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What's Next for Wisconsin's Unions?

Enthusiasm and obstacles for organized labor

Aug. 24, 2011
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Now that Gov. Scott Walker's collective bargaining bill is being implemented and Republicans have retained control of the state Legislature following nine recall elections, have Wisconsin's public sector unions finally been busted?

Hardly, labor leaders say.

Although Walker and a compliant Legislature and state Supreme Court stripped public employee unions of their collective bargaining rights, those in organized labor say that they are determined to continue fighting for Wisconsin's workers, no matter how they're organized.

“There is enthusiasm to fight for middle-class families and what's going on in this economy,” said Phil Neuenfeldt, president of the AFL-CIO of Wisconsin. “It's got to be about rights and restoring the shared sacrifice and shared prosperity. And most importantly, in investing in us, Wisconsinites, as workers with education and training and infrastructure.”

Both sides of the political spectrum are spinning this summer's $40 million recall elections in their favor. Republicans claim that they won since they still hold the majority, while Democrats—allied with unions—claim that their pickup of two Senate seats and a successful defense of three Democrats represent a victory, even if they're still in the minority in both houses.

Neuenfeldt, one of the leaders of the labor-led We Are Wisconsin coalition, said that the recalls were “definitely worth it” since Democrats made gains in Republican districts that supported Walker in 2010 and shrunk the Republican majority in the state Senate to one. That Republican majority includes one senator—Dale Schultz of Richland Center—who had opposed Walker's union-busting bill this spring.

In a broader sense, Neuenfeldt said the recalls helped to spark a pro-labor movement in all corners of the state, including Republican turf.

“The recalls showed that middle-class families are rejecting Walker's radical agenda,” Neuenfeldt said. “It was an opportunity for people who had formed coalitions around the rallies in Madison to come together and work together through the creation of We Are Wisconsin. And this isn't the last time that we will work together. This is a movement-building scenario.”

So is a Walker recall next?

That hasn't been decided, Neuenfeldt said.

“There is obviously enthusiasm for it,” Neuenfeldt said. “All you have to do is walk down the street and you'll see 'Recall Walker' bumper stickers and signs.”

Robber Barons and Job Creators

Neuenfeldt said the historic protests in Madison this spring and the nine recall elections grabbed the nation's attention because they were so unlikely in a moderate swing state. After all, Wisconsin's history includes a strong labor movement and many notable firsts, including the birth of the first organization of state workers and the first workers' compensation law to survive a constitutional challenge.

But Andrew Kersten, a history professor at UW-Green Bay and the author of the e-book The Battle for Wisconsin: Scott Walker and the Attack on the Progressive Tradition, said that both organized labor as well as a heavy-handed reaction to workers' rights exist in Wisconsin's history.

While Wisconsin definitely has an influential labor tradition supported by governors such as Robert and Philip La Follette, Kersten said some of the state's 19th-century governors supported wealthy capitalists, known then as “robber barons” and today as “job creators.” This “communism of the millionaires” sometimes had deadly results.

For example, Gov. Jeremiah Rusk called in the National Guard during the 1886 strike at the Milwaukee Iron Co. rolling mill in Bay View. Seven protesters died while several more were injured. In 1898, Gov. Edward Scofield activated more than 400 militia from Milwaukee to put down a strike of woodworkers in Oshkosh.

These attacks on workers helped to give rise to the state's Progressive movement, a left-of-center philosophy that stressed good government, expanded democracy and fair working conditions.

Kersten said he'd put Walker into the pre-Progressive-era camp of Wisconsin governors. This differs from other modern Republican governors, such as Tommy Thompson, who had honored Wisconsin's Progressive tradition by governing from the center.

“Today's Wisconsin conservatives are no longer interested in making accommodations,” Kersten said. “They look to places like Texas and say, 'We want that. We want a business environment with as little regulation as possible, with no corporate taxes and no personal income taxes, where the education system tilts toward the private and with conservative notions.' I think people in the middle of Wisconsin and center-left are horrified and they don't understand what's happening. It's very scary because it's so different.”

Obstacles in the Details

Although union members claim they have political momentum, unions' survival in their current form isn't guaranteed. Walker's bill is loaded with obstacles for public sector labor unions—except for public safety employee unions, which supported Walker in the 2010 gubernatorial election and are exempt from the new rules.

Walker's Act 10, as the collective bargaining bill is officially known, strips public employee unions from bargaining on anything other than base pay, and even that is limited to the rate of inflation. Public employees are already making increased contributions to their health care and pension costs. Union dues are no longer being deducted from workers' paychecks, so leaders will have to convince members to voluntarily pay dues, a significant PR task for union staff during tough economic times.

This fall, unions with expired contracts will have to take part in annual recertification votes—at their own expense—if they want to be recognized by the state.

The Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission (WERC), the small state agency that will conduct the elections, has developed the administrative rules governing the elections. Those rules must be sent to Walker for approval, as all agency-written rules must now be approved by Walker before being sent to the Legislature for review.

Peter Davis, general counsel for WERC, said the elections would likely be conducted by phone using a private company.

“I think it's likely that we will, in large part if not exclusively, use a telephone voting procedure which will allow us to accommodate many, many elections at the same time with hundreds if not thousands of voters,” Davis said.

But here, too, Walker has set up an almost insurmountable challenge for the unions. Instead of allowing a majority of voting members to determine the fate of their union, as all other elections are conducted, Walker is requiring unions to earn a majority vote of all employees in a bargaining unit, including those who do not vote in the certification election. In addition, that recertification is only valid for a year, at which point the union would have to call another election and make its case to its members yet again.

That means that a union would need to earn a supermajority of employees' support year after year if it wants to retain its status as the collective bargaining representative for that unit.

“Republicans did that very consciously,” said Bob Peterson, president of the Milwaukee Teachers' Education Association (MTEA), which represents teachers, substitutes, bookkeepers and educational assistants. “As we know in electoral politics, a sizable group of people don't participate. That will mean a 'no' vote. If we had applied the same standard to Gov. Walker's election, he wouldn't be governor. He didn't get 51% of all eligible voters in Wisconsin.”

Building Alliances

Some unions have decided not to go through with a recertification vote, determining that winning the right to collectively bargain only on wages—which will be limited to the rate of inflation—isn't worth it. Also to be considered is the fact that non-represented employees would be able to work with their employers on work conditions and other matters, something that represented employees would be forbidden to do.

No matter what, unions will have to reinvent themselves in light of their new restrictions and persuade their members to remain active.

“Unions are not just about collective bargaining,” Neuenfeldt said. “Unions are about collective action. The reason for being in a union is not going away because of this law. You have to think about how to advance your principles and your agenda by using other ways.”

MTEA's Peterson said that teacher unions will have to form strong alliances with community and faith-based groups that share their goals, as well as become active in campaigns that do not directly involve classroom and work issues.

“Certainly, at this time in our nation's history, public sector unions and all unions have to have a broader vision of what's good for the entire working class, working families,” Peterson said. “And not have a narrow point of view.”

Peterson said that the union—whether or not it's certified to collectively bargain for its members—would have to engage in other tactics to make its case. For example, Peterson said, members could be called on to conduct letter-writing campaigns, testify at meetings, attend protests and demonstrations, get out the vote or boycott.

“Those are the tactics and strategies that have been used historically in the labor movement,” Peterson said. “We're going to have to revisit those and use them effectively.”


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