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.”
Amanda Pustz in front of the Wisconsin state capitol building
Marching on behalf of collective bargaining rights