MADISON, WIS. — The 3,000-member strong Teacher Assistant Association (TAA) at the University of Wisconsin is often credited with deciding to occupy the Wisconsin State capitol in February 2011. As the Capitol Times said in op-ed earlier this month, “The TAA took the lead, and Wisconsin followed.” But like many other labor groups, the TAA is having a difficult time channeling protesters’s passionate opposition to Gov. Scott Walker’s anti-union agenda into electoral politics.
This challenge was on display last Thursday at a tense endorsement meeting between the TAA and former Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk, who is now a leading candidate for union supporters in the race to replace Gov. Walker through a recall election later this year. After pledging to veto any budget bill that did not repeal Wisconsin anti-union legislation, Falk has quickly garnered the endorsement of the biggest public-sector unions in Wisconsin — SEIU, WEAC and AFSCME.
But the TAA and other unions have been wary of Falk because of how she has been bragging about getting Dane County public workers to agree to “$10 million in reduction of their salaries and health benefits.” Her words have angered a large segment of the TAA that wants not only to restore collective bargaining rights but to actually use those rights to restore the wages lost as a result of Walker’s budgets. The concessions forced on Wisconsin public-sector workers’ have resulted in average 9‑percent wage cut, or roughly $4,400, according to the Wisconsin Department of Administration.
When asked on Thursday about why she had bragged about the concessions, Falk told a TAA members: “We had a very tough budget situation and I was so proud of the eight unions for working with me to achieve ten million in savings.” When challenged about whether or not she would push back against concessions imposed on public workers, Falk responded “As a county executive, I always let the unions bargain. I let them say whether they wanted higher wages and lower healthcare contributions or lower wages and higher health care contributions. I let them bargain collectively.”
Falk’s lack of commitment to oppose concessions represents an attempt by the Falk campaign to reach out to moderate voters who may be wary of their tax dollars being used to fund public sector workers. Even some union activists worry that Falk’s pledge to veto any budget that does not restore collective bargaining rights may hurt her in the recall election. They worry she may come across as being too closely tied with organized labor.
The willingness of some unions to support Falk even though she may not always be in organized labor’s corner is part of a broader trend of unions supporting Democrats who sometimes work against them. For example, the Communications Workers of America endorsed President Obama for re-election last month. A few days later the president signed a bill funding the Federal Aviation Administration that, according to CWA President Larry Cohen, makes the rights of airline and rail workers “worse than it’s ever been.”
Many in organized labor hold their noses in support Democrats despite their misgivings for them because they fear the Republican alternative. But last week some TAA members said the union shouldn’t endorse anyone at all as a way of changing how Democrats treat workers.
“I don’t want to pick the less worst option, I’d like a candidate who fully realizes the power of workers organizing,” said TAA Co-President Adrienne Pagac. “What we are shining a light on if we choose to not endorse a candidate are issues of workers’ rights that are outside of traditional election. Our absence in not endorsing a candidate would speak volumes to what is not being discussed in the election. We have far more power to fight for our members by pushing the debate to the left than we would to just merely just endorse a candidate.”
Others though think that it’s important that all of labor being united to defeat Walker. The recall election (a date for which hasn’t been set) has national implications; If Walker were defeated, it might discourage other elected officials from launching attacks on unions.
“I think labor should endorse a candidate who has expressed getting collective bargaining back in the most powerful ways. So far Falk is the only person who has said that,” says TAA Co-President Alex Hanna. “There are definitely misgivings about her, but I think it’s important we beat Walker.”
But for now, as union officials and activists throughout Wisconsin try to turn anti-Walker fervor into electoral energy, the TAA hasn’t endorsed anyone. In fact, there’s no consensus among members about whether the union that triggered the massive uprising against Walker last year will endorse any candidate at all.