Madison and Beyond: The Fight For Workers’ Rights

Source: In These Times

The sheer number of people who marched around the Wisconsin state capitol building to protest Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s plan to cripple and kill public workers’ unions was dramatic—around 100,000 on a cold, snowy Saturday in late February.

They included members of nearly every union, farmers, small business people and non-unionized workers. A thousand unionized teaching assistants from the University of Wisconsin had come out early, jumpstarting the mass demonstrations within days of Walker’s February 11 announcement of legislation that would end collective bargaining rights for the majority of the state’s public-sector workers. Then they peaceably occupied the capitol, keeping it open for everybody. Police refused to evict them, and then slept overnight with them in the hallways. Firefighters showed up wearing their helmets, accompanied by a drum and bagpipe corps.

Since Gov. Walker announced his “budget repair” bill, there have been demonstrations by hundreds, even thousands, of workers and ordinary citizens in hundreds of small towns throughout Wisconsin. Local government and school board officials in many municipalities sent letters of protests to Walker, defending collective bargaining.

The grassroots character of the protests exploded in creative homemade signs: “Scott Walker is a Kochlear implant” (a reference to the ultra-right billionaire Koch brothers, who have poured large sums into Wisconsin for the governor, other Republicans, and the Tea Party); “High-speed railroading after all” (referring to Walker’s rejection of federal money for high-speed rail); “Thank unions for the middle class;” “We guard criminals—please guard us from this criminal;” “How can we Kochs you into talking?”; and “Walker is a weasel, not a Badger.”

Inside the capitol, the rotunda was a perpetual free speech zone, with protesters leaning over balconies to listen. A giant banner—”Tax the Rich”—hung above them. A band—tuba, guitar, two accordions, violin, tambourine and pennywhistle—played a spirited rendition of “Union Maid” (“You can’t scare me, I’m sticking to the union”). They were not far from a statue of the state’s progressive hero, Robert “Fighting Bob” La Follette, decorated like a shrine, with photos of the 14 Democratic senators whose self-exile to Illinois stalled Walker (giving the protests time to change public opinion) and a question: “What would Bob do?”

Fighting Bob certainly would have approved of one of the protesters’ favorite chants: “This is what democracy looks like.” He would have also agreed with the placard that read, “This is what class consciousness looks like.”

Paul Woods, 56, a non-union carpenter and cabinet-maker, understood the issues of democracy and class conflict at the heart of this confrontation. “I’m definitely supporting the people,” Woods says. “I feel like the middle class is being scapegoated and the corporations are having their way with us, via the Supreme Court” with its Citizens United decision to allow unlimited corporate political contributions. “If they want to fix things, they should grow the economy, not crush middle-class values.”

Steelworkers union president Leo Gerard, after a trip to Madison, put it this way: “Whether it’s workers from every sector of the economy—union, nonunion, just ordinary folks who have been struggling to stay in the middle class, pushed out of the middle class or fighting to get in the middle class—they’ve all seen that they are in this together…and that they’ve created a new bond.” (See “People Are Pissed Off: An Interview With Leo Gerard,” which accompanied this article in In These Times’ April 2011 issue.)

The battle has been joined

Walker and other Republican governors in at least a dozen states, including Ohio, Indiana and Missouri, are engaged in a battle to destroy both public and private unions as a voice of workers on the job. Corporations and conservatives have crushed private-sector unions to less than 7 percent of the workforce with anti-union tactics, deregulation, globalization or outsourcing, and weakened labor laws. Today, public unions represent half the labor movement, most of its growth, and a disproportionate share of its political spending, making them a prime target for the resurgent right.

Indeed, many on the right want to eradicate or eviscerate unions to destroy the single most important source of financial and organizational support for the Democrats and what remains of liberalism—the weak American version of European social democracy. This is not just a partisan game, it is a strategy to wipe out or privatize (using public funds to underwrite profiteering) nearly every public service—education, Social Security, healthcare, and much more—and to further deregulate corporations.

Once upon a time, conservatives saw the value of public pension systems and U.S. businessmen favored public schools to prepare a workforce for their factories. Now the right wants to shift the cost of security in old age, health and education from the government to individuals, thereby exacerbating economic inequality that is already at record highs.

After successfully driving down the cost of labor in production of goods and services, through outsourcing, unionbusting and public policy, corporations and the rich are now intent on reducing the cost of what Karl Marx called the “reproduction of labor power”—from expenditures for education to health programs.

Walker’s budget—like that being proposed by Republicans nationally and in many states, and too often embraced by Democrats—is another volley in the attack on the working and middle classes. For example, Walker would cut $900 million from aid to local school districts, while not only preventing new property taxes but also rolling back recent increases, forcing schools to layoff teachers or drastically cut their pay. At the same time, his budget offers tax breaks to parents who send their children to private schools and new corporate tax breaks.

