Over 1,000 Turn Out in San Diego to Support Wisconsin Workers
by MARK GABRISH CONLAN
Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
Braving cold weather and the threat of rain, over 1,000 San Diegans — many, but not all, of them union workers — turned out at noon Saturday, February 26 to the back lawn of the San Diego County Administrative Center in downtown San Diego for a rally in support of public employees in Wisconsin. The issue began when Republican Scott Walker, recently elected governor of Wisconsin, and the state’s Republican-dominated state legislature first enacted 7 million in state tax giveaways to business and wealthy individuals, and then Walker put a bill before the legislature that would not only cut the state employees’ health and pension benefits but would effectively strip them of the right to union representation and collective bargaining.
Wisconsin state workers and their supporters in the private sector responded by holding mass demonstrations in Madison, the state capital, and occupying the building where the legislature meets. What’s more, the 14 Democrats in the Wisconsin State Senate left the state for Illinois to make sure the Senate couldn’t convene a quorum to pass Walker’s so-called “budget repair” bill. Workers have come from all over the country to Madison to support the demonstrations. Some of them have been recruited to do so by national unions, but they’ve had to pay their own way to get to Wisconsin — and they’ve been told that there’s no place to stay in the city and they need to bring sleeping bags and plan to sleep outdoors in the cold and snow of a Wisconsin winter.
Support rallies have been held throughout the country, and a nationwide call went out for people to meet in their own state’s capitals for demonstrations backing Wisconsin’s workers at noon on February 26. Because of California’s size, the demonstrations here were held not only in Sacramento but in the state’s larger cities, including San Diego. The San Diego rally was called not by the city’s labor leadership but by veteran activist Frank Gormlie, who published an alternative newspaper called the O. B. Rag in the 1970’s and early 2000’s and now operates a local news Web site under the same name, http://obrag.org/
The rally was MC’d by Lorena Gonzalez, secretary-treasurer of the San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council. “It’s snowing in Wisconsin, so it’s much better out here,” she said. “We’re standing in solidarity with every state employee currently threatened with the loss of collective bargaining rights. We worked hard in the last election to make sure we’d have a governor in California who would protect our collective bargaining rights — and it was Jerry Brown, the governor who signed them into law in the first place — but in San Diego we have our own Scott Walker: Carl DeMaio, a City Councilmember who’s every bit as bad.”
Like many of the subsequent speakers, Gonzalez portrayed the conflict in Wisconsin as not an isolated clash between public employee unions and a Republican governor, but as part of a nationwide movement to demonize public workers and unions in general so rich people can make themselves even richer. “”Big corporations have billion and they’re going to demonize a teacher who makes ,000 a year?” Gonzalez said. “This isn’t about public employees. It’s about politics. In the 2010 election, only three out of the top 10 political action committees (PAC’s) gave to Democrats — and they were all members of public employee unions. Businesses have a collective effort to get rid of those PAC’s so they can get rid of Democrats and every value they stand for, including the rights of workers.”
Gonzalez mounted an energetic defense not only of public workers but of unions in general. “When people report crimes, who sends out the call, and who answers it? Public employees,” she said. “When there’s a fire we can call a dispatcher, a public employee, who sends out firefighters — public employees. When I send my kids to school, teachers — public employees — spend more time with my kids than I can. When my family members have to be cleaned up after by a nurse’s aide, they are public workers.” Pointing out that some members of the audience were not represented by unions, she said, “If you have an eight-hour work day and a 40-hour work week, thank a union worker. If you can go to the bathroom at work without being docked, thank a union worker. If you’re grateful for the minimum wage, unemployment insurance, Social Security and [the promise of] affordable health care, thank a union worker.”
