Monday, February 14th, 2011

Wisconsin's War on Unions: Coming Soon to a Town Near You

One doesn't need to go to the Middle East or Northern Africa to find a people-versus-government showdown. At this very moment in Wisconsin, one of the most important labor battles in decades is already going down at the state capital in Madison.

On one side is Tea Party Republican Governor Scott Walker and a GOP legislature hell-bent on making Wisconsin "open for business." On the other side are the state's labor unions, which Walker's latest budget aims to fully field dress, gut and strap down to the hood of his car, tongue hanging out and all. Across the state, Wisconsinites are organizing for protests and vigils, including, of course, the Purple People Eaters. Walker has—no shit—said that he will call in the National Guard if necessary. Here's a fast look at line items from Walker's just-released budget that, if successful, may soon find themselves in a legislature near you.

Walker's special session bill begins: "Under current law, municipal employees have the right to collectively bargain over wages, hours, and conditions of employment under the Municipal Employment Relations Act (MERA), and state employees have the right to collectively bargain over wages, hours, and conditions of employment under the State Employment Labor Relations Act (SELRA). This bill changes MERA and SELRA with respect to all employees…"

It continues, "This bill limits the right to collectively bargain for all employees who are not public safety employees…"

The highlights:

COLLECTIVE BARGAINING. Make various changes to limit collective bargaining for most public employees to wages. Total wage increases could not exceed a cap based on the CPI unless approved by referendum. Contracts would be limited to one year and wages would be frozen until a new contract is settled. Collective bargaining units are required to take annual votes to maintain certification as a union. Employers would be prohibited from collecting union dues and members of collective bargaining units would not be required to pay dues. Changes effective upon expiration of existing contracts. Law enforcement, fire employees and state troopers and inspectors would be exempt from the changes.

STATE EMPLOYEE ABSENCES AND OTHER WORK ACTIONS. Authorizes appointing agencies to terminate any employees that are absent for three days without approval of the employer or any employees participating in an organized action to stop or slow work if the governor has declared a state of emergency.

QUALITY HEALTH CARE AUTHORITY. Repeals the authority of home health care workers under the Medicaid program to collectively bargain.

CHILD CARE LABOR RELATIONS. Repeals the authority of family child care workers to collectively bargain with the state.

UW HOSPITALS AND CLINICS BOARD AND AUTHORITY. Repeals collective bargaining for UWHC employees. State positions currently employed by the UWHC are eliminated and incumbents are transferred to the UWHC Authority.

UW FACULTY AND ACADEMIC STAFF. Repeals authority of UW faculty and academic staff to collectively bargain.

Authorizes DOA to sell state heating plants, with the net proceeds deposited in the budget stabilization fund.

PENSION CONTRIBUTIONS. Require that employees of WRS employers and the City and County of Milwaukee contribute 50% of the annual pension payment. The payment amount for WRS employees is estimated to be 5.8% of salary in 2011.

HEALTH INSURANCE CONTRIBUTIONS. Requires state employees to pay at least 12.6% of the average cost of annual premiums.

That adds up to a complete gutting of unions' ability to collectively bargain (including teachers!) and mandates increased payments from those employees to pension and health insurance costs (essentially amounting to a pay cut). And that little item about the power to terminate employees? Here's a scenario where that gets useful fast. Walker passes the bill. Public employees revolt against its draconian measures. With state services crippled, Walker declares state of emergency. The political pals that now head the state agencies ("appointing agencies") cite the bill and fire the hell out of everyone. Enter the National Guard (as noted, already on alert).

Oh, it also puts state-owned assets up for fire sale. (For how this goes, see the chapter "The Outsourced Highway" in Matt Taibbi's latest book, Griftopia.)

Nobody would expect Walker to have any sense of history but his mention of the National Guard in reference to a labor dispute is chilling to those who recall the Bay View riot. In May 1886, nearly 15,000 workers gathered in Milwaukee to demand an eight hour workday. Thousands marched the streets with banners in Polish, German and English. Wisconsin Governor Jeremiah Rusk called the National Guard to respond; seven were killed (five by other estimates) and several more wounded.

