By Don McIntosh, Associate Editor
A new crop of Republican governors has declared war on unions, provoking the biggest showdown for the American labor movement since President Ronald Reagan fired striking air traffic controllers in 1981. Madison, Wisconsin, has become the center of the fightback.
State budget shortfalls are the context, but not the explanation, of the conflict. It’s now three years into the worst recession since the Great Depression, and direct federal aid to the states under the stimulus program has ended. Facing state budget shortfalls, governors across the country — including Democrats — are seeking to shrink public employee wages and benefits. But a handful of governors in the Midwest want to go much further, and have introduced legislation directly targeting unions.
Governors in Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Tennessee, and Wisconsin, are pushing bills that would curb or eliminate public employees’ right to collective bargaining. Indiana Republicans are also pushing to gut private sector unions with bills to repeal the state prevailing wage law and make Indiana a “right to work” state. In Missouri, there’s even a proposal to overturn protections against child labor.
But it was Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker who fired the shot heard around the world. At a private Feb. 7 dinner meeting of his newly-convened cabinet, Walker held up a photograph of Ronald Reagan and announced that his forthcoming proposals on collective bargaining would be “our time to change the course of history.”
On Friday, Feb. 11, Walker unveiled what he called his “budget repair” plan, a 144-page bill that would strip collective bargaining rights from 175,000 public sector workers in Wisconsin. His bill would:
- eliminate all collective bargaining rights for home health care workers and University of Wisconsin faculty and academic staff, and for employees of University of Wisconsin hospitals and clinics;
- require public-employee unions to negotiate new contracts every year, but bar them from negotiating anything but base wages — not benefits, not work rules, nothing but wages;
- restrict even those wage negotiations — for state employees and teachers — by limiting raises to the consumer price index unless voters approve higher raises via a referendum;
- require government workers to pay half the cost of their pensions – in effect, a 5.8 percent salary cut — and to pay at least 12.6 percent of their health care premiums;
- allow state officials to fire workers for striking, or for missing work for three unexcused days;
- give public-sector workers in union-represented workplaces the right to pay no dues (currently, workers can choose not to join, but must make “fair share” payments to cover the costs of representation);
- halt state collection of union dues; and
- require unionized public-sector units to vote every year to determine whether a majority of workers still want to be unionized. [The reverse would not be true: Nonunion units would not vote annually whether to unionize.]
Local police, firefighters and state troopers would be exempt from the bargaining changes, but the changes would apply to state capitol police, university police officers, and prison guards.
Wisconsin state workers had already been without a formal contract since July 2009, though the previous union contract remained in force under extensions. The same day he introduced the bill, Walker gave the legally required formal notice that those extensions would end effective March 13, meaning state workers will no longer have a union contract after that.
Even before protests began, Walker expected a reaction. At the press conference announcing the bill, Walker made repeated open-ended threats to call out the National Guard in the event of public worker unrest. He said he was the “commander and chief” of the state and that the National Guard would “respond to whatever the governor may call for,” that it “would fully prepared to handle whatever may occur,” and that he thought it prudent to “plan for the worst.”
Walker urged the Republican-controlled Wisconsin Legislature to pass the bill by Feb. 25.
The Legislature scheduled hearings for the following Tuesday.
The reaction was explosive. Within days, teacher sick-outs had shut school districts across Wisconsin; state Senate Democrats had fled to Illinois to halt action on the bill; and tens of thousands of union supporters were maintaining a 24-hour-vigil inside the state capitol building, a sleeping bag protest that was still under way two weeks later. Protests outside the capitol grew day after day, reaching 100,000 two weeks after the bill was introduced. The protests spread to 66 cities and every state capital in the nation.
Here is the remarkable chronology of the fight-back movement:
Friday, Feb. 11: Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker introduces SS SB 11, a bill that would eviscerate public employee collective bargaining rights.
Sunday, Feb. 13: 150 University of Wisconsin students protest outside the state capitol building.
Tuesday, Feb. 15: The Joint Finance Committee of the Wisconsin Legislature opens a hearing on the bill at 10 a.m. AFSCME members bus in from at least seven Wisconsin cities and are joined by hundreds of Madison high school students who leave school to protest. Over 10,000 march and rally outside the capitol building, while 3,000 more pack the halls inside, signing up by the hundred to testify at the hearing, which runs until 3 a.m. Republican leaders cut off debate and close the hearing, but Democrats continue taking public testimony in another room, which gives protesters the right to stay overnight in the capitol. Thus begins a 24-hour-a-day occupation of the state capitol building, which continues at press time 13 days later. Current and former members of the Green Bay Packers, America’s only fan-owned non-profit pro sports team, issue a statement, nine days after their Super Bowl win: “Public workers are Wisconsin’s champions every single day and we urge the governor and the State Legislature to not take away their rights.”
Wednesday, Feb. 16: Madison public schools close as teachers call in sick. The protest outside the capitol, now joined by teachers, students and parents, swells to 20,000. [Madison schools remain closed for three more days.] A U.S. Labor Department official warns the Legislature that under 13(c), an obscure provision of federal transit law, Wisconsin could lose federal transportation money if it denies transit workers their collective bargaining rights.
