In Wisconsin, It’s the Middle Class vs. the Middle Class

In Wisconsin, It’s the Middle Class vs. the Middle Class

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Editor’s note:
Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s proposal to cut the benefits and collective-bargaining rights of public workers in the state has touched off heated debate and protests at the state capitol. Teacher Matt Amaral writes that the governor’s actions are pitting working Americans against each other.

Let’s forget about the fact that Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker actually inherited a surplus when he took office as governor of Wisconsin. Let’s forget that he got rid of that surplus by giving tax breaks to corporations and the wealthy. And forget for the moment that he is essentially manufacturing this “crisis” in Wisconsin just to stick it to the unions.

Forget all of that for now.

I have watched Republicans do these kinds of things for what seems like my entire 31 years. Play on fear, claim the world is ending and make it seem as if the only way out is to blame the unions--and finally bust them up. I’m not even going to argue about it. Just do it, Governor Walker--listen to Nike.

While we’re forgetting about things that should matter, let’s also forget that these supposedly evil unions have agreed to reform. They have agreed to a 1,200 percent increase in what they pay into their pensions. They’ve agreed to more than double what they pay for health insurance. They have agreed to a package of cuts that will cost some teachers around $1,200 a month in lost take-home pay (depending on their pay scale).

And let’s forget that in reasonable discussions about the sacrifice middle-class Americans will have to make in these tough times, the teachers in Wisconsin have stepped up and agreed not only to tighten their belts, but also to practically tighten it around the necks of their families.

And while we’re choosing not to access the memory centers of our brains, let’s look the other way when studies in Wisconsin show that even including public employees’ so-called “Cadillac” pensions, workers in the private-sector still end up with more money, better health care and larger retirement benefits.

So that the argument about the high life these teachers lead is actually unfounded. Even with their pensions, a state employee would be better off in the private sector. Period.

And let’s forget that the people the Republicans are ganging up on are teachers. The governor isn’t going after firemen and police officers’ unions, because it is unpopular politically, and he isn’t seeking cuts that might affect private-sector employees. He is giving breaks to people who own yachts. But teachers?

Evidently it is popular to keep attacking teachers, even though our wages and working conditions are laughable.

But as too many people turn a blind eye, turn up Fox News and turn off their brains, let’s remember a few things.

Remember how this economic catastrophe began? Didn’t it have something to do with banks, and lenders, and mortgages and deregulation? One thing I don’t remember seeing was George W. Bush begging taxpayers to bail-out unions. I could have sworn we average Americans paid hundreds of billions of dollars out of our thin pockets because one big sector of the working world was falling apart. I could have sworn that tax money went to companies, which billions away in bonuses for doing their jobs badly.

I also remember that our leaders didn’t ask those responsible for this financial mess to pay more taxes or stop giving out bonuses worth more than a school of teachers will make throughout their careers combined. No one asked Wall Street to do much of anything.

I remember the first stimulus package -- the one George W. Bush gave the banks. Even today we don’t even know where that money went. We just watched as the disparity between the rich and the poor kept increasing.

Remember that?

Perhaps the saddest, most upsetting thing I remember--after our country avoided falling apart and after the public bailed out the private--is that nobody marched against them. No one marched against the fat cats in Washington, who let Goldman Sachs tell government officials what would work best for them. No one marched against the banks. Even then they claimed they didn’t need regulation. Where was the anger against frivolous spending then? Where was the anger against Cadillac compensation for them? Where is it today?

How ironic that bankers are now calling for regulation—as long as it’s directed against working Americans.

What Walker is doing is attempting to regulate how Wisconsin teachers do business. He is telling some of the worst compensated workers in the state to scale back benefits agreed to in contracts, pay more into this and watch the way they do that.

These few days have been hard for me to take as a teacher. Teachers have mobilized, but even more amazing to see were the other middle-class Americans being bussed in to mobilize against the teachers.

While these outraged Americans never marched against those who caused our pains, I have watched in dismay as actual American citizens marched against other American citizens. And it isn’t even because the teachers won’t agree to reform or regulate the way they do things. They’ve already agreed to everything. No, they are marching against middle-class Americans simply to take away their right to have a voice.

This more than anything is what hurts me the most.

I don’t know about you, but I can’t think of a reason to march against my fellow working Americans—firemen, paramedics, shopkeepers, small business owners, checkers at the supermarket. You couldn’t pay me enough to try and take their rights away--especially if that group of workers had already agreed to give up so much. The very idea is despicable.

Teachers aren’t asking for respect. Teachers aren’t even asking for higher wages or better health insurance. Teachers just agreed to help the rest of their state by taking home less. They have agreed to less money for their families. What they are asking for is simple: A voice.

I can’t believe there is anyone in this country who would begrudge a teacher that.

Matt Amaral is a writer and high school English teacher in the East Bay. He is also the founder of www.teach4real.com, a website dedicated to teachers in our toughest schools.