Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker is trying to end collective bargaining rights for public employees in Wisconsin, and thousands have converged on the state capitol in protest of what many consider a radical and blatantly political move. Walker's plan threatens the rights of all Wisconsin workers, and if it prevails in this state, could threaten the rights of working people across the nation. It would also reverse the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and all those who have fought for economic justice through the power of organizing.
Although federal collective bargaining laws protect private sector employees, Wisconsin has been a leader in extending those rights to the public sector. The American Federation of State, City and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) formed in 1932 in Madison, Wisconsin. The "dairy state" was the first to pass collective bargaining rights for local government workers and teachers in 1959. The push for public sector unionization extended through the sixties.
While most remember that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated in Memphis one day after delivering his "I Have Been to the Mountaintop" speech, many have forgotten that King was in the city supporting African-American public employees striking for union recognition, job security, and better wages and benefits. In the wake of Dr. King's tragic death, many states passed laws protecting collective bargaining rights for public employees. Wisconsin extended labor protections to virtually all state workers in the mid-1970s.
Governor Scott Walker's so-called "Budget Repair Bill" would eliminate the labor protections gained over decades. It would also unilaterally increase the amount public employees must contribute to pensions and health insurance premiums. Walker has attempted to justify the plan as a necessary cost-saving measure, while simultaneously reducing state revenues by cutting $5 billion in taxes. However, "this has nothing to do with the budget deficit," says former U.S. Solicitor of Labor and current Wisconsin Law School emeritus professor Carin Clauss. "A legislative enactment can always establish mandatory employee contributions for pension and health benefits. If that is what the governor needs, he can get that without repealing the collective bargaining rights for state and local government employees. This whole thing is ridiculous, just an excuse to undermine labor relations."
"This is not about money"
The fiscal impact of Walker's plan comes from increases in employee pension and health insurance contributions. The net effect will be to reduce the take-home pay of Wisconsin teachers, social workers, and other public servants by an average of 8%. While the pay cut will certainly hurt thousands of working families, for many the real issue is the loss of collective bargaining rights.
Contrary to the claims of the bill's supporters, the Economic Policy Institute released a study on February 10 showing that, even when benefits are taken into account, Wisconsin state employees are paid less than their private sector counterparts. While public employees say they are willing to negotiate even further cuts, the governor's concern does not appear to be with fixing the deficit, but with using a questionable budget "crisis" to attack collective bargaining as a whole.
At a protest rally outside the Wisconsin State Capitol on February 15, high school science teacher Matt Tiller said, "We are reasonable people. We are willing to negotiate pension contributions. The real problem is that this bill destroys unions." Elementary school reading specialist Jennie Clement noted that union negotiations often focus "more on students than our families," and that teacher input can have a direct impact on quality of education.
At the February 15 rally, Nation contributor and Capitol Times associate editor John Nichols said, "When we attack the rights of public workers, we attack the rights of all workers," and private sector unions across the state have marched on the state capitol in protest. Former Solicitor Clauss believes the bill "is very likely a prelude to restricting unions in the private sector," and that employee contributions to pension plans could be mandated by law, without restricting labor rights.
"If this is just about money, why scrap the negotiated non-wage provisions that have been achieved through twenty years of bargaining, like the role of seniority, vacation time, or the option to work the night shift? This bill is a trojan horse to bust unions."
Notably exempt from the bill's dismantling of labor rights are police, sheriff and firefighters, but not corrections facility officers, capitol and university police, or airport firefighters. The governor claims the exemptions are necessary because a strike would risk public safety, but critics note that the sheriff, firefighters and police unions supported Walker in the 2010 campaign, where AFSCME and the state teacher's union did not. These exceptions not only suggest political favoritism, but create schizophrenic policy declarations where Wisconsin law recognizes the value of worker voice and workplace democracy, but only for those who supported the governor in elections.
If Walker's law really is a "trojan horse" that represents the first step towards limiting union rights in the private sector, it will certainly please the powerful business lobby Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce (WMC), who contributed nearly $1 million to Walker's campaign.
