Cesar Chavez, a Living Wage and Bipartisan Tax/Debt Pandering

Cesar Chavez Day
(By USGov-DOL (USGov-DOL) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Two apparently radical, left-wing proposals were discussed in Madison last week, one of which is supported, sort of, by our Republican governor and one which is opposed by Milwaukee County’s Democratic County Executive. And what Democratic candidate Mary Burke says she supports are right-wing budget ideas of prioritizing paying down debt and giving much of the Wisconsin tax “surplus” back to voters, I mean, the “hard-working taxpayers.”

Rep. JoCasta Zamarripa (D-Milwaukee) put forth a modest proposal, a bill to honor the great Latino civil rights and farm worker activist, Cesar Chavez. Her bill calls for an optional, unpaid holiday for Wisconsin state employees who wish to set aside a day to celebrate the life and work of Chavez just as he is now celebrated on March 31st in Texas, Colorado and California. Some Americans are now calling on President Obama to make what’s known as “Cesar Chavez Day” an official day of national service, a federal holiday for Chavez as we now have one for Martin Luther King, Jr.

Gov. Scott Walker reportedly responded to Zamarripa’s bill with a somewhat less than passionate affirmation: “It’s fine with me as long as it doesn’t cost the state any money.” We could make that statement the new official motto of Wisconsin, except that there are lots of things our governor and state Republicans are eager to spend money on–highways, private schools, contractors, a really destructive iron mine, etc. So honoring a famous Latino American is only okay because it’s cheap? No state Republicans in the Legislature are backing the Chavez bill, not even Rep. Jesse Rodriguez of Franklin. Sen. Glenn Grothman (R-West Bend) had this to say about Chavez to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: “I don’t know why the state would mislead the public into thinking this radical left-wing person is somebody who should be welcomed into the mainstream.” After such a statement, some might consider Grothman to be a radical right-wing person, the sort of person for whom civil rights and economic justice are not mainstream American values. I will only point out that Cesar Chavez was a military veteran, a religious man, a husband and father, a well-read and humble farm worker who preached and acted nonviolently on behalf of his fellow exploited farm workers.

Speaking of economic justice, the idea of raising the minimum wage seems to be too radical and left-wing for some in Milwaukee County and the state Legislature. Last week the County Board approved a very modest raise in the minimum hourly wage to $11.32. Chris Abele, the County Executive, has said he will veto the ordinance, concerned about its effect on the state-funded Family Care program. Family Care is fine with state Republicans as long as it doesn’t cost the state any more money, so State Rep. Chris Kapenga has written a bill to block all living wage ordinances that depend on state or federal money. (Sen. Grothman is a sponsor, saying it’s unfair that those without a living wage should support those with one. Logically, this should mean Grothman and the Republicans support a state-wide living wage, but no . . . Unfairness for everyone!) Abele would prefer that the state or federal government create a living minimum wage, and so would I. But that’s unlikely to happen anytime soon, as it would cost the state or federal government money that Republicans and many Democrats would rather allow the wealthy to keep. So rather than wait fruitlessly, Milwaukee County and many other cities and counties in Wisconsin and across the nation have decided to do the American thing and act independently. Catastrophe has not occurred where a more humane, living wage already exists.

Nor would catastrophe occur if Democrats in Wisconsin stood for something more than being less conservative than Republicans. Recently Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mary Burke labeled Gov. Walker’s half-billion in tax cuts irresponsible. And what’s her idea of responsibility? Use the extra cash to pay down debt and provide property tax relief, along with adding some job training as Walker wants to do. But what will these trained-for jobs be and where will they come from and where will they be? We need to create good, lasting, healthy work in inner-city and rural areas of the state, and that will require some serious state investment in new green and old green technologies, a whole lot of small-scale urban and rural renewal. The private sector alone is not enough, especially if we keep looking to big corporations to save us. The state also needs to support its public infrastructure, including schools. We need wise government investment, not austerity.

But at least Mary Burke now supports a higher state-wide minimum wage of $10.10 an hour. Whether this is a true living wage or not, it’s a move in the right direction, an act of justice for the farm workers and all workers of Wisconsin. I’ll end with a few lines of a poem Chavez wrote called “Prayer of the Farm Worker’s Struggle”:

Show me the suffering of the most miserable;
So I will know my people’s plight.
Free me to pray for others;
For you are present in every person.
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