Public Values

Wisconsin mobilizes for a fairer world — Peter Rickman

Protest organizer tells of his state's growing alliance of students and workers fighting to take back control from corporations and the rich.

Rickman: No mass support for right-wingers, but people allow it by not engaging in political processby Straight Goods News Staff

A TOP PUBLICVALUES.CA STORY FROM 2011On June 14, Straight Goods News Publisher Ish Theilheimer interviewed Peter Rickman, a research assistant at the University of Wisconsin in Madison, Wisconsin. Rickman, one of the key organizers of the massive protests against anti-union, pro-privatization legislation that took place last winter in Madison, was in Ottawa speaking to students and staff at Carleton University about what Canadians might learn from the struggles in his state.

Straight Goods News : Tell us about yourself and how you got involved in the protest movement in Wisconsin.

Peter Rickman : I'm a student and a worker both, and that's really been at the heart of the movement that we're building. It's been students and workers fighting together for the same kind of common agenda of a more just society. Right now, I'm dismayed I'm not in Madison because we're in the middle of a big mobilization today. When I left Madison to fly here, we were in the middle of a tent city around the State Capital.

SGN : Please give us some history of your movement.

PR : In February and March, we had some mass demonstrations and rallies, literally hundreds of thousands of people coming out day after day after day, and this has all been kind of an uprising of working people and students to take back our state and align it to a position that is more just, equitable, and democratic. It comes in the context of about four decades of attacks — vicious assaults on public sector workers — but the attacks actually started with private sector workers. They gutted unions and corporate free trade policies, shipped jobs around the world, and decimated working-class communities, and once they'd gutted private-sector unions and working-class communities and beat down the left, then they came after public sector workers and our unions.

It's a long-term project of the Right to create this neo-liberal world of free-market fundamentalism. But I think what happened, after four decades of this, is people said enough is enough, we're not going to take it anymore, we're going to fight back. And it hasn't just been public sector workers or students in the streets. I've gotten to be very good friends of steelworkers and auto workers and machinists, in addition to teachers and nurses who've been out there protesting and demonstrating and working to create political solutions and build a movement for what we face. It's about time that working people fought back and took power away from corporations and the right wing.

SGN : Isn't it ironic that these anti-union, right-wing events are taking place in Wisconsin, with it progressive traditions?

PR : Wisconsin is actually the home of the capital "P" progressive movement from the early part of the 20th century. We're the place where unemployment compensation, workers' compensation, social security, and Medicare were born, the place where public-sector bargaining rights were started. But Wisconsin has always had this interesting set of political traditions that are almost contradictory. What swept Scott Walker into office was a reactionary tide that went across the entire country. And this reactionary tide was able to be successful because working people have been so disenfranchised by a political system that empowers corporations and leaves working folks without a voice.

About fifty percent of folks eligible to cast a ballot did not vote in 2010. It's not that there's mass support for these people and their agenda, it's just that working people allow it to happen by not being engaged in the political process. And now we're getting working people and young people, students, trade unionists, all kinds of different people engaged in the political process in a different way, and we're building our democracy on the streets and at the ballot box. While I'm fearful for the adverse impacts of the policies they're pushing, I'm also thankful we've taken this opportunity to build a new movement to create the more just, equitable society that we want to see — in Wisconsin, in our country, and globally.

SGN : How does what is happening in Wisconsin fit in with what's happening in Canada?

PR: From what I can tell, I would presume that it's the same kind of austerity agenda that's being pushed in the United States, in Western Europe, and all over. That's part of what gave us the sense of a real fight-back in Wisconsin, that while the public sector had been denigrated and public employees had been denigrated, when they came to attack us, people saw it for what it was. They almost took the blinders off about this austerity, neo-liberal agenda, and they said, "No, we're not going to stand for privatization because it's against the public interest. And we're not going to stand for attacks on public-sector workers because those are attacks on all kinds of workers." I think that's the critical piece for us, we take these privatization fights, these austerity fights, and turn them into movement-building. This isn't about defending our prerogative in the public sector; this is about a fairer world and our vision for what that should look like. I see these as pivot points.

SGN : What will be the impacts of privatization of post-secondary education?

PR: Actually, university privatization is one of the legislative measures, although some milder forms have been put forward. What privatization in higher education, what austerity means, is compromised access and students graduating with greater debt loads. We have a good-jobs crisis, so young people are being told they have to go to college, and they are graduating with $80,000 in debt and being cast out into a very unforgiving society. It's unjust and inhumane, what's being required of young people, and there's this great disconnect between working people in general and politicians who are supposed to represent us, between working people and the corporations that are driving this agenda. The austerity and privatization thing is about compromising access to higher education, but it's also about creating a world in which none of us want to live.

They're doing it not just in post-secondary education, but municipal services, state services. They've been trying to privatize our very meagre public health care system in the United States at the federal level. This is a coherent right-wing agenda — it's not just about the particular impacts, it's about the bigger, broader vision for what society should look like. Their version is corporations and the rich controlling all parts of our lives, and our vision is that individual human beings have the right to be treated with dignity and respect and to have the empowerment in their world to have fulfilling lives. Without higher education, without public services, without a robust and strong public sector, we lost the public institutions that underpin a democratic society.

SGN: Do you believe you can turn the right-wing craze around?

PR: When was the last time you heard about hundreds of thousands of people in the streets over privatization and trade union struggles in the United States? With respect to the latter, maybe the 1930s. I was speaking with someone from France who told me the people in France are looking at us with a newfound respect. They said, "We thought large-scale social and democratic movement among Americans was simply a thing for the history books, but now we recognize that is part of how you will write your future if we are to turn back this tide of neo-liberalism." It feels real good to be a part of it, actually to have a fight-back going on.

We are building community-labour alliances around our state, based regionally — really, truly rooted in the labour movement. It's a movement of working people, a movement for social and economic justice that includes the fight against privatization and austerity, but it also includes the struggles for living wages, health care security, and retirement security. We're not limiting our agenda because this is about a vision, not just particular policies. We're able to build a broad, ecumenical movement, a Universalist movement of all working people taking a stand together.

We're building an organization to underpin the movement. Movements are not planned in board rooms or in meetings; movements are about taking a stand together on the streets and at the ballot boxes, and to the extent that our organization and our organization of organizations can support and underpin that and give it some guidance and direction, we're certainly doing everything we can to make that happen because we do have to be strategic. Especially if we're going to be militant, we have to be strategically militant. I'm very impressed with the number of leaders stepping forward. Whether it's old-line trade union leaders coming to a new consciousness or new young leaders stepping to the fore or just regular citizens who've never been politically engaged and are fed up and fighting back, it's a new crop of leaders with a social movement consciousness that is driving things.

Posted: June 15, 2011

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