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Back to Section One | Back to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, March 4, 2011 - Volume 39 Issue 09
WISCONSIN REPORT - LGBT voices rise from Wisconsin
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WISCONSIN REPORT - LGBT voices rise from Wisconsin

by Mike Andrew - SGN Staff Writer

'Around the country, LGBT workers and our allies are standing in solidarity with the workers in Wisconsin,' said Pride At Work Executive Director Peggy Shorey.

'The right to collective bargaining is vital for all workers, and particularly so for Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender workers and our families.'

Pride At Work, an LGBT labor organization affiliated with the AFL-CIO, is working with Wisconsin unions and LGBT organizations to build the ongoing protests against Gov. Scott Walker's so-called 'budget repair bill.'

The protests began after Walker introduced his bill on February 11.

The Republican governor says his bill aims at balancing the state budget. State workers and their supporters, however, accuse the governor of wanting to strip workers of their right to collective bargaining.

For Shorey, the right to join a union and bargain a contract with employers is key to securing the rights of LGBT workers, especially where they are not protected by state anti-discrimination laws.

'Wisconsin state laws do not include protections against discrimination based on gender identity and expression, so a union is likely the only form of protection for Transgender workers,' she said in a Pride At Work statement sent out on February 19.

Uniting under the slogan 'We are one!' upwards of 100,000 people, many of them members of public employee unions and their families, have swarmed the Wisconsin state capitol in Madison. Democratic state senators have left the state, effectively bringing the state's budget process to a halt.

The protests have electrified the country and put new backbone into a progressive movement that had been reeling from losses in the 2010 elections.

In this state, 2,500 people, led by Washington Federation of State Employees (WFSE) members in their trademark green shirts, rallied in Olympia on February 26 in solidarity with Wisconsin workers, completely overwhelming 150 Tea Party members who gathered to support Walker.

SGN spoke recently with four LGBT activists in Wisconsin about their experiences, and the impact Gov. Walker's 'budget repair bill' will have on their lives.

Laurie Marks, state employee
Not all state employees who will be hurt by Gov. Walker's bill are union members.

Laurie Marks and her partner are employees of the University of Wisconsin (the other UW), but not members of AFSCME, the union that represents many university employees.

Nevertheless, she tells SGN that if Walker's proposals pass, 'my family will really be impacted.'

'If [Walker's bill] passes, it will cost us an extra $450 or $500 a month,' she says. 'Health insurance will go up $120 and the pension contributions will increase by 12.8%.'

Marks and her partner have two young children, and her wife's salary 'barely covers daycare,' she says.

'I'm really scared they will take away domestic partner benefits,' Marks tells SGN. 'In Wisconsin, we have no second parent adoption,' putting the children's health insurance at risk if the couple loses domestic partnership benefits.

Since Marks works weekdays, she has been able to get to the demonstrations at the capitol only on weekends.

'There was a marked difference last Saturday [February 26, when unions went all-out to mobilize a response to expected Tea Party rallies]. There were tens of thousands of people! It was just massive!'

'Oh my God!' she exclaimed. 'There was no way we could even get into the capitol. It's hard for me even to describe it. I've been an activist for 20 years and I've never seen anything like this before!'

Marks says she was overwhelmed by the diversity of the protestors gathering in Madison.

'There are so many segments of public workers this is going to impact. University workers - there are 26 schools in the system - and students, and a whole array of people who provide all these other services.'

For Marks, the experience has changed her view of unions.

'There have been efforts in the past to unionize the [UW] staff,' she says. 'I wasn't against it, but I was never that enthusiastic about it. For folks like me, this has been an eye-opening experience. I get it now. I get it now.'

Ray Vahey, co-president of Equality Wisconsin
Ray Vahey is no stranger to political activism.

'I'm old,' he chuckles. 'Seventy-two. I can remember the old Eleanor Roosevelt style of progressive politics.'

As an activist with Equality Wisconsin and the group's co-president, Vahey says he has tried to build alliances among diverse communities, an effort that is paying off now as groups mobilize their members to go to Madison.

