The road to the Capitol occupation

March 12, 2012
Part 2

One year ago last winter, a revolt against a union-busting Republican governor swept through the state of Wisconsin--and the image of the U.S. as immune from mass protest and in the thrall of Tea Party reactionaries was swept away in a matter of days.

Walker's attack sparked a mobilization of the union movement unseen in the U.S. in decades--and one that embraced countless individuals and organizations with no formal connection to labor. What began as protests by students and rank-and-file unionists and a sick-in by teachers in the capital city of Madison mushroomed into an occupation of the state Capitol building and daily demonstrations across the state and around the country. In the end, Walker got away with his union-busting legislation, but the impact of the battle in Wisconsin endures.'s Lee Sustar reported from Madison throughout the rebellion. He has written a chapter for a book edited by Michael Yates titled Wisconsin Uprising: Labor Fights Back. We're publishing that chapter--this selection is the selection in a three-part series.

The Long War on Wisconsin Labor

If Scott Walker thought he could roll over Wisconsin's public sector unions without a fight, it was likely because the traditional bastions of the state's union strength had already been decimated over the years by plant closures and concessions by union leaders in an effort to save jobs. A labor movement known for its pioneering advances in the nineteenth century and for achieving a good standard of living for workers in the decades following the Second World War was unable to resist the national trend of declining union strength.

Wisconsin's union density was above 14 percent in 2010, compared to 11.9 percent in the United States overall. But union density in the state is less than half the level of 1964, when one in three workers was unionized. Just 8.4 percent of workers in the private sector in the state were unionized in 2010, less than half the level of 1983.[5]

The radical reduction in union members at Briggs & Stratton is emblematic of labor's decline in Wisconsin. This maker of small engines and generators saw an epic strike in 1983 that highlighted labor's resilience. In the early 1990s the company still had 10,000 employees in the Milwaukee area before a wave of outsourcing.[6] By October 2010, the company's contract with its main union, now affiliated with the United Steelworkers (USW), covered just 350 workers and cut take-home pay as the result of increases in health care costs. Wages are $17 per hour--about one-third lower than the level of the mid-1990s, after inflation is considered.[7]

Since 2003, following national contracts, automakers and auto parts suppliers in Wisconsin began cutting wages for new hires before closing plants altogether. The plant shutdowns included the Delphi plant in Oak Creek,[8] the Chrysler engine plant in Kenosha,[9] and the GM assembly plant in Janesville.[10]

The paper industry saw a similar pattern. The NewPage paper mill in Kimberly closed in 2008, eliminating jobs paying around $28 per hour--twice the amount of non-union jobs in the industry. Wisconsin has lost 16,000 paper industry jobs since 1997, about a third of the total.[11]

Meatpacking, another key Wisconsin industry, also saw a decline in wages in the aftermath of the defeat of the Hormel strike in Austin, Minnesota, in 1985–86. In 2011, wages at Hormel's Beloit facility represented by the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) union were $16.75 per hour--some 30 percent lower than in the 1980s, after inflation.[12] At Madison's Oscar Mayer meatpacking plant, also represented by the UFCW, wages were lower still.[13]

The downward push in the Wisconsin meatpacking industry wasn't enough for Tyson Foods Inc. In 2003, the company, despite being profitable, demanded that workers at its Jefferson plant take a one-third cut in wages, to $9 per hour, pay higher health care costs, accept a freeze on pensions, and eliminate that benefit for new hires. The workers struck on February 28 of that year, and got widespread support that anticipated the outpouring of labor sympathy in Madison."[14]

Many Tyson strikers saw their struggle as part of a larger fight. "Big corporations are trying to take advantage," Chuck Moehling, a 22-year veteran of the plant, said on the picket line. "Let's face it--there are not a lot of jobs out there, and corporations know it. If they were losing money, maybe we could live with some part of this. But they're not losing money. This plant here made $24 million. It makes you feel all the more committed to keep going, because you know that they don't have any legitimacy in their proposals since they're making profits and increasing CEO pay as much as they are."[15] After nearly a year on the picket line, the workers accepted the company's offer.[16]

