Wisconsin, US: Interview with student Activist

When protests for workers’ rights erupted in Madison, Wisconsin, high school students from across the city took to the streets as well to show their solidarity with their teachers. They organized walkouts and marches that played a role in inspiring their teachers to stage a sick-out which shut down Madison schools for three days straight, ending business as usual and showing the way forward for the movement. JACOB FIKSEL, a senior at Madison’s East High School who played a leading role in building the protest actions at his school, spoke to Justice about his organizing experience.

Why are you opposed to Walker’s bill?

I’m opposed to Walker’s bill because if this goes through we are going to have a really hard time attracting and retaining the best teachers. If we can’t guarantee them collective bargaining rights public education in Wisconsin is going to go downhill, and there’s already a lot of problems that we have with public education. We need more money; we need to invest in public education rather than abandon it.

What sorts of provisions are in this bill that would harm teachers and the public education system?

Specifically, taking out collective bargaining for teachers. It’s going to make teachers pay more for their pensions and more for their health care, and there are also a lot of provisions that take out money from public schools and incentivize charter schools, which are hurting public education and go against the philosophy that everyone should have an education in Wisconsin.

What are other students in your school saying about the bill?

There’s a buzz around it. There’s a smaller group of more active students that are against it, a lot of students are against the attacks on collective bargaining, and there are a few students who are in favor of the bill. But I think the large majority of the students are against this bill, and are specifically against the collective bargaining section of it.

What do students think about the protests that have been happening?

We had 800 students three days in a row on days that we had off from school, so a lot of students are there to support their teachers. They were at the Capitol, and they’re happy that the teachers were there at the Capitol because they know it’s for them and for their future as well.

What is your opinion of the efforts to recall Scott Walker?

Since he did not campaign on taking collective bargaining away from teachers I think it’s important that we show them that if you’re going to run and be elected, you have to put forth what you propose to the voting population before you are elected. So I think that it’s important that we put a lot of effort into recalling Walker and immediately recall the eight Republican senators.

And what do you think of the tactics of the recall? Is it going to be enough to actually defeat the provisions in the bill? Is it the best way, do you think, of going about this effort?

In the long run I don’t know if it’s the best way, but it’s definitely a way. I know elections for Walker aren’t going to occur until 2012, and obviously even if the Democrats take control of the Senate and the Assembly, which is not very likely to happen in the near future even with the recall, he’s going to veto any bill which reverses these provisions. I think in the long run we will be able to undo these changes but I think we’re going to need more extreme measures in the immediate future to get rid of this bill.

What sorts of measures?

I’m definitely a proponent of the general strike. I think it’s a very important message to send that, you know, we support you, why can’t you support us, and this is what’s going to happen if we’re not there working for you. So I think that’s definitely one of the main reasons I support a general strike. And I’m definitely a proponent of just getting information out to as many people as possible. Because I think the more people know about it, the more people are going to oppose it, and we’re going to have a lot stronger opposition to Walker.

Is it true that you’re one of the main organisers of protests against the bill at your school?

Yeah, I saw – my friend and I were talking immediately after the bill was proposed and we came to the conclusion that a walkout was the best way to show our opposition. And I know that the Tuesday after the bill was proposed, East High School had a walkout, and we had scheduled ours for the day afterward, but school was cancelled, so we were a little worried that, you know, no one was going to come. But we decided to have a large group of students gather at West High School, and we ended up having 800 kids get there, so I think it just shows the power of social networking.

What exactly did you do to build these protests?

On Tuesday during lunch, my friend and I went up to the library and we created an event on Facebook, and then immediately we just went around the school just telling everyone about it. Then we went home that night and school was cancelled at 11 o’clock in the night, so we sent out a message to everyone who had clicked on the event telling them to come to the school and to march to the Capitol with us, and then 800 people showed up – and every night I sent another message saying that we’re walking again and 800 more people would show up.

What was the reaction of teachers and parents to the walkouts?

The teachers have been very good about not talking too much about the issue because it is a political issue and we are a public school. But I know one of the teachers, he said “this is my PowerPoint,” and he put up one slide that just said “Thank you, students,” and he said that he cried when he saw the students gathering outside the schools, and I know a lot of teachers have taken me aside and just said, “Thanks for everything you guys are doing.”

What does Walker’s bill show about the system of capitalism under which we live? Does it shed any light on the way things work in our society?

I think it sort of shows that the corporations and the businesses think that they can walk all over workers’ rights, and I don’t think that’s right. I think the workers – they really don’t have a true voice in our political system right now. I think it just shows that we need some true voices for workers’ rights in this country.

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