Chants and Murmurs

by by Malcolm Burnley & Jonah Wolf

illustration by by Becca Levinson

On Tuesday afternoon, hundreds of Rhode Island workers filled the Providence Statehouse in a rally against a proposed bill that would deny bargaining rights to Wisconsin’s government workers; Wisconsin’s Democratic State Senators have fled the state to delay voting, Across the nation, new Republican lawmakers hope to solve deficits by busting unions. As we went to press, Indiana’s State Democrats had decamped to Illinois to avoid voting on a similar bill; Ohio Democrats, outnumbered past the possibility of a filibuster, lacked such an option. While such extensive measures are unlikely to spread to Rhode Island, two recent developments in Providence have proven the importance of collective bargaining.
The same afternoon, Providence mayor Angel Taveras mandated that all non-unionized city employees take a day non-unionized city employees take a day of unpaid furlough sometime before June 30, the end of the fiscal year. Taveras’s decision will affect an estimated 160 workers and shave an estimated $40,000 off the city’s $57 million deficit. In a statement, Taveras’s director of communications called the action “a way to signal that restoring fiscal stability in the city of Providence will require shared sacrifice from everyone.”
Later on Tuesday night, Providence school superintendent Tom Brady announced plans to dismiss the entire fleet of public school teachers at the end of the academic year. Brady’s move, which will allow him to re-hire a smaller number of teachers under different terms, resembles a similar measure enacted a year ago by the superintendent of Central Falls, working(as Brady is) under state Education Commissioner Deborah Gist, a strong supporter of non-unionized charter schools. But whereas only 88 teachers were fired from Central Falls High (all re-hired in May under new terms, although many have since resigned), Brady’s action would affect 1,926 teachers in schools across the city. The school board will vote on the measure Thursday. At press time, Mayor Taveras announced plans to close several schools in the coming year. –JW

Rhode Islanders may not know State Representative Robert A. Watson yet (R-East Greenwich), but he’s having no trouble making a name for himself abroad. During a luncheon on February 9, Watson made an outrageous comment that resulted in political uproar: “I suppose if you’re a gay man from Guatemala who gambles and smokes pot, you probably think that we’re onto some good ideas here,” he said, referring to the legislative agenda of the Rhode Island Statehouse this year. What began as an attempt at political sarcasm from Watson, the House Minority Leader, has escalated Rhode-Island-Guatemala tensions to their highest point in, well… ever.
Days later, Watson claimed his remark was just a boisterous attempt to highlight misplaced priorities within the Statehouse in 2011; the body has primarily held hearings on social issues like gay marriage, medical marijuana, and illegal immigration—not financial policy, which Watson claims he’d prefer. While it’s no surprise that local groups have pounced on his remarks—the Guatemala-American Alliance of Rhode Island demanded an apology, which Watson refused—Watson also sent ripples as far as South America. The Guatemalan Ministry of Affairs recently sent out a press release in Spanish, condemning the comments as “a direct insult to the entire Guatemalan community.”
It’s safe to say Watson drew few laughs with his sarcasm, but far worse: his comments were illogical to begin with. Suggesting that the Guatemalan community in Rhode Island consists mostly of illegal immigrants is false: according to the Latino Oral History Project of Rhode Island, the state’s largest influx of Guatemalan people occurred in the 1980s during a Civil War in the country, which means they settled in Rhode Island as legal refugees.
Not surprisingly, some people have actually defended the House Minority leader—like one Christopher Curran, who wrote in a letter to the Providence Journal that “Robert Watson’s specific choice of the grammatical device of alliteration at a Feb. 9 Chamber of Commerce luncheon was unfortunate in our current ethnically hypersensitive society.” Following this logic, it’s okay to make derogatory remarks as long as they have literary merit. If insults are excused when spoken in alliteration, then I’ll go ahead and call Mr. Watson a washed-up walrus-looking WASP, thank you very much. –MB