Thursday, Feb. 17: By now at least 15 school districts around the state are closed due to a spreading teacher sick-out. Capitol protesters — now numbering 25,000 — block the door to the state Senate chambers. All 14 Wisconsin state Senate Democrats flee to Illinois, leaving the Senate one member short of the 20-member quorum it needs to vote on the bill. President Barack Obama, in an interview on Milwaukee TV station WTMJ, says the Wisconsin proposal seems like “an assault on unions.”
Friday, Feb. 18: Rev. Jesse Jackson and national AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka speak outside the capitol as 40,000 people rally. The Madison school district asks a judge to order teachers back to work, since teachers strikes are illegal in Wisconsin; the judge refuses.
Saturday, Feb. 19: Outside the capitol, an estimated 60,000 protest the Walker bill, while several thousand, organized by Americans for Prosperity, rally in support of Walker.
Sunday, Feb. 20: It’s snowing in Madison, but thousands continue to rally outside of the capitol. Inside, demonstrators by now have organized cleanup details, set up a system of marshals, and brought in food.
Monday, Feb. 21: The capitol is ringed by 40,000 protesters. Madison-based South Central Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, unanimously passes a resolution endorsing a general strike if the bill becomes law.
Tuesday, Feb. 22: Madison teachers return to school voluntarily. The Wisconsin Assembly (lower house) takes up the bill. In part to delay passage, Assembly Democrats propose over 100 amendments and insist on their right to debate them. MoveOn.org, backed by the AFL-CIO, AFSCME, Service Employees, and over 40 other organizations, announces plans to rally in every state capital on Feb. 26.
Wednesday, Feb. 23: Gov. Walker takes a phone call from a man he thinks is David Koch, a well-known right-wing billionaire who contributes to Republican causes. The caller turns out to be a progressive blogger, who records the phone call and puts it online. In the recording, Walker says he “thought about” planting troublemakers among the Capitol protesters, underscores his refusal to meet with unions, and gives details of his plan to trick Senate Democrats into returning to the state.
Thursday, Feb. 24: The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops issues a strong statement supporting workers’ collective bargaining rights.
Friday, Feb. 25: At 1 a.m., after more than 60 hours of debate, Republican leaders in the Wisconsin Assembly abruptly call a vote on the bill and declare the bill passed before some Assembly Democrats even have a chance to vote. Thus ends the longest continuous Assembly session in Wisconsin history, with Assembly Democrats shouting “Shame!” and denouncing the maneuver as illegal. But the bill can’t move forward in the Senate, since not a single Democrat has returned from Illinois. Supporters of Gov. Walker announce plans to close the capitol over the weekend and evict the protesters. The head of the Wisconsin Professional Police Association urges the governor to keep the capitol open, and calls on police union members from across the state to come to the capitol to sleep among the throngs of union supporters.
Saturday, Feb. 26: Up to 100,000 people rally in Madison, the largest protests there since the Vietnam War. The message, “We are all Wisconsin” goes nationwide as an estimated 50,000 people take part in solidarity rallies in 66 cities across the country — including all 50 state capitals. [See Page 1 for details of the Portland and Salem rallies.]
Sunday, Feb. 27: Dozens of priests, rabbis, and ministers join the capitol protests, pledging to risk arrest if the building is closed to the public. Disregarding an announcement that the building is closed, 600 spend the night. In Washington, D.C., hundreds of unionists march outside the hotel where Walker is expected to chair a panel at the National Governors Association meeting; he is a no-show.
When this issue went to press, the protests continued in Madison. State Senate Democrats remained outside Wisconsin. The fate of Walker’s bill is still uncertain. But several conclusions have emerged as the Wisconsin struggle developed.
Number one: The Wisconsin battle is not about a state budget crisis. Other governors are asking public sector unions for economic concessions without trying to eliminate bargaining rights. The only parts of Walker’s bill that have an immediate budget impact are its requirements that public employees’ salaries be cut in order to increase their contribution to pension and health care. Walker says he has to take away bargaining rights because unions won’t agree to those concessions, but AFSCME and other unions have since said they would accept those changes. Walker has shown no willingness to meet with them, or to accept the concession.
What happens in Wisconsin will have not just practical but also symbolic importance. Wisconsin was the first state to give public workers the right to collective bargaining. Madison is the birthplace of AFSCME, the largest union of state employees. Van Jones, writing in the Huffington Post, said the idealism and fighting spirit on display in America’s heartland is a rare, second chance for the movement for “hope and change.”
Both sides agree that if Walker wins passage of the bill, other governors will be emboldened to try it. The bill’s defeat, on the other hand, could give heart to other workers’ struggles for justice around the country.
Above all, the strategy of Walker and his backers is to divide American workers and redirect their anger away from the true culprits responsible for their economic distress. Walker refers to public employees as the “haves” and private sector employees as the “have nots.” His bill exempts police and firefighters from the union busting. Parents are to be turned against teachers, workers turned against their unions, private sector workers against public sector workers, even public sector workers from other public sector workers.
It follows that the way to defeat the Walker bill and others of its kind is for workers and people from all walks of life to unify, and to direct their attention to the real perpetrators of the crisis.
The National AFL-CIO is calling on union members to connect to the campaign at www.aflcio.org. The Wisconsin AFL-CIO has set up a Worker Defense Fund; contributions can be made online at www.wisaflcio.org.