Minimum wage fight shows arrogance of power (Union Labor News editorial)

Minimum wage fight shows arrogance of power (Union Labor News editorial)

i Mar 5th No Comments by

Workers making at or near the minimum wage need all the help they can get. That’s why Milwaukee County’s ordinance establishing an $11.33 minimum wage for its workers and for those businesses contracting with the county is a good thing. The shameful attempt by Republican Representative Chris Kapenga to dismantle it  (and other historically successful local policies) is disturbing on many levels.

The chaos surrounding the introduction of AB750 is inexcusable, but it is what we have come to expect from a Republican legislature drunk on its own power.

What’s most disturbing about this latest attack on workers is the set of arrogant assumptions underpinning it. There are at least four.

We know what’s best for you. The Milwaukee ordinance passed by a two-thirds majority and is likely to survive a veto attempt by the county executive. Never mind. Republicans believe those at the state level are wiser and better equipped to decide than those closer to the issue. Many of us are old enough to remember when Republicans believed the opposite. The tone is also patronizing. “You cannot raise one person up by pulling another down,” lectured Kapenga. Yes we can. But that’s not what’s happening here. (more…)

ACLU Jumps into First Amendment Fray at Capitol

i Feb 25th No Comments by

In the early 1970s the mayor of Madison was an old school Republican named William Dyke. He didn’t think much of the protestors continually beating a noisy and often destructive path up State Street to the Capitol to air their grievances.

Looking back, one might even concede him a point or two since many State Street shops had their windows smashed and a campus building was blown up.

Nevertheless, Mayor Dyke became more and more irrelevant as events unfolded until finally a young, long-haired protestor named Paul Soglin took his place as mayor.

Fast forward about 40 years and a few things have changed. Soglin’s still the mayor, but it’s the man in the Governor’s chair, Scott Walker, who’s spoiling for a fight with the people coming to the Capitol to protest the status quo.

Are there buildings being destroyed? No, not unless you count cosmetic damage to marble made by inept cleaning companies.

Are local businesses being impacted? Not unless you count Ian’s Pizza becoming a household word around the globe.

No, the problem is that people are singing.

Granted, if you are a legislator or governor who has spent the last two years taking away people’s rights, the songs they sing are not flattering to you. But here’s where the Wisconsin Constitution comes in. It is elegant in its simplicity on the topic. Article I, Section 4 says: The right of the people peaceably to assemble, to consult for the common good, and to petition the government, or any department thereof, shall never be abridged.

Stories of intimidation, fines, unfiled permits, and general disrespect for constitutionally guaranteed rights proliferated throughout the fall of 2012.Amendment I to the US Constitution provides similar protections.

Then the List surfaced. Produced by the Department of Administration and acquired through a Freedom of Information request, the List showed that someone was keeping meticulous track of the people attending the daily singalong in the Capitol rotunda.

The November list contained 71 names of participants, including Representative Chris Taylor, whose September meeting with Capitol Police Chief David Erwin ended badly when the Chief walked out.

“I don’t think what they’re doing is constitutional,” said Taylor. “It’s just McCarthyism.”

Taylor wasn’t clear how she got on the list and other people didn’t, but she wasn’t surprised about the lack of transparency.

She referenced other Capitol rules that have tightened restrictions on citizens’ rights, especially Assembly gallery rules in which a child with a coloring book would be evicted, but a person with a gun would be welcome.

She welcomed ACLU involvement, saying, “I’m thankful to see it.”

Another person on the list, Jerry McDonough, vice-president of AFCME Local 1871, was unapologetic about his participation. “Our First Amendment is my permit,” he said. Despite frequent attendance, he hasn’t been issued a ticket. He said that at least 125 tickets had been issued, and all accused had requested a jury trial.

Charity Schmidt, co-president of the UW-Madison Teaching Assistants’ Association, found her name on the list too. “They are trying as hard as they can to make it feel like it’s not our house,” she said. She added that some participants in the February 14 rally at the Capitol were reluctant to even go inside because of the hostility.

In early February the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin had had enough. It filed suit in US District Court in Madison, aiming to block the Department of Administration from requiring permits for State Capitol demonstrations and punishing the singers.

It also filed a motion for a preliminary injunction blocking enforcement of the permit rules.

Thanks to the overreaching Walker administration Wisconsin citizens will get to see yet another protracted legal proceeding winding its way through the court system.

