Erin Petersen

Milwaukeeans gear up for a P.O.W.E.R. walk

By - Mar 10th, 2011 04:00 am
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Poster courtesy POWER Wisconsin

In the weeks since Gov. Scott Walker’s budget was initially announced, protesters from across the state (and far beyond its borders) have descended upon the Wisconsin State Capitol building to voice their opposition or support for the now-infamous budget repair bill.

Tens of thousands marched around and inside of the Capitol, camped on its lawns despite frigid temperatures and peacefully occupied its vast marble corridors for several weeks. Around the state, reactions to the budget bill have spawned smaller events, with marches and walk-outs staged everywhere from overpasses to college campuses.

No matter what side of the fence you find yourself on, we can all agree that this sort of public demonstration is something to behold.

Tomorrow, roughly 100 people will begin an 82-mile trek to the Capitol, entirely on foot.

P.O.W.E.R. Wisconsin, aka People Organizing Workers for Education and Workers Rights, was created by a handful of community activists with the singular goal of “promoting the Wisconsin Idea,” according to co-organizer Christopher Fons.

First attributed to UW President Charles Van Hise in 1904, the Wisconsin Idea is essentially a set of principles which states that education should influence and improve life outside of the borders of the university classroom. Applied today, its core tenants are building Wisconsin’s economy, improving health care, removing barriers to education and improving the quality of life for all state residents.

“We  see this budget bill as a frontal attack on those principles — education for all, equality in society, rights for all workers,” says Fons, who currently teaches Social Studies at Riverside University High School. The walk has been in the works for a little over a week as more resources are pooled, however Fons says that participants are even more committed in light of what took place at the Capitol early Wednesday evening.

At roughly 6 p.m.,  the Senate called a special committee meeting, in which the GOP majority sped through an 18-1 vote to strip non-wage collective bargaining, remove automatic deductions of union dues from paychecks and institute annual certification votes for unions. This new bill is expected to pass the Assembly Thursday. (Read Patti Wenzel’s in-depth coverage here.)

“Now more than ever we’re determined to do this walk, and we hope this will cause more people to go to Madison. We should stay there until they reverse this and show that people are very angry and are going to do something about this,” he said. ” It shows they [GOP majority] lied…they pull this trickery with the conference committee, they don’t obey laws (referring to a violation the state’s open meeting rules, which require 24-hour notice for public meetings ) and show complete disregard for democratic process. This is not about the budget… unions offered to make concessions weeks ago. It’s about stopping people from having a collective voice.”

As an 11-year teacher in Milwaukee Public Schools, Fons also expressed his deep concern over how nearly $1 billion in cuts to education will affect school districts across the state.
“These cuts will have a profound effect on schools everywhere, not just in Milwaukee,” he says. “[Walker’s budget bill] is anti-intellectual and against the values of our state.”

The walk steps off from RUHS at 6 a.m. Friday (school is not in session for RUHS on March 11), and from there continues to the town of Concord in Waukesha County, covering about 38 miles in 13 hours. On Saturday morning, the group will walk 27 miles west to their second checkpoint in Deerfield. The demonstration culminates with a 6 hour hike to the Capitol on Sunday.

“We just want to present our ideas at the Capitol building so that we can show that people are serious about these attacks on worker’s rights and education,” Fons says. “We’re not willing to take this and not do something about it.”

Support vehicles will meet at checkpoints along the route to distribute supplies and provide aid when and if necessary.

Walk organizers have rented out hotel rooms at small, independently owned inns each night, and Fons says that some people along the route have offered up their homes so that walkers can rest. Participants are paying for their own rooms and supplies out of pocket, and some have even had friends and relatives sponsor them to help cover expenses.

Fons says that POWER has also received small donations via their website to help cover some minor costs, like bus rentals for the ride back to Milwaukee on Sunday. He adds, however, that fundraising was not a primary objective.

“We’ll need a minimal amount of money to pay for essentials like the bus back, but we are trying to get people to organize themselves,” says Fons. “Some money has been donated through the website, but it adds up to a few hundred dollars, in small increments. Otherwise, people are volunteering and paying for themselves.”

At the writing of this article, Fons says about 100 people have signed up to walk, however not all of them will complete the entire 82-mile walk. Some have signed up to walk in shifts or meet at various checkpoints throughout the weekend.

“It’s a long walk, so if people just want to come and show solidarity for a few hours, that’s great.” Another co-organizer will be in charge of updating the group’s blog and social media accounts along the walk, posting updates to Facebook and Twitter for those who wish to join in mid-route.

Fons  says that inspiration from the walk has been drawn from various sources; from local teachers and activists, to historic figures like Cesar Chavez, Gandhi and civil rights protesters in the American south.

“I’m in complete support of the large demonstrations in Madison and in recall efforts, but I think we need to put pressure on our government in different ways,” he says. “I think people should be creative in the way they raise consciousness over and over again.”

More information on P.O.W.E.R. Wisconsin is available via their blog or Facebook page.

Categories: Urban Ideas

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