The labor movement after Wisconsin

March 29, 2011

Lee Sustar looks at how organized labor's showdown with Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker has set the stage for even sharper conflicts to come.

THE GREAT labor mobilizations in Wisconsin showed that unions have the potential to win. So how come labor's still losing so badly?

Certainly the spirit of the Wisconsin protests continues to resonate across the U.S. After labor resisted union-busting Republican Gov. Scott Walker with the biggest series of union protests in decades, union members in Ohio and Michigan poured into their own state Capitol buildings to protest similar legislative attacks.

The Wisconsin demonstrations prompted the AFL-CIO to call for a national day of workers protests April 4--a long overdue attempt to give expression to the workers anger that's been building since the economic crash of 2008. In Los Angeles, some 20,000 union members took to the streets March 26 in solidarity with Wisconsin and to support local labor struggles.

Despite the passage of vicious anti-union laws, Wisconsin showed that organized labor is alive and kicking--and capable of waging serious resistance. It marks a watershed moment in the effort to rebuild a fighting labor movement, and the experience was transformative for the hundreds of thousands who participated in the struggle.

"The Women of Steel" join tens of thousands of other workers on the march in Madison
"The Women of Steel" join tens of thousands of other workers on the march in Madison (Jessie Reeder)

Still, the legislative attacks and demands for concessions keep on coming. Bills to eliminate or curtail collective bargaining, ban teacher strikes or limit union-dues deductions are in play in more than a dozen state legislatures. Yet the official leaders of the labor movement show no sign of leading a real fight.

In Wisconsin, public-sector union leaders rushed to sign contracts with most of the economic concessions sought by Walker in order to delay the impact of his anti-union law, which eliminates meaningful collective bargaining for public-sector employees and bars the collection of union dues through workers' paycheck deductions.

Talk of a general strike--frequently discussed among activists during the three weeks of protests at Wisconsin's Capitol in Madison--dissipated as union leaders pressured union members to approve contracts that contain at least a 7 percent pay cut in order to keep the dues money. Labor's focus now is on recalling eight Republican Wisconsin state senators--which, however worthy a goal, is no substitute for a fight based on labor's power on the job.

THE LESSON of Wisconsin for the unions should be straightforward enough. Republican governors and legislators are intent on crippling or destroying public-sector unions unless and until labor is willing and able to use all its power to stop them.

Nevertheless, union leaders continue to sound the retreat, limiting the fightback against the Republicans to the ballot box, while bowing to more "reasonable" concessions pushed by Democrats.

Two days before the big Los Angeles labor demonstration, for example, a coalition of six unions representing more than 14,500 municipal workers reached a tentative agreement on a contract with an estimated $400 million in concessions, including cancellation of scheduled pay raises and a measure that would almost double workers' contributions to retirement benefits from 6 to 11 percent. That's close to the pension contribution of 12.8 percent mandated for Wisconsin public-sector workers in Walker's anti-union bill.

The LA contract, if approved, will save the city government $1 billion over 30 years. "The structural impact will go on forever," admitted Service Employees International Union Local 721 President Bob Schoonover.

Meanwhile, California Gov. Jerry Brown is using the Republican minority in the state legislature as a bogeyman to pressure state employees' unions to take concessions beyond the $400 million they accepted last year. "I tell my union friends, you're going to have to make some changes now, or much more drastic changes later," Brown said.

Nevertheless, union leaders are giving Brown a pass, despite budget proposals that will devastate working people in California. American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten recently gave a speech in which she denounced Walker and defended public-sector workers--but embraced Brown's call for "shared responsibility, one that will hopefully lead to a better budgetary outcome in the short term, and a better economic output in the long term."

In New York, Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo wants $450 million in union concessions or threatens that he will lay off 9,800 state workers--and he's got the backing of a business group that raised $10 million to wage a political campaign against the unions. Cuomo's budget would end the so-called "millionaire's tax" and cut at least $1.2 billion from education. The unions are critical--but most supported Cuomo in last November's election as a lesser evil to right-wing Republican Carl Paladino.

In Illinois, Democratic Gov. Pat Quinn and the Democratic state legislature postponed immediate budget cuts by raising the income tax, but the Democrats are aggressively pushing legislation that would cut union protections for teachers. But as in New York, Quinn and Illinois Democrats got big donations and a mobilization of union members to propel them into office.

These relentless attacks--from Republicans and Democrats alike--certainly warrant the national day of action called for April 4, the anniversary of the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King, who was killed in Memphis where he had gone to support a strike by sanitation workers.

A day of worker protest across the U.S. is welcome. But most actions are focused on symbols of struggle rather than struggle itself. A day of action should be a stepping-stone towards further mobilization or more militancy. But all indications are that union leaders are sticking to their familiar script of electoral politics.

In Wisconsin, of course, the focus is now on the recall of eight Republican state senators, whose ouster would give the Democrats control of the state senate and slow down Walker's union-smashing, budget-cutting agenda. Thus, the final mass labor rally in Madison March 12 was a kickoff of an electoral campaign rather than struggle at the workplace.

IT DIDN'T have to turn out this way. The willingness of workers in Wisconsin to take more militant action was clear throughout the conflict, and the teachers' sickout could have set the stage for similar job actions across the state.