On the bright side, remember William Dyke? The former Madison mayor took a very similar approach in harassing and intimidating the protesters who collected at the Capitol.

Things ended badly for him politically.

The Right’s Orwellian Weapon of Words

i Aug 20th No Comments by

Brian Austin

By Brian Austin

Over the past year, I have thought often of George Orwell’s novel 1984. Certain aspects of Orwell’s dystopian vision of the future have lingered with me since I first read his 1949 novel as a high school student, more years ago than I care to discuss. One of the parts of the book that made a lasting impression on me, far before my political consciousness fully emerged, was the use of doublespeak, language that deliberately distorts or reverses the meaning of words.

In Orwell’s novel, the government of Oceania was comprised of four ministries: the Ministry of Peace, which supported Oceania’s perpetual state of war, the Ministry of Truth, which was responsible for the complete rewriting of history to support the goals of the regime, the Ministry of Plenty, which was responsible for the severe rationing of basic necessities while claiming to be raising the standard of living, and the Ministry of Love, whose agents sought to identify and crush any form of dissidence against the government. In the nation of Oceania, war was peace, freedom was slavery, and ignorance was strength. Orwell’s novel highlighted the power of propaganda when combined with the fear produced by a totalitarian state.

I have become intensely interested in this subject with renewed enthusiasm in the past few years while watching the corporate takeover of our political system. That interest has peaked over the past 16 months while witnessing the attack in Wisconsin on workers, women, the poor, and the environment at the hands of our government.

We have seen a disturbing phenomenon over the past decade regarding the use of Orwellian-type doublespeak in the corporate takeover of America. In particular, the Republican Party has been absolutely masterful in utilizing language in a way that doesn’t merely change the meaning of words, but changes peoples’ perception of the very policies and conditions that affect their dailylives. Doublespeakhasbeenahuge factor in convincing people to vote against their own interests.

Enter Luntz

Over the past few years, as the GOP has become more and more extreme in its ideology and policy, an entire vocabulary of phrases has been intentionally concocted in the halls of right wing think tanks and spread with disciplined commitment by Republican politicians. These precise messages have been crafted by men like Frank Luntz, a GOP pollster andstrategist. Luntzhasbeenabsolutely instrumental in helping to create the language of today’s GOP. Luntz truly understands the power of language, as evidencedbythisexcerptfroman article he wrote in 2011 for the Huffington Post:

“Words matter. The most powerful words have helped launch social movements and cultural revolutions. The most effective words have instigated great change in public policy. The right words at the right time can literally change history.”

Luntz is a master of the use of language to redefine truth: He taught the GOP to use the phrase “death tax” instead of “estate tax,” the phrase “deep sea energy exploration” instead of “off-shore drilling,” and “economic freedom” instead of “capitalism.” And while his skills as a wordsmith are undeniable, his ethics are far more questionable. He has been censured by both the American Association for Public Opinion research and the National Council on Public Polls for suspect polling methods and results. He remains, however, extremely influential in the messaging of the Republican Party.

“Right to work,” for example, was a phrase concocted by the GOP and corporate lobbying groups to describe union-busting legislation that is sweeping Republican-controlled statehouses across the nation. “Right to work” has nothing to do with worker’s rights, unless you count the right of selfish workers to freeload benefits on the backs of dues-paying members.

[pullquote align=”right” textalign=”left” width=”30%”] “But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” –  George Orwell, 1984[/pullquote]Next, we have the term “job creators.” No GOP press conference in the past few years would be complete without this term.  “Jobcreators” is GOP code for rich people, and, yes, it is a term manufactured by none other than Frank Luntz. The problem, as people like Luntz discovered, is that struggling Americans don’t like hearing about rich people, particularly when it is in the context of tax breaks and outsourced labor on the backs of working people. In order to make gluttonous tax breaks for the wealthy palatable to the American people, the GOP redefined the wealthy as “job creators,” and parroted the phrase incessantly to the national media. If college kids used the phrase as a drinking game during a John Boehner speech, everyone playing would be grossly intoxicated at the conclusion of his remarks.

