FRONTLINE ACTIVIST

by Chris Killian

A fire of fairness has always burned inside Amanda Pustz.

So it’s probably no surprise that she finds herself on the front lines of one of the largest, most organized and sustained labor movements in recent memory; from the moment that Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker announced his intent to strip public employees in the state of nearly all their collective bargaining rights.

Pustz, a middle school teacher in Madison, Wisc. and a 1997 graduate of Kalamazoo College with a degree in History with a secondary education certification, would have nothing of Walker’s so-called budget repair bill.

She remembers when Walker’s plan was announced in mid February. The news shocked her, along with several of her colleagues.

“How could I not get involved?,” she said. “We had to take a stand – and quickly.”

The leadership of her 5,000-member union, Madison Teachers Inc., met later that day. Emails between union members were exchanged. And, finally, a decision was made.

Many teachers would stay home from work the next day in protest of the bill and to head to the capitol building to speak with legislators. When Madison Public Schools officials, who run the state’s second largest district, determined that many teachers would not be showing up for work, they decided to close the district the next day.

“We thought, ‘we just shut down the district,’” Pustz said. “We could make a difference, or at least make people pay attention. I can’t understand why some people don’t understand what we’re doing. Why can’t we all rise together?”

The fight had begun.

On an afternoon in early March, Pustz found herself in a familiar spot, meeting some of her fellow union members, protest placards resting on their shoulders, at a spot next to the state capitol building.

Moments later, they began marching – along with union members from the skilled trades, firemen, cops and everyday people who supported their cause – in a ring of democratic activism that encircled the capitol since Day 1 of the struggle, which garnered the attention of the nation.

She spent a night in the lobby of the capitol, one of hundreds who assembled in a huddled mass of humanity to protest what they call an unprecedented assault on the middle class and average working Wisconsinites.

In many ways, Pustz has been in this protest march before, at least in a metaphorical sense. She’s felt the rush of adrenalin and empowerment that comes with being a part of an organized cause before.

She had always felt a strong sense of the need to advance justice from her time growing up in Ottawa, Ill., a city just southwest of Chicago. But that sense was strengthened in her time at “K,” a college she settled on after looking at several small private schools in the Midwest.

The strong spirit of advocacy for social justice issues she found at “K” became the fertile ground for the activist that had always been within her to grow and flourish, she said.

After several African-American professors resigned during her junior year, amidst some controversy, Pustz decided to get involved, becoming a member of the Coalition On Race and Diversity (CORD), she said.

“My time at “K” definitely played a role in my growth” as an activist, Pustz said, adding that several of her research papers at “K” focused on the social movements of the 1960s and ’70s.
"Every day I go to work is a quest for social justice."

The tenets of justice she learned at “K” are being put to good use, not just on the protest lines, but most importantly, in her classroom.

She teaches special needs students at Cherokee Middle School, where several of her students come from low-income and disadvantaged backgrounds. The invigorated labor movement in her state, as well as the near daily protests, provided several teachable moments for her students.

“Every day I go to work is a quest for social justice,” she said. “I’m not doing this for the money.”

In a controversial move, the Republican members of the Wisconsin State Senate signed Walker’s bill after 14 Democratic State Senators had fled the state to stave off a vote on the measure. Walker signed the bill a few days later.

But the fight seems far from over. More than 100,000 protestors converged on the capitol on March 12 in one of the largest demonstrations ever in Madison, a city well known for activism.

Talk of a recall effort to remove Walker and some legislators continues.

But no matter what the end result, Pustz knows that she made her mark on history.

“This is awakening a debate about economic equality,” she said. “A lot of different people are galvanized around this issue. The world is watching. The real question now is: What kind of country are we going to have? I want to be a part of helping to answer that question.”

Picture 1

Amanda Pustz in front of the Wisconsin state capitol building
Pictures 2-3
Marching on behalf of collective bargaining rights


     




   
   


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6 RESPONSES TO FRONTLINE ACTIVIST
Robert O. Curtis, PE 1970 on May 21, 2011 at 12:09 pm
This story is woefully negligent of the truth. WI Governor Scott Walker only tried to limit negotiations on benefits, no salary restrictions, which are not even available to federal employees. Her illegal blue flu strike employing intimidation tactics merely served to propagate the corrupt practice of union lobbyist loading up politicians' campaign coffers in exchange for high-paying contracts at taxpayer expense. She did NOTHING for the benefit of any students or education. The union efforts with all its manpower and financial advantages was not even popular enough to elect a judge on an off year election.
John Brenneman '60 on May 21, 2011 at 1:39 pm
First of all I agree with Robert's comments. Secondly, taking part in a one day strike/protest is certainly not worth a story.
Robert Anderson 59 on May 21, 2011 at 8:52 pm
The story only reinforces the need to reduce the power of Government Employee Unions. Are the professors at Kalamazoo College Union workers?
Gerald C. Rothman '59 on May 21, 2011 at 9:01 pm
I am so proud to see a fellow graduate of K College participating in defense of education and the rights of working people. The gains made by labor and progressive government to provide a decent standard of living to the ordinary American have been dismantled by multitrillion dollar corporations and their political lapdogs since 1980. It is beyond ridiculous to compare the lobbying and "financial advantages" of unions to that of corporate America whose ill gotten resources acquired by plundering our economy, polluting our environment, denying public services, and exporting jobs have given them political power even beyond their wildest hopes.
Bill Coe 1972 on May 21, 2011 at 9:04 pm
I disagree - this is a big story, and it has barely begun. Walker's run for governor was heavily financed by the Koch brothers (who also gave us the Tea Party). Walker inherited a state with a budget surplus, which he squandered with gusto on tax cuts for the wealthy and the well-connected, who are clearly getting their money's worth from Walker (income taxes are my profession - trust me, I know what I'm talking about). Having manipulated WI into a "crisis" - the "solution" is what many in the ultra-right were banking on to begin with. The impacts on education are particularly unfortunate. For starters, Walker is limiting local control over taxes, which will prevent many communities that want to boost their local schools from doing so. The "school choice" program popular in Milwaukee is being expanded across the state - but Walker has ensured that the funding formula increases local taxes while reducing funds available to public schools - much of the new revenue goes to relatively wealthy parents who can now use public dollars (without any income limitations) to send their children to expensive private schools. The threats to in health care, the environment - the list goes on - are large and imminent. At the end of the day - I very much doubt that our "K" almumna is overpaid for teaching special needs students - and I'll bet she is a bit of an activist, but I can't fault her for talking to legislators on a day when her district was closed anyway - and she apparently couldn't have gone to work even if she had a change of heart that day and wanted to, after all. I wonder - is this sort of access - blue flue - really more alarming than the sort of access the Koch brothers seem to have?
Anne McIlree Noble 1982 on May 26, 2011 at 9:45 am
Thank you, Gerald and Bill. I echo your thoughts 100 percent. Gov. Walker is a sham and a disgrace to my home state. Good job, Amanda and keep fighting for what is right. Your activism on behalf of those affected by this ridiculous plan, not only teachers, but others, is wonderful and inspiring.
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