The Wisconsin Labor Protests

March 23rd, 2011

In 1972, I joined a union. Or, rather, I got a job at a lumber mill in Louisville, Kentucky, that entailed my joining a union. I can’t remember if somebody at the mill suggested that I join the union or if I was automatically enrolled. It must have been the former, but I was a twenty-one-year old college dropout and I wasn’t paying close attention to such things.

I had the lowliest job at the plant–catching boards of varying lengths that came off a planer and stacking them in carts–and I got paid accordingly. The union took a few dollars out of my paycheck, which might have come to a hundred and fifty dollars a week, before taxes. (This was back in the day when a pack of cigarettes cost thirty or forty cents and a case of bad beer cost three or four dollars–at least such things did in Kentucky, where vices were virtually free, or tax-free, anyway.) I didn’t feel strongly one way or the other about the union. (This was also back in the day when union workers tended to be Nixon voters. I was a long-haired hippie, not on the face of it union material.) I was a short-termer, and I didn’t really need the job, even though my father had told me that if I was going to live at home, I had to have some sort of job. But just about everybody else working in the lumber mill did need their jobs, and their union no doubt made their days and nights somewhat better than they might have been without a union.

When I left the mill, I was told by my boss, a portly guy named Orville who drove around the grounds in a golf cart, that I was a good worker and that I could have a job there anytime, if I should ever decide to return. I liked Orville, and I admired the resilience and good humor of the people I worked with, but I couldn’t imagine having to do mill work for long. It was backbreaking and dangerous and also boring. And the pay, even at several grades above where I’d been, was, almost needless to say, quite modest.

I went back to college and then to graduate school, where I got a master’s degree.

In the late seventies, I got a job at a New York publishing house as an editorial assistant. The pay was less than what I’d received at the lumber mill. (My starting annual salary at Scribner’s was $5,500, or around a hundred dollars a week, and there were no benefits. I did get a raise not too long after starting.) But I was a fresh-out-of-graduate-school English/creative writing major, and I was supposed to be happy to be employed at all, not to mention in a building where Fitzgerald and Hemingway and Wharton and Wolfe had lingered.

In January of 1981, right around the time Ronald Reagan was sworn in as president, I started a job at The New Yorker as a fact checker. Not long before I arrived, the editorial employees had made an effort to unionize. This had failed. Management–in effect, William Shawn, the editor-in-chief at the time, and his lawyer; the owners of the magazine steered clear of editorial (and editorial employment) issues–refused to deal with a union. Shawn and his lawyer did agree, however, to have periodic chats with a “committee” of editorial employees about salaries and related matters. Most people on the staff served on this committee at one time or another. We would go to great lengths to show Shawn and his consigliere just how expensive it was to live in New York and how a minimal raise in wages would not cover increases in the cost of living. Sometimes we would note that the wages of editorial employees with similar job descriptions at other magazines were higher than our own, but this tactic caused Shawn’s face to redden in a way that may have scared some of us into not pursuing the subject in depth. The New Yorker was sui generis, supposedly, and if our pockets weren’t exactly full of money, we did at least smell of cachet.

Shawn and the lawyer listened dutifully, and then they gave us the very modest raises they probably would have given us had they not listened to us. Which is not to say that salaries for fact checkers and copy editors and proofreaders and messengers were anywhere near as dismal as those for editorial assistants at old-line, blue-blood New York publishing houses. The editorial employees of The New Yorker–which around that time was billing itself as “The World’s Greatest Magazine”–were paid wages that low-self-esteem English/creative writing majors like myself considered at least not terrible. (When I started, in 1981, my salary was around $17,000, and five and a half years later, when I left the fact checking department for another job at the magazine, I was making $30,000.) And it should be pointed out that The New Yorker did provide medical benefits to its employees; there was even a separate psychiatric benefit, which many people took advantage of.

Over the past twenty or so years, I’ve earned about $80,000 as a writer and occasional editor. (If you’re doing the math, this means I’ve earned $4,000 a year. Needless to say, it hasn’t supported me or my family.) A fifth of this income came from two grants from the state of Wisconsin–from an agency that the governor of Wisconsin, a college dropout, has recently proposed eliminating–and the rest from book advances, royalties, fiction sold to literary magazines, assorted journalism, fees for judging writing contests, and free-lance editing jobs. For some of this work–book reviews for a Gannett-owned newspaper, for instance–I was paid the equivalent of about a dollar-fifty per hour. For my first book, I received $20,000 (minus my agent’s portion), which seemed like an enormous sum, though of course it had taken me six or seven years to write the stories in the book.