'Equality and economic justice are intertwined,' he says. 'We've reached out to the Latino community and the African American community. And we've been supporting labor groups for a long time.'

Vahey tells SGN that his group's relationship with organized labor goes back several years, to the campaign against a state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage.

'We had the amendment in 2006, and we were well supported by labor,' he recalls. 'We lost that one, but it was the beginning of a very good relationship.'

'In 2004, Milwaukee city workers won domestic partner benefits,' Vahey continues. 'AFSCME did that. [Walker's] bill would eliminate the ability for labor to negotiate agreements like that.

'Today we have 11 smaller communities where workers get domestic partner benefits. That would be gone. The far right has just pushed the envelope too far!'

Vahey says he appreciates the 14 Democratic senators who left the state to prevent passage of Walker's bill, and hopes they will set an example for other Democrats.

'I continually see cases where Democrats run away from their liberal and progressive roots,' he says. 'It's good to see them do the right thing.'

Jacqueline Lindo, Equality Wisconsin organizer
Jacqueline Lindo works part-time as an organizer for Equality Wisconsin. SGN spoke to her by phone as she was on her way to a rally at the state capitol building.

'Today [March 2] they reopened the capitol,' after the governor ordered it closed to the public, she told SGN. 'We're going down to protest the governor's speech.'

'It's been really good energy,' Lindo says, describing the scene at the capitol in the past weeks.

'People have been peaceful and considerate. Even the police have been helpful and polite. It's really orderly. There's a well-organized system to provide for the needs of the people there.'

'A student organization set up in the rotunda, and they had an open mic for people to speak. State workers just got domestic partnership benefits a couple of years ago, and they're all worried they'll lose them.'

'I went to the bathroom in the capitol and they had signs posted. 'Please do not graffiti the bathrooms.' It was sweet!'

Lindo believes Walker and Republican legislators are motivated by narrow partisan interests.

'Unions support Democratic candidates,' she says. 'Disable the unions and you make it a lot harder to raise money for Democratic campaigns.'

Asked how Walker's bill would impact her personally, Lindo worried that it might have wider repercussions for all public sector workers.

'My wife works for the City of Milwaukee,' she tells SGN. 'City employees' bargaining rights are in danger, too.'

'Domestic partner benefits have been a saving grace for me as a Type 1 diabetic,' she adds, explaining that she might not get health insurance at all if she were not covered under her wife's policy.

'Union rights are Gay rights are minority rights,' Lindo insists. 'Every time there's union busting, it affects everyone.'

Katie Belanger, Fair Wisconsin executive director
'Fair Wisconsin was the first LGBT organization in the country to stand in support of our unions,' Katie Belanger says proudly.

The organization has been fighting for LGBT rights for 16 years, she says.

'We led the fight against the [anti-marriage] amendment in 2006, and in 2009 we won the domestic partnership registry.'

Belanger tells SGN that her organization's alliances with labor unions go back to those campaigns.

'The unions were with us every step of the way,' she says. 'On the amendment, on the domestic partnership registry. This is our way to thank them, and stand up for their right to exist.'

Belanger has gone all out to organize support for protesting workers, even organizing a special LGBT contingent to march to Wisconsin's capitol.

'We had our own rally with Tammy Baldwin [Madison's openly Lesbian Congressperson] on Saturday [February 26],' she says. 'Then we marched to the capitol to join the unions. More than 300 of us. It was really amazing!'

Belanger says her group is also organizing a recall effort to remove Republican lawmakers who support Gov. Walker's agenda.

'We've sent e-mails to more than 10,000 of our members,' she tells SGN. 'We want them to contact their legislators. And if the legislators don't listen to their constituents, then we should recall them.'

'We're not going to go away, and we're not going to stop,' she adds.

While she confesses that she finds it 'frustrating that elected officials will not listen to the voices of the people,' she says she is optimistic that Wisconsin workers will ultimately win.

'I think this movement will drive the agenda,' she predicts, 'whether it's through recall or in the 2012 election. There's a massive shift in how people think about Wisconsin politics. People are ready to take their government back.'

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