Much of Wisconsin has soured on the overtly anti-worker, anti-democratic nature of rookie Republican Gov. Scott Walker’s harsh new policies. So Wisconsin AFL-CIO leaders have been conducting a bus tour of the state, holding local rallies in dozens of towns and generating support for recalling six Republican state senators August 9 and retaining two Democratic senators August 16.
Tuesday afternoon in Milwaukee, State AFL-CIO President Phil Neuenfeldt explained the tour’s purpose to a crowd of about 200. “It all goes back to the theme of an extreme power grab. Scott Walker has been waging an all-out assault on the middle class and collective bargaining, and expecting everything to be OK,” he thundered. “But he is looking out just for the big corporations and the Koch brothers at the expense of working people.”
A net gain of three seats will flip control of the State Senate to the Democrats, giving them the power to block Gov. Walker’s agenda, which has been shaped heavily by such groups as the corporate-funded American Legislative Exchange Council, Americans for Prosperity, and Club for Growth. If successful, the recall effort would also add immense momentum to the mounting campaign to recall Walker himself early next year, whose popularity hit a new low with a disapproval rating of 59 percent in a University of Wisconsin poll released July 13.
Walker’s popularity has been plummeting since February 11, when he began his campaign to virtually eradicate the right to union representation in the public sector, de-fund public education to the tune of $800 million and add $300 million in tax breaks to corporations, many of whom have already shifted their best-paying production jobs out of Wisconsin to Mexico and China.
Walker’s declaration of war on workers and the middle class (he referred to his anti-union bill as “the bomb”) triggered weeks of protests drawing crowds of 100,000 or more unionists and their allies among the general public at the State Capitol during the winter’s most frigid weeks. Despite the enormous protests in Madison and across Wisconsin — rallies were held in 20 cities on a single day — Walker’s legislative allies rammed through the bill in mid-March.
The current bus tour exemplifies the ongoing effort to consolidate the protest movement throughout the state. Labor and its allies like Citizen Action and the We Are Wisconsin coalition view the bus tour as building a long-term movement in every corner of the state to restore the state’s tradition of thoroughly democratic, reform-oriented, and public-focused politics.
The roving tour has provided rank-and-file unionists, labor leaders, and local community members across the state an opportunity to speak out against Republican policies undermining the economic rights of workers and the middle class and brazenly chipping away at the foundations of Wisconsin democracy. A sample of the voices heard along the tour:
- “People are finally starting to see how harmful this extreme agenda is for Wisconsin families. Folks are losing their jobs and schools are getting cut,” —Paulette Feld, a librarian at UW Oshkosh and member of AFSCME Council 24.
- “At what time did teachers, nurses and fire fighters become the problem? Let’s talk about the real problem – the deregulation of banks and Wall Street.” —Mahlon Mitchell, president of the Wisconsin Professionals Fire Fighters Association.
- “This is not just about unions. This is about basic rights and taking a stand to protect Wisconsin’s middle class. My wife is a school teacher and the way teachers have been villainized is shameful. These are some of the best individuals in the community and we blame our financial problems on them? It does not make sense.” —Rich McAllister. from Tomahawk.
- “I have worked at a lot of places with a lot of people who are being hurt by Walker’s programs and extreme agenda … As more people begin to see what is coming down, more are saying – ‘not in our Wisconsin.’ That is why we are out on the doors talking to our neighbors every week. [The Republicans and their corporate funders] may have the money, but we have the people.” —teacher John Scott, a Racine Education Association member.
- “If we don’t have the right to collectively bargain, we don’t have democracy,” asserted Roger Krah, a retired UAW Local 72 member who worked at Chrysler, which used federal bailout funds to move its last 850 jobs from Kenosha to a new low-wage engine plant in Mexico.
FIRST EFFORT TO RECALL DEM IS CRUSHED
The recall efforts led by labor are proceeding strongly despite the fact that few of the six districts have been won by Democrats in recent years. In the July 19 recall election held in Green Bay against Democratic Sen. David Hansen, a longtime labor activist, Hansen crushed Republican opponent and Tea Party activist David Vanderleest by a 66 – 31 margin. Nonetheless, Vanderleest boasted afterward, “It showed how well my message was received.”
Union members across the state are working hard to make sure that the stunning hostility of the Republicans to worker rights and democracy is similarly “received” in the eight other districts where the recall elections are being held August 9 and August 16.