Writers are supposed to be above caring about money, while also being grateful for being published at all. Strangely enough, or perhaps not strangely enough, you sometimes hear this comment from other writers (as well as editors). I am grateful to those who publish my work, but I’m not above caring about the pay for my work. (Some writing–not just these website posts–I do for free, of course. But see my Musing of February, 2010, about what writers receive in exchange for “free content.”) I once got into an argument with an editor at an independent newspaper that had paid me a niggling sum (something like $234.50) for a feature article that required a good forty hours of reporting and researching and writing. It had seemed to me that the paper could have paid me a little more or at least rounded up that fifty cents. The editor was offended that I would complain about such pay, which, after all, was above minimum wage.

Over the past two or three years, during the recession that predatory, run-amok capitalists and their anti-regulatory enablers (mostly but not only Republicans) bestowed on us, I have tried to find a job that pays somewhat better than minimum wage. Almost all of the forty or fifty jobs I applied for were for teaching or writing positions at college and universities. I scored exactly one interview, and was offered a job teaching a ten-week online fiction writing course for the adult education branch of a west coast university. The pay would’ve been $1800, or, as I calculated it, given the many hours of off-line preparation and reading that the job would entail, not much more per hour than minimum wage. I decided not to take that job, thinking I could surely earn $1800 in some other way. So far, I’ve been wrong.

All these many paragraphs about my checkered employment history are here not to suggest I’m poor–I’m not, and I’m lucky I’m not–though you could draw the conclusion that writing is a profession you might want to avoid if you plan to make subsistence-level income. The paragraphs above are here, in part, to suggest something about the nature of economic power in America (workers have little) and as a prelude to the larger subject of this piece: the growing inequality in this country and the efforts by those on the extreme right wing (to name one, Scott Walker, the Republican/Tea Party governor of Wisconsin) to insure that those who might vote (or speak out) against inequality are stripped of any power they might have (through their unions, for instance) to alter the status quo. (The Tea Party legislation in Wisconsin that deprives state employees of bargaining rights also reduces their take-home pay by about eight percent. Which is a fair chunk of change if you make thirty or forty thousand dollars a year, as many state workers do.) As the late Tony Judt, who taught history at New York University, wrote in a brilliant little book called ILL FARES THE LAND, “Inequality is corrosive. It rots societies from within.”

Margaret Thatcher (Ronald Reagan’s ideological sister across the pond) did not believe in something called “society.” She famously said, “There is no such thing as society, there are only individuals and families.” There may be little logic to this–there is no such thing as a bee hive, there are only bees?–but her point was that government has no responsibility to its weakest citizens, that government should disappear and let the free market distribute and disburse in its supposedly scientific ways. The Tea Party version of this notion is: “Government is always the problem.” Unless of course the government in power is owned by the right wing, or unless the so-called free market needs to be bailed out by government.

During the past few weeks, I’ve spent a fair amount of time with other protesters in and around the Capitol building in Madison. The protesters have included school teachers, nurses, prison guards, off-duty policemen (who wear “Cops for Labor” shirts), off-duty firefighters, librarians, farmers (some of whom came to the huge March 12th rally with their tractors, many of whom carried placards that said “Farmers Know a Load of Crap,” at least one of whom pulled a wagon full of crap), university staff (among them, my wife, a non-unionized state employee), students, pharmacists (who carried “Pharmacists for Labor” placards), ministers, physicians, workers from state agencies, children, belly dancers (I saw one, anyway; her placard said: “Belly Dancers for Labor”), iron workers, Teamsters, a guy in an Uncle Sam suit on stilts, two jokers in banana suits (I didn’t get the joke), an elderly woman pushing a walker (”At least this walker is helpful”), and many thousands of other people who didn’t advertise (by way of placards) their affiliations (but many of whom may be presumed to work–or to have once worked–in the private sector). While I was standing with all these people, it seemed to me that I was in a society, that world that such political heirs of Reagan and Thatcher as the governor of Wisconsin would like to legislate out of existence (if doing it by fiat proves untenable).

I recently had a “discussion” on Facebook with a guy who owns a roofing company in Iowa. I had met him on several occasions, and he seemed perfectly pleasant. On Facebook, he turned out to be quite unpleasant. In his very brief opening comments, in response to a post about Scott Walker’s union-busting bill by a mild-mannered seventy-year-old retired nurse, he concluded by saying that the Wisconsin protesters had it good, so they should just stop complaining and shut up. (This may remind veterans of the sixties and seventies of a favorite right wing slogan: “America: Love It or Leave It.” There was then–and there is now, seemingly–no room for discussion.) As the so-called discussion went on, he became increasingly angry, saying that we liberals could all kiss his ass if we thought we were going to take his money from him. And so on. The most demoralizing aspect of all this was his rudeness and apparent belief that civility didn’t matter and that basically there was nothing to discuss anyway. He ended by telling me what I believed, after much careful probing of my mind.

