New labor movement emerges in Scott Walker's Wisconsin

Two years after failing to oust the anti-labor governor, a different kind of mobilization is underway and spreading

Published August 2, 2013 9:34PM (EDT)

  (AP/Carolyn Kaster)
(AP/Carolyn Kaster)

Two years ago, in one of the largest labor mobilizations in modern American history, as many as 100,000 Wisconsin residents surrounded and occupied the state capitol to protest Gov. Scott Walker’s effort to strip public sector workers of collective bargaining rights. The uprising reanimated the American labor movement and became the go-to image of domestic protest in the wake of the Great Recession — before Occupy Wall Street later that year.

Shortly thereafter, of course, there would be a pretty big setback for the labor movement in Wisconsin. Walker would beat back a voter recall, and gain political strength within the national Republican Party for his efforts. Opponents of Walker's move, called Act 10, had failed not only to out-maneuver the state’s Republican Legislature but also oust the governor. For organized labor, the effects were chilling. Act 10 requires public sector workers to vote whether to re-unionize every year, prevents unions from automatically collecting dues from members, and limits the scope of collective bargaining to wage increases. Most public sector unions lost between one-third and two-thirds of their members. The state's largest unions, like the Wisconsin Education Association Council and the three councils of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, lost tens of thousands. Workers struggled to adapt to unilaterally imposed, constantly changing work rules.

But now, two years later, resistance to the state's crackdown on labor has spread beyond Madison. And once again, Wisconsin is ground zero for the future of the labor movement -- the catalyst for a new, disassembled, fitting-and-starting labor movement.

Stripped of legal protections, unions have to turn to their workers for power. The Teaching Assistants' Association, the University of Wisconsin–Madison union that spearheaded the capitol occupation, is at the cutting edge. With high turnover among grad students and the cumbersomeness of re-voting for a union every year, the TAA decided not to seek recognized union status. With the drop in member dues, the union laid off all its staff. In place, it has reinvented itself to leverage worker voice outside the bounds of collective bargaining. Last school year, it launched “Pay Us Back.” Through “grade-ins” at administrative offices, petitions and informal bargaining, workers are seeking a raise in wages, which sit, on average, below $10,000 a year, and a remission of required fees, which soak about 10 percent of their pay.

For the first year after Act 10, “A lot of it was reorganizing all members,” says Adrienne Pagac, a sociology grad student who was co-president from 2011 to 2012. “Whenever we are working together, acting together, we are a union whether the law recognizes us as such.”

In Scott Walker’s world, any union hoping to survive is undergoing a worker-led overhaul. This includes much larger operations like AFSCME and WEAC, the same ones that pulled away their sound stages a week into the protests and alienated more militant elements by turning to recall elections right after Act 10 was signed that June. Massive, multi-sectoral unions that have traditionally focused on electoral politics and contract maintenance are being forced to return to their roots. The legal protections that Walker took away were the fruits of decades of rank-and-file organizing, community partnership and direct action. What started in Wisconsin — which became the first state to recognize public sector unions in 1959 — is, after 2011, starting again.

New rules, old tricks

On Jan. 5, 2012, a supervisor at the Lincoln Hills School in Merrill, Wis., ordered Ron McAllister, a youth counselor, to take off his AFSCME T-shirt — which didn't violate standard dress code. After stripping to his bare chest, McAllister told the supervisor that he could go down to his union underwear if ordered to do so. Though administrators relented, 75 workers marched outside the school over the incident.

Before Act 10, says Marty Beil, the director of the Wisconsin State Employees Union, AFSCME Council 24, issues with work rules like these were handled through grievance procedures. Now, “we talk a lot with our local unions and our leadership to do direct action, because that's really the only effective tool that we have left,” he says. “We have locals who don't do that that clearly suffer from that.”

Under Act 10, he says, “Work sites have become hell holes. Every day there's a new set of rules that people have to understand.” Act 10 prohibits union members from bargaining or filing grievances over day-to-day working conditions: shop-floor rules, scheduling, performance evaluations or even discrimination. Workers have responded with petitions of no confidence against their supervisors, confrontational appearances at administrative offices, and more creative tactics like McAllister’s. In kind, the eight staff that remain at Council 24 have seen their role drastically change. “Advocacy was pre–Act 10,” Beil says, referring to grievance procedures. “Organizing is our pathway to continue to be viable.”

The biggest impetus for unions to organize within their workforces is the need to retain membership. Under Act 10, public sector workers have to re-vote on whether to unionize every year, and their unions have to collect dues member-by-member — a standard procedure in so-called right-to-work states.

For each union, these provisions only go into effect after the expiration of any contract signed prior to the legislation. In the window between Sept. 14, 2012, and Jan. 18 this year, when parts of Act 10 were temporarily repealed by a county circuit judge, some unions signed “successor contracts,” which allow them to delay Act 10 from going into effect.