The creation of the phrase “job creators” is pure genius, because it taps right in to the core self-interest that currently motivates the majority of Americans. By calling the rich “job creators,” it delivers to people an implied warning that their future success, and their employment, is inextricably tied to the success of wealthy, so the masses better leave them alone. In reality, the middle and working class in this country are the job creators, because they drive our predominantly consumer-based economy. Henry Ford understood this when he took the unprecedented action of paying his workers a substantial wage of five dollars per day. Yet we see how powerful the phrase has been for the GOP in successfully promoting tax policies that favor the rich to a degree that would have made Ronald Reagan blush.

Freedom for What?

Another term that has been utterly distorted and savaged by the GOP is “Freedom.” Freedom used to mean something wonderful in America. In 1944, Franklin D. Roosevelt talked about his idea of freedom in his State of the Union address to the American public. Roosevelt told the nation that freedom was something that was achieved when the needs of all Americans were met, not just the needs of the wealthy. Roosevelt’s speech is well worth the read. It inspires me and renews my commitment to fight to restore the true values of this nation.

This notion of freedom, by the way, was once not limited to Democratic politicians.  Republican President Dwight D. Eisenhower had a vision of freedom that bears zero resemblance to the vision of the current Republican party.  I have no doubt that this great man would have been defeated in a Tea Party primary if he ran today.

“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children. This is not a way of life at all in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron.”


“Only a fool would try to deprive working men and working women of their right to join the union of their choice.”

Today, the word freedom in GOP-speak means something far different, so different that it makes it almost impossible for me to reconcile that this is the party of Lincoln. It is the freedom of corporations to treat workers like chattel, pollute our environment, injure our citizens without fear of lawsuit, and move our industry overseas. It is the freedom of financial institutions to extract the wealth from our nation, collapse our economy through unbridled greed, and receive bail outs when the house of cards falls. It is the freedom of religious zealots to impose their beliefs on a secular society, to deny groups of people civil rights, to hurt others in God’s name, and to interpret scripture in a way thoroughly inconsistent with Judeo-Christian values. It is the freedom of employers to deny health care to cancer patients, as was just espoused by Wisconsin Senator Ron Johnson.

Earned Benefits or ‘Entitlements’

To my readers on the left, I am asking each and every one of you to commit to joining me in pushing back against the very language that is used to further the immoral agenda of today’s corporate right wing. Words can literally change history. Words can create greatness, but they can also devastate, particularly when used to deceive a populace, and we should never underestimate this power. Start tuning your ear to the GOP corporate doublespeak, and tirelessly challenge those who utilize it, particularly in the media. Don’t passively accept language that was created in the recesses of think tanks with the intent to deceive our nation. That language becomes reality when it is allowed to flourish. Instead, create your own terms that reflect the truth of the corporate domination of the GOP. Instead of “right to work,” call it “anti-worker legislation.” Instead of “job creators,” how about “Un-American tax dodgers”? Instead of “freedom from regulation,” call it “corporate lawlessness.” Use whatever terms you want, but stop legitimizing doublespeak through your silent acceptance.

To my readers in the center, all I ask of you is to start to question these terms when you hear them. Ask yourself if they reflect reality, or are merely being used to create a false reality. Make your own decision based on facts, and if you conclude I am right, I hope you feel compelled to help change the national vocabulary.

To the corporate right and your elected minions that control this nation, all I say to you is that you use this language at your own peril. Once the American people realize they have been deceived, they won’t be happy or charitable or kind. People just don’t like to be suckered, and you aren’t as charismatic as PT Barnum. Furthermore, understand that you are using a parlor trick of language that has a rich tradition in the most brutal regimes in the world’s history, all of which ultimately saw their own demise.

Finally, to the media, you have a responsibility to use language that was not created for the sole purpose of deceiving the public you are supposed to serve. I recognize that much of our media is controlled by corporate influences, and as such, the use of this language may be intentional. But for those journalists who use these terms out of convenience or sloth, you need to engage in some serious soul searching. By reporting on things such as Walker’s “reforms,” you are making an inherent value judgment that you are passing on to your consumers, and that value judgment is based upon artfully crafted lies. The public deserves better.

I will end as I began, with a quote:

“By the skillful and sustained use of propaganda, one can make a people see even heaven as hell or an extremely wretched life as paradise.”  – Adolph Hitler, 1943

The power of words.