Of course it's appropriate that this would happen in Wisconsin, a state that embraced the organized labor movement more heartily than any other. From the early bricklayers and carpenters unions of the 1840s to the formation of the Eight-Hour League to Robert La Follette's progressive trail blazing, Wisconsin has been one of organized labor's greatest friends. In 1911, it was the first state to enact worker compensation protections. In 1932, it was the first to pass unemployment compensation. And in 1959, it was one of the first states to pass a law supporting collective bargaining for public employees. Ironic that conservatives are credited with adding the teachers union to this collective bargaining bill in the hopes that it would kill it.

And odd as well that so many conservatives constantly speak of going back to a better America while at the same time undoing the accomplishments of that very better American time.

It was just back in 2009 the governor signed signed AB 172, also known as the "Labor History in the Schools bill," requiring public schools to make labor and collective bargaining history part of the social studies curriculum.

The greatest obscenity of all is that the Republican Party was also created in Wisconsin. In early 1854, in the "Little White Schoolhouse" in Ripon, Alvan Bovay and 16 men gathered. They opposed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which would allow states to choose if they wanted legalized slavery. Specifically, the men opposed slavery and disenfranchisement of the citizenry—which makes ironic Walker and the Wisconsin GOP's recent plan for a voter ID law (despite just twenty cases of voter fraud in the state in the last decade).

That newly formed Republican party gained steam and elected its first winning candidate, Abraham Lincoln. Five years after the Ripon meeting, he wrote: "Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration." You've come a long way, baby.

Abe Sauer can be reached at abesauer [at]

27 Comments / Post A Comment

offthewawl (#8,258)

This actually sounds tame when compared with the plan Gov. Kasich of Ohio has shoved down our throats. Legislature be damned, he doesn't even promise to spare the emergency workers. Also, no one here seems to care. It reads like a laundry list of evil:

rj77 (#210)

Indeed. I think the only city leader voicing any opposition is the mayor Akron, and that's not even opposition so much as "let's not make the changes so harsh."

KarenUhOh (#19)

A good time to join your Wisconsin National Guard.

What kind of benefit package do they have?

Abe Sauer (#148)

Foreign travel.

petejayhawk (#1,249)

Miss you, Fightin' Bob.

s. (#775)

In one of the few positive developments for organized labour in the last few years up here, something like this this would almost certainly be unconstitutional in Canada. (At least until our Supreme Court gets around to releasing a decision in Fraser.)

davetar (#1,114)

Eliminate rights for all state workers except public safety employees – gotta have the cops on the right side of the protest, right, Governor?

SourCapote (#4,872)

Don't discount the power of a hose

Charles T Smith (#9,871)

This is why we should picket the AFL/CIO Western Conference on April 9.

