Wisconsin Gives Me Hope

March 2011

by Valentina Zamora-Arreola, RN, BSN, PHN, Kaiser Downey Steward

Has your own destiny ever collided with history? Mine did when I went to Wisconsin in February. As you may have seen all over the news, public workers and students camped out in the capitol to protest legislation to destroy the workers’ unions. These protestors believe in America and were using their voices to stand up not just for themselves but for our nation. I went and saw history for myself, and it gave me hope.

We got the call from the LA County Federation of Labor, and 161 of us from different unions got on a plane and flew to Madison—including four of us from UNAC/UHCP: State Secretary Barbara Blake; Jimmy Gomez and Jeremy Lanni from Political Affairs; and myself.

When we arrived the protestors had already been there ten days and they were weary. When people saw our signs saying “LA Supports You!” they started crying and hugging us. They said, “Thank you for coming so far, we had started to feel discouraged.” We were crying too.

As we went through the capitol rotunda I was amazed at how peaceful everyone was. The media called it an occupation but it was more like a village. On the first floor people made speeches, marched and sang songs. They lived on the second floor, with sleeping areas, child care, even an area for mothers to nurse babies. Food was donated from all over the world—even countries protesting their own governments. There were simple rules, like “Don’t open a new jar of peanut butter until you finish the old one.” Barbara and I helped in the first aid area, where there was a rule against taking photos out of respect for patients. In our profession that’s so important.

Wisconsin was the birthplace of AFSCME. UNAC/UHCP started as a union for RNs, but joining up with AFSCME was one of the best things we did. It makes us part of something so much bigger than ourselves. First weekend of the protest the AFSCME local called the firefighters and said, “They’re going to kick us out of the capitol tonight.” So the firefighters showed up and surrounded the college kids and said, “You’re not going to throw them out.” Not only do we as nurses have the credibility of being one of the most respected professions, but we have the power of this big international union’s collective voice for real reform in how we deliver health care to patients.

It was inspiring to see the college students. They were savvy about politics, and they had their own ideas. There’s been so much negativity in the media about unions. But the message that unions are not relevant is a lie. I saw the truth with my own eyes, I was right there where the truth was happening. At the same time that people in other countries are being killed for speaking their minds, people forget that in this country people died for unions. When I saw that people are not willing to let it go, it made me optimistic about how things will turn out.

The truth is that democracy still exists, and when people get together to stand up for what they believe, that is democracy. We were all there trying to create this more perfect idea of America. It really helped me see how important it is to keep being active with UNAC/UHCP. My experience in Wisconsin is one I will always cherish.