Budget cuts main concern at Monday's Exeter rally

On April 8, 2011

They sang labor songs together, held signs and waved at honking cars as they stood in the cold, damp drizzle. Though their priorities were slightly different, these 30 people came together on the steps of the Exeter Town Hall last Monday evening to support the national labor movement and rally against the recent New Hampshire budget cuts approved by the House.

The rally was one of about 1,200 others held across the country under the banner of We Are One on April 4, a nationwide day of action organized by a coalition of several national union and progressive organizations including MoveOn.org, Democracy for America, and the NAACP.

Though two members of the Exeter Unitarian Universalist (UU) church organized Monday's event, only about 15 people participated in the rally were affiliated with the church, and it seemed that all 30 had their own reasons for being there.

Kendra Ford, the minister for the Exeter UU church, and one of the organizers of the event, said her purpose for organizing and attending the rally was to defend the welfare of those that would be further marginalized by the proposed $10.2 billion budget, which, according to an April 1 article in the Concord Monitor, makes drastic cuts to almost every sector of state services, from social services to education.

"It's a lifelong interest of mine to see that we have a society that cares for everyone who's in it and that is very thoughtful about caring for people, and this budget is not thoughtful about that," Ford said.

Ford wore a long sash around her neck to signify her position as congregation leader, and often kept her hands folded together in front of her, watching over the crowd. She stood on the steps of the town hall next to Ilona Weber, a retiree from Exeter whose husband belongs to Ford's congregation.

Weber said she was there for similar reasons - to defend the homeless and the hungry that would be affected by budget cuts - but that she was additionally concerned about a lack of educational funding.

"Education is one of the most important things that we can give to our young people," Weber said. "And I find it very upsetting that these people don't feel that way."

Weber, though not a member of Ford's congregation herself, said she too was primarily concerned for the welfare of others as opposed to herself.

"My concern would go up if Washington started to cut Medicare and Social Security, because I depend on them," Weber said. "I'm not a rich person. But for New Hampshire my concern is for others because I have a good life, and I want a good life for others, too."

Carol Aten, an Exeter resident on the town budget committee, was more concerned about the shifting burden that she saw as a result of the budget cuts.

"One of the things I see is that the cuts at the state level are just going to push the property taxes up at the local level," she said. "A lot of funding came through state agencies and … some of those needs don't go away just because the state cut them out of the budget."

Aten said that she sees the statewide cuts as ‘swapping pockets.'

"It's not going to solve the problem," Aten said. "Cutting the budget in Concord is not going to save us money locally. What it's going to do is shift the burden locally, so we'll still pay for it, one way or the other."

Joan Webber, a retiree from Kensington whose husband was the other organizer of the rally, was most concerned about pulling out of foreign wars in order to save money.

"I mean, here we are, all the towns are so poor, and the state government is trying to balance the budget, but guess what?" Webber said. "We have plenty of money for Afghanistan and I object strenuously."

Webber's daughter Elizabeth also attended the rally. Elizabeth, the international student advisor at UNH, also felt strongly about educational cuts included in the proposed budget. The cuts would include $80 million from the university system and $11.4 million from the community college system, according to the Concord Monitor.

"It's taken us so long to get things like elementary education and technical vocational funding - don't cut it," she said. "They are idiots up in Concord. We need to fund education. This is our only way for a successful future. How can you be global if you don't have education?"

Dave Roberts attended the rally with his wife, Jenaya, son Tyler, 16, and daughter Chelsea, 12. Roberts has been in the construction union for 13 years, and he said his family has been involved in unions for more than 100 years before that.

Roberts held a sign that said, "Working class, time to fight corporate greed."

He said he sees the enemy mostly as corporations and republicans and that he disapproves of what's happening in Wisconsin.

There were no verbal acknowledgements among participants of the day, but the rallies were strategically organized to take place on the 43rd anniversary of the assassination of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 4, 1968. King was in Memphis, Tenn., to stand in solidarity with striking sanitation workers who were fighting for their employer to recognize their union and for the rights to collective bargaining.

Ellen Stutman, an art teacher in a Plaistow elementary school, organized an April 2 rally in Concord to protest the Kurk Amendment, which she said effectively strips all collective bargaining rights and guts public service unions in New Hampshire.

The legislation, which passed in the House but has yet to pass the Senate is, in Sutman's words, "similar to Wisconsin, but everything I've read says that it's even more drastic."

She said about 75 to 100 American Federation of Teachers (AFT-NH) members and supporters showed up for the rally in Concord. Stutman, a Cambridge, Mass., resident, is not entitled to congressionally protest New Hampshire laws, even though her job is affected by the passing of the amendment.

"I'm frustrated that as a non-New Hampshire resident I can't contact legislators," Stutman said in regards to her motivation for holding the rally. "But I can be there with my body and get as many other people [out there] as I can."

Most of the "We Are One" national rallies were held in the eastern part of the United States, but there were actions taken in all 50 states.

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