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'Ich Bin ein Cheesehead'

Austin unionists prove they are Madison as hell

By Richard Whittaker, 4:33PM, Sun. Feb. 27, 2011


Austinites rally at the Texas State Capitol in support of the Wisconsin protestors
Photo by Richard Whittaker

If the GOP hoped Wisconsin would become ground zero for their union-busting ways, losing the police must have been a shock. Now nationwide rallies, including one yesterday in Austin, may show that they have attacked workers' rights one time too many.

Who knows why the union-busters picked Wisconsin as the place to start their fight. Maybe the anti-regulation right was still bristling from the fact that a community-owned football team just won the Super Bowl. But, as yesterday's Rally to Save the American Dream proved, Texas workers who have already lost most of their rights were out in force to do what they could to stop Wisconsin going the same way.


Photo by Richard Whittaker

The Austin event, which attracted several hundred demonstrators, was part of a national day of demonstrations organized by MoveOn.Org and backed by dozens of progressive and labor groups including the AFL-CIO. As if preparing for the near-inevitable accusations that this is not truly a grass roots demonstration, one sign writer wrote, "They only call it class warfare when we fight back."


Photo by Richard Whittaker

The message from all the speakers was the same: As Travis County Democratic Congressman Lloyd Doggett, long-time union member Rep. Joe Deshotel, D-Port Arthur, activist Daniel Llanes and columnist Jim Hightower all noted, the unions were the backbone defenders of civil rights and the protection of workers' safety. As native Wisconsinite Eileen Mershart told the crowd, "You can thank us for the eight hour work day, the 40 hour work week, unemployment compensation, and worker's comp." Just as importantly, public sector employees have been at the core of the growth of the middle class. Mershart said, "They teach our kids, they clear our streets of snow – your know what that looks like, I know – they are social workers, nurses and police."


Photo by Richard Whittaker

Not that all the criticism was reserved for out-of-state Republican elected officials. It was hard not to think that at least some of Doggett's fire was felt by AISD administration when he said, "You listen to people talking about closing down the neighborhood schools, laying off our teachers, blaming it all on public service employees, and you know that these folks are living on a different planet."

Hamstrung as Texas union are, they still had advocates for the difference they can make. When Battalion Chief Bob Nicks from Austin Firefighters Local 975 first joined the fire service 25 years ago, he said, "We used to not have air packs. Fire fighters would crawl underneath the smoke and come up vomiting soot. We'd ride with too many people on the units, and our units were in terrible condition." Thanks to the union, he said, those conditions have improved, "so it's not just about wages and benefits. It's about services to the community."


Photo by Richard Whittaker

There had already been a Planned Parenthood rally at the capitol, and many of their supporters stayed around for the Wisconsin event: Unsurprising, since the right has savaged advocates for family health care as hedonistic harpies with the same glee that they have described union members as "thugs."

This may well be the opening blasts of an intense season of campaigning and rallying for union activists, progressives and Democrats. First Planned Parenthood holds its capitol lobby day on March 8, then the Texas State Employees Union is holding theirs on April 6. The big one may be on March 12, when Save Texas Schools plans to bring parents and teachers from across the state to march for public schools.


Photo by Richard Whittaker

The centrist and liberal groups are also finding unusual but unsure allies amongst traditional enemies. Aside from the token sign-carrying Tea Partier, there are fiscal conservatives who may not like any publicly funded health care, but who are scarcely on-board with the religious right's war on a woman's right to choose.

There are also plenty of moderates, and Republicans with buyer's remorse over their Tea Party vote last fall, who may yet break with fringe extremists in their own party. Voices of reason like Rep. John Zerwas, R-Simonton, are already making the case for defending the health care provided by agencies funded by Planned Parenthood. In a step that will leave extremists fuming, he is even making the case for abortion provision in cases of rape, incest, and pregnancies that threaten the life of the mother.

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