Current Mac students continue history of labor activism

By Jonathan McJunkin

The protests at the Madison, Wis., State Capitol Building have been the focus of the nation’s attention for over a month, and Macalester students and alumni have been at the center of the controversy.Valentine’s Day marked the beginning of the ongoing demonstrations in Wisconsin. 100,000 union members, students, and others have demonstrated against Governor Scott Walker’s Budget Repair Bill which proposed limitations on the collective bargaining power of public sector unions, as well as proposed cuts and restructuring affecting the University of Wisconsin at Madison and the state’s public hospital system.

At press time, the collective bargaining portion of the bill had been passed separate of the rest of the budget, but is currently blocked by a judicial restraining order.

Students get involved
Macalester students, including many Wisconsin natives, were drawn to the protests by both political belief and the sense that something worth being a part of was going on.

Many students took advantage of the snow day on Feb. 21, including Jonas Buck ’13, who carpooled to the capitol with a group of nine other students and spent the night inside the rotunda.

“What is and was happening there is so monumental it would be a shame not to be involved.”

“I’m not the most pro-union person you could come across,” Buck said of his reasons for going to Madison. “It’s more than just labor protesting, it’s serious democratic action.”

Buck also had personal experience that led him to be interested in the Madison protests.
“I definitely grew up around people who were union supporters. Most of my family history is from a working class background.”

He mentioned that this year marks the centennial of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, a major milestone in labor history in general as it led to regulations for better working conditions. “That really hits me,” Buck said, “partially because my grandmother once worked as a seamstress in a similar factory.”

Henrie Slocum ’13 was also drawn in by the magnitude of the protests in Madison.

“Oh there’s something important political happening, I’m into that, it’s a snow day, I’ll go,” he said, ” I ended up staying for the whole week.”

Slocum called the protests a “resurgence of the labor movement.”

“For so long the working class has been attacked by politicians, so this was like the straw that broke the camel’s back,” said Slocum.

Buck, who is from Washington State, left for Madison during the snow day with nine other students in two cars. It was an even split of Wisconsinites and students from other states.

He described the energy at the capital as “vibrant and respectful. Vibrant because there was constant energy, hope and anger simultaneously, and respect for the building-people realized that it was their building. People cleaned the floors, people respected the police-it was completely non-violent,” he said,”there was respect for people that had opposing views.”

During his first week’s stay and on subsequent trips, Slocum worked as a medic at a first aid table in the capitol, as part of an ongoing goal of local activists for creating more permanent community based healthcare. He is certified as an EMT, and has completed several other first aid trainings.

Lucas de Gracia ’12 traveled with Slocum to Madison and worked with him while there. He went as a member of Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) to participate in meetings to discuss the possibility of a general strike of labor unions in Wisconsin to protest the bill.

At the capitol, he was mostly in a periphery role at these meetings “For the most part, the locals didn’t immediately put you on the list-it was mostly led by them,” de Gracia said, ” I spent most of my time at the first aid station handing out cough drops and giving massages.”

“We had a lot more stuff but that was basically all we had to hand out,” Slocum added, “we had enough aspirin by the end of it to easily kill a whale from the donations.”

Both Slocum and de Gracia were impressed by the community response to the protests. Organizations such as Ian’s Pizza, which give away pizza to demonstrators, received contributions from around the world. They saw these donations as a recognition by Wisconsin as a whole that they were “all in this together,” and not as “condescending charity.”

“If there was a need, it was going to be met,” de Gracia said, “The community provided for itself.”

History of activism

Macalester students’ reputation for activism precedes the current protests by many years. Over the past three decades, students have been heavily involved in many strikes and movements, including the Hormel strike of 1985-6 and attempted Starbucks workers organization in recent years.

On Macalester’s history of involvement with labor, Peter Rachleff, a history professor who teaches labor history courses, said, “at its best, Macalester’s education offers the possibility of synergy between the classroom and the community.”

Alumni involvement

Alumni, such as Jeff Leys ’91, have also played an active role in the protests. Leys attended Macalester from 1982 to 1984, taking time off before returning in 1990. While at school, he was very active with the Macalester Committee Against Registration and the Draft, as well as the Honeywell Project. This project protested Honeywell Corporation, an arms manufacturer, and lead to Leys being arrested.

After withdrawing from Macalester, Leys symbolically damaged the Navy’s Project ELF transmitter, which would have been potentially used to send signals to U.S. nuclear missile submarines as part of the process of launching a nuclear weapon. He spent two years in Wisconsin prison as a result.

When he returned to Macalester, he wrote his honors thesis on the development of the Watertown Wisconsin teacher’s union, which his father helped found. After graduation and studying at the Ed Mann Labor School, Leys went on to work as a union organizer for the American Federation of Teachers in Wisconsin and Kansas, and as a staff representative for SEIU Healthcare Wisconsin.

Leys has been involved in protests throughout Wisconsin, including in Madison, but mostly in rural northern Wisconsin where he lives. He has also written several articles on Wisconsin for online publications, such as Truthout.

“Since my mom still lives about 40 miles from Madison, I was able to participate in the initial days of the demonstrations in Madison-while also providing care for her as she recovered from some recent heart ailments,” he said ” Back home, I’ve assisted with some of the turn out for local rallies that have occurred. Currently, I’m actively engaged in circulating petitions seeking a recall election of State Senator Sheila Harsdorf, a Republican senator and strong ally of Governor Walker.”

“My involvement with this is motivated by my active engagement in union work over the years-though I’m not presently a union staff or union member, he said, “It is also more significantly motivated by my family’s union history. My dad walked the picket line during a teachers’ strike in 1973 in my home community of Watertown, Wisconsin.”

Leys spoke of the importance of student involvement to the protests in Wisconsin.

“While I was on the periphery of activities in Madison, it seemed evident that students formed one of the key nuclei of the demonstrations in Madison. Students were key to the 24 hour-a-day presence within the Capitol Building.”

Students speak out, look ahead

Those who were involved in the protests had strong opinions about the issues surrounding Wisconsin. In response to the assertion by Governor Walker that there is no ill intent towards unions behind the bill, Buck said, “Striking the budget component of the bill confirms what people were saying all along. The bill itself is not a budget bill and even if it was it’s not the way to go about it-unions aren’t the cause of the budget problem.”<br

Buck also came out in support of the 14 Democratic State Senators who left for Illinois to prevent a vote on the bill, who have come under fire for seemingly abdicating their duties as representatives.

“They had to step outside of their conventional offices, up against equally unconventional methods to rush the bill through,” he said.

Slocum spoke of the importance of engagement, even among students not directly connected to Wisconsin. “One of the best things Macalester students can do is just read about what’s going on, educate yourself. Wisconsin people were great, and the local people definitely lead the movement, but the support of outsiders is also really important,” he said.

de Gracia suggested that the role of outside students in the Madison protests may be diminishing, but opportunities to get involved remain.

“Now, what’s going on is mostly on the local level and in the workplace. I don’t see any reason for a Macalester student to go to Madison and hang out in the streets, but there’s a lot of other work to be done locally for the same causes for other organizations,” he said, “such as the march on Saturday for CTUL and organizing for the Jimmy Johns union.”

Slocum added, “There’s also a lot of connections to be made between the education cuts happening in Minnesota and what’s going on in Wisconsin-as well as union-busting proposals here in Minnesota.”

“There’s a lot of things like these that we can get involved with to help without imposing ourselves on other people’s movements. That’s what solidarity really is,” Slocum said.