“Right now the American dream is slipping away from all of us,” said Brian Marvel, president of the San Diego Police Officers’ Association (POA). “In state capitals and Washington, D.C., Republicans are using a ripped economy to go after union workers and the middle class. [Walker’s bill] isn’t a budget, it’s a naked power grab to go after middle-class workers everywhere.” Commenting on a Sign On San Diego Web poster who said he resented his tax money being paid to public workers who then donated it to a union PAC that used it to advance liberal candidates and issues, and therefore public employees shouldn’t be allowed to have unions or PAC’s, Marvel called it “bullshit. … Is he saying private-sector workers shouldn’t have bargaining rights because we pay their salaries as part of everything we buy? Because organized labor supported Social Security and civil rights, is he saying they shouldn’t exist?”
California State Senator Juan Vargas, along with Assemblymembers Toni Atkins and Ben Hueso and San Diego Unified School Board member Richard Barrera, spoke as elected officials ¬— and Vargas delivered a militant pro-union speech confounding progressive Democrats who had supported his primary opponent and ridiculed him as a “DINO” [Democrat in name only]. “We are going to stand with the workers of Wisconsin and the Democrats in the state legislature,” he thundered. “We are going to stand up for the rights of a middle class. Unfortunately our budget troubles in California are worse than Wisconsin’s, but our unions are willing to stand up and say they’re going to be part of the solution.”
Like a number of other speakers, Vargas mentioned the controversial Koch brothers, Charles and David, who own Koch Industries, the second largest privately held company in the U.S. According to New Yorker reporter Jane Mayer, Koch Industries “owns Brawny paper towels, Dixie cups, Georgia-Pacific lumber, Stainmaster carpet, and Lycra, among other products.” Mayer’s article, published August 30, 2010, was many people’s first source of information about the Kochs and their political activities. “The Kochs are longtime libertarians who believe in drastically lower personal and corporate taxes, minimal social services for the needy, and much less oversight of industry — especially environmental regulation,” Mayer wrote. “These views dovetail with the brothers’ corporate interests. In a study released this spring, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst’s Political Economy Research Institute named Koch Industries one of the top ten air polluters in the United States. And Greenpeace issued a report identifying the company as a ‘kingpin of climate science denial.’”
The Kochs also launched a political action group called Americans for Prosperity, which made large donations to Governor Walker and other anti-labor Republican politicians and, according to Mayer, helped finance and promote the “Tea Party” movement that mobilized opposition to President Obama and helped the Republicans take over the U.S. House and many state governments in the 2010 election. A number of speakers on February 26 made puns on the Koch name — it’s pronounced “coke” — and one person at the rally carried a sign reading, “Gov. Walker, Your Koch Dealer Is On Line 2.” This was a reference to a prank carried out the week before by an Internet blogger who called Walker’s office, impersonating David Koch — and actually got through to the governor and discussed his plans for suppressing the demonstrations.
“Boycott Koch, just as we boycott Wal-Mart,” Vargas said at the February 26 rally. “We’ve seen an unprecedented attack on the middle class ever since President Reagan changed the tax code in the early 1980’s. If we don’t fight back, the middle class will disappear completely.”
“You look beautiful from up here!” Assemblymember Atkins greeted the crowd. “We are a union town! This week we stand with you in Sacramento. It’s not just about workers in Wisconsin. It’s about all of us. My parents were union members. My dad was a coal miner; my mom was a seamstress. They worked hard so I could go to college and be a middle-class American.” Recalling that she and Hueso had been key votes on the San Diego City Council to pass a living-wage law covering city contractors before both of them moved up to the Assembly, Atkins said, “There are elected officials who will scapegoat public employees. I will not do that. People around the globe are fighting for the right to speak. … We are going to stand with people in Wisconsin and all across the country. We’re not going to forget where we came from.”
Before introducing San Diego Firefighters’ Union president Frank DeClerq, who spoke right after Vargas, Gonzales said that Walker had tried to split labor’s ranks by exempting the police and fire unions (both of which supported him in his campaign) from his bill to strip public workers of collective bargaining rights — but it hadn’t worked. DeClerq denounced the “orchestrated and careful” tactics the Republicans are using in their attacks on labor, but said they won’t work. “We will fight, and put our money and resources behind it,” he said. “They’re not going to take us down. We’ve got to organize and get to the grass roots. People have the right to be in a union and to fight for fair wages and benefits. We will not let them destroy the middle class. We will unite with the poor and take them down at the polls.”