The recession that began in December 2007 saw a new wave of attacks on unions. At the Woodman's grocery chain, a company that is nominally employee-owned but controlled by the Woodman family, management seized the moment to try to decertify UFCW Local 1473 as the workers' bargaining agent. Despite a multi-union, statewide solidarity rally in May 2008, the company succeeded.[17]

Wisconsin Teamsters also found themselves under intensifying pressure. In August 2008, drivers for Waste Management Inc. in Milwaukee waged a month-long strike that ended largely on the company's terms--a five-year contract that replaced defined-benefit pensions with a 401(k) account.[18]

Other corporate employers also used the recession as a weapon to inflict greater, even decisive blows, against the unions. At the Mercury Marine boat engine plant in Fond du Lac, the parent company, Brunswick Corp., used a threat of a plant closure in 2009 to obtain a contract that froze wages for seven years and cut pay by 30 percent--to about $11.50 per hour--for both new hires and laid-off workers recalled to their jobs.[19] The workers, members of the International Association of Machinists (IAM), initially rejected the deal before accepting it.[20]

Motorcycle manufacturer Harley-Davidson took a similar approach the following year. Members of the IAM and the USW agreed to concessions at Harley's two Wisconsin plants, as did their counterparts in Pennsylvania and Missouri, including a seven-year wage freeze, higher health care costs for workers, and the hiring of casual workers who will be paid less than permanent employees for identical work and receive no medical or retirement benefits.[21]

Another storied Wisconsin industrial powerhouse, the plumbing and fixture maker Kohler, in 2010 obtained similar concessions from UAW Local 833, which represents about 2,300 workers in two plants. The contract freezes pay for upper-tier workers at $22.54 an hour for five years and provides them with $1,000 signing bonuses. Lower-tier workers will receive wages that are one-third lower, and will have to pay more for health care.[22]

By early 2011, a concessionary statewide pattern in manufacturing had been established across Wisconsin. Appliance maker Sub-Zero got members of Sheet Metal Workers Local 565 to accept a seven-year agreement that imposes a 20 percent cut in wages and benefits for all 350 workers.[23]

Meanwhile, another mainstay of Wisconsin private sector unionism, the building trades, suffered their worst wave of unemployment in decades. After reaching a peak of around 130,000 in 2006, the number of statewide jobs in the industry was less than 90,000 as 2011 began.[24] The president of Plumbers Local 75 reported a 20 percent jobless rate in his local in mid-2011.[25] The number of idled union construction workers helps explain the building trades' large and consistent turnout during the Madison mobilization. Overall, joblessness in Wisconsin when the uprising began in February 2011 was at 7.4 percent--better than some states but still well above the pre-recession figure of around 4.5 percent.[26]

Thus, by the time Walker declared war on public sector unions, their counterparts in private industry were already embittered by three decades of retreats and humiliating setbacks in recent struggles. Moreover, the progressive leadership of the Wisconsin AFL-CIO under longtime president David Newby and of the Madison-based South Central Federation of Labor (SCFL) under Jim Cavanaugh had played an important role in promoting such cross-union solidarity efforts.

Wisconsin's unionized workers in the private sector, therefore, were primed to respond to public sector workers' call for labor solidarity in February 2011--and in large numbers.

Public Sector Unions Get Squeezed

While corporate employers were pounding unions, public sector workers were also suffering from stagnant and declining wages and, in recent years, the assumption of a portion of health care costs. A twenty-year-old effort toward partnership-style collective bargaining had already unraveled by the time Walker took office. If Walker concluded that he could move decisively against public sector unions, it was in part because his Democratic predecessor in the governor's mansion had already extracted major labor concessions.