The American Federation of Teachers Local 212, for example, which covers faculty, counselors and paraprofessionals at the two-year Milwaukee Area Technical College, negotiated a new contract that expires in 2015. This spring, the union launched an organizing drive to prepare for Act 10 once the contract runs out. Thirty people committed to building an organizing committee of 100, with a lead organizer on each campus.

Compared to member outreach during election season, “This effort is going to have to be more intensive,” says union president Michael Rosen. “The ask is much different now. It's not, are you going to vote for Obama, but will you commit to the union.”

Like WEAC and local associations across the state, Milwaukee Teachers' Education Association has had to cut staff due to Act 10. The shift is due in combination to Act 10 and the explosion of voucher, charter school and suburban enrollment, which — with the backing of mayor and erstwhile Walker recall opponent Tom Barrett — has pulled 40 percent of students away from district schools.

While shedding paid staff, the union has tried to democratize itself by implementing an “advocate” structure, which encourages worker activism on a host of issues, including teaching practices, community-parent relations, and social justice activism. It has also won funding for a youth education organizer for Voces de la Frontera, a workers' center and immigrant advocate.

The next uprising?

Act 10, an instigator of mass unity, is refracted differently for workers and unions across the state. Dane County's governing board is run by a supermajority of labor-aligned supervisors, including Leland Pan, a member of the Student Labor Action Coalition at the University of Wisconsin, and Jennifer Dye, who slept at the capitol and doubles as the executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Wisconsin. When Act 10 was briefly struck down, the board extended its contracts for county workers — though without a raise — through 2016. At the University of Wisconsin Hospital, on the other hand, nurses, technicians and other staff lost all union rights under Act 10. The “5000 Strong” campaign, a joint effort of AFSCME Council 24, AFT-Wisconsin Science Professionals and the Service Employees International Union Healthcare Wisconsin, has been lobbying administrators and legislators to win them back.

And then there's Milwaukee. The city is the largest in the state and anchors the most segregated metro area in the country. For black men, the jobless rate tops 50 percent and the incarceration rate is the highest in the state — which has the highest rate of black male incarceration in the country. With the loss of manufacturing jobs, Milwaukee has become a poster child for the decades-long decimation of private sector unions. During the mostly white mobilizations in 2011, the political center of gravity was far afield from the struggles of non-union workers and black and Latino communities.

“It was tough to break through the barrier of 'Walker versus the unions,'” says Dana Schultz, the director of 9to5 Wisconsin, which organizes to boost labor standards and workplace rights for women. “In Milwaukee, there's been a recession for about 25 years. The Democrats had power before Scott Walker got into office, and they didn't make sweeping changes for communities of color.” The Wisconsin Spring is remembered for public sector union-busting — rather than paid sick leave, which was passed in Milwaukee but struck down around the same time under Act 16, or in-state tuition for undocumented residents, which got scrapped under Act 10.

“Milwaukee never really rose to the level of agitation that the Madison protests did,” says the Rev. William Briscoe, the president of Milwaukee Inner-city Congregations Allied for Hope, a coalition of 42 churches focused on incarceration, immigration, education and jobs. “There could have been a more concerted effort to extend the fight here.”

MICAH is involved in Raise Up MKE, a retail and fast-food worker campaign for $15 an hour and union recognition, as well as the city's living wage movement. Both campaigns represent the sort of labor-community partnership that laborites nationwide have been advocating and building for years — and that the remnants of the anti-Walker movement could be broadened to include.

Both are underwritten by SEIU, which has supported retail and fast-food strikes across the country. In both, unions rely on community partners, which have the benefit of 501(c)3 funding and organized community bases.

“Now, if you're going to pull off a protest, you need the community groups and issue groups,” says Robert Kraig, erstwhile state political director for SEIU and now head of the Milwaukee-based Citizen Action. “When I was at SEIU, we didn't push hard to ask Citizen Action to help get people to the rally.”

“I still think it's a tenuous relationship between labor and community,” Briscoe says, “but it's even more necessary.”

These campaigns run parallel to the fight against Act 10 — for now. By gutting well-financed vehicles for worker contracts and grievances, Act 10 is forcing unions to reinvent themselves and build power at the base. Will the shells that exist — and the lived memory of the uprising — be used to build a diverse, cross-class movement that extends beyond Dane County? Will unions shift their resources from state-level electoral politics — which loom large as a second term for Walker portends right-to-work for private sector workers — to shop-floor and community organizing? And to rehash the question two years later, this time with an eye to more recent right-to-work states in the region, what can organized labor learn from Wisconsin?

By James Cersonsky

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