The AFL/CIO is the pinnacle of Labor organizations. Its leadership is paid very well to represent us. The AFL/CIO is powerful with lots of resources. While its leadership hobnobs at Washington parties and makes pep rally speeches, our members are being attacked by Democrats, Republicans, the media, and right wing voters. Our Public Worker Unions are accused of causing the current economic crisis engulfing the nation. The AFL/CIO refuses to fight against the worst orchestrated attack on Labor since the great depression.
After Wall Street and the Banks conspired to defraud the world economies, selling debt that would never be paid back, the US went into economic free fall. Ultimately taxpayers were told to “tighten our belts” and shoulder the debt or we would find ourselves in a depression. There was no concern for how we felt about this debt, how it should be repaid or what to do about the criminals responsible for the crash. Congress shackled the debt to the workers, people who didn’t profit from the crime but were instead the victims of the crime. To add insult to injury, the Congress and the President promoted the thieves to even higher government positions allowing them to continue to control the financial machinations of the economy.
Today people are losing their homes by the thousands, workers are being forced to accept pay and benefit cuts and furlough days, contracts are being renegotiated and concessionary bargaining is the rule. Hiring freezes and layoffs reduce the workforce but not the workload. For transportation workers, health care workers, teachers, public safety workers and others serving the public, their jobs have become untenable. As the workloads increase, the public blames the workers for poor service. The public starts to believe that government isn’t worth funding and that government workers are overpaid and lazy.
This is but the first stage of a much bigger strategy. The real goal is to eradicate workers’ benefits and our Unions. The current discourse is not about wages. The Bosses have already lowered workers’ wages. They did so in collusion with Union leadership. But this is not enough for the ruling class. The current target is our defined benefit pensions and, in some cases, health care plans: our right to a retirement with dignity. By forcing workers into 401(k) defined contribution plans they are forcing us to gamble our retirement security in the biggest casino in the world: Wall Street. There can be no doubt after the recent financial collapse how the ruling class uses Wall Street to fleece small investors and the public.
But the real target goes even farther. The ruling class wants TO GET RID OF UNIONS ALTOGETHER. This is already happening. The percentage of unionized workers has been dropping dramatically. The public sector unions are the last bastion of union power and that is the reason they are being targeted. The ultimate goal of the capitalists is to reduce all Labor to the status of working for low-pay, without benefits or union representation, to the kind of working conditions endured today by the workers at Wal-Mart, the largest private employer in the United States, with just over 1.1 million U.S. employees.
This process is already well under way. Politicians use a divide and conquer strategy, initially excluding police, firefighters, prison guards and the military from their current proposals for salary and pension reforms. This results in alienating the public safety workers and military from their natural allies’ in the rest of the working class. In addition to the division of public safety workers and the military from the rest of working class, the ruling class is fomenting artificial divisions between public and private sector workers. Public services, such as water, parks, health care, and schools, are being privatized, giving what has traditionally been better paying, unionized public sector work to lower paying, mostly nonunionized workers while reducing public accountability. Another gambit is to create two tier benefit packages resulting in new employees paying more for benefits and getting less in return. It is in the interest of the ruling class to create conflicts of interest between public and private sector workers and to fan the flames of mutual distrust and enmity. This is how the ruling class has always worked to destroy organized Labor. As the 19th century American financier Jay Gould, explained, by hiring strikebreakers, “I can hire one-half of the working class to kill the other half."
It is wishful thinking to believe that all of this is going to get better as soon as there is a full economic recovery. The foundation of the U.S. economy is consumption. As workers’ wages, benefits and credit continue to decline, the very foundation of the economy is undermined. As workers are forced to wait longer to retire there are fewer opportunities for young people to enter the workforce. No, this situation will not turn around. It will only get worse.
Without resistance organized Labor will become a thing of the past. We are moving to a reality similar to that in a 19th century novel of Charles Dickens. Some may feel that they have enough financial security to live comfortably until death. But they are fooling themselves if they think they can escape the bleak reality that will come as a result of this pauperization of the working class. No one can escape crime in the streets, friends and family who suffer without health care, children without quality education, depleted public services, destitute senior citizens and living in an oppressed society fighting endless wars of aggression.
The United Public Workers for Action asks all of you, unemployed, employed, retired, Union member or not, to take the demand for a General Strike to the front door of the leaders of the AFL/CIO Western Conference. Time is running out. The attacks on Public Workers and Organized Labor are increasing exponentially. With each passing day somewhere in this country workers are getting wage cuts and losing benefits. Courts are making precedent-setting rulings empowering the Bosses to legally crush the working class. This must stop.
Voting will not stop it; empty promises from politicians will not stop it; lawyers will not stop it; signing petitions will not stop it; Jesus will not stop it; good intentions will not stop it; Ron Paul will not stop it; tax reform will not stop it; the environmentalists will not stop it; the GBLT community will not stop it; nor will peace rallies, the Green Party or the Peace and Freedom Party. Only workers acting in their own interest can stop it. Choose the General Strike over general slavery.


Stop Supporting the Two Corporate Parties / Establish a Democratic Workers Party


Arrest the Wall Street Perpetrators and Fellow Banking Conspirators Under the Rico Act

Picket the AFL/CIO Western Conference at the Oakland Airport Hilton April 9, from 9:30 to?

United Public Workers for Action

Walker's "bring out the Guards" statement is an immense overreaction and even if he truly feels he'll need that backup, there's no way he should have ever said that in public.

It's like walking into a confrontation waving a loaded gun. The gun waver may assure you that it's only there as a last resort, but anyone who's willing to front-load a negotiation this way probably has a very different definition of "last resort."

