Gov. Walker’s Neighbor Speaks Out

The following is an open letter from my good friend and brilliant geographer Sigrid Peterson. Wisconsin needs to retain and encourage genius like hers, because there are plenty of employers in others states who want her. For those who haven’t heard, this is in reference to our governor’s recent announcement that he will call out the national guard if he needs extra enforcement of his plan to bust public sector unions.

Who are you gonna trust, Scott Walker (as shown smarmily above) or...

Dear Neighbor:  On the Multiplier Effects of a Public Sector Job

Dear Governor Walker,

I doubt you remember me. In fact, we’ve never formally met, but you and I grew up not half a block away from each other in the small town of Delavan, Wisconsin.  You were in my sister Katie’s high school class, though perhaps you didn’t know her then (indeed, she was a brainy punk rocker, while you were a mullet-haired jock).  Six years your junior, I have only fuzzy memories of you—of riding my bike around the corner, seeing one of the “older boys” in the neighborhood walk out of his house on West Wisconsin Street, and hearing my sister say, “Hey, there’s Scott Walker.”

...this hardworking woman (Sigrid) helping me pull weeds on a hot summer's day?

Our limited acquaintance notwithstanding, within the past four days I fear I’ve gotten to know you fairly well, or well enough.  So perhaps it’s time I introduce myself.  My name is Sigrid Peterson.  I’m your former neighbor from Delavan, and I’m a public sector worker in Wisconsin.

If it isn’t obvious, I’m writing to ask you, your administration, and your Republican friends in the legislature to put a swift stop to your proposed “Budget Repair” bill, along with its crude and unapologetic assault on fifty years of rights and benefits granted to Wisconsin’s public sector employees.  Your measure is nothing short of devastating—stripping most (in some cases, all) of our collective bargaining rights, incapacitating any future resources of our unions, and further straining the livability and reach of our compensation with steep increases in employee contributions to health care and pensions.

And you do this with nothing but unsubstantiated excuses that this is the “only alternative.” And you do this with no effort (none) to meet with workers since you took office.  Forgive me, but this makes you no more forthright or articulate than a tongue-tied and cowardly teenager breaking up with his girlfriend/boyfriend via text message.  Does this mean you’ll bring back your mullet, too?

If I’m irreverent, Governor Walker, I assure you it’s in service to things greater than concern over my job, alone.  I write this out of respect for my late father, too—your old neighbor, a lifelong Wisconsinite, and a public municipal employee.  I also write this out of pride in the progressive legacy of my home state, a legacy you and your colleagues delight in dismantling.

My dad, Lyle (raised in Richland Center, WI), was living proof that a public sector job—with its modest salary but good benefits—garners more than the sum of its parts.  More importantly, he taught me that we should celebrate (versus vilify) this form of work arrangement and ensure that we fight for the same for workers in every sector of the economy.

Dad raised me and my seven brothers and sisters on a comparatively small municipal accountant’s salary of $32,000 a year.  That salary not only fed (with lots of spaghetti) and housed us, but slimly subsidized all eight of our undergraduate educations at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  His affordable health insurance treated eight cases of chicken pox, thirty-three episodes of tonsillitis, and paid for a total of one hundred thirty-seven stitches.  Most importantly, his comprehensive health care saw my Mom, Shirley (raised in Muscoda, WI), through two years of chemotherapy treatments, and carried Dad to the end of his ten-year battle with cardiomyopathy.

Dad’s pension with the Wisconsin Retirement System is a lifesaver to my mother in her older years.  Mom had to exit the formal labor force at a young age in favor of unpaid work in the home to feed, clothe, love, and educate eight good and generous people.  She still lives in Delavan, Dad’s pension serving as her fixed income against the backdrop of a labor market that would have punished (if not outright dismissed) her after forty years of bringing up kids.

Five of those kids (and their families) live in Wisconsin, today.  We are teachers, public attorneys, university doctors, web engineers, and business people.  We give to our local communities.  My Mom, in particular, has spent a lifetime in volunteer service to Delavan fighting for clean watersheds, transparent city government, the preservation of public education, and accountable economic development toward quality jobs.

