WICHITA, Kan. - Those who remember Hill Street Blues, a 1980's police drama groundbreaking for its realism, remember that public defender Joyce Davenport called Captain Frank Furillo, "pizza man" during tender scenes between them. Fans of the show know that Furillo delivered, both on and off the job. Sunday, I called a pizza place in Madison, Wisconsin, Ian's Pizza, and after being on hold with the message that Ian's was closed and was taking orders only for delivery to the protesters at the Wisconsin Capitol, I talked to a nice guy who took my pizza order and laughingly assured that no Tea Partiers would get the pizza I ordered.
Doing this put me among "...people from 12 countries and 38 states [who] have rung up looking to help get free pizza to the Wisconsin protesters clustered in the Capitol. On Saturday, Ian's distributed more than 1,000 free slices and sent 300 pizzas to the Capitol. The trend continued on Sunday, as staff member fielded calls from as far away as Turkey, Korea, Finland, China, and Australia. The trend began when a mother of a University of Wisconsin student called in offering to donate $200 to feed the people occupying the Capitol. The pizza chain's postings on Twitter and Facebook soon led to so many donations that they had to shut down on Saturday night," according to the online journal Politico.
One pizza isn't going to go far feeding the 70,000 pro-union protesters who showed up over the weekend at the Wisconsin Capitol to get Wisconsin legislators and the governor to deliver on a decades-long commitment to union collective bargaining and due process rights. However, that one pizza along with the others delivered to the protesters is a huge symbolic message not only to Wisconsin legislators, but also to the people of Wisconsin, legislators of other states, and people defending their rights in this country and around the world.
As an NEA and KNEA member and activist ever since I did my student teaching in 1974, I understand the value of solidarity. I saw the benefits of that solidarity in the schools and on the campus where I taught. When I first started my career as a full time teacher at Winfield High School, the teachers had voted to stack their contracts rather than accept the unilateral contract offered by the board. Education Association leaders gathered the contracts of tenured teachers and put them in a safety deposit box for safekeeping until the board of education decided to come back to the table for negotiations. I was told that, as a new, nontenured teacher, I should sign my contract and turn it. The Winfield EA eventually prevailed in getting the board back to the negotiating table. I knew then that the Education Association the place for me to be.
At Winfield, where I started my teaching career, and at Butler Community College, where I ended my career, I served as the president of the local Education Association and on the negotiations team. I did this in order to make sure I had some control over my own career, as well as to make sure all teachers could work under the best possible conditions.
The year I was elected to be president of the Butler EA, we were embroiled in difficult negotiations that had reached, if not a legal impasse, an impasse in reality. It was May and everyone was preparing for graduation. All BCC faculty members were required to attend graduation garbed in caps and gowns with symbols of their degrees and majors. It's quite an impressive sight to see students followed by faculty members in their academic regalia cross the campus to the gymnasium for the ceremony. That year, the early '90s, came after the Polish Solidarność (Independent Self-governing Trade Union "Solidarity") movement, under the leadership of Lech Walesa, had successfully overthrown the Warsaw Pact government fostered by the USSR.
During our pre-negotiation research, EA leaders found that the faculty members at Butler, the second largest community college in Kansas, were being paid the lowest salary among the state community colleges. We decided it was time to take drastic action to change that situation.
Under the direction of the late Dave Kratzer, newspaper adviser and EA strategist, we started our own Solidarity movement, complete with a huge Solidarność banner and buttons that read "Solidarity II."
My first act as EA president was to meet with faculty members before the graduation process to take a vote on wearing white armbands on our black robes as a symbol of our salary demands on the board. One of our members had volunteered to distribute fliers to those attending the graduation and Dave's journalism students were busy cutting up sheets, assuming the vote was going to be positive.
I would be lying if I said I felt calm about this action. We were all putting our jobs on the line. According to Kansas law, public employees are not allowed to strike, but the law does allow informative picketing. Even so, we all respected the institution of the college and the solemnity of the graduation ceremony. Most of us loved our jobs and we all cared about our students. I was almost sick as I presided over that meeting. The vote was unanimous--we were going to wear the white arm bands. We advised the non-tenured faculty members not to do so.
We went to the student union to get ready for the graduation procession. There, students tied the white strips on our arms and we all walked across the campus. As I looked across the lines of faculty members with the white arm bands on, I got tears in my eyes at the bravery of those people. Granted, no one was going to harm us physically, but we had no idea of what the outcome of this action would be.
As it turned out, we got the highest raise ever in the history of the campus. Not too long after that, the college got a new president who worked with faculty to implement a system of mutual gains bargaining. After that, faculty and administers, rather than sit across the table from each other, sat around the table with each other, sharing information and opinions that would help us come to an equitable contract. College administrators and staff had more of a stake in our negotiations than was readily apparent as everyone on campus got the same raises and benefits that faculty did. In effect, we were negotiating for everybody.
Those days are long over for me. However, dI'm a lifetime NEA member and a member of KNEA-Retired. It is still important to me to support teachers and all public employees retain their rights and benefits.
According to a recent survey, despite propaganda to the contrary, pay and benefits for public employees in Wisconsin lag behind those of private employees, according to a press release (pdf) from The Economic Policy Institute. To summarize the report: "...the data indicates that state and local government employees in Wisconsin are not overpaid. Comparisons controlling for education, experience, organizational size, gender, race, ethnicity, citizenship, and disability reveal that employees of both state and local governments in Wisconsin earn less than comparable private sector employees. On an annual basis, full-time state and local government employees in Wisconsin are under-compensated by 8.2% compared with otherwise similar private sector workers. This compensation disadvantage is smaller but still significant when hours worked are factored in. Full-time public employees work fewer annual hours, particularly employees with bachelor's, master's, and professional degrees (because many are teachers or university professors)."
Public employees and their unions will continue to be under attack as extreme right-wing politicians work to end workers' rights and benefits. In the meantime, the wealthy still pay less in taxes comparatively than these working people pay. As public employees lose their pay, benefits, and even their jobs, citizens will begin to lose services and their quality of life will deteriorate.
Public employees are not the problem. Their unions are not the problem. The problem is that right-wing extremist politicians are bringing ideology into play as they attack the wrong people in order to solve our economic problems.