That being said, it's not as if unions have a history of handling these situations in a non-violent or well-tempered fashion. At best, everything will grind to a halt for a bit while everyone shouts at each other. At worst, there will be some violence and other destructive activity as the union members continue to further distance themselves from how non-union employees handle things out in the real world.

I'm really not sure why unions are still held up as some sort of working class heroes by certain writers and media outlets. Over the past several decades they've proven to be abnormally inefficient, myopically self-centered and completely given over to a false sense of entitlement.

Teachers' unions are willing to sacrifice their students' education over a temporary wage freeze. Auto union reps push and shove until their bloated healthcare plans are exempted from additional taxation. The highest paid people in some theaters aren't the actors or directors but the stagehands and lighting crew.

(If you want links for all these statements, I can supply them. I just don't know what gets me tossed into moderation or spam.)

As for the supposedly outrageous ability to fire people? Being AWOL for three straight days will cost you your job in nearly any private sector position. I don't see that this particular addition is anything draconian. It just brings the public sector more in line with the private sector.

The same thing goes for work stoppages and slowdowns. You can't pull that shit in the private sector but somehow it's not only ok to do that as a union member, it's actually encouraged. The real world faces layoffs and pay freezes all the time and manages to handle them without acting like a bunch of thuggish, spoiled children.

Abe Sauer (#148)

Please. "out in the real world." This kind of pathetic statement suffix is a tired trope of Tea Party and current anti-public service worker propaganda.

The real world of private industry? Please. In the past 2 years some of the biggest names in the private sector, from finance to manufacturing, has been bailed out by the big bad government.

Are we going to begin treating public service workers like private employees? Great. Let's start by paying teachers a wage in line with the education required to hold the position. No, instead we're passing essentially a pay cut. There is every indication that unions would come to the table to negotiate (they have before) but that isn't the goal. The goal is union busting.

The great irony that your now-common tea party/GOP argument that everyone should be dragged down equal to the lifestyle of one segment of society is

It's not just public service workers. It's union members from private sector businesses as well, like GM, who also received a big payout from the government.

I wouldn't be so quick to lump me in with the tea partiers. I'm more of a political atheist. Generally speaking, the Republicans piss me off as much as the Democrats. But the fact remains that while the unions were instrumental in making today's workforce a better place, they've become symbolic of graft and greed.

Even more unfortunately, the public sector unions have built up an even larger sense of entitlement than the private sector. If you really want to give teachers a raise, the first thing to do is trim away the layers and layers of useless, bureaucratic administration. People argue that teachers are underpaid and yet record amounts of money flow into the school system. It may well be that the teachers are underpaid but nobody seems interested in trimming back the administrative deadwood that ultimately adds very little to a child's education.

Very honestly, I'd like to see all unions busted. I don't much wish to have my personal issues with an employer become everyone else's problems through collective action, much as I'd hate to see theirs become mine. I think the workplace has advanced enough in the last 100 years that a collective bargaining force is no longer needed.

The only time I worked for a union was pretty much inadvertent. I took a job at Fred Meyer Grocery in Portland, OR. It wasn't until nearly a week after I started that I was informed that I was now a union member and would need to pay dues. There was no mention of it during the training or the face-to-face with the general manager. If it's such a good deal for all the employees, why hide it away in fine print and leave it unmentioned until it's time to start collecting dues? Tell me that's not shady. Especially when the collective power had managed to net me 12-15 hours a week at the state minimum wage. Powerful.

Every other job I've had has been non-union. If I didn't like where I was working, I spoke to someone who could change it. If they didn't or couldn't, I found other employment. What I didn't do was turn the situation into a mass movement with the power to cripple the company I worked for and an inconvenience for others (including customers).

What's the plan if this all goes thru? If they don't all get fired as you tend to believe will happen, will they just stop showing up for work? Slow things dowm? Strike for a bit? Or will they decide they still have a job to do that they are being paid for? Will they look somewhere else for another job? Or will they decide that public sector employment just has too many fringe benefits to pass up despite routine hassles by pols making power plays?

