Frontline Index





Wisconsin and the Fight for Trade Union Rights

Trades-unionist Kevin Leetion looks at the attacks on the working class in the United States of America and the bitter struggle in Wisconsin.

An off duty policeman stands with a loud hailer in front of 600 noisy trade unionists and other activists and tells them “We have been ordered by the legislature to kick you all out at 4:00 today. But we know what’s right from wrong. We will not be kicking anyone out, in fact, we will be sleeping here with you.”

This was the scene inside the Wisconsin State Capitol building on the 25th of February, two weeks after the newly elected Republican governor, Scott Walker, had unveiled his Budget Repair Bill- a set of proposals that would not just attack the terms and conditions of state employees but also included a range of blatant union-busting measures. The bill set in motion a wave of protests as emotive and high profile as any labour dispute in this country for a quarter of a century, and one that attracted support from some surprising quarters.

“Every one of us [police officers] here took an oath when we started this job to protect and serve the members of our community and that is exactly what we intend to do. This is not a budget issue, it’s a civil rights issue.”

“Mr Walker... we know pretty well now who you work for. Let me tell you who we work for; we work for all these people.” 1

Re-emergence of the hard-right

While the recapturing of the House of Representatives by the GOP grabbed the headlines on this side of the Atlantic in November 2010, the elections also saw them come out with a net increase of six state governors. The change was particularly dramatic in the upper Midwest where they made gains throughout with only Illinois, the home state of Barak Obama, bucking the trend. The Republicans now have a virtual stranglehold on state politics in the region, controlling both houses of the legislature and the governors’ chairs in Indiana, Ohio, Michigan and, of course, Wisconsin.

Scott Walker was elected on a distinctly right-wing platform and with a distinctly right-wing record. While not formally a tea party candidate he has enjoyed their support both before and after the election. His campaign received a sizeable donation from David Koch, someone that New York magazine identified as “the tea party’s wallet.” 2

It’s easy to see why he enjoys their support. He describes himself as “100% pro-life”, opposing abortion in all circumstances, including in cases of rape, incest, or to save the life of the mother. He supports abstinence-only sex education and opposes embryonic stem cell research and state supported services that provide birth control to teens without parental consent. If elected, he promised to cut taxes on small businesses, capital gains, and income for top earners, and to cut state employee wages and benefits to help pay for the tax cuts.

And that’s exactly what he did. According to One Wisconsin Now, in his first month in office Walker called a special session which approved $140 million in new special interest spending, mainly in tax breaks for employers and private health saving accounts that are frequently used as tax shelters for the wealthy. These cuts have had no effect in creating jobs, but have helped turn a projected budget surplus into a deficit of $137m. As Jack Norman, research director at the Institute for Wisconsin Future says, “He wanted a budget repair bill and forced it by pushing through tax cuts... so he could rush through these other changes.” 3

Faced with a ‘crisis’ of his own making Walker waited little time before making clear who was expected to pay the price.

Attack on public servants

As promised, Walker introduced a bill requiring state and local government employees to pay more into their health care plans and pensions, something that would amount to an 8% decrease in the average worker’s take home pay. Not an insignificant amount, but justified by the right on the basis that private sector workers have seen their pay and benefit packages reduced as a result of the recession and that the new contribution rates will still be less than the national average. However, this ignores the fact that when state and local government employees are compared to private-sector workers with similar characteristics – particularly when workers are matched by age and education – state and local workers actually earn 4 percent less, on average, than their private-sector counterparts. 4 The more generous benefits awarded in the public sector do not eliminate this gap. 5

Delve deeper and the bill doesn’t just slash the pay of tens of thousands of workers, buried in the 144 page document are measures that will hit everyone, including allowing officials to be appointed by the governor in order to make major changes in health coverage for the poorest families without having to go through the legislature. Furthermore, the bill will allow the governor to sell off a number of state-owned heating, cooling, and power plants to whomever he likes, at any price he likes. 6

The de facto pay cuts and licence for wholesale privatisation would surely have sparked protests, but Walker was prepared for another attack. Not only would public servants see their take home pay slashed but they would lose the means by which they had been able to secure those benefits- their rights to collective bargaining.

The bill is designed to completely neutralise the effectiveness of the unions. It will eliminate collective bargaining for public employees on all matters except wages. And they won’t even be allowed to do that properly- any increase above inflation will have to be approved by a referendum. With this in place future real terms pay increases become practically impossible.

But that’s not all. Clearly believing that this still leaves the unions too powerful, they will threaten their very existence. Bargaining units will be required to vote annually to maintain certification as a union (roughly equivalent to ‘recognition’ in the UK). Unions will be constantly on the defensive as workers are put under pressure to disband their workplace union, and if at first the employer doesn’t succeed then they can keep trying until they do. And as if that wasn’t enough then the employer will no longer collect union dues from source.

All in all, this amounts to an outrageous attack on the rights of workers to organise themselves, an attack that the International Commission for Labor Rights (ICLR) considers to be illegal. As one commentator put it, “He’s attacking the very foundation of labor unions, and of worker power and using an economic crisis unions didn’t cause, and a budget reversal that Walker himself helped create, to justify it.” 7

An issue of power

Some commentators have suggested that the attack on the unions has been prompted by their support for Democrat candidates. They cite the fact that not all public sector unions will have their rights snatched away from them (police unions that for the most part offered support to Republicans last year have been unaffected). 8 There is no doubt that the large unions in particular are as effective as anyone in organising get-out-the-vote campaigns in communities that tend to vote Democrat and they remain significant donors to the party. However, to attribute Walker’s motivation to this alone would be to miss the wider significance.