The protesters were clearly motivated to defend the right of all workers to bargain collectively. Many people who were not in a union saw the labor movement as a defender of their interests. As the protests went on, polling consistently showed large majorities nationally and in Wisconsin supporting collective bargaining rights by nearly two to one (and a majority of Wisconsin voters polled would now vote against Walker, who did not campaign on his anti-union plans).

The public, in the state and nationally, saw Walker’s attack on unions as unnecessary to solve the state’s budget problems. The Wisconsin Retirement System is healthier than most states’ pension systems, with an actuarial funding ratio of 99.8 percent.

“This not a budget crisis,” says Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers. “This is a power grab,” as well as an effort “to foreclose public service workers out of a middle-class lifestyle by first taking away their voice and then doing as much as they can to minimize their political activity.”

Because union leaders agreed to Walker’s demand that state workers pay more for pensions and health insurance, much of the public appears to agree with Weingarten. Public workers often do have better insurance plans than many in the private sector. But research from the Economic Policy Institute and other investigators shows that public workers earn less in both wages and total compensation than private-sector workers with the same education, job tenure and experience. That’s true nationally and in Wisconsin and Ohio, where Republican Gov. John Kasich pushed through legislation stripping public workers of collective bargaining rights.

Questions of strategy

Wisconsin public-sector unions’ decision to accept Gov. Walker’s demands for concessions was problematic, because the concessions were unnecessary in any rational calculation and—more important—Walker didn’t budge.

Rick Badger, executive director of AFSCME Council 40, which represents mainly local government workers in Wisconsin, says the decision to take benefits off the table was “tactical.” It deflated much of the “us versus them” sentiment that Walker fomented among private-sector workers, Badger says. Walker wanted the people to see public workers as privileged and not suffering as they had.

In late February, a national Gallup poll showed an inverse relationship between income and support for the Wisconsin public workers, with the poor most strongly on their side and only those earning more than $100,000 supporting Walker by a slim majority. As the conflict unfolded, polls also showed the tactic appeared to persuade the public that the unions were being reasonable, making it easier to focus on their bargaining rights. But eventually, majorities in polls came to believe that the public worker concessions were not justified. Despite the tactical gain, Badger worries that it “creates a problem for unions going forward. By conceding these cuts, you undermine the idea of the union” as a means for workers to raise their standard of living.

Although three GOP Senators were reportedly wavering in Wisconsin as of March 7, and several broke party discipline before a March 2 Ohio Senate vote, the Republicans are more effective at maintaining discipline than Democrats. Eventually, one or more of the 14 Democratic Wisconsin Senators in Illinois will return, and Walker is likely to win. It may come at a cost. Recall efforts are now underway against as many as eight Republican legislators, and labor is planning to push recalls whenever possible or recruit candidates for the next election against politicians who undermine workers’ rights. (Conservative groups have also initiated recall efforts against some of the missing senators.)

Less certain is whether organized labor will move to push harder for taxes on the rich—who, after all, captured most of the new income generated during the last 30 years—or other progressive revenue sources, such as a financial transaction or speculator tax.

Getting more workers to join a union would be the most appropriate rejoinder to the right. Union leaders like Gerard report increased worker interest in forming a union. The labor movement will need to implement organizing campaigns that are systematic and targeted, like those of the most successful unions. But the movement should also encourage and accommodate the more spontaneous self-organization that was common in the 1930s.

Despite the protests, which have spread to many states beyond Wisconsin, partly with the help of progressive groups like MoveOn and USAction, Republicans are quite likely to pass anti-labor legislation in at least a few states beyond Ohio. Weingarten and Gerard insist that they envision a long-term escalation of activity, even if there are interim defeats.

“The labor movement can’t be wiped out of existence,” Gerard says. “When there were no rules about creating unions, we still created unions. If you look at countries where workers have been isolated, whether it’s Egypt, or whether it was Brazil during the military dictatorship—they form unions. Lula da Silva spent two years in jail because he created a union. He became the president of Brazil. So they may be trying to wipe us out, but it has brought us closer together.”

On February 21, the South Central Federation of Labor Wisconsin voted to support a general strike if Walker wins passage of his anti-union provisions of the budget repair bill. That seems highly unlikely, even apart from legal and contractual obstacles. But ongoing protests, whether as the Communications Workers (with AFL-CIO executive council support) plan for April 4, the anniversary of Martin Luther King’s death, or workplace actions (wearing pins, or a designated color, or writing postcards in lunchrooms) can spread the spirit of democracy and solidarity.

In Wisconsin, unions will find it harder to operate if Walker’s legislation passes. But they aren’t going away, not in the state that was the first to authorize state employee unions. “We’ve had relatively strong labor laws and history,” Badger says. “That gives me hope. We’re just one election away from changing things. Our view is we still have to have some form, some structure. We have to plan for a world where unions are decimated. But either way, we’ll still be standing.”

David Moberg, a senior editor of In These Times, has been on the staff of the magazine since it began publishing in 1976. Before joining In These Times, he completed his work for a Ph.D. in anthropology at the University of Chicago and worked for Newsweek. He has received fellowships from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and the Nation Institute for research on the new global economy. He can be reached at