Galvanized students, faculty and staff rallied in front of the University of Massachusetts Student Union building Wednesday to express solidarity with Wisconsin public sector workers protesting legislation to strip them of their collective bargaining rights.
The rally, called “From Wisconsin to Massachusetts – Defending the Public Sector,” drew a crowd numbering in the hundreds. Many braved the cold weather in order to sing, speak and protest against Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s budget-balancing plan, which would reduce certain pension and insurance benefits for public sector employees.
Rally speakers, including students and community members, contended that actions being taken against public sector workers in Wisconsin would travel to Massachusetts unless members of the public protest.
“It’s not just about what is happening in Wisconsin,” said rally organizer Ben Taylor, a UMass student who is also a member of Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts [PHENOM] – a pro-public higher education advocacy group. “This has been going on for the last 30 years. It is not just happening in Indiana. It’s happening in Massachusetts.”
Taylor expressed excitement over the rally’s position as part of a “concentrated fight.” Calling out to students to recognize UMass as a “working class college,” Taylor said a threat to Wisconsin unions is a threat to all unions. He began his speech at the rally chanting, “When workers rights are under attack, what do we do? Stand up, fight back.”
The rally-goers’ other chants and pro-labor sing-alongs included a variation of the song “Keep Your Mind Stayed on Jesus” converted to “Stayed on Unions” and “What’s disgusting? / Union busting,” among others. Meanwhile, many of those in attendance toted large signs with messages such as “Tax the rich” and “Stand up, fight back.”
Many of the speakers at the rally emphasized acknowledging a mentality that UMass is a school of working class students and faculty. Several speakers also opined that tax breaks are not going to classes of citizens who most need them.
Kathy Rhines, chapter president of UMass Amherst and Boston’s professional staff union, said in an interview with a Massachusetts Daily Collegian reporter before the rally: “It’s kind of interesting; Gov. Walker says the closing is about a budget deficit. But it is clear to us that this is not the case. It is clear to us that this is really about collective bargaining rights.”
Wisconsin-native Kate Losey, a graduate student and member of UMass’ Graduate Employee Organization [GEO], also spoke at the rally.
“I’m here to represent GEO, and I’m also here as a Badger, as a Wisconsonite,” she said to the crowd on Wednesday. “I’m very proud of my Badgers right now.”
Losey also said at the rally there has been “an important crack in the fight,” as Republicans such as Wisconsin GOP Sen. Dale Schultz, who publicly opposed Walker’s budget bill, co-sponsored an alternative bill with Sen. Van Wanggaard, also a Republican. Schultz and Wanggaard’s alternative bill would allow limited bargaining rights for public employees on wages, pensions and healthcare for the next two years.
Losey said at the rally that she saw this “wavering” of Republican votes on the bill to be telling, illustrating that the rally’s cause is a bi-partisan issue.
“The movement is strong enough to sway not only Democrats, but Republicans as well,” she said in a phone interview with the Collegian. “There are tens of thousands of people in the streets protesting. Public service workers, people from small towns have realized [the bill] is attacking [their] living and what [people] need to put food on the table.”
Losey said she feels that a majority of people, regardless of partisan political affiliations, feel the abilities to provide for and educate their families are where their priorities as a working class lie.
“Wisconsin was one of the first states to pass collective bargaining rights,” said Losey at the rally. “There is a staunch support for unions [there].”
The rally included a 45-minute march around campus. After the march, the rally-goers retreated indoors to the Cape Cod Lounge in the Student Union to continue discussions about workers’ rights.
The rally also raised money to send food to protesters occupying the Wisconsin Statehouse.
Organizations sponsoring the event included the University Staff Association, Professional Staff Union, Massachusetts Society for Professors, AFSCME Local 1776, PHENOM, GEO, the International Socialist Organization, Student Labor Action Project, Western Mass. Jobs with Justice and VOX UMass Student Voices for Reproductive Justice.
Alyssa Creamer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.