Brian Austin is a City of Madison police detective and member of the SWAT team as well as board member for his union. He is a founding member of “Cops for Labor,” and during the Wisconsin Uprising he worked long shifts on duty around the Capitol and joined the protest as soon as his shift ended. Austin blogs at

Unions Need to Invest in Mass Participatory Education

i Jul 9th No Comments by

Bill Fletcher

By Bill Fletcher and Jane McAlevey – Before Wisconsinites voted down the attempt to recall Governor Scott Walker, and certainly since, principled progressives inside and outside of unions have disagreed on whether or not the campaign should have happened. In fact, between the two of us, we don’t fully agree about whether or not the recall was the correct tactic. But with the defeat in the rear view mirror, two clear lessons can be drawn from Wisconsin: unions need to reinvest in mass participatory education—sometimes called internal organizing in union lingo; and, unions need to stop focusing on “collective bargaining” and actually kick down the walls separating workplace and non-workplace issues by going all-out on the broader agenda of the working class and the poor.

Once you get past the reports that Walker outspent the Wisconsin workers by 7:1, the next most startling fact is that 38 percent of union households voted to keep the anti-worker Governor. That’s slightly more than one third, and had the pro-recall forces held the union households, Walker would no longer be Governor. With major media outlets drubbing us with the 38 percent number, the liberal political elite seem stuck on a rhetorical question: why do poor people and workers vote against their material self-interest? Actually, in our own experience, the poor and working class don’t vote against their self-interest—but there’s a precondition: we have to create the space for ordinary people to better understand what their self-interest is, and how it connects with hundreds of millions in the US and globally.

Participatory What?

Participatory education can best be carried out within unions through an on-going organizing program. We know from years of experimenting that adults learn best through taking direct action. Actions themselves are often transformative. And how to calibrate the learning and action dialectical is the work of good organizers—paid and unpaid. But today’s unions have all but abandoned organizers, educators, organizing and radical, participatory education. Why?

First off, many union leaders, despite their rhetoric, do not believe in the critical importance of worker education. Instead they believe in “PowerPoint.” They invest truckloads of money into pollsters who perfect their quick and fancy presentations with graphics which all too often aim to dazzle rather than educate. They believe that worker education cannot be quantified and does not necessarily translate into a specific, tangible outcome, thereby making it worthless.

A second reason for the anemic internal education is the legacy of the Cold War and McCarthyism. “Big Picture” education that truly examines the roots of the current economic crisis and the nearly forty year decline in the living standards of the average US worker leads to a fundamental critique of capitalism. This conclusion scares many leaders who fear being red-baited, or may even harbor a fantasy that that they will at some point be re-invited to the ruling circles of the USA.

A third reason is that an educated and empowered membership can be unpredictable. They may start asking questions that many leaders wish to avoid. They may start suggesting different directions. And, horror of horrors, they may actually run for office in the unions themselves.

Jane McElevey

Everybody’s an Organizer

The second big lesson from Wisconsin is that we can’t do it alone. While the attack by Walker was a frontal assault on women, people of color, workers, the poor and more, unions all too often kept the focus on collective bargaining. When unions allowed the battle in Wisconsin to go from mass collective rage over the excesses of the One Percent to a battle for union rights, it was all but game over. Criticism of Democratic candidate Barrett’s refusal to go along with labor’s messaging on collective bargaining is beside the point—in our opinion, the campaign was lost before the May primary. Reassured by polls showing a majority of Americans (61 percent) support the “right” to collective bargaining, union leaders failed to anticipate the power of a barrage of wedge messages about over-paid government bureaucrats, taxes, union bosses, the unfairness of why public sector workers get pensions and so-called private sector ones don’t and much more. Walker had the apparatus of the state and he had bought the media—he essentially turned Wisconsin into one big captive audience meeting, subjecting Wisconsites to the kind of unbearable pressure that workers in private sector union elections are all too familiar with. We don’t poll in elections where workers are going to vote as to whether or not to form a union because we understand polling is useless in a hotly contested, deeply polarized fight.

In union elections, the sophisticated union busters want to ratchet the tension up so high that everyone associates the new tension in their life with this thing called “the union.” And the boss drives a message that if the union goes away, everything will go back to normal. And normal, which wasn’t OK before the campaign, suddenly sounds good because the venom and hate feel much worse. To have any chance of beating these kinds of campaigns, the campaign can’t be about “collective bargaining” or “the union.” It has to be about a bigger fight for dignity and economic justice that can deeply appeal to a much wider audience.