Walker's move to eliminate meaningful public sector collective bargaining turned back the clock half a century, when the state legislature came to terms with the reality that municipal workers and teachers were organizing, irrespective of their legal status. Public sector unions in Wisconsin were first recognized under state law in 1959, but the process wasn't fully formalized until 1962 in a tumultuous period of organizing, struggle, and strikes.[27] The state legislature extended collective bargaining rights to state employees in 1966, and amended the law to allow bargaining on wages and benefits as well.[28] The laws banned public sector strikes, but couldn't prevent them. Despite a 1971 law explicitly barring teachers' strikes, the next few years saw a wave them, including the 1974 battle in Hortonville that saw eighty-four teachers fired[29] and a long 1976 strike by Madison Teachers Inc. (MTI).[30]

The high-water mark of public sector worker struggle in Wisconsin came in 1977 with a fifty-day wintertime strike by teachers in the industrial town of Racine[31] and a fifteen-day successful strike by state employees in 1977, a showdown in which the governor mobilized the National Guard to do the jobs of corrections officers who were walking picket lines.[32]

Labor relations in the Wisconsin public sector were quieter in the 1980s as the collective bargaining process became institutionalized. In 1991, the Republican administration of Tommy Thompson initiated "consensus bargaining" with the Wisconsin State Employees Union (WSEU), also known as the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Council 24. The negotiation model explicitly rejected the proposition that labor and management are adversaries, and instead focused on the discovery of supposed common interests.

Marty Beil, executive director of Council 24, was an enthusiastic participant. In 1998, the project was bolstered by a grant from the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service which funded labor-management training classes around the states that involved 750 people and culminated in a "graduation" ceremony at the governor's mansion. When the federal grant expired, Working Together became formalized, with funding partly provided by a grant from AFSCME International. "The Wisconsin experience and the success with the Working Together project should be a national model," AFSCME president Gerald McEntee said at the time.[33] For his part, Beil saw labor-management partnership as extending to the ballot box, and broke with most union leaders to support Thompson.[34]

But when the recession of 2001 left the state with a $1 billion budget shortfall, Thompson's Republican successor, Scott McCallum, set aside consensus bargaining for a more confrontational approach, demanding that workers contribute to health care coverage for the first time. That didn't sit well with workers, who had seen wages eroded by inflation over the previous fifteen years--including a 20 percent decline in the pay of University of Wisconsin (UW) custodians. In response, Beil of WSEU/AFSCME Council 24 organized a rally of more than 1,000 state workers in March 2002, perhaps the largest protest by that union since the 1977 strike. AFSCME president McEntee was among the speakers.[35] The final collective bargaining agreement wasn't reached until May 2003, barely two months before the contract was set to expire. State employees held the line on health care and won 5.5 pay increases retroactive to 2001--a significant gain, even if insufficient to overcome the losses due to inflation. Republican legislators approved the deal on the promise that the new Democratic governor, Jim Doyle, would seek employee contributions to health care insurance premiums in the next round of talks.[36]

AFSCME Council 24 leaders may have hoped that a Democratic governor would return to the consensus bargaining of the Thompson years. But Republicans had good reason to trust Doyle to take on public employee unions. During the Democratic primary race for governor, Doyle had antagonized labor by promising to eliminate 10,000 state jobs, prompting Council 24 to back his Democratic primary opponent.[37]

In his two terms, Doyle cut some government jobs, but not total employment by the state.[38] He did, however, keep his promise to Republicans to impose a portion of health care insurance premiums on state employees, first requiring non-union employees to pay a share.[39] Next came a three-tier health care plan with premiums initially paid for by the state, but with workers accepting only a token raise.[40] In their next contract, Wisconsin state workers had to pay a portion of health care premiums for the first time--an amount that increased in the following agreement. In the 2007–9 contract--which was extended until Walker canceled it in mid-2011--members of AFSCME Council 24 in the most common family plan had to pay nearly $1,000 per year in insurance premiums that just a few years earlier had been entirely covered by the state. Though this may seem modest, the impact was significant because of the long-term decline in real wages. Participants in the top-tier health insurance plan had to pay much more.[41]

Doyle's shift of health care costs to workers didn't prevent him from winning reelection in 2006, once again with labor support. But by dragging out negotiations with contract extensions and keeping pay raises to a minimum, the eight-year Doyle administration steadily shifted the balance of power in labor relations in favor of management.

"In the last ten years, our wages have barely increased, usually only about at the rate of inflation," said Eric Robson, a twenty-three-year mailroom worker at the University of Wisconsin (UW) and a former president of AFSCME Local 171, which is part of Council 24. "There haven't been a lot of formal changes in the work rules. But there has been a constant speedup through attrition, as they split up people's work when they leave without replacing them. I've gotten part of the work of two or three other people."

