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Editorial: Too soon for protest signs

 

The veterans will struggle filling out their picket signs.

Vague indignation and old grudges do not translate well into snappy slogans that catch the eyes of passers-by. But that will not prevent the Veterans Community Relations Team from rounding up about 25 people to stand in front of the Milwaukee Art Museum on Thursday and shout, um, something and wave signs that, well, strive for some kind of point.

Representatives from the museum and the Milwaukee County War Memorial Center since May have been negotiating the terms of a deal that would iron out who controls operations and maintenance at their shared building. The memorial traditionally has had that control, but the museum wants it to protect artwork.

If they can agree, they could get, from Milwaukee County and the museum, as much as $25 million for repairs and additions to the building.

The sides agree on separation of control but are stuck on such points as who controls a parking lot, who pays for security and how revenue is split. The VCRT claims the museum illegally took control of the parking lot years ago.

It is a typical negotiation between typically bullheaded opponents. And, in the spirit of stubbornness, the museum has refused to respond to a Jan. 10 proposal from the memorial’s negotiators.

That led the VCRT to characterize the museum as walking away from negotiations, a faulty assumption that forces those veterans to put into bumper-sticker length a stance on negotiations that have not ended.

But Mike Balistriere, the veterans coordinator for the Milwaukee Area Labor Council and picket organizer for the VCRT, still is satisfied with a Thursday protest. He said he wants to raise public awareness about what the museum is doing, and Thursday is the museum’s free admission day, meaning a potentially large audience to listen to the protesters.

But there really is nothing of substance to say yet.

A skilled negotiator understands the difference between a pause in the discussion and walking away from the table. The museum is still sitting, and its silence was a prelude to mediation.

A skilled negotiator also understands the damage that can be done by overreacting, with, say, a premature picket in front of a treasured community landmark. The VCRT is proving itself lacking in such skills.

Those 25 or so picketers on Thursday will run the risk of damaging not only the museum’s reputation, but also that of the memorial. And for what? To spark a discussion that was not over? To manipulate public sentiment to gain some flimsy leverage?

This is not the case of some huge company mistreating employees who think they have no recourse other than a picket line. These are two highly respected institutions seeking a way to share space.

To belittle that discussion with a protest is more than a threat to the negotiation. It is an insult to the people trying to resolve the dispute and to the people visiting their museum on Thursday.

The VCRT can keep its rhyming slogans and clichés. And if the group insists on protesting, it can at least offer the respect the museum and memorial deserve.

Leave the signs blank.

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