Wisconsin: A Bruising Fight, Where Everyone Lost Something

Six different ways the fight over collective bargaining rights was costly.


MADISON -- Labor rights were bought with blood in the 20th century through brutal strikes that often shut cities down and tore apart small towns; violent showdowns with the National Guard; and massive mobilizations of citizens who waged protracted fights with major multinational corporations.

Perhaps it should come as no surprise then that this year's aggressive legislative effort to uproot the last remaining redoubt of union strength -- the public sector unions -- should have given rise to a bitter, hard-fought and ultimately nationalized conflict that left all participating parties bruised.

By 2010 -- after more than three decades of America's steady movement from a manufacturing to a service economy -- only 6.9 percent of private sector employees remained unionized, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, compared to 36.2 percent of those in public sector jobs.

In Wisconsin, despite the biggest protests Madison has seen since the Vietnam War, there is no way getting around the basic fact: The public sector unions lost their toughest fight yet. They may have resisted mightily and sparked a national movement in opposition to Gov. Scott Walker's budget repair bill, which stripped them of most collective bargaining rights, but he was able to sign it into law Friday afternoon, nonetheless. The damage is done. All that remains now is the fallout.

Republican National Committee Chair Reince Priebus, the former leader of the Wisconsin GOP, proclaimed Walker's victory a win for the party as a whole. But happened in Wisconsin wasn't that simple -- for Walker, the GOP or the unions.


At 3 p.m. Friday afternoon, Gov. Walker signed the budget repair bill into law stripping public employees of their right to collectively bargain. "These are true reforms that protect middle class jobs," Walker said in a press conference following the ceremonial signing of the bill.

On Saturday came the reply, a more than 85,000-person mega-rally at the Capitol, the biggest held in Madison since Vietnam. Chants of "Recall! Recall!" ignited the crowd. Placards as big as road signs reading "RECALL THEM ALL" sat outside of enclosed bus benches that were made into impromptu "recall centers." Inside of these five makeshift recall centers around the Capitol, people could register to vote, sign petitions to recall eight Republican state senators who backed the union-busting bill, and a pledge to support a Walker recall effort come fall. Over the course of the afternoon, thousands of people streamed through the recall centers.

Polling data shows Wisconsin voters supported the bargaining rights of the unions, though also backed them making concessions on other matters to help close the state's budget gap. Nationally, voters overwhelming backed the unions in the fight with Walker.

If the pitch of public scorn against Walker keeps up through the rest of this year -- and it easily could, as Walker's next fight is to actually balance the budget under tremendous scrutiny -- Walker could find himself being subjected to an effort to recall him from office.

Additionally, the Wisconsin Republicans and indeed Republicans throughout the Midwest may be walking into the cross hairs of a reconstituted enemy: Prairieland progressives. In Wisconsin, the usual cultural wedge issues that have been used for the past 30 years to divide middle class voters -- abortion, religion, gay marriage -- have been transcended by the fight over labor rights. The two hostile camps that are now forming in Wisconsin are workers versus anti-union politicians. As of now, all those politicians are members of the Grand Old Party. With similar Republican-sponsored legislation in Ohio, Michigan, and Indiana, the GOP could be facing a new movement of revitalized Midwestern progressives ready to throw them out of office come 2012.


Under the new law, union members will no longer have dues automatically deducted from their paychecks and must voluntarily pay dues to directly to their unions. Most public sector union members can no longer strike. And they are unable to collectively bargain on most issues.

But it's not just the union members who will be impacted by these changes. The ideological rhetoric that Republican legislators have been rallying around about curbing the gilded wages of public sector workers to balance state budgets has potentially dire ramifications for organized labor as a whole. Public sector workers set wage and benefit standards throughout their respective industries. With the inability to bargain over workers livelihoods, unions will cease being vehicles for upward mobility. As one union official told me, "Without collective bargaining rights, we're not a union, we're a club with bumper stickers."

Presented by

Natasha Vargas-Cooper is the author of Mad Men Unbuttoned: A Romp Through 1960s America. She lives in Woodland Hills, California.

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