In The Shock Doctrine Naomi Klein observed that over the last 30 years right wing governments have exploited crises- actual or perceived- to impose rapid and irreversible change. The change invariably acts in the interests of big business, removing impediments to profits (deregulation and union busting) and creating new avenues for money-making through the privatisation of not just public utilities, but other public services, including health and education. Walker’s bill bears all the hallmarks of this approach. 9

When the institutional levers of power all lie in the hands of the right, one the few co-ordinated counteracting forces in the face of privatisation, job cuts, and low pay, however weak it might be in areas, remains that of organised labour. In the US, 36% of public sector workers organise themselves in a union compared to 7% in the private sector10; an unsurprising differential given that many companies routinely fire workers that try to set up unions11. The attack on these unions in particular isn’t just an act of petulance against the supporters of their political foes- it is an attempt to permanently change to the balance of power.

Union members and supporters recognised the urgency of the situation.

The fightback

One Tuesday 15th February over 10,000 protesters gathered at Capitol Square with 3,000 more in the building itself. Schools were closed due to ‘excessive’ teacher absences and 800 East High School students marched to join them. As is customary, the joint finance committee said that it would hear from a list of speakers in its entirety, no matter how many signed up. In an effort to stall the passage of the bill, the Teaching Assistants Association with help from student groups such as the Student Labor Action Coalition and the Multicultural Student Coalition had recruited thousands to speak and give over thirty hours worth of hearings. 12

Despite initially following their usual practice of hearing the testimonies one by one, the committee adjourned shortly after midnight with hundreds left still to speak. Instead of leaving and risk losing momentum with a lower turnout the following day the protesters decided to stay put and occupy the seat of state government.

While the “hearings” continued, the word spread for supplies and further recruits to come from outside. Wisconsin began to be mentioned in the same breath as Tunisia and Egypt- as acknowledged on one protester’s sign saying “Impeach Scott Mubarek”. Within a couple of weeks, over 100,000 were rallying in Madison from a range of unions with support coming from outwith the state. In the early days of the sit-in at least 500 protesters were in the building every night.

With the Republicans enjoying a comfortable majority in both chambers and with the administration expressing their determination to proceed as planned, Democratic state senators joined the protest by holing up in an Illinois hotel to deny the senate a quorum to proceed with the vote. They said they would only return if the clauses on collective bargaining were removed.

On Thursday 3rd March, the Dane County Circuit Court ruled that the occupation was a violation of state law and the remaining protesters agreed to leave peacefully. Within a week they were defeated. Without consultation with their members, the leaders of the two largest unions publicly stated that they would accept all the financial concessions if their rights to collective bargaining were reinstated. Even this wasn’t good enough for the Republicans who fought the Democrats’ exploitation of a technicality with one of their own. They took out the measures curbing union rights and turned it into the Collective Bargaining Rights Bill which, stripped of its fiscal measures, was able to be passed by a committee of the senate. A quiet but devastating end to nearly a month of high profile direct action.

The fight continues

Union activists have continued their campaign nonetheless. On the streets, they have been protesting at the M&I Bank in Madison by starting a “Move Your Money” campaign and withdrew so much from accounts that bank officials had to close the branch early one day. The target was well-chosen. Not only were the heads of M&I substantial donors to Walker’s gubernatorial campaign but they have awarded themselves some $60m worth of bonuses despite requiring a government bail-out due running “one of the most conspicuous dumping sites for toxic financial waste in the country.” 13

On the political front, they are currently targeting the eight Republican state senators eligible for recall this year in a bid to force an election and reverse the electoral balance in the Capitol.

In the courts (at the time of writing) they have succeeded in securing a temporary block to the bill on the basis of insufficient notice being given. They also have a companion lawsuit waiting to be heard arguing that the bill does contain fiscal measures and so did require a quorum. There is hope yet.

This is not a problem restricted to Wisconsin. Ohio, New Jersey, Indiana, Iowa, and twelve other states with Republican governors are considering similar anti-union legislation. In Michigan they are prepared to go even further with a “Financial Martial Law” which would give the governor the right to declare a state of emergency in any town. He would then appoint emergency financial managers (which could even be corporations) who would then have the right to not just terminate collective bargaining arrangements but sell off public services and even dismiss elected officials.

And this is not just an American problem. In the UK public servants have been asked to contribute more towards their pensions and there are calls for trade union rights to be even more curtailed in the public sector than they are already. 14 As the financial crisis continues it is not beyond the realms of possibility that the Tory/Lib Dem government will follow some of the measures implemented on the other side of the Atlantic.

Unions everywhere need to be prepared for an attack on their very ability to function. It may not be as blatant as Wisconsin but there are any number of ways that an employer can seek to break their power. It may be restrictions on facility time, making access difficult, briefing against them, or setting up rival staff forums. In this context the employer’s strategy is about making workers feel that the union cannot and will not act in their interests. The only way to combat this is for members to recognise that an attack on the rights of unions is an attack on themselves and for them to be willing to act together to defend them. This cannot be taken for granted but the reaction in Wisconsin, despite the result, can give us hope.


6. The exact wording is, “Notwithstanding ss. 13.48 (14) (am) and 16.705 (1), the department may sell any state-owned heating, cooling, and power plant or may contract with a private entity for the operation of any such plant, with or without solicitation of bids, for any amount that the department determines to be in the best interest of the state. Notwithstanding ss. 196.49 and 196.80, no approval or certification of the public service commission is necessary for a public utility to purchase, or contract for the operation of, such a plant, and any such purchase is considered to be in the public interest and to comply with the criteria for certification of a project under s. 196.49 (3) (b).” For more information see
9. For a video of Klein talking about shock doctrine in relation to Wisconsin see 3.30
. In fairness to those unions, they did come out to support the protesters.
12. For a fuller account on the origins and mechanics of the protest see