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Political Mercury

Sept 8 , 2011
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In Des Moines, Wisconsin senator talks meatloaf, the fight for workers' rights

By Douglas Burns

Wisconsin state Sen. Lena Taylor

Iowa joins Mississippi as the only states with the distinction of having never elected a woman to the U.S. House or Senate or as governor.

Wisconsin state Sen. Lena Taylor, D-Milwaukee, who delivered the keynote address at the Polk County Democrats' 11th annual Women's Event last week, said if voters would just think about meatloaf the glass ceiling would come crashing down.

"I believe that a woman's perspective in politics is very important," Taylor said in an interview with Political Mercury. "I believe she brings a unique perspective. You know, we're multi-taskers. Who in the world thought of taking a little bit of ground beef and putting some crackers and some bread with it and some eggs and some onion and bell pepper and make a meatloaf — and stretch it as far as you can with noodles and spaghetti. The point is women are individuals who are very resourceful."

Iowa needs to be able say: We're not like Mississippi, Taylor said.

"We need to engage and we need to be active because we are the mothers of the young people who are coming behind us, and we weren't always part of the ‘we the people' in America," she said.

Taylor has gained national prominence as an advocate for workers' rights with Wisconsin in the fore in that political imbroglio.

"This is not just a Wisconsin fight that you see that we're having," Taylor said. "This is really a moment in America's history where we have to determine whether or not we believe in her values, her democracy, whether or not we believe in her dream and the access to her dream to all of her citizens."

First elected to the Wisconsin Assembly in 2003, Taylor was one of the state's "Fab 14" lawmakers who left the state in hopes of preventing Gov. Scott Walker from passing a "Budget Repair Bill" that eliminated many collective bargaining rights of public employees, one Taylor characterized as "overreaching and radical."

She says her focus has always been fighting for the middle class and the working poor.

"Democracy in the workplace is called collective bargaining," Taylor said.

Although federal law dating back to 1935 protects the right of private employees to engage in collective bargaining, there are no such protections for public sector employees who choose to unionize. Although Walker had argued that his bill would leave collective bargaining in Wisconsin "fully intact," the statement was given PolitiFact's strongest rebuke of "pants on fire."

The Wisconsin bill carved out exceptions for firefighters, police and state troopers, but all other public sector unions saw at least a partial reduction of their rights to collectively bargain. Rights for about 5,000 home health care workers and 2,800 employees of the University of Wisconsin Hospitals and Clinics, including nurses, were completely repealed, and 30,000 University of Wisconsin System faculty and academic staff had their rights to organize and bargain completely rolled back from an earlier (Democratic) state decision that allowed it.

Due to mostly conservative, but a few liberal, shadowy influence groups chiming in on subsequent recall elections, no one really knows how many millions have been spent in Wisconsin in an effort to either preserve or repeal Walker's bill. Currently, Democrats remain one vote shy in the Wisconsin Senate.

Taylor, only the second African-American woman elected to the State Senate in Wisconsin in that state's history, said she believes President Obama has accomplishments that matter to the "communities of color."

"If you're asking me whether or not he has done enough, I believe that there's so much more to be done, but he can't undo hundreds of years of history in a couple of years," Taylor said. "He can't undo 400 years of free labor that did not allow individuals to get the same start out of the block that others have been able to have."

Taylor said unemployment is rampant in the African-American community and needs the focus of not just Obama but other federal leaders and legislators at the state level. CV

Douglas Burns is a fourth-generation Iowa newspaperman who writes for The Carroll Daily Times Herald and offers columns for Cityview.

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