Over 1,500 union activists, from across the country and around the world, gathered in Chicago on May 4-6 for the biennial Labor Notes Conference. More than a year after the Wisconsin Uprising, our struggle is still an inspiration for people around the world. Yet, while the Uprising was impressive, it did not prevent a major defeat for labor.
What did we learn from the Wisconsin Uprising? And how is the labor movement in Wisconsin doing, fourteen months later? Over fifty labor activists from the U.S. and Canada gathered to hear answers to these questions from a panel at the Labor Notes Conference in Chicago on May 5.
Six panelists commented on what we learned that could prepare us to move ahead: Kathryn Burns, co-chair of the Crisis Committee of Madison Teachers Inc. (MTI); John Matthews, Executive Director of MTI; Steve Garber, President of Machinists IAM Local 516 of Manitowoc Crane; Joe Conway, President of Madison Fire Fighters Local 311; Adrienne Pagac, co-President of the Teaching Assistants Association (TAA) of UW-Madison; and Barbara Smith, steward with the Wisconsin Professional Employees Council AFT Local 4848.
Budget Repair or Union-Busting?
A key question of strategy early in the Uprising was the decision by public sector unions to offer Governor Scott Walker economic concessions. At least two leaders of large public sector unions stated publicly that the monetary concessions sought by the Administration were acceptable if threats to collective bargaining would be dropped. While this move was successful in shifting the public conversation to worker rights, it did not sit well with many union members who objected to the undemocratic process that preceded these announcements.
“Those benefits were part of our compensation package. We took less in wages to get those,” Matthews pointed out. “It was a missed opportunity to talk about the real roots of the crisis,” said Smith. And Pagac added, “The budget repair bill passed without a fiscal component, showing that it was not about the money, it was about neutering the union movement in Wisconsin.”
Furthermore, the ploy did not work; Walker held tight on his position of killing collective bargaining.. According to Matthews, “It’s like dealing with a bully. Offering money ain’t enough. You can’t say, ‘Please quit hitting us’ and expect it to work.” With ALEC and the Koch Brothers behind him, as soon as the unions offered concessions, Walker said, “I gotcha. That’s not enough,” said Matthews.
Conway noted that many local government unions were at the table under time pressure to reach deals prior to the passage of Act 10, and the concessionary message by top union leaders weakened their bargaining power. “We can’t have statewide and national unions selling out membership doing the work,” he said.
“Unions have a right to bargain, and should bargain on anything they can.” Firefighters refused the employer’s concessions that were accepted by almost all other unions in the city of Madison. Instead, firefighters joined with the police to hold the line and came up with a better contract that “maintained the bar for all other Madison employees for after this gets turned around. If we would have given up, we would have never been able to get that back for all city employees,” said Conway.
The gamble paid off. Even the corporate media spun the firefighters’ contract as a good deal for taxpayers. “We can win the public over,” Conway said. “We can negotiate without a union in name. The union will always stay alive if you have people believing in the union.” He added, “It’s about the money and the rights.”
Panelists agreed that key elements of the Uprising were the TAA-led occupation of the Capitol and the teachers’ sick-out. Schools shut down with less than half the teachers calling in sick. The first teachers who acted, emboldened others to join later. Yet this action did not spread to other groups of workers. According to Conway, “This was the biggest missed opportunity. Everyone should have walked out.” Other panelists speculated that WEAC teachers and AFSCME correctional officers could have galvanized a broad strike early in the Uprising that might have changed the whole outcome.
Furthermore, there is sobering evidence that unions may not have strengthened their response capabilities in the ensuing year. For example, one state federation considered it a major year-long organizing initiative simply to gather members’ e-mail addresses, with no further planning or strategy. Organizing programs have been haphazard. In August, when Act 10 kicked in, state employee unions made little response to large pay cuts for their members, and since then made no comment on newer attacks such as Concealed Carry in state buildings, fingerprinting of all DMV staff, and the HR Redesign at UW.
What can we do now to prepare to seize future opportunities when they come along? “People have respect for a plan,” Smith noted. “That’s why people signed up for the recalls: there was a plan and a goal. We need to have a plan and a goal to sell to people.”
Several panelists suggested that union members should look past elected leaders where necessary. According to Burns, “We who are brave enough to come here need to go back to others and gather them. We can’t wait for ‘leaders’ to guide us, because leaders who have the courage needed are very rare.” She noted that her local did not ask permission from the state federation before going to the Capitol. “We cannot be afraid to use the only tools we have as a labor organization.” Pagac agreed, “We can’t wait for someone else to save us, we need to save ourselves. Union leadership comes from membership, not necessarily ‘leaders.’”
Elections and Unions
The proper role of unions in elections came up throughout the discussion. Panelists bemoaned the low voter turnout in elections, particularly the 2010 election that brought Scott Walker to power. Garber said he heard several union members lament about the 2010 elections: “I should have voted.”
Panelists noted that many unions are participating in elections to the exclusion of organizing and all other activities. Wisconsin has been living in a nearly permanent election season for the last year, from the Supreme Court race with Joanne Kloppenburg, the summer recalls, and now the gubernatorial recall. Said Burns, it’s a problem, “if we get people in power who don’t feel they owe anything to people who did all that work for them.”
Calling politics “a huge game,” Conway said he had heard Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald state that these recalls are really about drying up the money from unions to weaken their role in the fall Presidential election, and if that’s true, the strategy appears to be working.
According to Conway, “We thought we could play in the political game. Someone else decided for us to change the venue of the fight from the Capitol and work sites to elections. Candidates don’t believe in what we do. The citizens of Wisconsin do not choose the candidates any longer.” Burns said the labor movement needs to stop supporting career politicians and grow our own leaders, using tools like Camp Wellstone and Emerge Wisconsin to encourage union members and ordinary people to run for office.
Recently, unions’ early endorsement of Kathleen Falk for Governor exposed old fault lines between locals and state organizations. Some unions did not consult their membership before the endorsement and some violated their own bylaws by skipping ratification votes. Burns said it is important for unions to involve members in regular democratic input into decisions, above and beyond electing officers. Some locals such as TAA and MTI chose not to endorse candidates in the Democratic primary for Governor. Conway said his union makes endorsements and provides small political donations without losing its focus on the core work of supporting union members.
Pagac said it is wrong to think, “If we just put in elections work, candidates will scratch our back.” She pointed to the 1930’s, “When labor was the most vibrant… we used massive pressure and organizing of the unemployed and the employed to make them [political leaders] do it. It was not because [Americans] voted for [politicians], that we got Social Security or Unemployment Insurance in return. We were strong enough to force them. We need to build on that. We need to look back at history when we were most successful, and do that again.”
Burns spoke about a recent visit with teachers at the Osaka Social Forum, and the importance of joining all unions together and with community groups. “Corporations have globalized. They are everywhere and have no loyalty to one nation.” She contrasted this with a worker viewpoint that is equally global. ”Teachers have loyalty to our community. We want to build a great future for kids. [The corporations] will sabotage us. We have to see each other as all connected or they will keep beating us.”
–Originally published in the July, 2012, issue of Union Labor News.