It is a tactic of political extremists not to listen to the other side, to shout so loudly that nothing from the other side can be heard anyway. (The Tea Party often reminds me of the most extreme fringes of the left wing during the Vietnam War, people who would blame “the system” for everything in exactly the way the Tea Partiers blame “the government” for everything. A significant difference is that Tea Party politicians actually have political power. The left wing–its more moderate elements, chiefly–may have driven Lyndon Johnson out of office because of the war, but his replacement turned out to be Richard Nixon.) In fact, right wing extremists seem to consider it a sign of weakness to listen to the other side. After all, that’s the sort of thing you do in a society (and a democracy)–listen, talk to the other side, negotiate.

A Madison friend said to me the other day, “If only our governor would step out of his office and look at the people who are protesting, look at all those many different faces. . . ” But it seems pretty clear by now that in the case of the governor of Wisconsin, ideology trumps humanity. Scott Walker doesn’t seem to have even the humanity of a dark soul like Richard Nixon, who left the White House late one night in 1970, in the company of only his valet, to talk to Vietnam War protesters camped out at the Lincoln Memorial. (Some historians believe that Nixon didn’t really go to the Lincoln Memorial to listen to the other side, and according to some accounts, he didn’t even discuss the war with the protesters.)

But allow me to fantasize for a moment and imagine that Scott Walker would leave the Capitol building to mingle with protesters and that somehow he and I end up standing together, right across the street, on the steps of the Episcopal church, an old yellow limestone edifice whose newer wings include a soup kitchen. What would I say to him? How do you talk to somebody who has never had a doubt about his policies or the assumptions on which those policies rest?

Allyn Roberts, a Madison psychologist I know, once told me a story about a schizophrenic woman he treated for some years in a state mental health institution. (Does it complicate matters too much to add that the woman was a Catholic nun?) Allyn described his patient as quite smart and more than a little crafty, as well as someone with whom he’d made little progress. In 1960, the American Academy of Psychotherapists held its annual meeting in Madison, and Allyn invited several of these therapists, including Albert Ellis and Fritz Perls, to his workplace in order to have a go at talking with his patient. It turned out that the least successful approach was that of Albert Ellis, one of the founders of cognitive-behavioral therapy, who believed that you could nudge an irrational and disturbed person toward sanity by reasoning with her and exposing her irrationality. The woman had responded to Ellis by becoming ever more defensive, never giving an inch. When Allyn asked her if she had any interest in seeing Ellis again, she said no, though she also said that she had enjoyed sparring with him. The most successful approach was that of Carl Rogers, who believed that if you talked to the patient on her own terms, in a non-judgmental way, if you somehow suggested to her that you didn’t find her craziness crazy (at least by her own definition of that word), you could gradually lead her toward a less delusional and less defensive state of mind. Allyn’s patient told him that she might be willing to see Rogers again.

Like schizophrenics, extremist politicians are generally not open to appeals of reason. The only thing that seems to get their attention (besides losing an election) is if you agree with them. So, here is what I might say to Scott Walker:

“Yes, sure, Wisconsin will be a better place to live if, after teachers and other state workers have consented to taking home considerably smaller paychecks every week, we do away with their right (which many Republican members of the legislature stupidly assented to in 1959 and again in 1967) to negotiate wages and benefits and other incidental matters. All those people should just suck it up, because don’t all the non-union people in the private sector who have low-paying jobs (and no benefits) just suck it up, too? Wisconsin will surely be a better place to live if the state drastically reduces (as proposed in your budget) the funds it gives school districts, because this way we can also save some dollars by laying off teachers and zeroing-out wasteful school programs and maybe eventually even discourage kids from going to school and young people who make it to college from considering the teaching profession, because who wants to spend twenty years teaching only to find by the end of those twenty years that she’s making fifty thousand dollars (plus, of course, those excessive health care benefits)? And why should kids be educated anyway? Look at yourself–you dropped out of college and you’re the dang governor of Wisconsin! Anyway, if society doesn’t exist, why should we suppose we have any need to educate our children to be members of a non-existent society? And, you know, after eighth or ninth grade, they can go get jobs at McDonald’s and maybe find summer employment up in the Dells. (The wealthy few will be canceling their trips to Nantucket and spending their discretionary income at water parks like the Dells, right?) Yes, sure, Wisconsin will be a better place to live if we can reduce the arts budget by seventy-three percent and roll whatever funds are left for the arts into the Marketing sector of the Department of Tourism, because, well, who gives a shit about the arts except a handful of elitists who probably have college degrees and are probably sissies to boot? And, yes, Wisconsin (speaking of manure and all that) will be a better place to live if farmers will stop complaining that the only health insurance they can get is the last-ditch catastrophic insurance known as Badger Care, and, anyway, aren’t you going to cut whatever the state is currently, for some reason, contributing to Badger Care? Wisconsin will surely be a better place to live if we privatize everything that can be privatized, including maybe some of our nicer state parks and maybe some of our state universities, which are full of students and whiny liberal professors and state workers and a few highly ‘compensated’ but clearly deserving athletic department people whose pay we won’t dock, will we?”