At the same time, the union has atrophied, added Robson, who continues to serve the local as a shop steward. "The union used to fight for having more money in the state budget, so we could challenge management when they said, 'We can't fund this.' But now bargaining waits until the state budget is done, and then seeing what's in it. The approach became, 'The budget is in, how do we make the best of it?'"

When the impact of the recession hit the Wisconsin state budget, Doyle tossed aside consensus bargaining and made harsh demands on the state employees' unions. Besides foisting health care costs on state workers for the first time, Doyle cut their pay by 3 percent in 2009 by mandating sixteen unpaid furlough days over the following two years and instituting state worker contributions to pensions for the first time. Though the amount was relatively small--0.2 percent--the move legitimized Scott Walker's later demand that workers pay more into pensions. Overall, state employees averaged annual pay increases of just 1.21 percent per year under Doyle, well below the rate of inflation and the lowest level of any governor since 1971. "I've made deeper cuts than any governor's ever made and I've had to impose tougher cost controls on state employees than anybody's made," Doyle declared to reporters in the aftermath of the 2010 elections.[42]

Doyle's hard-line stance prevented AFSCME Council 24 from gaining a contract for more than eighteen months. This would later give Walker the opportunity to cancel the contract extension in place, thus enabling him to void bargaining rights for Council 24 as soon as his anti-union law came into effect.

Although Walker didn't declare his intention to attack public sector unions until after the 2010 election, his anti-labor record as head of Milwaukee County was well known. But that didn't provide much of an edge to his Democratic challenger in the 2010 race, Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett. That's because in 2009 Barrett himself threatened to eliminate up to 1,400 union jobs and impose twenty unpaid furlough days unless the unions agreed to concessions. The final deal included a two-year wage freeze and a limit of four unpaid furlough days in exchange for no layoffs.[43]

Despite Barrett's attack on labor, most unions endorsed him in his race against Walker, with the exception of Milwaukee's firefighters' union, which backed the Republican candidate. But the enthusiasm for Barrett's candidacy from rank-and-file union members was limited: some 37 percent of voters from union households voted for Walker.[44]

"State Workers Haven't Had to Sacrifice"

When Scott Walker formally unveiled his budget repair bill on February 11, 2011, Wisconsin public sector union leaders saw a mortal threat to their organizations. The bill restricted collective bargaining to wages, which would be limited in any case to the rate of inflation. It also prohibited the automatic deduction of union dues from workers' paychecks, known as dues checkoff, potentially crippling labor financially. The unions would also be forced to recertify annually as the union's bargaining agent, an onerous and expensive requirement for the union staff. But Walker was able to justify it as a budget measure because of its impact on the paycheck of public employees, who would be required to pay 5.8 percent of their pay to their pensions while covering at least 12.6 percent of the cost of their health care premiums for new, lower-quality health insurance.[45] The result would be a sharp cut in workers' take-home pay, ranging from 6.8 to 12.9 percent, depending on their insurance plan.[46]

To state workers already saddled with paying health care premiums and still suffering the effects of furlough-induced pay cuts, further reductions would be especially painful. But according to a television advertisement by the right-wing Club for Growth, which had strongly backed Walker, this was only appropriate, given that unionized workers in the private sector had also accepted concessions at Harley-Davidson, Mercury Marine, and Sub-Zero. The ad's narrator concludes: "But state workers haven't had to sacrifice. They pay next to nothing for their pensions, and a fraction of their health care. It's not fair. Call your state legislator and tell them to vote for Governor Walker's budget repair bill. It's time state employees paid their fair share, just like the rest of us."[47]

Labor leaders sounded their own call to action. Yet they focused not on economic issues, but exclusively on bargaining rights, eventually offering to swallow Walker's demands on pensions and health care in exchange for dues checkoff and continued collective bargaining. But there can be little doubt that the squeeze on paychecks was a powerful motivator for public sector workers already battered by three years of economic crisis.

