Monday, February 28, 2011

The war to preserve the union

You’re to be forgiven if you happen to momentarily confuse what’s going on with protesters fighting for freedom half a world away, in North Africa and the Middle East, and another such battle going on, in the state of Wisconsin. Citizens thronging the streets, opposing the prevailing power structure, demanding to have their voices heard — that much has been interchangeable.

But the battle being waged between pro-union groups and ordinary people and the state’s new Republican governor, Scott Walker, is a thing apart. Hanging in the balance in Wisconsin is a fundamental American workers’ right. Some have characterized the battle for collective bargaining under way in Wisconsin as nothing less than the opening conservative shot against the breadth and force of the union in America.

In case you forgot, someone named MMFlint recently tweeted a history lesson: “Wisconsin gave us the 8-hr day, unemployment insur, workers comp -- so many great ideas came from Wis.”

MMFlint’s right, of course, and that thoughtful tweet might well be just another random observation from somebody in the Twitterverse.

Until you find out that MMFLint is the author, Oscar-winning filmmaker and top-rank social provocateur Michael Moore of Flint, Mich.

And until you think about what’s at stake in Wisconsin.

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You know the back story: Walker is seeking to advance a “budget repair” bill that would balance the state’s $3.6 billion deficit in part by stripping the rights of about 170,000 public-service employees to collective bargaining for wages and other benefits. For about two weeks now, with the tribal energy of something straight outta Woodstock, state workers have gathered at the Capitol in Madison to protest the bill, which can’t advance to law because of a quorum required in the state Senate.

Fourteen Democratic state senators have hit the road, literally, laying low at a secret undisclosed location in Illinois, stopping the bill in its tracks with their absence. (This strategy was adopted successfully by state House Democrats in a Texas redistricting case in 2003, and upheld by the Supreme Court in 2004.)

Walker’s insisted that busting the unions in his state wasn’t the intent of the bill, an assertion mightily undercut when Walker got p’wned last week by a blogger pretending to be David Koch, one of the conservative billionaire Koch brothers. In Walker’s very cordial conversation with the fake Koch, Walker revealed talks with other governors considering the same strategy — and by extension, let slip the outlines of a broad strategy to use Wisconsin as a kind of legislative test lab for an experiment in the dismantling of public employee collective bargaining rights across the country.

Even after that fake-Koch revelation, one that any self-respecting politician would be embarrassed by, Walker’s been moving forward on his budget repair bill, a piece of legislation that could adversely affect union contributions from members of AFSCME (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, founded in Madison in 1936), SEIU (Service Employees International Union) and the state’s Education Association Council, the state teachers union that has injected more than $10 million into Democratic state races over the previous decade, according to msnbc’s Michael Isikoff.

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Walker’s apparent plan — to wait for the protesters’ outrage to cool down to something more politically manageable — hasn’t worked out. With every day the protests have held in strength and numbers, and attracted the attention of the media.

The hubris of trying to do this in any state — to ram through an agenda like this, to dismantle such a foundational part of the labor history of this nation — would have been bad enough.

To try and pull this off in the state that essentially birthed the idea of collective bargaining was an act of brazen political arrogance, even for the archest conservatives in the GOP.

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Walker’s hold-the-line strategy reflects sizable blunders. It starts with a misreading of the history of the state he presumes to lead, and the importance of that history to the people he presumes to lead.

Collective bargaining had its beginning in Wisconsin. In 1911, partly due to the efforts of the ardent progressive Robert “Fighting Bob” La Follette, the state was first in the nation to enact workers compensation laws, requiring employers to provide medical coverage, compensation for death or injury on the job. In 1932, the state (again first in the nation) enacted unemployment compensation.

The state approved Section 111.70, the nation’s first comprehensive collective bargaining laws for public employees, in 1959. The laws gave public employees the right of collective bargaining; it also required municipalities, school districts and the state’s university system to bargain with those workers for wages and other benefits.

It didn’t come cheap. Battles with employers occurred throughout the 1940’s, in three instances resulting in yearlong strikes forced by employer intransigence. It was through dogged persistence that the unions held the line and maintained their role in the state of Wisconsin.

Considering the deep weave of the union experience in the state’s history, it shouldn’t have come as a surprise — to Gov. Walker or anyone else — that public-sector workers would dig in their heels the way they have. The fact that he didn’t see this coming shows how short-sighted his strategy really is. How can a governor be so tone-deaf to his own state’s historical legacy?

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His second miscalculation stems from the first: misunderstanding where some of his presumed supporters’ loyalties truly lie. The fact that public safety unions — police, state troopers, corrections officers and firefighters — are exempt from the bill’s collective bargaining restrictions might not hold up in the long term. At least that seems to be an emerging suspicion.

There’s thinking among some in Wisconsin that the current insulation of their unions could fail, as Walker makes them the next group of state workers to lose collective bargaining in the name of “budget repair” — that Walker’s plan may ultimately echo the distillation of the fear of conquest, and an historically-based fatalism: They’ve come for me today, they’ll be back for you tomorrow.

That may begin to explain the increasing appearance of law enforcement professionals in the rotunda of the Capitol. That happened on Saturday, when hundreds of off-duty police officers and deputies joined the protesters’ ranks.

That would explain why Cord Buckner, a Wausau detective, told the Stevens Point Journal: “The aggregate effect on public employees will affect police unions eventually."

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Republicans outside Wisconsin are more than a little nervous about Walker’s move. Indiana’s Republican Gov. Mitch Daniels suggested in a recent statement that the GOP is hardly of one mind on the Wisconsin situation.

“Even the smallest minority, and that’s what we’ve heard in the last couple of days, has every right to express the strength of its views, and I salute those who did.”

Even New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, the Republicans’ pugnacious darling of the moment, said he is “ready to embrace the collective bargaining solution.”

They’re smart to do that. It hasn’t escaped their attention that the epicenter of events in Wisconsin, and the ripples of tribute protests throughout the country in recent days, bear a broad, deeply populist element. They form the same imprecise but sturdy conjunction of emotions that, stripped to its essence, became the building blocks for … wait for it … the Tea Party.

The unionists’ cause may have a similar velocity into the national political discourse in 2012. And more: The Tea Party’s Astroturf origins are nothing like what’s happening in Wisconsin — quite possibly the seeds for a progressive grassroots movement of union members and those sympathetic to union principles; one whose energy would rival the Tea Party on the right; a movement whose solidarity with the nation’s labor history would give it a populist foundation the Tea Party never had.

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Walker is set to release his two-year spending plan on Tuesday, a plan that, among other things, proposes a slashing of education aid by about $900 million, or 9 percent. Walker has already warned he’ll start issuing layoff notices to state workers as soon as this week if the budget repair bill isn't passed. The beatings will continue, it seems, until morale improves.

Walker’s supporters have betrayed a certain smugness about the outcome of this standoff. Speaking of their governor (in office all of eight weeks), they purr with confidence: “Hey, elections have consequences.”

So does an ignorance of history.

Image credits: Walker: via The Huffington Post. LaFollette: Library of Congress. This post distills historical information from the Wisconsin Labor History Society.

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