Yet from the outset of the struggle against Walker's bill, leaders of Wisconsin public-sector union accepted Walker's case that major cuts in health care and pensions were necessary to balance Wisconsin's budget deficit. When 14 Democratic state senators fled Wisconsin to block action on the anti-union bill, unions could have used the time to mobilize for workers' action.

Instead, they confined their demands to the preservation of collective bargaining and automatic payroll deductions of union dues. They were mostly silent on the other anti-worker provisions of the bill--such as severe cuts in Medicaid and BadgerCare, the state health program for low-income people, and the privatization of the University of Wisconsin's flagship Madison campus.

The key issue, according to Marty Beil, executive director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Council 24, was the preservation of collective bargaining. Under Walker's new law--which is still tied up in the courts--the unions would be stripped of the ability to bargain over anything but wages, and even pay increases would be limited to the rate of inflation. "It's not about the money," was AFSCME's slogan.

"We are prepared to implement the financial concessions proposed to help bring our state's budget into balance, but we will not be denied our God-given right to join a real union," Beil said in a statement. "We will not--I repeat, we will not--be denied our rights to collectively bargain."

In fact, AFSCME Council 24 offered to take not only economic concessions, but also floated the idea of a two-year "freeze" on collective bargaining--as long as the unions could continue to collect dues through payroll deductions. In short, the union leaders were prepared to see members take what will amount to a 7 percent pay cut and be without effective representation for two years in exchange for the flow of dues that cover union officials' own pay and benefits.

Certainly the defense of automatic dues payments from payroll, also called dues checkoff, is an important demand. The experience of Transport Workers Union (TWU) Local 100 in New York City bears this out. After Local 100 subway and bus workers shut down the city's mass transit in December 2005, a judge ended dues checkoff, creating a financial crisis for the union and generating confusion over who was actually a union member.

But Wisconsin union leaders saw Walker's attack on dues checkoff as a threat directed mainly at their own livelihoods--and they pushed workers to accept to concessions in order to protect their own interests at the expense of the rank and file.

This may strike some as an exaggeration. But developments in Wisconsin bear out this description.

For example, members of Madison Teachers Inc., who sparked a four-day job action by teachers statewide with sickout February 17, responded to the passage of Walker's bill not with another walkout, but by ratifying a two-year contract that included practically all of the economic concessions demanded by Walker. They were under heavy pressure to do so by their parent union, the Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC), which rushed to delay the impact of Walker's bill by locking in contracts--and dues income.

Employers are taking full advantage of this situation. The Madison school board, which had vowed not to penalize teachers for their job action, reneged and docked their pay--and put a "letter of counseling" in the file of every teacher who participated. But from the standpoint of union leaders, a key goal was accomplished--dues checkoff was maintained. (That solution wasn't available to AFSCME Council 24, however, which was without a contract and now finds itself facing the end of dues checkoff.)

After settling on the settle-at-all-costs strategy, Wisconsin union leaders turned their full attention to recalling eight Republican state senators and, in a year's time, Walker himself. While those politicians certainly deserve to be ousted, and union members are enthusiastic about getting involved, they've been pressured into accepting devastating cuts in the hope that Democrats will eventually be able to repeal Walker's bill and restore those concessions.

The recall elections, if they take place, should be an opportunity to push for independent labor candidates. Instead, the unions seem prepared to accept any candidates offered by the Democratic Party.

Yet there's no guarantee that the Democrats who may replace the Republicans will be willing to overturn anti-labor laws. After all, President Barack Obama and a Democratic-controlled Congress failed to make good on a promise to pass the Employee Free Choice Act to make it easier for workers to join unions.

In fact, Wisconsin's Democratic politicians have been eager to use Walker's attacks to their own advantage in labor negotiations. For example, Madison Mayor Dave Cieslewicz, a Democrat who had publicly supported the protests against Walker, didn't hesitate to take advantage of Walker's law by extracting concessions from AFSCME Local 60, which represents Madison city workers.

The deal increases health insurance premiums and implements a 50 contribution to retirement benefits in January 2012, and rolls back a pay raise at the end of 2011 from 3 percent to 2 percent. The result: $2.8 million more for the city's budget at workers' expense. The deal, said Cielsewicz, "proves again, I want to underscore this, that collective bargaining works." But what "works" for politicians like Cielsewicz means a lower standard of living, less job security and fewer protections on the job for public-sector union members.

THE GAP between union leaders' policy of retreat and workers' willingness to fight has seldom been greater. In Wisconsin, grassroots labor and community activists are attempting to build on the connections made during the protests to forge new coalitions and networks to fight the next round of Walker's budget cuts and maintain their union organizations despite the new restrictions imposed by the new anti-union laws.

And across the country, there will be no shortage of flashpoints in the coming weeks and months--for example, with the threats of thousands of layoffs of teachers in Los Angeles and New York City.

Battles, large and small, are looming in the private sector as well. "Every employer I negotiate with thinks they're Wisconsin," said a representative for a big local private-sector union in Chicago. For example, Verizon, which enters contract negotiations with unions this year, is out to deal a decisive blow to its unions.

The challenge now is for union militants to organize themselves--to create networks of activists who are opposed to labor's continued retreats and defeats. The struggle in Wisconsin has broadened the horizons of millions of union members--and millions more who would like to be organized.

That inspiration has to be translated into day-to-day organizing that can take the struggle forward when union leaders are unable, or unwilling, to do so.

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