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."

As well, the restrictive measures placed on unions, the chief donors to the Democratic Party, when it comes to collecting dues from their members could help Republicans seeking to deny funding to Democratic candidates come 2012.


The Wisconsin State Journal reported that up to 20 collective bargaining agreements operating on extensions expired on Sunday, thanks to Walker having signed the budget repair bill. Some 39,000 people were covered by the contracts. On March 27th, public employees will start paying about 12 percent of their health care premium, and contribute 5.8 percent of their paychecks to their pensions.


Though the 14 self-exiled Democratic Wisconsin state senators were greeted like rockstars at the massive rally on Saturday for successfully turning a local battle into a national one, there is no denying that they were outplayed by the Republicans.

A judge struck down Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk's petition for a temporary restraining order that would prevent the budget repair bill from being published.

"Publication of the bill will create a statute that will immediately cause irreparable harm to the plaintiffs, because of certain fiscal portions of the bill that become effective upon publication," the lawsuit said.

With the temporary restraining order denied, it's expected that the law will be published by March 14, after which it will have the full force of the law.

Democrats are still awaiting a ruling on whether the surprise vote held by state Senate Republicans on Wednesday night was violation of Wisconsin's open meeting law, which requires a 24-hour notice for this sort of vote. If the court rules in their favor, the legislature will have to conduct a vote all over again.


Organizers behind the recall campaign to remove eight Republican state senators say they have gathered enough signatures to pass the threshold needed to recall Alberta Darling, the Republican representative from Wisconsin's 8th district who is also chair of the finance committee. That committee will be at the center of the still unfinished budget fight between Wisconsin Democrats and Republicans. Recall petitioners have until May 2nd to turn their signatures, which, if authenticated, will trigger a special election approximately 8-12 weeks later. Liberal fundraising groups such as MoveOn, Daily Kos, and Act Blue have reportedly raised close to half a million dollars towards the recall effort. Democratic pollster Paul Maslin, who worked for California Governor Gray Davis during 2003 recall and in the recent Wisconsin midterm elections, told the Huffington Post that he believed recall efforts in all districts would be successful because the public is so "inflamed."

The Democrats would only need to recall three Republicans to have a Democratic majority in the senate. GOP state senators Alberta Darling, Dan Kapanke, and Dan Hopper each won with a bare majority and are considered the most vulnerable.


In Ohio, Senate Bill 5, which stripped public employees of their collective bargaining rights, banned their ability to strike, and denied them bargaining rights over health care, sick time or pension benefits, passed by a one-vote margin (with 6 Republicans defecting to join the Democrats in opposition). House Democrats in Indiana have also fled the state to boycott Republican sponsored legislation that greatly restricts collective bargaining for teachers, permanently ban union contracts for state workers.

With the private sector increasingly impenetrable for unions, given the endless resources private corporations have to spend on fighting organizing efforts, public unions are the last beachhead of organized labor. As one labor leader in Ohio told me, "This is like little round top at Gettysburg. We're on the defensive but we would lose the whole union if we lose this ground."

Should the public sector unions continue to lose their fights in the economically depressed and deindustrializing Midwest, once a union stronghold, that's pretty much it for unions. There will continue to be unions in coastal states, but unions -- already largely concentrated in just six states -- will become even more of a regional phenomenon.

Photo credit: AP Photo/Morry Gash

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