Will Wisconsin battle restore union power?

Opponents to the governor's bill to eliminate collective bargaining rights for many state workers protest at the state Capitol in Madison, Wis., Tuesday, March 1, 2011. Protesters have occupied the state Capitol for 14 days opposing the governor's proposed budget. (AP Photo/Andy Manis)

In trying to take away nearly all collective bargaining rights from state workers, Wisconsin‘s governor may have unintentionally given the American labor movement the lift it needed after years of decline.

That was the sentiment this week at the annual meeting of the AFL-CIO, the nation’s largest labor federation.

“We’ve never seen the incredible solidarity that we’re seeing right now,” AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka told reporters Tuesday at the federation’s headquarters.

Trumka said the clash between pro-union protesters and Republican leaders in Wisconsin has brought a level of excitement to unions that he hasn’t seen in years — one that could spark a resurgence in the American labor movement.

He also wants to use the moment to help define unions in a way that could bring renewed support. He pointed to a New York Times-CBS poll indicating that Americans oppose efforts to weaken the collective bargaining rights of public employee unions by nearly a 2-1 margin.

“People are giving us another look now,” he said. “It’ll be up to us to keep it going and continue defining ourselves in ways the American public will support.”

Whether he intended to or not, Trumka said, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker started a national debate when he proposed stripping most public employees of their collective-bargaining rights.

“We’re winning that debate,” Trumka said.

It’s the kind of attention unions have been craving for years as leaders have tried without success to rekindle the vigor that organized labor enjoyed at its peak in the 1950s and 1960s.

“We’ve been looking for a spark and the spark found us,” said Thea Lee, deputy chief of staff and trade expert for the AFL-CIO. “This isn’t a fight we looked for, but it is one we can turn to our advantage.”

Union members last year represented just 11.9 percent of the American work force, way down from about 25 percent in the 1980s and 35 percent in the middle of the past century.

Energized by the outpouring of tens of thousands of pro-union demonstrators in Wisconsin, Ohio and Indiana, Trumka and other union leaders said they hope to sustain the enthusiasm until next year’s elections. Unions already have pledged at least $30 million to fight anti-union legislation in dozens of states. The AFL-CIO has provided support for mobilizing protesters and is looking for other ways to keep the demonstrations going.

“If we maintain the momentum into next year, I think (Walker’s) going to have a significant problem,” Trumka said.

Walker says his goal is to force government employees to pay more for their pension and health care benefits to help stem a massive budget shortfall. But the idea remains in limbo after Senate Democrats fled the state to prevent a vote.

Conservatives say collective bargaining in public-sector unions contributes to runaway government spending. Critics also claim that public employee unions use their dues to help re-elect lawmakers who, in turn, spend taxpayer money to boost wages and benefits of state workers regardless of fiscal constraints.

Union officials believe public sentiment is on their side.

“People are looking at this and saying, ‘This is a struggle I want to be a part of,'” United Mine Workers President Cecil Roberts said. “This is our moment.”

AFL-CIO officials claim Walker made a critical mistake in exempting police and firefighters from his plan to curb collective bargaining rights. Trumka noted that police and firefighters have joined Wisconsin protesters in droves to stand with their fellow union workers.

Union leaders spoke at the meetings about “not letting them split us up sector by sector,” Trumka said.

Trumka said he was hopeful the support for public-sector union workers could also translate to union workers in the private sector. He sees it as a teachable moment to show Americans how difficult it has become for unions to organize workers at companies where managers often rely on aggressive union-busting tactics.

“It is the law of the land not just to protect, but to encourage the process of collective bargaining in this country,” he said.

Copyright © 2011 The Associated Press

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20 Responses to "Will Wisconsin battle restore union power?"

  1. Beverly Williams  March 2, 2011 at 1:50 pm

    There is no more money!

  2. Carl Nemo  March 2, 2011 at 2:56 pm

    The problem with unions is that they too became corrupt in time no differently than big government.

    It seems as time goes on after the founding of nation or a concept such as union representation they all suffer the effects of corrosive leadership that looks out for their “self interest” first with the main mission of the organization having been trivialized to simply forgotten.

    A good union can be beneficial for the workers, but a bad to corrupt one is worse than the ever-scheming corporations they are supposed to confront on behalf of the the workers. Workers are then caught between a rock and a hard place, paying hefty dues while getting their t.s. cards punched by the union orgs who are now colluding with the company in many if not most cases.

    Carl Nemo **==

  3. Pondering_It_All  March 2, 2011 at 5:27 pm

    What Walker and all the other Republican governors have forgotten is that there are a lot of older Republican voters who are or have been union members. They will support the idea of cutting state expenditures but when you attack the worker’s rights to even have a union, that will flip their loyalty like turning off a light switch!

  4. Nevada Ned  March 3, 2011 at 8:44 am

    The union movement has suffered a long series of defeats over the past decades, with a result that worker productivity has gone up in the last 40 years, but real wages have hardly budged. I fervently hope that Scott Walker overreached, and that this starts a revival in the fortunes of labor. Over the years, labor unions have largely forgotten how to mobilize their members. Now is an excellent time to learn it again.

  5. bmclellan  March 3, 2011 at 10:34 am

    Does anyone remember the slogan, Look for the Union Label ?