My guess is that when all this blows over, things will still be pretty much the same as they were before it began. Unions are powerful players and most politicians are pretty weak-willed when it comes to standing by their convictions. All in all, a lot of noise will be made before the status returns to quo. It happens all too often already. (For instance, banks and Wall Street companies are right back to handing out excessive bonuses, apparently having felt that a couple years of penance was enough.)

Abe Sauer (#148)

Of course, since you experienced it, it must be the same for everyone.

"I'm more of a political atheist. Generally speaking, the Republicans piss me off as much as the Democrats." Yeah, that's the other thing tired thing every Tea Party neo-conservative says after "in the real work," and right before they make an argument for siding with making the wealthy wealthier.

So, you've got nothing to say about the whole teacher-administration thing?

Alright. I guess I'll try to squeeze this in before the ink goes dry on your ideological rubber stamp.

I'm pro choice.
I'm pro immigration or whatever the hell you call it when you think AZ's (and the US in general) policies are backward thinking and clearly hypocritical considering our country's history.
I'm pro death penalty.
I'm pro drug legalization and find the drug war to be an incredible waste of resources, not to mention a piss-poor excuse to trample on people's civil liberties.
I also am in complete disagreement with nearly everything the DHS does, including their relentless kowtowing to the music and movie industries and the entirety of the laughably titled Patriot Act.

Just because I'm anti-union doesn't automatically make me a neo-con. It does seem to make it easier for others to make that assumption for some reason.

Abe Sauer (#148)

It doesn't make you a neo-con, but it does put you in bed with them. Nobody cares what the voter card says.

You're not going to find anyone around here who believes the current state of labor unions is some kind of economic utopia. But they are the last remaining bit of power middle class workers have in the face of the massive Hoovering up of the nation's earth by a small minority. You think it's some kind of coincidence that after the private sector unions have been all but destroyed, the patrons to business are now going after the only powerful unions left? Is it some kind of coincidence the detraction of the unions has gone hand in hand with a shocking increase in wealth disparity?

Nobody believes the surest union structure and behavior is the best possible answer. But are you really going to argue that you think if the urn ions were gone, the wealthy wouldn't just put the foot down further on the steamroller's accelerator?

Sharing a common viewpoint with a political group doesn't put me in bed with them any more than saying I enjoy painting would make me a Nazi sympathizer. Contributing to their campaigns, voting for them or proselytizing their cause would put me in bed with them.

I don't disagree that there are still good unions out there. UPS springs to mind. I'm sure there are others but we'll never hear about them because they're functioning as smoothly running businesses where neither the corporation nor the employees are playing chicken with their livelihoods in (often) a very public fashion.

While someone might be able to find a correlation between wage disparity and the decline of unions, I doubt that it's the only cause or even a major cause. That kind of disconnect between hourly workers and CEOs is present in unions as well.

I don't agree with Walker's methodology or his instant seclusion. I'm not even sure if this situation is actually something he truly has the power to do. But once again, private sector unions are being dragged into an argument about the dismantling of a public union. (Granted, I did do a lot of the dragging myself.)

I would, however, argue that if the wealthy do "put their foot down," it won't be because of the disappearance of unions. Unions have been on a steep decline for several decades now and the worst excesses of wealth disparity are happening in areas where unions were never really a factor (banking and other financial institutions).

In other areas where unions were major players (manufacturing, retail), there has not been a mass return to 14-hour days and 7-day work weeks. The labor unions did establish these vital footholds that allowed the more balanced labor v. management climate we enjoy today, but a majority of remaining unions are more interested in collecting dues than actually improving the work atmosphere for their members.

The only reason it's nearly impossible to fire union members has less to do with "fairness" than a protection of continuing union dues. The only reason unions go on and on about Wal-Mart is because they want a slice of the 2nd largest workforce in the nation and nothing to do with perceived "unfairness" in their policies. Low wages? Entry level jobs that don't even require a high school diploma pay low wages. That's a fact of life. It's not limited to Wal-Mart but they're the company that always comes up first.

The rest of the benefits (extensive and usually free healthcare, robust severance packages) that the unions won for their members are quickly turning out to be as unsustainable as our Social Security plan. They need more members in order to maintain what has inadvertently become a pyramid scheme.

