GOP Declares War on Wisconsin Workers

Gov. Scott Walker figured to lead the national Republican rout of public employee unions. But the unions decided to fight back.

By Roger Bybee

From his first day in office Jan. 7, new Wisconsin Republican Gov. Scott Walker has been aggressively applying huge jolts of what Shock Doctrine author Naomi Klein called “shock therapy” — forcing the acceptance of unpopular policies upon a population demobilized and disoriented by the Great Recession.

Walker, in line with strategies developed by right-wing funders like Karl Rove, the Koch Brothers, the Club for Growth and groups like the American Legislative Exchange Council, launched the most aggressive attack on public-employee unionism seen anywhere in the nation on Feb. 11. In the name of fighting a budget shortfall of $137 million, Walker outlined a legislative plan that would not hammer public workers financially but effectively strip them of the right to union representation.

But Walker’s offensive has been countered by an astonishing outpouring of pro-union sentiment that has flooded the grounds of the State Capitol in Madison with crowds of 30,000 to 50,000 public employees and their supporters. Throughout the week the upsurge against the Walker plan has forced the closing of the Madison schools because so many teachers called in “sick.” It also inspired walkouts of high school students in support of their teacher and a massive turnout of sympathetic University of Wisconsin students, many of them members of the Teaching Assistants Association.

“This is one of the biggest pro-democracy movements since the 1960s,” said one exultant protester.

A stunned US Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), a staunch opponent of the public workers, sputtered as he surveyed the massive crowds, “It looks like Cairo moved to Madison.” Indeed, the protesters made frequent unflattering comparisons between Gov. Walker and the recently deposed Egyptian despot Hosni Mubarak. Some carried signs depicting Mubarak and Gov. Walker, reading “One dictator down, one to go.” The level of pro-union fervor has been visible in huge throngs surrounding the Capitol day and night, and with hundreds of unionists staging a “sleep-in” on the polished marble floors of the Capitol's grand Rotunda.

Walker originally planned to ram the package of cuts (worth a loss of about 7% in take-home pay) and virtual eradication of public unions in less than a week, leaving the labor movement little time to organize. But his sudden announcement of his plans to eliminate almost all union rights, coupled with his notion of calling out the National Guard to deal with rebellious workers, sparked a series of picket lines at the homes of Republican legislators over the weekend (Walker later stated that the Guard's role would be limited to replacing prison guards if they went on strike).

“This is an attack not just on unions, but the middle class. As we fare around wages and benefits, so do those workers who are not represented,” declared Wisconsin AFL-CIO President Phil Neuenfeldt as he surveyed a massive crowd variously estimated at 30,000 to 50,000.

Mike Imbrugno, a cook who makes $28,000 a year at UW-Madison, stressed the same theme: "[Walker's] basically trying to smash the last remaining organized upward pressure on wages and benefits in Wisconsin,” he told the New York Times.

But the massive, non-stop demonstrations — led by the State AFL-CIO, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the Wisconsin Education Action Council, the American Federation of Teachers, the Service Employees International Union, the Teaching Assistants and many others — began to sway public sentiment. The public workers —teachers, truck drivers, nurses, social workers, forest rangers, janitors and workers from dozens of other occupations — were joined from the start by large contingents of private-sector unionists.

A survey released Feb. 17 by the liberal group Building a Better Wisconsin showed a majority favoring wage and benefit reductions by public workers, but nearly two-thirds opposed to Walker's plan to strip the workers of their rights. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported that 65% of all likely voters said “they disagree with the measures and a little less than a third saying they are with the first-term governor.” Walker’s plan for a quick “blitzkrieg”-style victory suffered another setback Feb. 17 when 14 Democratic state senators left the state for an undisclosed location (later disclosed to be Illinois). Their absence deprived the Republicans of the quorum needed for action in the Senate, where the GOP holds a 19-14 margin but needs 20 senators to carry on business. Democrats charged that Walker and the Republicans were unwilling to listen to the testimony of citizens, consult with Democratic lawmakers or negotiate with public-sector unions.

After leaving the state, the Democratic senators broadcast their opposition to the destruction of union rights with telephone interviews with Lawrence O'Donnell, Rachel Maddow and Ed Schultz on MSNBC TV. Schultz broadcast directly from the streets outside the State Capitol.

Schultz and some labor leaders expressed disappointment with a statement Feb. 16 by President Barack Obama, where he reinforced the notion of a fiscal crisis but expressed general support for public workers: National Democrats seemed reluctant in expressing support for the Wisconsin workers, Schultz noted critically, saying that the fate of the Democrats' middle-class constituency is at peril in Wisconsin.

