Thank You for Your Support. Now, Can We Sweep the Capitol?
Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times
By DAN BARRY
Published: February 28, 2011
Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times
Here was a tall man wearing a Viking helmet and a look that said, Ask me about my Viking helmet. Here was a shirtless man, wearing a beaded skirt and a debutante’s smile. Here was a young woman with her face painted like a cat, and a thin man on his cellphone and his Segway.
In the museumlike halls of the state Capitol, the granite gem of Wisconsin that for two weeks now has served as an elegant sleepover camp for a resilient band of protesters, the indoor street theater was continuing into another Monday morning. People danced, slept or meditated on marble floors, while drumbeats and chants rose into the inverted cup of this landmark’s dome.
Here was a man dressed as Uncle Sam, his mouth taped shut; he was holding a small skull. And here was a man pushing two wheeled garbage cans; he was just working. Emptying the trash baskets. Tossing black bags into a Dumpster outside. Just working, again, until early in the morning, for an hourly pay of 10 dollars and change.
As the Republican governor, Scott Walker, champions a bill that would weaken public employee unions by taking away most of their collective bargaining rights, protesters have responded by making themselves at home in the Statehouse; the people’s house, they say. All the while, a proud crew of custodians — some union members, some not — have been cleaning around them, adding a concrete presence to the abstract debate.
They include Sue Carney, 42, who has cleaned the Capitol at night for 16 years; she is a member of historic Local 1 of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees union, and glad for the health benefits. And April Grebe, 27, another union member, who catches only four hours of sleep before she has to drive her two children to school. And Aaron Pazour, 26, who works two jobs and is not a union member, but would like to be; he needs the benefits.
Unionized or not, these state workers were united by a fierce sense of obligation to the job: to buff and polish this century-old secular church, this repository of Wisconsin memory. The French walnut furniture in the governor’s conference room. The Senate chamber’s French and Italian marble. The bust of that champion of progressivism, Robert M. La Follette.
The custodians said they appreciated the support being expressed for them in their workplace. Occasionally, demonstrators have hassled them (“We’ve had people get into our faces, saying, ‘There’s more important things than cleaning this building,’ ” Ms. Grebe said.). But more often, the conscientious protesters have thanked them for their work.
Still, the custodians find it disconcerting to have their nighttime environment so — crowded; to see the posters and signs covering the replica of the Liberty Bell; to know that the place isn’t being properly cleaned.
“It’s hard for us to leave at night with the building so dirty,” said Ms. Grebe, wearing a blue Division of State Facilities T-shirt. “It feels like we didn’t finish our job.”
Late on Sunday afternoon, as government officials gradually withdrew plans to end the overnight stays in the Capitol — only to lock out additional protesters on Monday morning — many in the custodial crew gathered below, in the basement, for a mandatory-overtime shift.
Of the two-dozen in the crew, less than half are union members, whose starting salary is 11 dollars and change an hour; their nonunion colleagues make less and have nowhere near the range of benefit options. In the struggle between union rights and a state’s fiscal responsibilities, some of the proposed cuts will hit these low-paid people, union and not, the hardest.
Their boss, Cheryl Seiler, 52, was also once a Capitol custodian and union member; she remains partial to the glorious features in the Assembly chambers, and to the rights of workers. She now wears a gray golf shirt to reflect her managerial status, and wishes that negotiations could lead to a smaller, representative group of overnight protesters, and to fewer signs concealing the building’s “ornate beauty.”
“The building does need to be cleaned,” she says.
Addressing her crew, Ms. Seiler laid out a mission to clean as much as possible — though she allowed that attaining their usual high standards would be impossible, given the situation above.
You see, the custodians normally work in late-night solitude, the only sounds the hum of their floor-scrubbing machines, the only observers a Capitol police officer or two and that wild-maned La Follette bust. So when the workers went upstairs, this is what the elevator doors opened to:
An organic encampment of hundreds. Raucous yet peaceful. Defiant yet respectful, mostly. In the rotunda, people were taking turns with that most powerful weapon, a microphone, to seize their “I Have a Dream” moment, while various chants, from “The people, united, will never be defeated” to “Solidarity forever,” vied for attention.
A woman rocked in a chair in an area set aside for day care. A lending library, arranged along a marble railing, included union pamphlets and old copies of The New Yorker. When food arrived, there formed an orderly line worthy of a university cafeteria.
Myriad signs and banners covered nearly every inch of wall space — from rants against the Tea Party to reminders to finish one bag of bread before opening another one. But one sign caused more consternation than most: It said “Unisex,” and it kept appearing on the door of a women’s bathroom.
Some people dozed in sleeping bags on the gritty, even slippery, floors. Others meditated, with eyes closed, beside a drummers’ jam session. Here came that would-be Viking again, passing that scary Uncle Sam.
The custodians entered this new Capitol world, but only at its periphery. They swept where they could, mopped where they could, collected garbage when they could.
Here was Latisha Johnson, 25, a single mother who began making a dollar more an hour when she joined the union three years ago. She made a point of saying how proud she felt when she hears tourists remark how clean the Capitol is — normally.
Here was Carrie Peterson, 22, another union member, who often helps to clean the governor’s office. When her night shift ends, she comes home to a 3-year-old son, sleeping, and a boyfriend, leaving for his union job as a cook at a state facility for people with developmental disabilities.
Here was Ms. Grebe, another union member, who expressed again her unease at not being able to do her job, which is to clean. For example, that sleeping bag a few feet from where she stood: It does not belong.
And, finally, here was Mr. Pazour, not in the union but wishes he were — because, he says, he’d like to have someone behind him. Listening to rock music on the headset over his Green Bay Packers knit hat, he wheeled his garbage cans down grimy hallways that he would normally be soft-scrubbing to a shine.
He turned right, found some more trash, and piled it into one of his rolling cans. Then he wheeled his two barrels to the elevator, took them down a couple of floors, and out to a Dumpster containing an ever-growing mound of debris. Democracy, after all, has always been messy.