I’m her sixth daughter and seventh child.  Two and half years ago, I left a career in New York City to be close to her in Wisconsin and to pursue my dream of getting a PhD.  I’m currently a graduate student in our top-ranked department of Geography, as well as an employee of the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  Similar to teaching assistants (“TAs”) (full-time graduate students who dedicate more than twenty hours a week to instructing undergraduates), I devote over half of my work week as a University Project Assistant (PA).  I am staff in a policy research center in the Department of Sociology  devoted to growing Wisconsin’s economy through statewide partnerships between businesses and workers.  That job (which grants me membership in AFT local 3220, the “Teaching Assistants Association,” or “TAA”) provides a small take-home salary of just over $12,000 a year, along with state health insurance to help me weather winter infections and viruses.  Importantly, my job also grants me a tuition waiver, without which I could never afford to pursue training in the academy.  I know just how lucky I am, and my greatest goal is to repay this debt by becoming a professor in a land grant institution like the University of Wisconsin, giving back to young people seeking an affordable public education, as well as helping them get the most out of a few short years of engaging in the profound fun that is thinking and learning.  Your proposal, Governor Walker, seeks to strip me of the contractual rights to the benefits allowing me to stay here, and I am frightened over what my future holds if it passes.

As ambitious as it is damaging, your bill is also of grave offense to the progressive legacy of the State of Wisconsin, a legacy my father held dear, and one I bragged wildly about in New York.  While there, I worked on the physical and economic redevelopment of Lower Manhattan’s central business district (“Wall Street”), following its decimation from the terrorist attacks of 9-11.  As typical New Yorkers often do, my friends and colleagues would tease me for hailing from “one of those funny-shaped states in the middle.”  I’d always take their jab with good humor, but try to explain just how deeply proud I was of Wisconsin’s good people and progressive history—the land of Bob LaFollette, Gaylord Nelson, Frank Zeidler, and Russ Feingold.

My job in the city demanded I work with various CEOs and executives of major Wall Street corporations, and on limited occasions, when our job titles and “ranks” melted away (perhaps prior to a breakfast meeting or during a casual work gathering), we spoke candidly about personal interests.  My nerdy obsession with cities and the history of workers came up frequently.  And what amazed me was the reverence these otherwise powerful actors of private enterprise expressed for the city, county, and state employees who kept the Big Apple running.  Maybe it’s the sheer humility one feels when confronted with New York’s awesome, gritty mass of physical infrastructure and embodied space, but I met power brokers who deeply respected the men and women laboring for the metropolis, day in and day out.  None of the executives with whom I worked were anti-union, nor would they have ever rubberstamped such a bold-faced erosion to public workers’ basic rights and livelihoods as you endorse today.

While your version of Wisconsin’s “door” may indeed be “open for business,” I doubt the business people I know would care to walk through it, especially now…try as you might to steeply discount the entry ticket.

I leave in a few weeks to visit New York, to see my very good friends, and to catch them up on my goings-on in Wisconsin.  I still have things to brag about, of course.  I still get to live among the kind, committed, and understatedly clever folks of my upbringing, everyday.  And I get to work for our tremendous state University, in a department I respect immensely, and with people I love.  But I regret to say, Governor Walker, I brag a bit less enthusiastically, now.  You disappoint me, old neighbor.  What’s worse, you don’t just disappoint me, you embarrass me…you embarrass my father, you embarrass Delavan, and you embarrass the state of Wisconsin.  Please stop your bill, for all our sakes.

Sincerely,

Sig Peterson
Delavan, WI

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2 Responses to “Gov. Walker’s Neighbor Speaks Out”

  1. Barbara McWms Says:

    Sig Peterson speaks for generations of Wisconsin families: decent, honest, hard working individuals who have always played by the rules.
    Governor Walker’s assault on people, who consider themselves Stewards of the State of Wisconsin and who perform their jobs with dignity & care, is contemptuous, demeaning and unpatriotic.

  2. Dave Says:

    Who voted for this guy?? Why did we not see this coming from his conservative side. Now we must revolt or live with the consequences. Let’s everyone stand up for our rights.

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