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Working In These Times

Friday, Feb 25, 2011, 11:20 am

States’ Anti-Labor Efforts Lose Steam as Support for Wis. Gov. Walker Remains Low

BY Roger Bybee

Ohioans protest a pending budget bill at the Statehouse on February 22 in Columbus. Opponents of Senate Bill 5 say it will serve as a 'unionbuster,' forcing state employees to give up collective bargaining rights and pay more for healthcare and pensions.   (Photo by J.D. Pooley/Getty Images)

Just in time for my 60th birthday, a vibrant, vital movement for worker rights—unseen since the 1930s—has been spreading like a Midwest prairie fire from public workers in Wisconsin to other states like Indiana and Ohio.

Although the Wisconsin Assembly passed legislation at 1 a.m. morning (on strict party lines) stripping most public workers of most collective bargaining rights, Gov. Scott Walker—who proposed the draconian anti-labor bill earlier this month—Wis. Gov. Scott Walker has seen his support eroding. (See video of Democratic legislators yelling "Shame!" after the surprise vote.)

Public support for worker rights has been expanding to hundreds of public officials, whom Walker and his allies had falsely claimed were pushing for the crushing of public worker rights. A number of polls specifically on Wisconsin have suggested a strong potential reservoir of support for labor, including a Greenberg Quinlan poll showing 39% approval ratings for Walker.

While the war has been going full-force—but peacefully—since February 11 in Wisconsin, it is just getting underway in Indiana and Ohio, both part of the nation's demoralized industrial belt stretching from upper New York to Minnesota.

In Indiana, the Right chose to go for a "right-to-work" bill that would ban the union shop for both private and public employers, the central mechanism for holding down union membership to miniscule levels mainly seen in the U.S. South. In the 21 existing "right to work" states, employers selectively hire to avoid union sympathizers; union advocates are targeted for harassment or firing; yet unions are legally obligated to provide representation to non-members who pay no dues.

As in Wisconsin, the Capitol in Indianapolis was jammed with thousands of trade unionists and supporters this week. Surprisingly, Gov. Mitch Daniels withdrew his support for the "right-to work bill early this week. Despite strong right-wing majorities in both houses, a new verbal blast at public workers, and Daniels' anti-union history. Daniels likely had reservations about the Walker approach given the continuing resistance in Wisconsin. 

Daniels, who is considering a run for the GOP president nomination, perhaps drew the conclusion that Walker did not: trying to strip workers of their rights may temporarily elevate you to God-like status on the Right, but it will have disastrous long-term consequenes when you are seeking the votes of working people.

HUGE TURNOUT IN OHIO

The battle in Columbus is just in the early stages. Big crowds of labor supporters jammed the Ohio Statehouse in Columbus this week, where new Republican Gov. John Kasich—who works closely with Wisconsin's Walker—has introduced a new bill to strip away almost all collective bargaining rights from Ohio public workers.

The Ohio AFL-CIO reported even bigger crowds would have appeared, but were blocked:

The State Highway Patrol limited access to the Statehouse today as thousands of protesters stood outside in the cold, many angry they could not get inside to register their opposition to a bill that would eliminate collective bargaining for state employees.

Following the Wisconsin script, the reactionary Kasich is using the pretext of a budget shortage to justify the destruction of this basic right. Jesse Jackson received an enthusiastic reception as he reported on the strong resistance to similar legislation occurring in Wisconsin.

BACKING DOWN IN MICHIGAN AND FLORIDA

Meanwhile, as Rachel Maddow reported Thursday night on MSNBC, two newly-elected rightist Republicans expected to be part of the anti-union campaign in their states—Rick Scott in Florida and Rick Snyder of Michigan—seem to be backing away from plunging into the anti-labor war.

Scott Walker's sliding approval ratings (based on data taken before this disastrous week for him) can hardly be fostering a gung-ho spirit among the new class of Republican class-warrior governors on whom Walker was counting to spread his his war against unionism.

