Walker's war of terror against workers

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker is continuing his assault on unions and working people--and featuring it on his resume for the White House. Elizabeth Schulte reports.

Wisconsin workers march against Gov. Scott Walker's union-busting and budget cuts (Andrew Butitta)Wisconsin workers march against Gov. Scott Walker's union-busting and budget cuts (Andrew Butitta)

SCOTT WALKER thinks he's fighting a war on terror in Wisconsin--only in Walker's version of reality, the "terrorists" are workers, and "terrorism" is collective bargaining rights.

The Wisconsin governor told fellow Republicans at the Conservative Political Action Conference in February that he already had the experience he needed to address the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) if he were president. "If I can take on 100,000 protesters," Walker said, "I can do the same across the globe."

Union members in Wisconsin, like this longtime labor activist, were none too pleased.

"The comment is indicative of how Walker and his ilk view working people as an existential threat," the activist said. "There's a lot of anger in the state over his comments, especially among veterans who were a part of the protests in 2011. Many vets go into civil service positions after serving in the military--it was a punch in the gut to be equated with the so-called terrorists they were sent to fight."

A few days later, Walker was at it again, telling the conservative Club for Growth in Washington, D.C., that "the most significant foreign policy decision of my lifetime" was Ronald Reagan's busting of the 1981 strike of air traffic controllers. "It sent a message not only across America, it sent a message around the world."

Reagan's smashing of PATCO did send a message--and inaugurated a 30-year war on workers and their unions, with the blessing of the highest office in the government.

Such statements might lead people to consider Walker the most laughable candidate in the running for the presidency in 2016--if not for the fact that he's very, very serious. He's already responsible for cruel attacks on Wisconsin workers and their unions--and he wants to spread those policies to the whole country.

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PROTESTERS WERE hitting the streets of the Wisconsin capital of Madison again on March 11, with labor supporters protesting Walker's most recent assault on workers' rights--his so-called "freedom to work" legislation, better known as "right-to-work" and more accurately known as "right-to-work-for-less."

The March 11 protest will have even more urgency thanks to anti-racist protesters demanding justice for Tony Robinson, an unarmed Black teenager who was murdered by Madison police last week.

A few days earlier, Walker signed the right-to-work bill into law after it was approved by the state's Republican-led legislature. The legislation will affect unions negotiating contracts in the private sector, in which everyone covered by the contract must contribute to its negotiation and enforcement by paying dues or labor fees.

Corporations--some of which threatened to leave the state if Walker's bill didn't become law--claim the legislation gives workers the "freedom" to refuse to join unions. But this characterization of right-to-work is as confused as Walker's foreign policy talking points. As Jared Bernstein of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities wrote:

Let's be very clear about this: right-to-work does not confer some new right or privilege on those in states that adopt it. It takes away an existing right: The ability of unions to require the beneficiaries of union contracts to pay for their negotiation and enforcement. If anything, the law creates a right to freeload--to reap the significant benefits of union bargaining without paying for them.

Let's also be clear about what goes on in non-right-to-work states, as anti-union forces consistently distort the current reality. In non-right-to-work states, no one has to join a union. There have been no "closed shops" in America for more than 20 years. When right-to-work advocates say they're fighting against "forced unionism," they are making stuff up.

What right-to-work laws do is weakens unions and workers' ability to defend themselves on the job. This doesn't just affect union members, but all workers in right-to-work states. According to research by Gordon Lafer of the Economic Policy Institute:

-- Wages in right-to-work states are 3.2 percent lower than in non-right-to-work states.
-- The incidence of employer-sponsored health insurance is 2.6 percentage points lower in right-to-work states.
-- The incidence of employer-sponsored pensions is 4.8 percentage points lower in right-to-work states.

The real "freedom" goes to corporations--the freedom to pillage workers' rights on the job and cut living standards to the bone. By almost any measure--rates of infant mortality, high school graduation, child abuse and violent crime--workers' living standards decline as a result of right-to-work laws. "The legislature and made it clear that when they say they want us to be competitive with emerging economies like China--they mean that literally," a Wisconsin union activist explained. "Wisconsin is on the road to becoming a low-wage mecca."

Wisconsin joins 24 other states that have some form of right-to-work law--including, most recently, Michigan and Indiana, two other former industrial strongholds in the Midwest. More states could see anti-union assaults--like the heavily Democratic state of Illinois, where the newly elected Republican governor signed an executive order allowing state workers to opt out of paying fees, even if they benefit from a union contract. Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner has also proposed state right-to-work "empowerment" zones.

So Walker didn't invent right-to-work laws, and he certainly isn't the only one pushing them today. But he has made himself the chief political spokesman for union-hating companies around the country.

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WHEN HE took office four years ago, Walker fully intended to make a name for himself with a full-frontal attack on Wisconsin unions--legislation known as Act 10, which set out to drastically limit public-sector workers' collective bargaining rights.

Walker's "budget repair bill" banned public-sector unions from collective bargaining over pensions, health coverage, safety, hours, sick leave or vacations. It allowed them to negotiate pay, but only up to the rate of inflation, and eliminated payroll check-off, where dues are taken out of workers' paychecks automatically. Unions were required to go through a recertification process every year.

Backed by corporate parasites like the union-hating Koch Brothers, Walker became the poster boy for their brand of aggressive opposition to unions. If he could destroy unions in Wisconsin--the first state where public-sector unions won the right to negotiate contracts--he might be able to do it elsewhere.

