
bill because] a lot of my friends want to be teachers. … It’s just not
right.  It’s against our basic human
rights to take their benefits and their collective bargaining.”

Jonah Walker, another
high school student occupying the capitol, explained to Liberation: “I have been looking into colleges because I am a junior.
… I’m thinking that I’m not going to get such a good education … because the
education system is going to be affected [by the cuts]. … I just like how
everyone [here] is working together for a common cause.”

Watch an interview with Tasha Blaircobb and Jonah

Students made signs and
“thank you” banners in support of teachers. They held these banners at the
Madison protests and in school parking lots around the state. With so many
students attending the actions with their parents, school administrators were
forced to allow teachers to address the issue in the classroom. One young
elementary student at the protest told Liberation:
“I think it’s very good that people are actually standing up to this. … I love
my teachers, and I think that some of them are here.”

Julie Fitzpatrick, a
first grade teacher at Elvehjem Elementary in Madison, explained: “It’s good to
see that parents are supportive because this bill is about so much more than
teachers.” For those teachers who returned to work on Tuesday, Feb. 22, parents
and students greeted teachers with pastries and thank you notes.  Many teachers came to the capitol building to
protest as soon as their workday ended.

Watch an interview with Madison teacher Barbara

Students took the
opportunity to ask teachers about the history of the labor movement, and
connected their current studies with the greed that they recognized was at the
heart of Walker’s budget measures. The protests in Madison nevertheless
continue to be sustained by students, union members and others who continue
their occupation of the capitol and picket lines surrounding it.

Teachers and the unions
also recognize that this budget proposal takes benefits from working families
while the wealthy continue to enjoy their lavish lifestyles. The corporate
taxation in Wisconsin is among the lowest in the country, and some corporations
continue to avoid paying taxes at all. According to one teacher from Duluth
Minn., who participated in a speak out in the capitol rotunda: “It’s about not taking
our money and giving it away to the top one percent of income earners.”

View more video interviews with workers, students, teachers and parents about why they are participating in the protests in Madison.


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