Despite these encouraging developments and his 2007 pledge to picket alongside workers whose rights were endangered, President Obama's new press aide Jay Carney said that Obama had "no plans" to venture out to Wisconsin.

In fact, Carney promoted a decidedly right-wing frame on budget issues. With Democrats like Carney, why do we need Eric Cantor or Paul Ryan to trash hard-won Democratic social protections and keep the spotlight off sacrosanct corporate tax breaks and subsidies?

Check out Carney's statement:

They [states] need to act responsibly, tighten their belts, live within their means just as we in Washington, the executive branch, Congress, need to do with our federal situation.

But President Obama could contribute to the Wisconsin workers' cause by visiting Madison, and also send a message of toughness on the budget to the Republicans in Washington.

If he doesn't, he will be passing up a golden opportunity to take advantage of Walker's over-reaching.

WALKER WON'T TAKE 'YES' FOR AN ANSWER

Gov. Walker's has repeatedly refused to accept major unions' offer of benefit concessions, which Walker claimed as essential to averting a budget crisis in exchange for retaining union rights. In other words, Walker refused to take "Yes" for an answer. Walker has also refused to speak with Democratic legislators who have called him.

By holding out for a total defeat of union rights and bagging the biggest, most pro-union grizzly bear in the form of Wisconsin, Walker is seemingly pursuing his hopes of becoming a bigger and bigger Republican star. But his case is losing credibility, with even FOX News' Shepard Smith moved to characterize Walker's portrayal of Wisconsin's fiscal "crisis" as "malarkey."

WALKER ADMITS FEAR OF SETTLEMENT, CONSIDERATION OF TROUBLEMAKERS

The enormous crowds of protesters have posed a major problem for right-wingers on FOX and elsewhere seeking to discredit the pro-union advocates as a hostile, alien force spreading violence and destruction.

Instead, the crowds are a very recognizable mix of friendly working people in union jackets, Packer caps, and University of Wisconsin sweatshirts, mixed in with more flamboyant but good-natured students. 

In more than a week of huge protests, there have been only nine arrests for disorderly conduct, with none judged serious enough for anyone to be jailed. Police authorities even issued a statement of thanks for the level of decorum maintained last Saturday, when 55,000 to 70,000 pro-union demonstrators faced off against 2,000 Tea Partiers. A strong contingent of union marshals worked to maintain the peace.

Labor organizers estimated that the crowd in Madison this Wednesday was among the largest thus far, and rallies were also held in an additional 19 cities. All were peaceful and aimed at building broad public support for the moral cause of union rights as a human right.

All of this civil behavior poses a threat to the Right's familiar scenario of playing on property violence undertaken by a few and then smearing and marginalizing mass movements. It also apparently troubles Scott Walker.

In a hoax phone call where Buffalo Beast editor Ian Murphy passed himself off as billionaire right-winger David Koch, Walker confessed that he had thought about bringing in "troublemakers" to discredit the peaceful protesters. (David and Charles Koch were big sponsors of Scott Walker, giving $43,000 to his campaign and $1 million to the Republican Governors Association, which spent $3.4 million in negative ads against Walker's Democratic opponent.) 

As a guest on The Greta Van Susteren Show on FOX, Walker again mentioned hat he had considered recruiting "troublemakers" to create disorder. "I even had lawmakers and others suggesting riling things up," Walker spilled to Van Susteren.

These statements prompted Madison police chief Noble Wray to call the governor's plotting "deeply unsettling and troubling." Former state attorney general Peg Lautenschlager commented:

For a governor even to consider a strategy that could unnecessarily threaten the safety of peaceful demonstrators—which the governor acknowledged he did—is something that simply amazes me.

So what held Gov. Walker back? He explained bluntly:

My only fear is if there's a ruckus that would scare the public into thinking maybe the governor has to settle.

Translation: Walker was fearful that scenes of violence would lead Wisconsin citizens to demand an end to the showdown caused by Walker's intransigence, and thus force him "to settle" short of destroying public unions. He couldn't let that happen, could he?

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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