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Rights of workers important to everyone, including students

Posted: February 21, 2011 - 8:04am

Students in my class at the University of Wisconsin-Madison voted unanimously not to have class this week. They did so to support and participate in the protests that are happening a few blocks down the street at the state Capitol.

The protests come in reaction to Gov. Scott Walker’s proposal to fix the state budget by increasing the amount of money that public employees contribute toward their pension and health care premiums. The bill would also strip those employees — including nurses, bus drivers and teachers — of their collective bargaining rights. The bill is an outright attack on unions and the public sector.

My students are not union members. As a professor of English, neither am I. So why then are my students in overwhelming support of protests that are not in their immediate self-interest? The quick answer is that they recognize that the proposed cuts to teachers and other public employees are matters of direct concern.

They also worry that the governor’s proposal will diminish the quality of their education. As one student said, “Why is the governor doing this when we are a university that ranks in the top 20?” Not in football or basketball but in things like producing future teachers, doctors and research scientists.

In my large lecture class of 200 students, we read and discuss “The Federalist Papers,” Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography, Tom Paine’s “Common Sense” and the letters of John and Abigail Adams. Students are most stirred when we come to Thomas Jefferson — by the words he wrote, especially the line about the self-evident truth of people’s right to enjoy life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

We often spend an entire class meeting on this sentence. What students want to know is what Jefferson meant by happiness. Could a government really promise to secure happiness for its citizens? What we discover is that happiness for Jefferson was a public experience. In speaking of happiness, the Declaration of Independence offered a revision to an earlier formulation that called for government to protect “life, liberty and property.” In examining Jefferson’s words, the students come to see that people can pursue happiness not in isolation but only in the open and collective spaces of society. Happiness appears when people debate, discuss and solve problems together. Collective bargaining is part of this rich tradition.

Students, like their teachers, are committed to education. And we all face an excruciating decision when we decide whether to hold class as normal or follow our conscience and join together in this protest. It is a tough decision but ultimately, we hope, one that will make us happy.

• Castronovo is the Jean Wall Bennet Professor of English and American Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He wrote this for Progressive Media Project, a source of liberal commentary on domestic and international issues; it is affiliated with The Progressive magazine. Readers may write to the author at pmproj@progressive.org; website: www.progressive.org.

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