Wisconsin workers fought hard against Walker's offensive. Teachers led the charge with an impromptu sick-out in Madison in response to Walker's bill, followed by mobilizations of union members and supporters at the state Capitol that turned into a 24-hour occupation of the building. Labor supporters traveled to Madison from around the country to join in the occupation of the Capitol, transforming the building's rotunda--packed with protesters, banners, signs and a 24-hour people's mic--into ground zero in the fight to defend workers.

But Walker's sledgehammer attack against Wisconsin unions prevailed. And since that time, workers have paid a heavy price.

Among the 26 states that don't have right-to-work laws, Wisconsin had the greatest decline in union membership since 2010. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, union members made up 11.7 percent of Wisconsin's workforce in 2014, down from 14.2 percent in 2010, the year before Walker became governor.

Ben Ratliffe, secretary of the City of Madison Employees Association, AFSCME Local 6000, described the impact:

Public-sector union strength in Wisconsin has been seriously curtailed. AFSCME Wisconsin has shrunk from about 33,000 members to 11,000 since 2011. The three AFSCME councils, representing different sectors or geographies, are in the process of combining into one in order to pool resources.

In Madison, many workers been fairly insulated from the worst of it. The county, city and school boards here agreed to continue extending contracts while Walker's Act 10 was being challenged in the courts. Other municipalities weren't so fortunate and saw most of their locals collapse. State workers got the worst of it, as Walker's bargaining restrictions and cuts to health care and pensions were implemented immediately. State workers saw a nearly 40 percent cut in their first paycheck.

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THE POTENTIAL for a fightback demonstrated during the upsurge against Walker at the Capitol in 2011 went unrealized, as union leaders shifted the focus away from the Capitol occupation and workplace actions--and toward challenging Act 10 in the courts and forcing Walker into a recall election.

Union members' time and money was spent on supporting meek Democratic challengers like former Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk and later Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett, even when they refused to commit to restoring collective bargaining rights and came off as only slightly less bad than the Republicans.

In 2014, labor backed Mary Burke in yet another election for governor. The Burke campaign devoted its efforts to stressing her experience in the corporate world and her willingness to sit down with Republicans and business leaders, not any opposition to Walker's attack on unions.

Both efforts to unseat Walker failed, as did several legal attempts to overturn Act 10. These strategies focused on waging a fight in exactly the places where the deck is stacked against workers--and away from where they can be a force with some power, through protests and work actions.

The successful assault on public employees had a demoralizing affect on workers, who now fear for their jobs because they lack seniority protections or are afraid that budget cuts will do away with their retirement. Walker talks about "terrorism," but what could possibly instill more fear than the prospect of not being able to feed your family?

This battle with Walker has revealed that there has to be a change in strategy if unions are going to survive. Ratliffe pointed out:

Now that the state Supreme Court has ruled in favor of Act 10 three times, it is, officially, the law of the land. All but a few contracts have been canceled. If there is an upside to this, it is that we are no longer in "wait and see" mode. While Act 10 was being held up in the courts, union activists were told there was still a chance we'd get collective bargaining back, and plans for membership organizing were repeatedly put on hold. This was a particularly paralyzing and frustrating period.

During those years, however, we did set a few things in motion that have put us in a position to make the best of a bad situation. In the city of Madison, and Dane County where it resides, locals have found some legal loopholes that are allowing us to have some say, although in a much weakened position, over work rules and benefits.

My local's leadership hired a labor history instructor from the University of Wisconsin's School for Workers who has guided us through the process of rethinking our organization's purpose and making the transition from a "service" to an "organizing" model.

By the time our contract finally expired at the end of 2014, we had initiated a membership drive, and to date have re-signed nearly 70 percent of our members who have decided to stick with the union, contract or no contract.

This experience of continued interest in union membership isn't unique to our local, either. A number of locals have attempted to win recertification votes. According to Act 10, locals are required to recertify annually with Yes votes from 51 percent of eligible employees--not 51 percent of those who choose to vote, mind you, but of the entire workforce in that unit.

While this has often proved an insurmountable barrier, many of these units' recert votes went 70 to 80 percent in favor, only losing for lack of voter turnout. My own local has decided to tell Walker to take his recertification requirement and shove it.

The school districts in Madison have shown great resilience and have won recertification with overwhelming support in the face of Act 10. These wins have provided moments of precious inspiration in an otherwise demoralizing slog.

Though Wisconsin's public-sector labor organizations generally continue to pursue the same practice of labor-management partnership, there are more voices of dissent cropping up all the time, and people are asking questions about how we can build more power among the rank and file.

Regarding the lessons learned over the course of fighting Scott Walker's policies in 2011, Ratcliffe continued:

Sadly, many activists, including myself, often find it hard to think back on the Wisconsin Uprising with nostalgia. Living, as we are, in the fallout of its defeat can dim the memory of even that shining moment...

Our strength, however, lies in the fact that "the left" (broadly speaking) has grown, with many more radicals looking for ways to reboot a movement of direct action and reform their unions. In the intervening years, the Fight for 15 has provided a vehicle for building solidarity among activists and finding new ones, and now the Black Lives Matter movement has found roots in Madison with the Young, Gifted and Black Coalition which has brought back the street heat and with it a sense of confidence and direction that was sorely lacking.

Wisconsin may be down, but it's not out.