Tavis: Mary Bell is serving her second term as president of the Wisconsin Education Association Council following more than 25 years as a teacher in the state. Her organization represents nearly 100,000 school employees in Wisconsin and she joins us tonight from Madison. Mary Bell, good to have you on this program.
Mary Bell: Thank you for the invitation, Tavis.
Tavis: Because this story is so fluid and is changing every day, let me just start by asking you to share with me the latest – what’s happening in Wisconsin today, as we speak?
Bell: Well, we had the protestors who have been part of the capitol environment for almost two weeks now who were still being part of that, making sure that the voice of the people of Wisconsin is heard. They have restricted access to our capitol but there are still people who are outside and some who are inside, maintaining that presence to say they will not be silent as long as the voices of others are in danger.
Tavis: As this story has continued to grow, there are so many now making comments about what this fight is really about, ranging from collective bargaining all the way to the Republican Party wanting to demonize and to trash and quite frankly to crush the union movement. Let me just start by asking you to tell me what this fight was and is about.
Bell: Well, since before the governor’s budget fix proposal of two weeks ago, we’ve known that Wisconsin is in an economic difficult circumstance. It is impossible to be a part of a community from around this state and not know what your neighbors and your friends and your family are experiencing.
We have said we were willing to be a part of whatever was necessary to make sure the state could balance the budget. The governor chose not to talk to us about that, but instead issue a set of demands along with eliminating, for all intents and purposes, collective bargaining rights for all public employees in the state, without having a single conversation with the people who represent those public employees.
We have agreed to all the economic concessions. Every single one of the economic needs of the state as he laid them out to balance the budget were agreed to in a conversation with ourselves, since he wasn’t speaking with us, and that still isn’t enough.
He believes and maintains regularly that it’s necessary to strip a certain category of employees, public employees in this state, of collective bargaining rights for something that he really says he needs flexibility and local governments will need flexibility for the budget proposal which he has yet to introduce.
Tavis: I’ve heard many people say, Mary Bell, that the governor campaigned on this issue. He made it very clear, to your earlier point, that some tough decisions had to be made. He was going to ask for some shared sacrifice so that when the people of Wisconsin voted him in, they knew that these kinds of issues were going to be on the table.
He won, so he gets a chance now to do what he told the voters he was going to do. How do you respond to that?
Bell: Well, the things that he told the voters he was going to do were, in fact, to demand pension increases – or payments – in addition to what we already have, to demand that we pay a higher percentage of healthcare costs. Those were all on the table. Wisconsin voters understood that. But seven out of 10 Wisconsinites when surveyed say they believe this goes too far.
They don’t believe in stripping people of collective bargaining rights, they don’t believe in denying them a voice in the workplace about things like safety, security, about how the schools operate, about curriculum and class size – all the things that happen with this bill that the governor is bringing in under the guise of a fiscal bill.
It isn’t about fiscal policy. This is about stripping workers of their rights, of stripping working families of their right to be heard.
Tavis: To your point earlier, this is an issue that is inside of Madison, and I know what your interest is, primarily, given the role that you play. But to the point I made a moment ago, there are all kinds of Republicans now who are closing ranks around your Republican governor, Mr. Walker, and coming to his defense in the national media everywhere.
The argument has been made that Republicans in Wisconsin and beyond – there are other states now that are about to do the same thing – that this really is about crushing unions in this country. Do you have thoughts about that?
Bell: Well, I don’t think there’s any question that they want to eliminate unions, but whether they want to eliminate us for any specific reason, I think the argument has been made here in Wisconsin that he doesn’t believe that unions work with their local units of government, and I think we have a lot of evidence to the contrary – that in fact we do that, and that we are a part of every community in this state.
There are also Republican governors from around the country who’ve said they would not go as far as Governor Walker has, and in fact who have said they are not looking to crush unions. In fact, they want to work with the voice of labor in their states in order to make economic decisions about what needs to happen, and to move education reform, as just one example, forward.
We’re willing to do that, and the governor has chosen not to talk to us.
Tavis: What about these Democrats who have decided to run away? There are those who see these Democratic legislators as courageous to not allow this to go down on their watch; there are others who consider them to be cowardly, that the last thing that you do is to run away from a fight, run away from your job, run away from your responsibility. How do you see that?
Bell: I do not think that there is anything cowardly in the actions of the Senate 14. What they did was they looked at a situation where a governor wanted to introduce a piece of legislation under the guise of a budget fix, and his plan originally was that within five days he was going to pass this and erase 60 years of labor history here in Wisconsin – 50 years, 55 years plus of labor peace and stability in our schools and in our public workplaces.
They said that was wrong, and they took what they thought was their best course at holding this up, at making sure that the public in Wisconsin learned what was in this bill, not just for public employees but what puts Medicare at risk, Medicaid at risk, what puts BadgerCare and senior care at risk. Programs that have been established and that care for the citizens of Wisconsin that are a part of this that they didn’t believe were being heard by the public at large.
Now, as I said, seven out of 10 Wisconsinites say the bill goes too far. They’ve been shown that what we have to have are Republican senators who are willing to stand up and say they stand with the people of Wisconsin and not this extreme agenda.
Tavis: It wouldn’t hurt to have a president who stands with the workers in Wisconsin as well, who might be a bit more forceful. Let me read a quote from President Obama at the National Governors Association, speaking of governors. I quote the president: “I don’t think it does anybody any good when public employees are denigrated or vilified or their rights are infringed upon. We need to attract the best and brightest to public service. These times demand it.”
Now, no one could disagree or argue, I think, that particular comment. The question I have for you is whether or not what you and your colleagues are sensing from the White House is observations or solidarity. I hear a lot of observations being made, but I’m not so sure I hear the kind of solidarity that this president ought to be giving given the kind of support he received from unions when he ran, but maybe I’m wrong about that.
Bell: Well, solidarity is always appreciated, but this argument and this fight really is a fight about Wisconsin, from Wisconsinites to Wisconsinites, an appeal to the people of Wisconsin to make sure that this is the state that we want. The idea that we can eliminate the rights of workers, eliminate that voice that’s so important to move forward for the very reasons that the president outlined – he wants to move things forward and he believes that doing that with labor is the best way to do it.
Our governor clearly hasn’t gotten that message and although I believe Secretary Duncan has spoken directly with the governor about it, it just doesn’t seem to get through.
Tavis: But whether you like it or not, the fact of the matter is that this is bigger than Wisconsin. What you all did there has lit a flame that’s spread to Ohio and Indiana and to other states, I know, in the coming days and weeks, and this issue is now going to be on the front burner when we get to these presidential races. So respectfully, when 61 percent of the American people, and this “USA Today” poll suggests 61 percent agree with you all, that you can’t strip away collective bargaining, this is not just a Wisconsin issue anymore. This is a national issue.
Bell: Yes, we know that there are national implications; we know that the agenda is much broader. The kind of support, the kind of demonstration and the kind of polling that you indicate is very, very heartening to us that people understand what this means and that they really believe that it’s wrong.
But right now, we have to focus on the legislature here in Wisconsin. We have had the largest demonstrations outside the city of Madison, so this is no longer just a legislative battle at the capital; this has gone to communities around the state in addition to communities around the country.
As I said, a lot of governors who might have had the same idea are saying this is not something they wish to take on. They want to work with us.
Tavis: I believe that courage is contagious; witness Wisconsin and everything else happening now in the Midwest and I think spreading in this country in the coming weeks and months. Mary Bell, good to have you on. All the best in your fight. Thanks for your time.
Bell: Thank you. Solidarity.
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