As the Club for Growth made clear, Walker's economic aims were simply an adaptation of the Wisconsin private sector anti-union agenda in the public sector. Though much has been made of Walker's ties to the notoriously anti-labor Koch brothers, who control a major energy conglomerate, the governor's aim to cut workers' benefits reflects the consensus of big capital in the United States. It was also part of a wider bipartisan campaign in many states to squeeze public sector workers: Walker and his Republican counterparts in Ohio and Michigan captured attention in their attempt to roll back public sector union rights, but their economic objectives were shared by Democratic governors in California, New York, Illinois, and elsewhere, along with Democratic mayors.[48]

The threat to union rights and the cut in union pay spurred a labor protest of some 20,000 on February 15, far beyond the expectation of union leaders. Labor demonstrations were perhaps more common in Madison than in most state capitals, thanks in part to the activist traditions of the local labor council, the South Central Federation of Labor (SCFL), and the state AFL-CIO leadership. But this protest reached far beyond the usual networks of Madison-area trade unionists.

Mike Imbrogno, a food service worker at UW and a shop steward and executive board member of AFSCME Local 171, described the scene that day: "The mood was angry, but also optimistic--almost jubilant. More than one person said to me, 'The whole country is looking at us now. If this happens here, it will go everywhere else.'"[49]

The protest set for the following day, February 16, was bigger still. The transformation from union protest to worker uprising began that day with the sickout by Madison schoolteachers. It soon spread, compelling the Wisconsin Education Association Council (WEAC) leaders to call for spreading the action statewide. Suddenly industrial action, all but abandoned by union leadership in recent years, became central to a key labor struggle, turning a small-state political conflict into a national test of labor's resolve in a widening battle over the rights, wages, and benefits of public sector workers.

The occupation of the capitol building, initially a short-term union tactic to prevent the Wisconsin state senate from voting on the legislation, was the key to sustaining the struggle. The blockade of state senator Chris Larson's office that day, for example, helped him exit the capitol and take his place among the fourteen senators who crossed state lines. Over the next several hours, the capitol became the "people's house" in more than name--a 24-hour center for political debate, strategy discussions, and refreshment for protesters seeking a break from the winter cold.[50]

After years of setbacks and defeats in apparent isolation from one another, Wisconsin workers, both union and unorganized, discovered they were not alone. Problems that had seemed like a personal burden--difficulties making ends meet, the lack of secure employment--were now seen as social and political issues shared by workers of all backgrounds. The anger and frustration dammed up over years had been released, and transformed into hope based on the inspiration of a common struggle. The result was the emergence of networks spanning several organizations that pushed to both broaden the movement to challenge Walker's entire budget agenda and to escalate the struggle beyond protests to include job actions.


5. Mark Pitsch, "Labor's Last Stand? Unions Appear to Be on Life Support as Memberships Dwindle," Wisconsin State Journal, April 17, 2011.

6. Leslie Wirpsa, "Briggs & Stratton Layoffs Tear Family Hopes," National Catholic Reporter, December 2, 1994.

7. Rick Romell, "Briggs Contract Boosts Pay, but Health Insurance Costs also Grow," Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, October 22, 2010.

8. Ronald Cox, "The Milwaukee Plants--End of an Era."

9. Roger Bybee, "Obama and the Heartland: The Good, the Bad, and the Very Ugly (Part 2)," In These Times, July 6, 2010.

10. Jim Leute, "Local Union Membership Declines," Janesville Gazette, September 6, 2009.

11. Roger Bybee, "Paper Chase: Struggle Underscores Larger Pattern of Hurt in the Heartland," Isthmus Daily Page, October 17, 2008.

12. Matt McKinney, "Hormel Union Lauds Terms of New Contract," Minneapolis Star-Tribune, September 12, 2007. For the wage comparison, see also "Tentative Pact Reached in Lengthy Hormel Strike," August 28, 1986.

13. Judy Newman, "Kraft/Oscar Mayer, Union Reach Tentative Deal," Wisconsin State Journal, January 11, 2010.

14. Madeleine Baran, "Almost Six Months Later, Aftershock of Tyson Strike Still Felt in Small Town," July 6, 2004.

15. Eric Ruder, "Taking on Tyson," Socialist Worker, September 3, 2003.

16. Baran, "Almost Six Months Later."

17. Jim Leute, "Union Rejected by Woodman's," Janesville Gazette, December 16, 2009.

18. "BNA Daily Labor Report: Local 200 Teamsters Approve Agreement," October 1, 2008.