Cities and states are realizing this as well as they run out of money and have guaranteed public sector workers far more than they can actually pay out. But they don't have the option of co-opting private businesses or expanding their workforce, so they're looking for concessions. It's always going to be unpleasant when it happens because years and years of it never changing have turned it into an entitlement, which is exactly when no politician is willing to alter Social Security, no matter what its impact on the national deficit. Those who are on it now and those rolling into it shortly are avid voters and have deep pockets.

This situation is particularly ugly but the rationale behind it isn't extreme. It's an unpleasant fact that the time has come to pay the piper. And the piper is usually off filing for bankruptcy protection.

Abe Sauer (#148)

Time it too for a "Nazi" mention – 3 days.

By the way, nice work with the tag. Attention grabbing and completely misleading at the same time.

Abe Sauer (#148)

By the way, nice work with the anonymity. And in the very same place where you make an argument about how proudly principled your life has been.

I kind of feel that since I'm not a writer for the Awl that I don't necessarily need to toss my real name out there. But here it is anyway:

Tim Cushing

Now you can find me on Facebook as well. Isn't the internet great? Do you want me to fax over a copy of my voter registration card as well or can we get back to actually discussing why altering the terms of union contracts makes someone anti-all jobs?

Speaking of which, what's your position on Right-to-Work? More specifically, I'd like to see this written into all union contracts as I feel it actually would protect the workers more by not making them subject to every action their union representatives feel should be taken.

Just came across this today:

If you take a look at the last paragraph, it says that Walker's mention of the National Guard "was specifically in reference to state prisons. He said he would call out the Guard to take control of prisons if Corrections Officers went on strike or took any other sort of job action."

I think this kind of changes the tone from directly confrontational with a hint of government-backed violence against its own constituents and instead hints towards contingency plans.

Maybe some sort of correction could be run at the top of this post?

Abe Sauer (#148)

Actually, no. He said that he had "alerted" the Guard. And while there was mention of prisons, there was also mention of "an emergency." The fact is that the Guard is always "on alert" to respond to emergencies (that's what they;re there for) and there is no reason to state this except as a subtle threat. He made the comment long before any labor stoppage was even suggested. That the suggestion has now resulted in many on the right actually CALLING for the use of the Guard is hardly a coincidence.

Can you supply a direct quote? I can't find one that says exactly that, or for that matter a direct quote at all. Here's what I get from the AP:

"Gov. Scott Walker says the Wisconsin National Guard is prepared to respond wherever is necessary in the wake of his announcement that he wants to take away nearly all collective bargaining rights from state employees.

Walker said Friday that he hasn't called the Guard into action, but he has briefed them and other state agencies in preparation of any problems that could result in a disruption of state services, like staffing at prisons.

Walker says he has every confidence that state employees will continue to show up for work and do their jobs and he's not anticipating any problems. ",0,771747.story

There may be many on the Right calling for use of the National Guard in the fashion you suggest, but there's just as many on the other side swearing that Walker has threatened to use the Guard against striking workers.

It could very well be a subtle threat. It might just as well be that he knew these moves would be incredibly unpopular (with the public union members anyway) and expected some sort of violence or confrontation that could escalate quickly.

Deep down inside, he's probably looking for a clash. It would prove his point. Unfortunately, it would also prove the point of his opponents. This assumption that he actually said he would mobilize the Guard against striking workers is making the rounds with union supporters as though he actually said those exact words, which he didn't.

As well as a statement from the Guard themselves:

Redacted (#2,882)

Geez, I'm coming very late to this, but… I work in the film biz, not the theater, but it's pretty much well established among us here that at the very least the grips and lighting tech people SHOULD be making more than the actors! It's not necessarily a union thing- that is a part of it, but the same payment structure extends well into non-union jobs. For many people it's more of a "this one person is sticking their finger into a live electrical current and may well be electrocuted, and this other person is not doing that" thing. You compensate people for the stress and danger of their job, as well as the skill they bring to their craft (and it is a craft, and a hard-learned one at that.) The crew deserves that hands down.

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