Thanks to Scott Walker, the nightly news tells a far different story. Never has labor had a laboratory like Madison, Wisconsin, to show in real life what a union means to its members. Union members early on made budget concessions the governor demanded, but give up their union? Never! It was never about money or benefits. It was about having a voice, dignity, respect. Teachers, nurses, firefighters and police officers descended on Madison to defend their collective bargaining and political rights. So did their neighbors who acknowledged the debt their communities owe to these union members.
Even more remarkable, 14 Democratic senators fled the state, putting themselves in contempt and liable to arrest, rather than provide the quorum Walker needed to quash the union. When Walker separated the bargaining bill from financial matters, precluding the need for a quorum, he lost all credibility that balancing the budget was ever the issue
Walker is in the first generation of politicians seeking to take away rights for ordinary people, rather than expanding them as is the American tradition. Faced with a legitimate budget crisis, he made the crackpot decision to silence the men and women most expert in helping solve the problem—the state’s public employees.
Collective bargaining gives workers a strong voice in their workplace. It is a process that serves to protect wages and health care, enforce workplace safety and serve as a means to arbitrate employee grievances.
In Ohio, U.S. Sen. Sharrod Brown, a Democrat, met with union leaders in Columbus to discuss why their collective bargaining rights are so important. “A police officer told me that one thing they negotiate is bullet-proof vests for their members. A teacher said that negotiating small class sizes benefits their students. Public safety and better education are at stake.”
Union membership in America has been in decline for the past three decades. Weakened labor laws that gave workers no protection against growing employer hostility, combined with disastrous trade policies that promoted outsourcing of U.S. manufacturing jobs, were primarily to blame.
But what rankles many conservatives is that even in their weakened condition, unions continue to be a potent countervailing force to corporate power in America.
Republicans and Democrats have long-standing different approaches to working people, particularly in times of economic crisis. During the Great Depression, FDR felt the best way to recover from the damage caused by banks and corporations was to empower workers, to give them the right to form unions and bargain collectively.
For the decade prior to the stock market crash, employers had waged war against the labor movement, causing union membership to fall from nearly 20% to barely 10%. The National Labor Relations Act made it the law of the land that workers had the right to join unions, and membership quadrupled overnight. Over the years, organized workers made America the most prosperous nation on earth with a middle class that was the envy of the world.
In the 1980s along came Scott Walker’s hero, Ronald Reagan, and the assaults on labor began again. Union membership declined to pre-FDR levels.
With Scott Walker, we have come full circle. The attempt of a few Republican governors to use the budget crisis to weaken unions’ political power comes with big-time risks for the GOP in the 2012 presidential election.
In the 2010 midterms, tea partiers had the passion and momentum, while liberals moped on the sidelines. It is a given that “elections have consequences” but the power grab made by GOP conservatives in Congress and statehouses was stunning and unexpected.
Political megalomania led Walker to challenge collective bargaining in the state that was the first to recognize workers right to bargain more than half a century ago.
Who could imagine a partisan effort to kill public sector bargaining rights in a state that was the birthplace of public employee unions? In 1932 when FDR was making his bid for the White House and a New Deal for working people, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) was being founded in Madison, a union destined to enrich the lives of millions of workers while playing a major role in the civil rights movement.
While Reagan may be an icon to Walker, generations of Wisconsinites have a far different political hero in the legendary Bob La Follette. Elected governor in 1900, La Follette led the fight for the middle class and the nation’s progressive reform movement. In 1982 the National Governors Association named him “the outstanding Governor of the Twentieth Century.” As the current fiasco plays out in Madison, La Follette must be spinning in his grave.
One conclusion is inescapable: In attempting to rob workers of their political power in a state rooted in worker rights, Walker kicked the hornet’s nest that is energizing union organizing in workplaces across America and is likely to unleash unparalleled political activism by swarms of angry union members in 2012.
Victor Kamber is a Democratic political analyst and Vice President of American Income Life.