The WMC opposes union rights and has alleged (pdf) there is an inverse correlation between levels of unionization and job creation. Many of Walker's other legislative proposals have been lifted from WMC's agenda. The WMC has even adopted Walker's "Wisconsin is open for business" campaign slogan.
The bill's drastic limitation on collective bargaining rights would also harm the state teacher's union, the Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC), a major player in Wisconsin politics which spent around $1.6 million in the 2010 elections. WEAC also supports new rules to require disclosure of money being spent to influence elections, in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court's controversial Citizens United decision to expand the power of corporations to spend unlimited money in election ads, disclosure rules which are opposed by Walker's allied business supporters.
The union-busting bill
Wisconsin has long understood that collective bargaining fosters peaceful resolution of employment disputes, promotes cooperative employer-employee relations, and is a constructive alternative to workplace disruption and violence. Walker's bill, which affects everyone from schoolteachers to state office employees to nurses to garbage workers, will "take away any say they have in the workplace and eliminate their union," according to an AFL-CIO television ad.
First, the bill makes it very difficult to maintain a union, not only by requiring union recertification elections be carried out each year with a secret ballot, but that the election be won by a majority of eligible employees rather than a majority of voters. "No politician could get into office if we held elections this way," Clauss says, noting that only 27% of the eligible voting population cast votes for Reagan in his "landslide victory" over Jimmy Carter in 1980, as only half of the population voted. "Most workers, like most citizens, don't vote."
Second, Walker's plan would strip public employees of the ability to bargain meaningfully, eliminating the right to discuss the role of seniority, benefits, the timing of shifts or breaks, and other terms and conditions of employment. Only wages would remain a permissible subject for bargaining, but because public employee wage raises cannot exceed cost of living increases, the union's role would be severely circumscribed.
Third, Walker's proposal would drain union treasuries by making it more difficult to collect dues from members, and eliminate the "fair share provisions" that require non-union employees pay union dues in exchange for union representatives bargaining on behalf of all employees (making it exceptionally easy to be a free rider for benefits without paying dues).
Open for business?
Walker's ideologically-motivated, union-busting effort makes Wisconsin more similar to southern states, which have much lower levels of unionization and tighter restrictions on public sector organizing. Clauss believes that the ultimate effect of Walker's suppression of labor protections, if it succeeds, will be that "Wisconsin will out-south the South," not only limiting public sector unionization, but making Wisconsin a right-to-work state and restricting collection of union dues. As for the dubious claim that this power grab will lead to job creation in Wisconsin, she adds "perhaps a few poultry plants will relocate to Wisconsin. Walker seems to believe that a more desirable state for business is one with fewer labor protections, but that is just wrong."
State Representative Mark Pocan agrees. "Wisconsin is hardly 'open for business' if businesses can't attract employees because of a bad employee climate in our state. The government banning employees from negotiating through unions is a radical and dangerous notion that Wisconsin simply shouldn't embrace. If high-tech and emerging industries can't attract employees because of our bad employee atmosphere in our state, they certainly won't locate here."
Walker like an Egyptian
In a strong showing of solidarity, hundreds of thousands of Wisconsin citizens of all ages, classes, colors, and ideologies have descended upon the State Capitol in over a week of protest: 70,000 people stood in solidarity on Saturday alone.* Governor Walker has threatened to call out the National Guard. "Walker like an Egyptian" signs at the rally cleverly reference both the pop hit by "The Bangles" and political repression in Egypt, prior to the resignation of "President for life" Hosni Mubarak.
Speaking in support of Memphis' public employees on the day before his assassination, Dr. King said: "Now, what does all of this mean in this great period of history? It means that we've got to stay together. We've got to stay together and maintain unity. You know, whenever Pharaoh wanted to prolong the period of slavery in Egypt, he had a favorite, favorite formula for doing it. What was that? He kept the slaves fighting among themselves. But whenever the slaves get together, something happens in Pharaoh's court, and he cannot hold the slaves in slavery. When the slaves get together, that's the beginning of getting out of slavery. Now let us maintain unity."
(*This article was first published on February, 16, 2010, and updated with protest numbers on February 22.)