Wisconsin Teachers' Union: One Parent on Why It Should Be Supported

Filed under: In The News

Wisconsin Teachers Union Jennifer Uphoff Gray

Jennifer Uphoff Gray participates in a "Les Miserables" flash mob protest at the Wisconsin state Capitol. Credit: Courtesy of Jennifer Uphoff Gray

When newly elected Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker announced Feb. 11 that he wanted to take away most of the collective bargaining rights of public employees, he probably expected some backlash.

It's unlikely, however, that he had any idea his plan would lead to tens of thousands of protesters rallying daily at the state Capitol.

Many of the early protesters were teachers, but they were soon joined by parents and their children. When the teachers went back to work on Feb. 22, parents kept the pressure on by organizing their own rallies -- police estimated there were "about 70,000" protesters at the Capitol on Feb. 27, the Wisconsin State Journal reports.

ParentDish spoke to Jennifer Uphoff Gray, a Madison mother of three, with children in preschool, second and fourth grade. The artistic director of the Forward Theater Company, who has attended eight rallies since Feb. 17, and plans to take her kids with her to another rally on March 5, talks about Walker's bill, the protests and why she thinks parents should get involved. An edited version of the interview follows.

ParentDish: How did you first get involved in the protests?
Jennifer Uphoff Gray: I was aware that Gov. Walker had announced that he was introducing a bill that would significantly curtail union rights in our state. But I was in tech for a production and didn't have a chance to read much beyond the headlines. A few days later, Tuesday night, Feb. 15, I received word that my middle son's public school would be closed the following day because the Madison teacher's union had decided to do a mass protest at the state Capitol.

As images of teachers and parents and students protesting peacefully on that Wednesday, Feb. 16, started to come out, I realized that there might actually be an opportunity to defeat this bill. ... The next day, I took my son down to the protest. There were about 25,000 people there that day. It was an extraordinary learning opportunity for him.

PD: How so?
JG:
He got to see what public discourse in action looked like. We also ran into several of his teachers in the Capitol building. They were very moved, and they thanked him for being there to support such an important cause. That had a big impact on him.

PD: Why is this an important cause to you?
JG:
I've spent my entire life active in political and progressive causes. This bill of the governor's cuts at the fundamental social bargain that we have entered into with our communities and our public workers. These workers did not cause the financial crisis that we are in. Even so, salaries have been cut, benefits have been deferred, public workers have stepped up to be part of the solution. Even with the governor's request for significant changes to financial compensation, the unions have agreed to all of those cutbacks. Walker is only interested in dismantling public unions. This is not about the budget.

PD: What has it been like at the protests?
JG:
It has been profoundly inspiring. The crowds are multi-generational; you see college students, children, adults, public and private employees, small business owners. People are polite, they are respectful, they are patriotic, they show their support for the institutions of our state, they show respect for the Capitol building, itself.

The people who were locked out organized cleaning crews every hour, leaving the building cleaner than when they found it. When some of the snow that had been there for weeks started to melt, volunteer crews (of protesters) started picking up trash that had been there since before the protests started.

The other thing I would say is that there have been no significant arrests. Over these two weeks there have been probably half a million people in and out of the Capitol area. The typical Badger hockey game, at least nine or 10 people get arrested. (Laughs.)

PD: What happened when the schools reopened?
JG:
On Monday, Feb. 21, the Madison teachers announced that they would return to teaching the following day. That evening, a number of parents in the Madison school district started spreading the word on Facebook that they were going to organize a rally to represent their children's teachers. I helped spread the word about that protest and went down on the 22nd. There were, again, tens of thousands of people at the Capitol that day. Among them were hundreds of parents carrying signs that said "I am here for so and so because he or she is teaching my child."

These are our teachers. These are our families. What the governor is trying to do is wrong.

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Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.