But the governor of Wisconsin (in this fantasy) has already walked away. He has heard it all before.

10 Responses to “The Wisconsin Labor Protests”

  1. George Hesselberg Says:

    There is some selective listening going on, wouldn’t you say? The sort of conversation where you say things and the other guy nods his head and nods his head and nods his head and then in the end puts his hat on and gets into his car and runs over your bicycle.

  2. Ann's Rants Says:

    The lack of meaningful dialogue is beyond frustrating.

    It reminds me of trying to work through conflict with someone who has absolutely no capacity for self-reflection.

    What’s the point?

    In the case of the ‘budget’ the point was/is to make our voices heard, rather than just lie down and take it, but knowing Gov. Walker has no interest in dialogue (or even worse his best interest in using this moment to boost his political plans) sickens me.

  3. Sandy Christensen Says:

    Have you mailed this to our union breaking, scum of a governor? Did I just say that out loud?
    I guess I must take responsibility for the state our state is in. I am a former teacher, mother to a once Badger care/Medicade recipient, an artist and a senior. I am a quadruple threat to the great state of Wisconsin. Our state budget is in disorder because I tried to keep my daughter alive! Oh, and my “Cadillac” insurance that would not buy my child a wheelchair or hearing aids may have taken away from legislative gas mileage pay.I won’t even mention art…who cares when we can put a couple of extra million into Koch’s pockets. Now, my status as a senior, a sage, a woman with wisdom, an eccentric old broad…who knows what is to come: Privatized holding cells, privatized pastures, privatized euthanasia…

    We don’t have much hope in the next four years-if we recall Walker we get…HER! None of the next few possibilities look very good either. If I was a depressive, this would surely put me over the edge! Your friend, Sandy

  4. Micaela Says:

    Careful Mister- look what happened to our very own Bill Cronon!

    Back story:

    His article:


  5. Judy Goldman Says:

    How can we get this essay on newspaper editorial pages across the country? But then, do people even read newspapers any more? This piece is too good not to be read by many.

  6. Angela Says:

    Fabuously written with spirit and humor and good sense. I love the end, the fantasy. You should send it to Slate, or the New York Times. I am honored to know such a persuasive writer who makes such a good case for a better world, I saw this graphic the other day scrawled on one of the local bridges in Portland with the little hang man illustration.
    It said: Mid_le Class?

  7. Sharon Hehmsoth Says:

    A friend and neighbor of mine recommended this article. Compassion and good will for the middle and lower class has been replaced with greediness and censorship coming from the right, including the tea party.
    Your paragraph about the Carl Rogers and talking to schizophrenic patient –”talking to her on the own terms meant” a great deal to me. I do volunteer working with the elderly and I have been told from time to time that I am very good with them. Now, I know why. I listen to my alsheimer patients and quite often they will tell me the most marvelous stories. There long term memory often is intact but they couldn’t remember when I entered the room Now, I know why. I listen to my alzheimer patients and quite often they will tell me the most marvelous stories. There long term memory often is intact but they couldn’t remember when I entered the room

  8. Roger Goodwin Says:


    I loved your rant!

    You really have to hand it to the Republicans. They managed to put together a coalition of wealthy people, poor people who wish they were wealthy, and poor people who want more people to be poor like them – I guess misery loves company.

    We are all poorer for their success.

    Roger Goodwin

  9. Peter Pearce Says:

    Good thinking/writing ! Your focus on “Society” reminds me of a question that occurred to me recently in Cairo, with the Pyramids nearby. Is not “society” a foundation of civilization ? Granted, all the bad history of people coming together and behaving badly; what would humanity be without the “group” coming together and giving some kind of security and stability to what had been a brutal, dangerous, and frightening world of pre-history, pre-civilization time ? Caring and nurturing fostered, survival becoming a more common possibility. For those of us(I like to remain inclusive in these matters) who would dismiss “society”, how would they or anyone for that matter be allowed a voice to be heard, much less survive in such a world ?

  10. jamie baldwin Says:

    What WOULD you say to Gov. Walker? Can you think of something that he would/could hear? I thought that’s where you were going with this. Yes, ‘we’ are exasperated, and ‘they’ are mistaken. Your thoughtful, social (in the sense that you beautifully remind us of) commentary lapses into sarcasm at the end. I think it was the Dalai Lama (or maybe Thucidides) who said that not speaking sincerely is kind of the same as not listening. (You sincerely and justifiably express your frustration; that expression’s not really addressed to Gov. Walker though.)

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