[pullquote align=”right” textalign=”left” width=”30%”]This isn’t rocket science, it doesn’t require pollsters or power point—it requires thousands of meaningful conversations with tens of thousands of people. It requires rebuilding our organizing muscle.[/pullquote]It is true there’s been an uptick of unions declaring the importance of building allies and “working with the community,” but still the community is too often treated as if it’s a separate species from “the workers.” The workers are the community, and yet union leaders act like ‘the community’ is some foreign land that requires visas, formal paid ambassadors and a Rosetta Stone language learning kit. The reason most labor leaders don’t understand the community is because they stopped trying to understand their members and the unorganized workers who live side by side in every union member’s house. The way back to winning big majorities of Americans to the cause of labor is for labor to take up the causes of the majority. This isn’t rocket science, it doesn’t require pollsters or power point—it requires thousands of meaningful conversations with tens of thousands of people. It requires rebuilding our organizing muscle.

But the phrases, “organizing doesn’t work, it’s too slow,” or the variant, “organizing doesn’t work, it’s too expensive,” have become like a mantra in union headquarters (and the offices of foundations). And yet for our entire adult lives, almost every time we have seen workers and poor people given the opportunity to stand up and fight back, they did.

What about the recall? Wisconsin was a wicked short timeline—unions and their supporters were trying to overcome forty years of no real education or organizing among the rank and file. The recall failure has led to an open season on unions, but this isn’t just a problem with unions. Multiple institutions have failed workers for decades, starting with the Democratic Party. And if that’s not enough, there’s our public school system—including universities and legions of intellectuals—that fail to teach students how to understand the actual power structure in our country or what unions are or have done. And, corporate owned media that have long distorted the real story of unions.

Deep Organizing and the Undecideds

The reason that unions themselves, not front groups, need to take up the key issues facing their base when they aren’t at work is because this model of community work helps to develop even more worker leaders—it provides an ongoing action-learning program for the members when their contract has been settled. And, pedagogically, it helps the members to better understand all the forces keeping them down. “The boss” becomes the economic and political system rather than simply the swing shift supervisor or the foreman or the CEO.

There are plenty of important structural issues that the rank and file could be engaging, including the on-going housing, credit, climate, public transportation, and child care crises. And there’s the matter of bringing the worker’s sons, daughters, nieces, nephews, brothers and sisters home from unwinnable wars of aggression. The very best way for unions to build real alliances with non-union groups is via their own members—the very people who make up “the community.” If unions expanded their issue work by engaging their own rank and file, we could develop even more skilled leaders, not simply ‘worker faces’ for a press conference. The organizing-education model assists people in creating better lives for themselves, rather than relying on paid professionals to do the work for them. And the results are that we build mini social movements, not special interest groups.

Organizing is incredibly hard work. And it’s messy work. And the liberal elite, including most union leaders, are constantly investing in everything but deep organizing. The real reason we lost in Wisconsin is the same reason that progressives have been on a four decade decline in the US: it’s because of a deep and long-term turn away from organizing and education and towards something that more resembles mobilizing. Organizing expands our base by keeping our energy and resources focused on the undecideds, and on developing the organic leaders in our workplaces and communities so that they become part of an expanding pool of unpaid organizers. Mobilizing focuses on the people who are already with us and replaces organic leadership development with paid staff. That and the split between “labor” and “social movements” account for the failure of progressive politics, the loss in Wisconsin, the ever shrinking public sphere, and the unabashed rule of the worst kinds of corporate greed.

The work we are describing isn’t an election 2012 program, it’s not a 12 month program; it must happen every day, every month and every year. It’s ongoing. Workers are every bit courageous enough and smart enough, but they experience a lifetime of being told they are not worthy, not smart, and not deserving. In other words, sit down, shut up and listen. Unions have to challenge this paradigm, not reinforce it. When conservatives suffered their own strategic defeat and lost the election in 1964—by much larger margins than the recall in Wisconsin—they didn’t say, “well, no point trying.” They instead built for the long haul and in 1980 it paid off with Reagan.

And with the Supreme Court edging eerily close to a ruling that will make all of America governed by “Right-to-Work” laws, unions have to start acting like they are already operating in a “right-to-work” environment. The education-organizing program outlined here is the very same program unions will need to survive let alone thrive under the current Roberts Court. The sooner unions stop acting like a special interest and start behaving like a social movement; the closer we will be to making lasting, positive change.

