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Working In These Times

Friday, Feb 18, 2011, 8:09 am

Labor as Bedrock of Middle Class: Powerful Message From Wisconsin

BY Roger Bybee

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has been seemingly intent on decapitating public-sector unions in Wisconsin before they realized that a very sharp blade was about to fall.

On February 11, Walker announced his "budget repair" bill, ostensibly
designed to cope with an immediate budget shortfall of $137 million, a deficit he helped create by pushing through $117 million in tax cuts last month. (The deficit is projected to grow to $3.6 billion by 2013.) He aimed at getting the bill passed by February 17. Walker cynically blurred two separate issues—whether public workers needed to make concessions and if public-sector workers were worthy of union rights—in his pitch for the bill. To intimidate opponents, he even raised the issue of bringing in the National Guard to deal with potential strikes.

Working people understood how the provisions of Walker's plans would affect them and their unions. Bargaining on wages only? One-year contracts? Re-certifying every year? Clearly, the only aim of these provision is to set up unions for failure and a very predictable loss of membership.

Once people heard about the plan, Walker's proposal was greeted with a spontaneous explosion of outrage from working people across Wisconsin. Picketing of Republican legislator's homes began almost immediately last weekend, with teachers, sanitation workers, school cafeteria workers, and other public workers joined by lots of private-sector workers as well. Public rallies around the state followed on Monday.

By Tuesday, the state capitol was thronged by an estimated 15,000 unionists from around the state. As the week went on, the crowds kept growing, reaching an estimated 30,000 to 50,000. Hundreds of workers and their families slept in the ornate state capitol, their sleeping bags spread cross the polished marble floors. (See Paul Buhle's report from Madison for this blog.)

Most importantly, the workers' call for union rights was finding a receptive audience in Wisconsin. A new poll released Thursday by Build a Better Wisconsin, a new liberal group, showed 65% of Wisconsinites opposing Walker's plan.

But there was even worse news for Walker: all 14 Democratic senators left the state in order to prevent a quorum that would permit a vote on Walker's bill for public-sector union eradication. To paraphrase what one senator told my friend John Nichols of The Nation, "We could either play along and lose, or stand with the people by leaving."

What accounts for the sudden tidal wave of activity? I would offer three factors:

1) WISCONSIN TRADITION: Wisconsin has a long and proud tradition of public-sector unionism that is intertwined with our deeply-held
belief that government ought to serve as the democratic expression
of the people and ensure democratic rights to all. 

The American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees was born in Wisconsin in 1932. Wisconsin was the first state to grant bargaining rights to local public workers and teachers in 1959.

2) A VOICE FOR A DECENT SOCIETY: Working people understand that withjust 6.9 percent of the private sector unionized, public-sector unions are more precious than ever for the powerless.

Public-sector unions are a key bastion serving to protect decent living standards for workers and to advocate forcefully for quality public services like education, healthcare, parks, and other elements of a good society. Mike Imbrugno, a cook who makes $28,000 a year at UW-Madison, expressed this in his comment to the New York Times::

Walker's] basically trying to smash the last remaining organized upward pressure on wages and benefits in Wisconsin.

My sister Frances, a retired Milwaukee County social-service worker,
saw Walker's plan as a giant step backward, returning public workers
to abusive, unilateral rule by their bosses. "It would practically
put us on a par with China in terms of labor rights. This is part of
a national plan written by the Republican lobbyists in Washington
who funded Scott Walker."

3) MEDIA SUPPORT: As a former labor editor for 14 years and a communications consultant to unions for another three years, I have
observed labor's difficulty in winning fair coverage from the corporate-owned media. I have also witnessed labor's lack of attention to formulating coherent and compelling messages that will resonate with the public.

But this time around, the Wisconsin AFL-CIO under President Phil
Neuenfeldt was ready, constantly reiterating the idea that unions
are the pillars holding up America's middle class. This was a message that Ed Schultz of MSNBC picked up and used to hammer away at Walker and his allies. Schultz even brought his TV show to the streets outside the Capitol on Thursday night.

For once, the cause of worker justice had a powerful megaphone
amplifying its message and showing the power of people demanding
their rights in the streets.

Of course, there is no guaranteed happy ending to this fight over Walker's bill to eviscerate public unions. Recently-retired AFL-CIO President David Newby was ebullient as he talked about the massive crowds at the Capitol. "It's been so energizing," he said, sounding out of breath. But a moment later, he added cautiously, "But we still are facing big dangers over the long haul."

America's labor movement is enjoying a great start in this epic battle to hold onto fundamental union rights in Wisconsin. It's already had vast repercussions across the nation, much as Egypt's rebellion for freedom (where the final outcome is also unsettled) triggered other upsurges across the Mideast.

But make no mistake: A long fight remains ahead.

Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer and University of Illinois visiting professor in Labor Education. Roger's work has appeared in numerous national publications, including Z magazine, Dollars & Sense, The Progressive, Progressive Populist, Huffington Post, The American Prospect, Yes! and Foreign Policy in Focus. More of his work can be found at zcommunications.org/zspace/rogerdbybee.

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