Walker’s plan ranks among the most anti-union laws ever proposed, according to noted labor historian Stephen Meyer of UW-Milwaukee, who declared, “It goes further than anything since the Taft-Hartley ‘Right to Work’ Act of 1947,” (which helped to block union organizing in the South and allowed US employers to establish a new low-wage and non-union standard. Currently, just 6.9% of private sector workers in the US now belong to unions, down from about 35% in the mid-1950s.)

“In fact, Walker’s plan is worse than the ‘right-to-work’ laws because it requires that unions get certified by their members yearly, at the same time that the unions are prevented from accomplishing anything for their members,” Meyer argued.

While Walker’s plan is part of a national campaign in numerous states, it remains a highly controversial step in Wisconsin, the very first state to grant collective-bargaining rights to local government workers and teachers in 1959. State workers gained similar rights in the early 1970s. (The new anti-union provisions would not apply to bargaining rights for three statewide unions which endorsed him — police, firefighters and state troopers.) The provisions of the Walker plan would clearly hamstring the operation of any union trying to function under these rules:

• Public-employee unions would be restricted to bargaining over wages, with working conditions and benefits excluded.

• Public-employee contracts would be restricted to a length of one year, thus vastly increasing the cost of negotiations which typically cover two years for state employees and three years for local public employees and teachers.

• As noted, each year, the unions would need to hold an election to be re-certified annually as the bargaining representative of the workers. Annual organizing drives would add significantly to the cost of union administration.

• Unions would no longer be allowed to collect dues via dues checkoff, nor could they assess non-members “agency fees” for the costs of representing them in both collective bargaining and individual grievance and disciplinary disputes.

• Wage increases for local units of public workers (e.g., teachers, sanitation workers, etc.) would be limited to the rate of inflation unless .granted with the passage of local referendum, thereby requiring vast political outlays by unions to positively influence the referenda outcomes.

• Limited-term employees would lose all healthcare benefits.

University of Wisconsin faculty, granted collective bargaining rights for the first time in 2009, would again be deprived of any union rights.

Graduate teaching and research students would be required to pay about 20% of their income to cover healthcare benefits, estimated UW-Milwaukee philosophy Prof. Bob Schwartz.

Walker has consistently depicted public-sector workers as a pampered class enjoying pay and benefits than their counterparts in the private sector. He has tried to exploit a wave of concession-extorting by profitable private corporations (for example, Harley-Davidson) to argue that public workers should fall “in line.” However, a new study by the Economic Policy Insitute concluded, “On an annual basis, full-time state and local government employees in Wisconsin are undercompensated by 8.2% compared with otherwise similar private sector workers.” Most broadly, Walker’s attack on Wisconsin workers has been based on the false premise that the state is mired in a deep fiscal crisis, and that resolution of the crisis demands not just financial concessions, but the demolition of public-worker rights.

In reality, the state's Legislative Fiscal Bureau projected Dec. 31 that the state would finish the fiscal year June 30 with a surplus of $121.4 million. But Walker has continually pointed to a short-term $137 million budget deficit. Critics counter that Walker himself has contrived the deficit by handing out $140 million in new tax breaks to corporations since taking office.

Walker has consistently conflated the deficit-cutting concessions that he is demanding from workers with the outright eradication of unions. Walker has claimed that the state has both a short-term deficit and a longer-term deficit of about $3.6 billion over the next two years. He has insisted, “there is nothing to negotiate” in explaining his unwillingness to sit down with union leaders and obtain the concessions he has demanded cuts in pay and increased benefit costs. In response, union leaders have uniformly indicated a willingness to discuss the state's financial condition in negotiating contracts.

But Walker has blurred this distinction between resolving the state's fiscal problems and eliminating any union voice for workers who would be affected. Destroying public-sector unions is thus conflated with the task of ironing out the state’s budget problems.

Further, Walker’s proposed “cure” for Wisconsin’s fiscal problems would hardly produce the economic recovery that Walker has touted as the result of aggressive attacks on worker rights. Walker’s cuts in employee benefits and pay would have a devastating economic impact on the state as its industrial cities, in particular, struggle to recover from the recession, declared a study released this week.

According to a new IWF study, the slashing of pay and benefits proposed by Walker would severely weaken consumer spending power across the state, resulting in the loss of about 10,000 jobs.

Roger Bybee is a Milwaukee-based writer, publicity consultant and former editor of The Racine Labor weekly. A version of this article originally appeared at Working In These Times, a workers’ rights blog published by In These Times magazine. Email

From The Progressive Populist, March 15, 2011

News | Current Issue | Back Issues | Essays | Links

About the Progressive Populist | How to Subscribe | How to Contact Us

Copyright © 2011 The Progressive Populist
PO Box 819, Manchaca TX 78652