19. Roger Bybee, "Mercury Plant Shutdown Will Torpedo Town's Future," In These Times, August 25, 2009.

20. Rick Barrett, "Did Mercury Marine Trio Save Jobs or Betray Union?" Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, September 5, 2009.

21. Rick Barrett and Joe Taschler, "Harley Workers OK Deal," Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, September 13, 2010.

22. LaToya Dennis, "Kohler Union Accepts Contract," WUWM (Milwaukee), December 20, 2010.

23. "Sub-Zero Workers Reach Agreement with Company," January 22, 2011.

24. Bureau of Labor Statistics, "State and Area Employment, Hours, and Earnings," July 30, 2011.

25. Don Behm, "Labor Unions Voice Support of Lake Michigan Plan," Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, July 26, 2011.

26. Bureau of Labor Statistics, "Local Area Unemployment Statistics," July 30, 2011.

27. Robert D. Krause, "The Short, Troubled History of Wisconsin's New Labor Law," Public Administration Review 25/4 (December 1965): 302–7.

28. Robert J. Lavigna, "Best Practices in Public Sector Human Resources: Wisconsin State Government," Human Resource Management (Ann Arbor, Mich.) (Fall 2002): 379.

29. Wisconsin Education Association Council, "WEAC History Book," chapter 5.

30. Ron Seely, "Ending Collective Bargaining Would Risk Return to Teacher Strikes," Wisconsin State Journal, February 21, 2011.

31. Lindsay Fiori, "Madison Events Call to Mind Infamous 1977 Racine Teachers' Strike," Racine Journal-Times, February 26, 2011.

32. Greg Bond, "Solidarity City in 1977 & Walkerville in 2011," June 8, 2011, posted on Facebook.

33. Lavigna, "Best Practices in Public Sector Human Resources," 380–82.

34. Steven Greenhouse, "Union Leader Minces No Words When Labor Issues Are at Stake," New York Times, February 22, 2011.

35. Tom Sheehan, "State Workers Protest Proposed Job, Benefit Cuts," Wisconsin State Journal, March 29, 2002.

36. Phil Brinkman, "State Panel OKs Labor Contracts," Wisconsin State Journal, May 6, 2003.

37. Steven Walters, "3 Unions Plan to Run Radio Ads Critical of Doyle," Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, September 7, 2002.

38. Jason Stein, "Budget Plan Brings State to Square One," Wisconsin State Journal, February 15, 2007.

39. Matt Pommer, "Doyle Plan Hit for Effect on Lowest-Paid Employees," Capital Times, May 6, 2003.

40. Patricia Simms, "State Advances Tentative Labor Deal," Wisconsin State Journal, June 26, 2005.

41. Wisconsin Office of State Employee Relations, Agreement between the State of Wisconsin and AFSCME Council 24 Wisconsin State Employees Union, AFL-CIO, 171.

42. "Former Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle Says He Imposed Tougher Cost Controls on State Employees than Any Previous Governor," December 19, 2010.

43. Larry Sandler, "No Layoffs Promised in Tentative City Union Agreement," Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, September 15, 2009.

44. Craig Gilbert, "Measuring the Union Vote in Wisconsin," Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, February 18, 2011.

45. Jason Stein and Patrick Marley, "Walker Budget Plan Would Limit State Unions to Negotiating only on Salaries," Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, February 10, 2011.

46. PolitiFact Wisconsin, "Gov. Scott Walker says public-employee unions falsely told members that they would have to pay up to 13 percent of incomes for health insurance," July 10, 2011.

47. PolitiFact Wisconsin, "Group says Wisconsin state workers 'haven't had to sacrifice,'" February 18, 2011.

48. Lee Sustar, "The Lessons of Wisconsin's Labor Revolt," International Socialist Review 77 (May-June 2011).

49. Aongus Ó Murchadha, "Workers Draw the Line in Wisconsin," February 16, 2011.

50. Lee Sustar, "Class War in Wisconsin," February 18, 2011.

Further Reading

From the archives