The morning the state Assembly was debating Gov. Scott Walker's controversial bill to sharply curtail collective bargaining rights for public workers, protesters and police got into a brief tussle at the Martin Luther King Boulevard entrance to the Capitol because nobody, including Rep. David Cullen, D-Milwaukee, was being allowed into the building. At one point, a man yelled out to the police officers guarding the doors: "This is what we get for fighting for democracy in Iraq?"
Todd Dennis, a Navy veteran and member of the Madison chapter of Iraq Veterans Against the War, wasn't the one who shouted at police, but he says he understands why the protester was frustrated by not being able to exercise his right to free speech or peaceful assembly.
"We swear an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States," says Dennis. "Every service member does that. It was probably very shocking for him to see such a response from folks back in his own country."
Dennis says he has been up to the Capitol plenty of times to protest since Walker announced his budget repair bill on Feb. 11. And on Saturday he'll be back with other veterans from around the Midwest to march and rally with union members in a show of solidarity for Wisconsin's public workers.
"We're public employees too," says Aaron Hughes, an organizer with Iraq Veterans Against the War, a national group based in New York that has 63 chapters throughout the country. After serving in the military, Hughes adds: "Many veterans go into the public sector because there's a veterans' preference, so we depend on these public sector unions to protect our rights as veterans."
In addition, Hughes and Dennis note, the United States continues to fight two very costly wars in Iraq and Afghanistan while politicians, like Walker, propose spending cuts for schools and public infrastructure.
"The money we're throwing away occupying Iraq and Afghanistan could easily be redirected to save teachers' jobs," says Dennis.
Dennis says he reached out to the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) about co-sponsoring a march and rally and got the word last week that the union would join the efforts.
Members of Iraq Veterans Against the War will be coming from around the Midwest for the Saturday protest, says Hughes. The rally will begin at 10 a.m. at the Library Mall. At 11 a.m. veterans will march in formation down State Street, where local firefighters and bagpipers will join in and lead the rest of the way to the King Street steps of the Capitol.
David Newby, who recently retired as president of the Wisconsin State AFL-CIO, will address the crowd as will a representative of the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.
The Wisconsin Network for Peace and Justice helped publicize Saturday's rally and its members will be hitting the pavement as they have every weekend in recent weeks, says program director Steve Burns.
"People were asking what is the march this weekend," says Burns. "It was nice to have something to slot people into."
Burns says it's an honor for Wisconsin workers to have their struggle recognized by a national veterans organization in this way. He says the goal of his group "has always been to encourage people ‘to connect the dots' between the challenges we face at home and our endless wars abroad."