February 26, 2011

Sleeping giant roars 'We are Wisconsin!' at Capitol in Albany

Author: Liza Frenette
Source: NYSUT Newswire
Caption: Dick Iannuzzi tells throngs of union supporters at the Capitol in Albany: "We are Wisconsin!" Photo by Deb Ward. MORE PHOTOS.

A "sleeping giant" woke from under 10 inches of fresh New York snow, stretched and then roared. Again and again. Loud enough to be heard in Wisconsin, where the governor wants to take away collective bargaining rights, where workers from every state are letting him know it is not okay.

(read "Why Wisconsin Matters" for more rallies and background)

Throngs of unionists from all walks of work, public and private employees, students, and senior citizens came with signs, musical instruments and loud voices for a Saturday noon rally in front of the state Capitol. For some people, it was their first rally ever; a means to express their growing anger at the threat to collective bargaining rights, coupled with the frustration at working class everywhere being blamed for budget problems and threatened with even more layoffs.

"I see labor standing together the way we were meant to stand together," shouted Dick Iannuzzi, president of NYSUT. "Let's be clear: What's going on in Wisconsin has nothing to do with deficits. It's about destroying the middle class."

"We ARE Wisconsin!" he shouted to wild cheers as the crowd affirmed that Wisconsin's fight was theirs.

NYSUT members were at the rally in full force, waving NYSUT placards, home made signs and banners bearing the names of their local unions.

"The seeds of what goes on in Wisconsin are easily planted in other states," warned Iannuzzi. Attacks on seniority here in New York are really about getting rid of seasoned educators for cheaper labor, he said. In the same way, undercutting project labor agreements in the private sector promotes unhealthy, unsafe working conditions through reliance on products made by slave and child labor.

"They may have awakened a sleeping giant," said Joe Seeman, spokesman for moveon.org, a political action organization that helped organize rallies in 50 states on Saturday. "It all comes down to ordinary citizens claiming political power..Our moment is beginning. ..Get in the game!"

Mary Sullivan, president of the Capital District Area Labor Federation, just back from a trip to Wisconsin, said workers there said they want people to "show them what democracy looks like!"

"THIS is what democracy looks like," she said to cheers, whistles, drums and bells from the hundreds of people gathered around downtown Albany.

"We didn't start this problem!" said John Marino, vice president of United University Professions, representing SUNY's academic and professional faculty. "In 2008 greed put us in the worst recession since the 1930s - not public workers!"

"An attack on our basic right to negotiate fair wages.is an attack on America.its union busting, clear and simple," said Kenneth Brynien, president of the Public Employees Federation.

"America shouldn't be about politics for the few, but for the many," said U.S. Rep. Paul Tonko. As for destroying collective bargaining, he asked: "Will it help the economy? Will it help our children? Will it create jobs? Will it strengthen the middle class?"

And to each question, the crowd roared back "NO!"

Indeed, it is labor and the working class who can bring back the economy, Tonko said, and it's not right to balance budgets on their backs.

The problem is not the unions and laborers, but big money thugs who bully workers, he said. They prey on people's fears.

Not extending the millionaire's tax in New York, he said, is a form of welfare to millionaires, and a farewell to workers.

What to do? Call your family members and friends and tell them what is going on. Write lawmakers and call them. Register to vote.

Brian O'Shaughnessy, director of the New York State Labor-Religion Coalition, added another challenge. Ask your faith leader in your church, synagogues or other place of worship "to take a stand on this issue." They can sign a petition at www.labor-religion.org, where 725 leaders already have signed.

"Taking away collective bargaining is dehumanizing," he said. "It should never be a bargaining chip."

Singer/songwriter Bryan Thomas rocked the crowd with a stirring rendition of Steve Earle's "The Revolution Starts Now" dedicated to unionists in Wisconsin.

NYSUT officers Maria Neira and Lee Cutler proudly displayed the union's banner. Members at the rally included veterans like Board member Tony McCann and those brand new to union activism.

Kellee Bonenfant, a seventh grade teacher with the Troy Teachers Association, was there for her first rally. She said she came because she finds it "very sad" to see the attacks on the working class.

Lori DeMeo-Hurley, a teacher with the Schalmont Teachers Association, said articles on NYSUT's web page got her fired up enough to talk to colleagues about getting active. A phone call from organized labor alerted her to the rally. She brought along her camera, and said she couldn't wait to get home and post her photos on Facebook. She's also posting article links to keep her friends informed.

"I love that public and private are here together," she said. "It's all our working rights!" She pointed out signs from dozens of different unions at the rally, from academic to nurses to bricklayers. Her husband Dick, who also at the rally, is a 47-year member of the IBEW, she said.

"The only way our politicians will have the power to fight for the middle class is if we stand up for ourselves," said teacher Betsy Marshall, who traveled from the Poughkeepsie area with several fellow members of the Arlington Teachers Association. She signs petitions, writes letters, and attends volunteer NYSUT lobby days. "Big money has gotten too big."

Colleague Robert McHugh said Arlington would lose 60 positions under the proposed Executive Budget, including social workers, language teachers, and sixth grade specialized teachers.

In addition to budget cuts to school districts, layoffs of teachers and state workers, public higher education in New York is being decimated, all in the name of budget balancing. In the past few years SUNY state funding has been cut 35 percent; and another 10 percent would be cut in this year's proposed Executive Budget.

At University at Albany, cuts have already resulted in the loss of five core programs. And all of this is happening while student tuition rises, said Colin Donarama of Save Our SUNY.

But looking around at the large crowd assembled on a snowy Saturday, teacher Marshall said "All of a sudden I'm feeling hopeful; that people are waking up and seeing what's going on in this country."

The people at the rally also left behind timely messages: placards placed in the arms of snowmen and snowladies shaped by those at the rally. Signs placed in arms made of branches said: "We Support Wisconsin; NYSUT Supports You."