Will Walker trigger an all-out labor war? | WisCommunity

Will Walker trigger an all-out labor war?

Will Scott Walker and the new Republican legislature declare all-out war on organized labor in Wisconsin?

Those are the signals they're sending. Walker & Co. seem determined to roll back, if not entirely repeal, the rights of public employees to bargain their contracts -- a law that has been on the books for 50 years.

Walker has demonized public employees during his tenure as Milwaukee County executive, and during his campaign for governor portrayed them as living high off the hog with too-generous wages and benefits. When he discusses how to repair the state's huge budget deficit, public employees are always the first target for cuts -- layoffs, furloughs, privatization, cuts in pension and health care benefits.

And the conservatives' crusade against organized labor isn't limited to public employee unions. Republicans are also taking about right-to-work legislation that would outlaw union shops. Organized labor calls it the Right to Work for Less, and that is an accurate description.

It is hard to know just how far Walker and the GOP are prepared to go. But if they feel that in these hard enconomic times that the public has bought their line and sees public employees as getting fat at the public trough while those in the private sector are going hungry, they can be expected to press ahead. There are also far fewer private sector unions members than there used to be, and non-union workers may resent what they see as better treatment of union members. Solidarity among workers is not what it used to be, to greatly understate it.

So far it is mostly trial balloons, but Walker and the Republicans haven't even taken over yet and are floating a host of anti-union ideas. "Whether it's taking things like health care and pensions off of collective bargaining or whether it's changing arbitration (rules), there's all sorts of different options," Walker said. "We really haven't reached one single conclusion."

At the risk of sounding like an alarmist, this could be a brutal year ahead, as union- busting tactics force workers to resort to their weapon of last resort. Walker and the GOP could get much more than they bargain for (no pun intended.)

It could be an ugly scene, with prison guards, firefighters, teachers, nurses, librarians, health care workers, road crews, garbage collectors, snow plow drivers, and more on the picket lines.

That may be what Walker wants. If the citizenry real has bought the anti -union line, a strike might be the final straw that breaks the unions and gets the state collective bargaining law repealed.

A fall-back might be to amend the law to take health care or other benefits off the table and make them no longer subject to bargaining. It's a safe bet that Walker will go as far as he thinks he can get away with, but he could overreach.

Private sector unions have been swallowing hard and making concessions to keep their jobs. Walker may think the public sector unions will do the same. They already have bargained contracts with the state that call for no pay raises and furlough days, amounting to pay cuts, but Walker is even trying to stop those from being ratified because he wants even more out of the workers' hides. He may get it.

But there is a limit to how far people will be pushed, a point at which they will come together and resist, if for no other reason that to preserve their dignity. The photo at left is a Wisconsin State Employee Union picket in front of University Hospitals in 1977.  Marty Beil, current WSEU executive director, was union president in 1977. Now he's the executive director.  And here's what he says about Walker's tough talk:   "It's not time to pull the covers over your head and pee your pajamas. We've got to stand up to this guy."

In the labor movement it's often called getting up off your knees. And as someone who walked out on a promising 15-year career to walk a picket line, knowing the odds were we would never get back to work (which we didn't), I can assure you it is possible.

Ironically, the Wisconsin Labor History Society notes, this state has a proud progressive labor history:

It is perhaps that tradition that helped Wisconsin to lead the way in public employee unionism (the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Workers was founded in 1936 in Madison.) Public workers gained true union rights in the late 1950s, with some public employee unions recognizing that they had to use private industry tactics, such as the strike, to win justice. In Milwaukee, AFSCME District Council 48 almost annually threatened garbage strikes at budget time, prompting city officials there and elsewhere to seek state law supporting public sector collective bargaining and banning strikes. The result was Section 111.70 of the State Statutes, which finally was given teeth in 1963. The law set up union elections procedures, a “prohibited practice”, and fact- finding, all of which gave public employees greater rights and helped to spur unionism.

The Wisconsin law was a model for the nations; it was a success in that few crippling strikes occurred, while employees gained better wages and working conditions. Teachers’ unions struggled for a while to find their place under the new law, needing in some cases to cast off their former leadership by principals and superintendents to become “unions” in fact, if not in name.

The 1974 Hortonville Teachers’ strike, however, demonstrated the chancy results of public employee strikes, particularly in smaller communities. In 1977, following strikes by Madison firefighters and Milwaukee police, the legislature called for binding arbitration of public employee strikes, virtually ending such job actions in the public sector.

Until now.

The Wisconsin State Journal reported:

Other ideas that will be in play are:

•Privatizing some public jobs.

•Creating health savings accounts to supplement or replace health care benefits.

•Weakening, or doing away with, collective bargaining for state employees.

•Cutting salaries and allowing employers to change work conditions without making them subject to bargaining...

Brian Fraley, spokesman for the conservative-leaning John K. MacIver Institute for Public Policy said it's time to rethink the way the state deals with its public employees. The institute is fighting to repeal the law that allows for collective bargaining and turn Wisconsin into a right-to-work state.


December 4, 2010 - 8:16pm