A lesson in collective bargaining from Carmela Suozzi, age 4

It is 10:30pm on Thursday, February 17th as I write this. My wife and two of my closest friends have gotten in our car and driven to Madison, WI to join thousands of others at the State Capitol to lend their voice to the ongoing protest against Governor Scott Walker's bill to limit union bargaining rights. There is a very large part of me that wishes I was standing beside them right now, actively participating in this civil act of dissent. But, I am a father. And a responsible one. Someone had to stay home with the girls.

Getting a sitter on short notice wasn't such an option. And I will admit that the coming day for me is one that requires a certain type of sharpness. So, a 3am roadtrip home from Madison didn't seem prudent. And, yes, the kiddos need a little adult supervision in case the roof falls in or something (it's happened in our house, that's why I'm sensitive to being a protective dad).

I do not have the night wind in my face, I am not bolstered by State Street energy and the shared snacks of throngs of citizens fighting to be heard and fighting for those who can't fight for themselves. I do, however, have a lesson in collective bargaining from Carmela Suozzi, age 4, that gives me pause on some of my own internal frustrations and makes me realize that in our current climate of partisan struggles that activism (and really, just being active) is such a great alternative to reactivism.

I, like many of my fellow liberal friends, bemoaned the fact that Scott Walker was probably going to become our next Governor when it became clear last year that he was going to be the Republican candidate. I did not then, nor do I now, believe that Scott Walker is a good leader for the State of Wisconsin. My reason is simple, if not even simple minded. He is a pig-headed, non-compromising, ambition driven, crony loving-son of a preacher man. Other than that, I'm sure he's a nice fellow.

I have long held these beliefs. Going all the way back to 2002 when he came in as Milwaukee County Executive and performed a couple of early stunts to show he was the guy to lead the County, but quickly showed that his lack of real leadership (a leader listens first, and then acts to do the right thing) pinned him as a pig-headed, non-compromising...you get the picture.

And, yet, I did so little to prevent the election of Scott Walker to our state's governorship. I didn't call, I didn't write, I didn't do what needed to be done to help prevent the Tsunami of crap that is taking place in our State politics right now. This is my fault, and as we approach elections in the future, and I am outraged by any candidate on the ballot, I will work tirelessly to prevent an election to a post that I don't believe should happen.

At the same time, I had one of those stupid moments in my life today when, in a moment of frustration with my own often ineffectual union (AEA, Actors Equity), I kind of thought it was pointless to do anything because I wasn't so sure about this union thing. I basically became a whiny little weenie. I am not, however, pig-headed. I am simply dim witted, but blessed with three women in my life who constantly help me see that it is never good to be a weenie.

A discussion about my feelings on the state of the state started with my wife today, and I knew I had crossed the line into mouth-breather territory when my bride started a sentence with the words, "You know that's the problem I have with people like you..." That's a killer, and that's one that either makes you angry all day, or makes you think about what the hell is wrong with your own brain.

I chose to consider my brain. My wife was right to challenge me on my weak little irritation with some of the general problems I see with unions (possible obstructions to innovation and creativity, protection for ineffectual workers and organizing principles that sometimes are counter to any real productivity), and make me understand that this whole State Capitol fight is not one about unions, it is about the rights of those without a strong voice to have a powerful collective voice. Hence, our State's history of affording collective bargaining agreements to unions (along with about 30 other states) is really a good thing. It is, I would venture to say, one of the things that makes Wisconsin Wisconsin. Or so it should be.

I pulled myself through the day, eating crow, and being a basic grumpy old man with my co-workers pontificating about how nothing is ever going to get done because no one is going to really do anything--the vague argument is the one you have when you're really angry with yourself for being a douche. I'll say this for myself, though, once I realize I'm being a douche, I can undouche pretty quickly.

It was with that state of mind that I came home tonight, prepared for a night of following the action in Madison as my wife and friends planned their trip to Protest Land, USA. We fielded questions from our 8-year-old daughter Dorothea during dinner, trying to explain the value of civil discourse and effective, controlled protest as the meatballs cleared our plates, and Dorothea prepared for swim class. My wife and Dorothea made tracks to the swim class together right after dinner, Paula actually covering the swim class shift of a co-worker who had been called to a mandatory meeting in the school district she just started working in and hopes to continue working in for some time to come (I believe the mandatory meeting had to do with something having to do with tens of thousands of people in Madison, but that's just a guess.) The deal was, Paula and Dorothea would go to swim class, Paula would dump Dorothea back home, and then it was off to Madison for my crusading wife.

This left 4-year-old Carmela and I with that all too infrequent mano-e-daughtero time. In as much as my youngest daughter is the funniest person I've ever met (and I have met some funny people), I revel in these times. I decided that a lingering approach to bedtime would be a-okay, because it was a special night for our liberal minded household. Mommy was going to stay up way past her bedtime, and we were proud of that because it had great purpose.

As I do in these times, I left it up to Carmela to choose our amusement for the evening. And as she is 4, she tends to choose the same thing time and time again with slight variations. That thing is called "school."

Carmela loves school. Dorothea loves school. We have daughters who just can't get enough of school. This really has everything to do with the extraordinary heroes who made the important decision to become teachers and help parents like me raise confident, free thinking, creative people. School is not drudgery in our house. School is the greatest thing ever.

School can, however, take a little longer to play than you might imagine. There's a rather meticulous set up that goes along with it all. There's many questions. There are other imaginary students. And there's plenty of negotiation.

Yes, there is negotiation. There is bargaining. There is discussion about how to best make our school in the middle of our living room the finest school it can be. There is back and forth communication and consideration about cause and effect actions such as, "If Carmela gets to do 2 more math problems with student Daddy, then Carmela will immediately go to bed." We give. We take. We compromise.

It struck me as I climbed the stairs with a four-year-old on my back who had agreed to give up the benefits of screaming loudly for a piggyback ride, that collective bargaining makes people feel like they have some skin in the game, they have a leg or two to stand on. The 4-year-olds (especially the girls) should maybe be teaching us all a few more lessons about how to get things done.

All this is to say that in this whole discussion I believe we still must all acknowledge that there are real problems in this state, real financial issues that are going to require all men and women to give of themselves. No one is immune from this. Not teachers, not nurses, not even firefighters and police who right now look more immune that most. Taking away the sense of dignity and respect and making unduly harsh movements on stepping towards the ultimate break up of organized labor relations in our state as we know it does not a willing electorate make, however. Compassion and honor are gained when compassion and honor is given. Take it from the 4-year-old.

I don't purport to know what will come of the next few days, and I wonder if Republican Senators are going to waver as the working people they represent start to demand that their elected officials honor the most Wisconsin of Wisconsin traditions of our great state. What I do know, however, is that I will do whatever I need to do to work on any recall vote for our current governor (sorry, we have to wait a full year for that to become possible, although Alberta Darling is completely eligible for a recall movement and she seems deserving of one these days) as that comes available and tirelessly help to prevent these types of situations to take root in the future. I want my 4-year-old daughter to keep playing school not because it's fun, but because it's the best kind of hero worship there is.