Moved to Tears in Wisconsin

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It began with a three-hour bus ride. Lisa LaSalle, a communications disorders professor at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, felt a profound connection of solidarity with people she might not otherwise ever have met: a custodian and a highway worker, union brothers and seatmates riding the bus from Eau Claire to Madison, Wis., to stand up for their rights.

Last spring, fresh from the launch of the United Faculty of UWEC, LaSalle says, “I was so excited. I was involved in our election, on the executive council.” Now, with collective bargaining in limbo, meetings to discuss what members want in a contract are “at a complete standstill,” and one member of the negotiating committee has already taken a job in another state. LaSalle herself is hoping the union can sway impending policy but, as a “plan B,” is contemplating a move from Wisconsin. “My daughter is going to go to a high school in town if we stay here; a lot of the good teachers are getting pre-layoff notices, and lots of emergency retirements are happening.” The quality of life is about to plummet.

So LaSalle trekked to Madison with her husband and 13-year-old daughter to save her state. “The beautiful part was all the different unions coming together,” says LaSalle. “I was moved to tears by the firemen leading the way into the rotunda with bagpipes.”

“There were people hugging the cops, saying, ‘thank you for your service,’ ” she remembers. Signs were entertaining, and poignant: “My Teacher’s Awesome, Save Her Job.” “What Are You FOR?” And her own, “Democracy, Not Hypocrisy.” The city of Madison was behind them: “Almost all the shops had signs [like] ‘We Support Workers’ Rights,’ ” says LaSalle.

LaSalle and a group of other union members had a scheduled appointment with their state senator. Although a staffer listened while one teacher tearfully told him she’d have to sell her home if salary cuts were implemented, the senator himself never showed. “I’m still upset by the ‘deaf-ear phenomenon’ of our elected officials,” says LaSalle, noting the absence of Republican response. “How dare they?”

It may have been UW-La Crosse physics professor Eric Barnes who moved LaSalle most. “We shape the minds of future generations of this state,” Barnes told the crowd in Madison. “We live to work, but we will not work without a voice. Together with all our union brothers and sisters, we will fight to keep our rights and keep Wisconsin moving forward.”

Standing in 9-degree weather with snow falling, LaSalle and her family joined the crowd cheering Barnes on. “I felt there was somebody speaking for me,” she says. [Virginia Myers]

March 4, 2011