Bill Fletcher, Jr. is the Executive Editor of He is a Senior Scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies and the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum. He was a co-founder of both the Center for Labor Renewal and the Black Radical Congress. He is the co-author of “Solidarity Divided” (University of California Press, 2008). Jane McAlevey, a PhD student at the CUNY Graduate Center, spent two decades as an organizer in the labor and environmental justice movements. (This article originally published as Lessons from Wisconsin in a blog post online at The Nation, June 26, 2012)

Walker’s Cynical ‘Right-to-Work’ Scheme

i Jun 27th No Comments by

By Mike Konopacki – Governor Walker has repeatedly denied any interest in making Wisconsin a so- called “right to work” (RTW) state, that is, requiring that all union dues be voluntary in the private sector. Given his abysmal record on truth telling, no one should take him at his word.

Take a look at Act 10, the controversial legislation he pushed last year to strip collective bargaining rights from most public sector workers, along with pay and other sacrifices. Then and now, he has insisted it’s pure economics. “This was never about unions,” he told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. “This is about balancing budgets.”

Days later, however, a January 18, 2011 video surfaced of Walker assuring Beloit billionaire Diane Hendricks of his intentions to bring RTW to Wisconsin: “Well, we’re going to start in a couple weeks with our budget adjustment bill. The first step is we’re going to deal with collective bargaining for all public employee unions, because you use divide and conquer.”

“Private sector unions are overwhelmingly my partner in economic development,” he told the Journal. Just not all of them.

Labor journalists Kathy Wilkes and Roger Bybee have exposed the sinister underbelly of Walker’s agenda. Wilkes describes the circumstances and aftermath of a ten-week strike by 200 Machinists at Manitowoc Crane solely over the employer’s demand for voluntary union dues—a requirement for public unions under Walker’s Act 10. Bybee reports on a similar strike at Ashland Industries where the employer, according to Machinists representative Marty St. Peters, “basically said, ‘Manitowoc Crane got rid of the union security clause. We want that too’.”

The result is what Wilkes calls “right-to- work by other means,” and, as documented by Bybee, it’s an expansion of “Walker’s war against workers” into the private sector.

Like the strike settlements at Manitowoc and Ashland, RTW laws give represented workers the benefits of union contracts (better pay, work rules, and job protections) without paying dues; meanwhile unions remain legally obligated to represent them. The intent is to eliminate unions altogether by gutting their treasuries. Act 10 obviously has sent a powerful message to private employers: It’s open season on unions. No special bill needed. Force RTW piecemeal—one contract, one union at a time.

In another “divide and conquer” maneuver, Walker inserted himself into the Manitowoc dispute by urging the Unemployment Insurance Advisory Council to back a Democrat-sponsored bill that “would allow non-striking employees like the 150 Boilermakers at Manitowoc Cranes the ability to qualify for UI benefits.” Manitowoc CEO Glen Tellock echoed support, even though he’s on the board of Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, which opposes the measure. With the strike ended, the bill has gone nowhere, a now dead vehicle to pit Boilermakers against striking Machinists.

Unions that fall for Walker’s lies will have only themselves to blame when “right-to-work by other means” is forced on them too. The second step of Walker’s “divide and conquer” strategy has already hit two unions. Who’s next?

–Originally published in the July, 2012, issue of Union Labor News.

Union Activists Meet in Chicago to Draw Lessons from 2011 ‘Wisconsin Uprising’

i Jun 27th No Comments by

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.

Recall Recap and the Road Ahead for Organized Labor

i Jun 13th No Comments by

By Jim Cavanaugh

The results of the Wisconsin recall election were very similar to the first run of this match up in November 2010.  This means that the radical right agenda of the GOPs elected in 2010 has not turned off the voters.

Which begs the question, how can a government of the 1% receive so much support from the 99%?

In the case of the Wisconsin election, there’s been a lot of finger pointing and speculation post-election–Citizens United allowed Walker to overwhelm Barrett financially; Obama didn’t come to Wisconsin; unions didn’t force the collective bargaining issue front and center.  And so on.

Yet pre-election polling and Election Day exit polling showed that the vast majority of voters had taken their positions months before the serious campaigning began.  So, the money and the celebrities made little difference.  And people were already as informed on the issues as they wanted to be.

The fact is the radical right is very good at propaganda.  They have used race and cultural issues to hold their base and they have used anti-government rhetoric to expand that base to majority status.

