Wisconsin’s resentment factor

Anger toward labor will be a big factor in Tuesday's recall. But unions haven't grown too big; they're too small

Topics: Wisconsin Recall,

Wisconsin's resentment factor (Credit: AP/Andy Manis)

MADISON, Wis. — If Scott Walker survives tomorrow’s election, there will be plenty of reasons. Many people will point to his huge cash advantage, for good reason. But no factor will have been more important than the decades of decline in U.S. union membership.

“Unions had their place,” a woman named Jerri told me soon after I arrived in Wisconsin last week. “They did their part back in the ‘40s and ‘50s, and then they got too big, and are abusing their power.”  Jerri and her husband, Tim (both declined to give last names), were eating at a bar in Wauwatosa, the purple Milwaukee suburb that’s home to Scott Walker. They both work in sales: She’s in retail at the mall; he’s in wholesale, selling caskets. Tim said Walker’s union “reforms” were necessary because local politicians had been “looking out for the union” instead of “people like me.” He said unions are for people who don’t “feel they should have to work very hard.”  Jerri complained that unions “are sucking off my teat.”  Public workers’ benefits, she said, “should be the same as anybody in any kind of private job.”

That last statement is most telling. While resentment toward unions has grown since the 1950s, it’s not because they got too big. It’s because they got too small. A multi-decade drop in unionization left fewer Wisconsinites who are union members or live in union households. Meanwhile, because governments are less prone than businesses to terrorize workers or shut down facilities to avert unionization, public sector unionization has remained more stable. In 2009, for the first time, there were more total U.S. union members in government employment than in the entire private sector.

Asked whether the decline in private sector unionization had paved the way for attacks on public sector unions, AFSCME union president Gerald McEntee told me that it hadn’t “necessarily laid the groundwork, but I think it does to some extent add to the problem.” McEntee added that private sector union rights used to be “sacrosanct in this country. But there’s been an erosion … as we see more and more of that, we see a weakness in the fabric of the labor movement.”



While liberals often cite the importance of public sector unions as a counterweight to corporations in election spending, too little gets said about their role in advocating for quality public services and ensuring decent and stable jobs. But as private sector unionization falls, benefits that even non-union companies felt pressure to provide become benefits that even unionized companies seek to shirk. And right-wing criticism of public sector benefits – or of public sector bargaining itself – gains traction.

As Wisconsin has demonstrated so dramatically over the past year, there are plenty of non-union workers ready and eager to identify with the labor movement. Many are at the forefront of the anti-Walker movement, and many more are being mobilized to vote. “We don’t have a union, unfortunately,” a self-employed hair stylist told me in Appleton.  “But I know people who are in them, and I think it’s important. I don’t like the way [Walker] treated the teachers. Who’s next on his little hit list?”

But some non-wealthy Wisconsinites side against public workers – not a majority, but perhaps enough to keep Walker in office. “I hear it a lot online,” Madison elementary school teacher and union activist Kati Walsh said Friday. “It’s, ‘You get more than I do.’” Meanwhile, said Walsh, “I know that I can’t support a family on this.”

Chad Pichler, a full-time Milwaukee-area canvasser for the AFL-CIO affiliate Working America, told me he’s repeatedly come across non-union workers who say, “You know, I pay for my healthcare.”  He tells them union workers are “middle-class folks just like you,” and that the real enemy is greedy CEOs. Some respond that to get rich, “CEOs have to go to school.”

“People are in really rough shape,” Wisconsin AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer Stephanie Bloomingdale told me Wednesday. Citing Fox News and Republican TV ads, she said, “Money talks, and money works,” and thus some people “will turn around and blame someone who has just a tiny little bit more than they do … It’s very sad, and it’s something that we work every day” to combat.

Labor’s arsenal is full of arguments: By many measures, public sector workers receive less total compensation than their private sector counterparts. Pensions are more efficient than 401Ks. All public sector workers “contribute” to their retirement, because pensions are deferred compensation – money workers earned through work. Good jobs strengthen the overall economy.  And most important: You deserve good health insurance and a pension too.

All of that is true. But as I learned as a union organizer, policy arguments aren’t what tend to change people’s politics, and resentments are often stronger than reason (research suggests that this is even more true the more education someone has). What changes people’s politics are their experiences: Coming out. Getting mugged. Becoming part of a fighting union.

“We need to have union people tell the story of why the union matters,” Wisconsin state representative and former union organizer Brett Hulsey told me Friday night. That can’t hurt. But better communications, or highlighting unions’ volunteer work, or boasting about being reasonable in contract negotiations, won’t substitute for organizing more people to join the labor movement.

Walker is working to make that harder than ever (ditto for voting, and suing for equal pay and much more). Just as attacks on private sector unions left public sector unions vulnerable, so hamstringing public employees hurts private sector workers too. Despite Walker’s less-than-convincing claims otherwise, Democrats warn that it would only be a matter of time before a reelected Walker would push to make Wisconsin a “right to work” state – a goal that activists at a Madison Tea Party rally told me they’re eager to support. Union leaders say Walker’s public sector union-busting has already led to private sector strikes at Ashland Industries and Manitowoc Crane. Both strikes began after management demanded contract provisions like those Walker forced on public workers.

In other words, “divide and conquer” works, and it goes in both directions. National Republicans are all in to make sure Walker gets to keep doing it. On Friday, Walker campaigned with South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, a self-declared “union-buster” who presides over a state with brutally anti-union laws and the second-lowest unionization rate in the nation. When I asked Haley whether she saw her policies toward unions as “similar” to Walker’s, she answered carefully: “In my state I certainly don’t have the same issues in South Carolina as he does in Wisconsin.” Union members – public and private alike – could reasonably wonder if they themselves were the “issues” referenced by the governor.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>