“It’s not greed for teachers and school support staff to have collective bargaining,” said Tierra Gonzalez Evans, Lorena Gonzalez’ 15-year-old daughter and a student at Mission Bay High School. “Greed is not our science teacher who went for a week without pay to chaperone us to Washington, D.C. Greed is not a counselor who’s so dedicated they see students during their lunch hour and on weekends. Greed is the CEO’s who make billions off workers. Greed is a corporation that doesn’t pay workers living wages or health benefits. Greed is developers in downtown San Diego who won’t allow redevelopment money to go to schools.”
“I want to give a shout-out to our brothers and sisters in Wisconsin,” said Bill Freeman, president of the San Diego Education Association and last year’s Teacher of the Year in the San Diego Unified School District. “It’s a dreary day when Americans attack Americans. We are under attack by the elite wealthy. Those officials did not get into office by chance. Wealthy people are beginning to run for office not because they feel it is their time to give back to society, but to further their own greed.” Freeman said that if Republican Meg Whitman had won her largely self-financed campaign against Jerry Brown for governor of California, “we would be just where Wisconsin is.”
Freeman said he blamed the economic crisis on “greedy bankers who made loans they shouldn’t have made … [and] greedy investors who bet against their own securities.” After the government bailed them out with the TARP program, according to Freeman, “someone had to replace the tax base. So they’re coming after us union workers and asking for more.” He also said that the No Child Left Behind act, passed under President George W. Bush with bipartisan support, will ultimately brand every public school in the U.S. a “failure,” scapegoating teachers when the real cause for students’ failure to learn is poverty. “It’s hard being a teacher when both your students’ parents are working low-wage jobs and not reading to their kids or even buying them warm clothes,” Freeman said. “Last year I had three students in my class who were homeless.”
“I know the role unions have played in keeping higher education affordable and available,” said Amanda Ferry, graduate student at San Diego State University (SDSU). “As CSU [the California State University system, of which SDSU is a part] looks to cut custs, teachers, graduate students and unions have fought back. Governor Walker and big business want to silence students and workers. It is a bleak prospect, an attack on public education. Students are here ready to show solidarity with Wisconsin. It’s time to save the middle class.”
“Scott Walker lit a fire under people like you here and everywhere to get them to fight back,” said Art Pulaski, secretary-treasurer of the California Labor Federation. “Your being here today is important because this battle is not about one state, one governor, one bill, and it’s about more than public employees. It’s even about more than unions. It’s about the great American right of freedom of association: to fight for a better wage for yourselves and your family. We across America are one.” He read a letter from Pam Perask, a school counselor from Wisconsin, and said, “When Scott Walker tries to silence the voice of a guidance counselor in Wisconsin, the people stood up and said, ‘Not here!’ When he tries to silence a firefighter or health care worker, we say, ‘Not here! Not anywhere!’”
“I know what unions have done to keep our health care system running,” said Tim Newlis, nurse at Kaiser Permanente and member of a nurses’ union affiliated with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). “Nurses and unions are part of the solution, not the problem. We have fought for patient ratios so there’d be more nurses at patients’ beds. It gets harder and harder to be a nurse.” He called Governor Walker’s plan to end collective bargaining for public workers “a crazy idea.”
The final speaker, representing the Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice (ICWJ) of San Diego County, was something of a surprise: Imam Taha Hassane of the Islamic Center of San Diego. “It’s an honor representing the Muslim faith and the ICWJ,” Hassane said. “What’s happening on Capitol Hill and in the state capitols around the nation is really shameful. Fixing the deficit on the backs of poor people and public workers is immoral. Depriving people of a decent education, health care and safe neighborhoods is immoral. We pray to you, Lord, to enlighten the minds of our leaders and elected officials, and to soften their hearts so they can see the pain of suffering people and hear the voices of oppressed people. Bless us all, and bless our nation.”