Walker, even more so than in 2010, ran against Milwaukee and Madison.

His negative ads against Barrett were actually negative ads against the Mayor’s city, Milwaukee.  High unemployment, rising property taxes, crime, poverty.  This is the tried and true GOP race card because everybody knows there’s a large number of dark skinned people in Milwaukee.

Madison, of course, is the state capitol where privileged bureaucrats are over paid, over benefited, and under worked.  Walker did not dream up this argument.  Even before his 2010 election a UW professor had done a lot of on-the-ground research and found that ordinary Wisconsinites outside of Madison had a very negative view of this city of large government office buildings, a fairly high standard of living, and liberal politics.  Walker simply exploited an existing bias.

Exit polling showed Walker won the votes of a majority of non-college graduates and of way too many union households (ca. 37-38%) in both 2010 and 2012.  Meanwhile, college graduates—the ever shrinking middle class—and the very poor did not vote for Walker.

In other words, way too much of the working class voted for Walker.

Progressives might smugly shake their heads and ask how can these people vote against their own interests.  While some of them might simply be serious cultural conservatives or racists, probably a majority legitimately see themselves as actually voting in their own self interest.

People struggling to get by on $12-15 an hour have to watch every penny.  And the Republican message of small government and low taxes sells well every time a worker pays sales tax, property tax, or income tax.  And thanks in part to a gullible or lazy media which dutifully and uncritically repeats GOP propaganda about the eventual demise of Social Security and Medicare, struggling workers also have a jaundiced view of their payroll taxes.  The Republicans, with their expensive wars and tax giveaways for the wealthy, are certainly not the party of small government and fiscal responsibility, but they have sold their message well.

If progressives hope to regain governing power, they have to win back the the working class.  They might not be able to garner the support of the devoted racists and cultural conservatives, but they can and must win the loyalty of the others.

Obviously we need to ask them why they support a guy like Walker, and go from there.  However, I would suggest that we can get started right away with the issue of taxes, not promising tax cuts, but rather tax fairness.  At every level of government in the United States our tax structure is one of the most regressive in the world.

Obama, to his credit, has made some effort to address this by calling for the Buffet rule, which would lift taxes on millionaires, and an end to the Bush tax cuts for the super rich.  Meanwhile, on network TV Bill Clinton undermines this effort by giving the Republican argument that rolling back these tax cuts would hurt the economy.

As has often been their wont, the Democrats do not seem to have a coherent and consistent philosophy on matters of important public policy.  Nor do they appear to have a plan beyond the next election.

The Republicans clearly do.

Unions and other progressives must push the Democrats or some other vehicle to pursue a coherent and consistent pro-working class agenda, or we will continue to be governed by Walker types and to wring our hands over this state of affairs.

– Jim Cavanaugh is the recently-retired president of the South Central Federation of Labor.

Big Walker Donor Paid $0 in Taxes

i May 24th No Comments by

(Wis. AFL-CIO) – A new video has surfaced in which Gov. Walker tells billionaire businesswomen Diane Hendricks, owner of ABC Supply Company, that attacking collective bargaining rights for public employees is just the “first step” in his “divide and conquer” plot to bust unions.

Diane Hendricks recently gave Gov. Walker $500,000 dollars and is Gov. Walker’s single largest campaign contributor.   What you may not know is that Hendricks’ company, ABC Supply, pays $0 in corporate state income taxes.

According to the report by Institute for Wisconsin’s Future, ABC Supply paid exactly $0.00 in state corporate income tax in 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2008, according to the state Department of Revenue. Tax data for more recent years were not available when the information was requested from the department.

Visit  to view the report Who Does Not Pay Taxes.

Forbes magazine calls ABC Supply “the nation’s largest roofing, window and siding wholesale distributor.”  It is estimated that annual sales approach $5 billion.  While ABC Supply may be a huge money-maker for Hendricks, the Wisconsin corporate income tax returns she files claim the company makes not a penny in taxable profit.

Why is it that Gov. Walker publicly states that he does not want to destroy private sector unions, but the truth only comes out when he is kissing and hugging a billionaire campaign donor?

What Gov. Walker did not anticipate is that the people of Wisconsin would unite against his “divide and conquer” strategy and mount one of the largest grassroots efforts to reclaim their state in recent memory.