When Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker announced his Budget Repair Bill on February 11, Lieutenant Mahlon Mitchell had been president of the Professional Fire Fighters of Wisconsin for just short of a month. The bill, which eliminates collective bargaining rights (as well as many other rights and benefits) for nearly all of the state’s public employees, specifically excluded the firefighers’ union.
But Mitchell and the firefighters he represents say they feel just as involved as if their own rights had been on the chopping block. Firefighters have been a visible presence throughout the historic protests happening in Madison over the past three weeks; a fellow protester reports that, “in the large rotunda rallies, no other group draws such raucous cheers as the firefighters.” Firefighters and law enforcement (also excluded from the bill) have offered to share in the bill’s pay reductions (already agreed to by other union) in order to retain collective bargaining rights for all public employees and to prevent the lay-offs that Governor Walker has threatened.
Mitchell—the youngest and first African American president of the PFFW—represents 57 local departments and nearly 3,000 firefighters across the state. I spoke to him about why he and his fellow firefighters think Wisconsin's fight for workers' rights is their fight, too.
Robert Mellinger: How did you get involved in the firefighters’ union?
Mahlon Mitchell: I got hired here in the Madison fire department when I was nineteen years old. I've always wanted to be a fire fighter, even as a young kid. My older brother is a firefighter in Rockford, Illinois; my younger brother is a firefighter in St. Paul, Minnesota. So it's kind of in our blood, you could say. I've been here in the Madison fire department for fourteen years now.
I'd only been president of the Professional Fire Fighters of Wisconsin about a month or so, and suddenly all this stuff goes on [laughs]. So I am definitely getting baptism by fire, as they say.
Robert Mellinger: Firefighters weren’t included in the unions targeted by the Budget Repair Bill. So why did you get involved?
Mahlon Mitchell: We could have just sat on our hands and done nothing; the police officers could have, too—they weren’t included in the bill, either. But, personally, I truly believe personally in solidarity—I always have. I know a lot of people just pay it lip service and a lot of people think it’s a cliché, but I truly believe that "an injury to one is an injury to all."
Being involved in the community is what I love about being in the fire department. It's helping people everyday. People who call you, who call 9-1-1, it's usually on the worst day of their life. But we're there to help ease the pain and give some type of helping hand to people in need.
And the union does the same. A union basically speaks up for the voiceless and the people who can't speak up for themselves. That's what unions do. A lot of people say that unions have passed their time, but I think they’re still important so that there’s somebody to speak up for the middle class.
Robert Mellinger: Why do you say that these protests are about the middle class, instead of just unions?
Mahlon Mitchell: This is also about the rights of all workers. Especially in these times, I think that we in the middle class need to stick together and look after each other’s rights. The last thing we want is a decline in what’s available to people in the middle class. That’s not good for anybody. It’s not good for the economy, it’s not good for jobs.
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The ability to sit down at the table with your employer and talk about hours, wages, and working conditions is not a fiscal matter. All these workers want is a seat at the table—to be able to talk to their employer about their working conditions and hours. It just makes sense.
Look at union salaries—we’re solidly middle class. And Wisconsin is a hardworking, blue-collar state. You don't become a fire fighter or a teacher or a police officer to be rich. You don't do it because you want to be wealthy. You do it because it's a job that helps you take care of your family, helps you to have a better life for yourself, and also to give back to your community.
Robert Mellinger: What’s it been like to be in the crowds of protesters in Madison over the last few weeks? What’s the atmosphere been like?
Mahlon Mitchell: I have never seen energy quite like this in anything I've done in my life. Even during one-day events, I haven’t seen it, and this event has been going on for weeks. The energy is unbelievable. And it's just not stopping. I thought it would wane, especially from my members since we're carved out of the bill, for now. But we still have guys coming. I just got a call from firefighters from Florida that want to come up and march with us. I’ve heard from guys in L.A. who want to come up and march with us, from New York and Chicago. It’s amazing how much enthusiasm there is and how many people want to come and lend a helping hand.
It’s harder now to get access to the capitol; they’ve sort of locked it down on us. But firefighters are still saying, "Well, we'll march around the capital." So the energy keeps going.
Of course, rallies are great, but when you're speaking at a rally, you're speaking to the people who generally agree with you. You also have to go out and speak with people who don't necessarily agree with you, to make sure the people hear what's actually going on.
Robert Mellinger: What do you think the lasting impact of these protests will be?
Mahlon Mitchell: The biggest impact for the unions will be the way this has brought us together. Years ago, you wouldn't see firefighters working right alongside police officers working right alongside the carpenters working right alongside the sheet metal workers and the plumbers and the SEIUs. It's really brought together the leaders of the unions, but also the members—the people that go to work everyday and just want to get a decent paycheck and take care of their families. They're out in droves now. If there is one good thing about this bill, it's that it has brought middle class workers together, made our unions stronger and our relationships closer.
Protests in Wisconsin show that poor and middle class Americans are ready to push back against the policies and cuts that hurt them most. Madison may be only the beginning.
The debate in Wisconsin doesn't just apply to union members and public workers—it applies to every American who cares about our fundamental rights as citizens.
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