    That label used to be on such mundane things as a washing machine that would last twenty years, or a John Deere tractor still pulling a three bottom plow at the age of sixty. A tricycle to be handed down, or a sturdy kitchen chair someday to become a family heirloom.

    One could find it on the bridges that so proudly spanned our rivers and the trains that brought goods to our grocers shelves. From the vehicles that our children rode to school in, to the electricity that powered our homes.

    Union Made stamped on a product assured the buyer that he was receiving value for his dollar to which that purchase supported his fellow countrymen and gave them the ability to benefit in like kind.

    Union Made brought us product safety in our households and our workplaces by establishing standards of quality and workmanship. Standards which were worn with pride on the sleeves of our nations workforce and mirrored by their families smiles when Pop came home at night safe and sound.

    In the not so distant past an apprentice was little more than a slave relegated to the whims of his employers bottom line, subject to all manner of harsh treatment and dangerous work environment.
    And so today we’ve come full circle back to the dark ages of The Robber Barons.
    Returning with barely a whimper to the days of mediocrity and uncertainty in all facets of our lives.
    Mediocrity in the goods and services we depend on. Uncertainty in the educational legacy we leave for our children, all based on the fallacy that worker solidarity is an evil thing…

    Will the union movement ever regain it’s focus ? Hmmph !
    Looking out across the rubble that was once our country and her leaders divided resolve , I doubt it very much.
    Alas, we are a shameful lot in the eyes of our forbears.. Hack2e

    • Almandine  March 3, 2011 at 12:45 pm

      Good points , Bryan…

      except with regard to public education, dispensed by the NEA and AFT collective bargainers, who long ago brought us to the days of mediocrity with little hope for improvement in sight. If only the teacher union label was imbued with the type of pride, quality, and value you so rightly highlighted.

      It seems that when the taxpaying citizens are the ones being asked to purchase their inferior products and honor their lackluster service, the thought of Robber Barons takes on a serious reverse bias.

  6. b mcclellan  March 3, 2011 at 5:31 pm

    I can’t help but disagree somewhat Al as many factors come into play in evaluating today’s education system. Charges of incompetence on an educators part have to be balanced against class size, quality of text, and overall mission statement of those appropriating and distributing funds to support the education process.

    Then we have the equal if not greater influence ( home life ) of non school hours and the atmosphere that must teach and sustain a discipline of citizenship in a youths growing view of the world that surrounds.
    Being mindful of this, the very real necessity that children are to be nurtured and guided has been handed off to those who are Math and Science teachers, mostly and rightfully so, unqualified to be psychologists, or even mentors..
    If we are licensed to paint the portrait of blame for our educational ills then all the colors of our existence need to be brought to bear or we will forever fade to black.

    • Almandine  March 3, 2011 at 10:20 pm

      In rebuttal, can only recall my own public schooling… those 40+ years ago. Class size… about 35 on averaqge. Texts… worn, but containing things I needed to know as a productive citizen. Mission statement? How about educating kids. All in all, I get your drift here. BUT, were they doing their education bit – as educators – none of the distractions would matter… besides, were they doing their education bit, they’d be organizing and marching against the crap kids are made to put up with today. Hell, we didn’t even have air conditioned schools in my day. Can’t have it both ways.

      As for the rest… let’s start at the beginning and move forward from there once we’ve gotten their attention. Can’t do it all at once.

      • b mcclellan  March 3, 2011 at 10:53 pm

        Both ways lead to one conclusion,
        third remains , as only enlightenment.
        Never a score.
        It can be done all at once, true.
        Pull back service, witness mans last breath,
        hang the enlightened.
        Sound familiar ?

        • Almandine  March 3, 2011 at 11:09 pm

          Speaking of barons…

          http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0311/50585.html

          • bmclellan  March 4, 2011 at 10:30 am

            Touche Al, obscenity surrounds abounding.
            Still I can’t help but get the impression that the politicians are jealous of the right of the individual to bargain more than the compensation package of union leadership..

            • Almandine  March 4, 2011 at 5:29 pm

              The eternal struggle…

  7. woody188  March 3, 2011 at 9:48 pm

    Where were the public sector unions while the private sector was gutted and shipped across the world?

    I guess they haven’t figured it out yet. There is no public sector without a private sector to fund it. If police, fire and teachers went on strike each time a factory was shuttered and the jobs sent away, perhaps we wouldn’t be in the situation we are today. But per usual, the attitude was that it didn’t involve them. Now it does involve them, and they want the sympathy they weren’t willing to give.

    Rather ironic…

    • Carl Nemo  March 3, 2011 at 10:23 pm

      Spot-on analysis Woody. The public sector’s indifference to the plight of the private is linked to “self interest”; ie. we’ve got ours, screw you attitude.

      Supposedly there’s 2..2 million Federal employees shepherding 300 million citizens and I’m sure nationwide the number of state, county, and local employees equals that amount too.

      In the past twenty years while the private sector has been ravaged via offshoring and out-sourcing of respective job functions, the public sector has enjoyed raises as a function of COLA (cost of living allowance) not including any contract specific pay raises and percs.

      Since America has had 50% of its workforce decimated due to the aforementioned job losses, then so too it should be reflected in the public sector, but no they continue to grow ever larger with the passage of each new piece of byzantine, draconian legislation from the Federal on down through to lower levels of government that require evermore employees to manage and enforce.

      A class system has been created. Unfortantely it’s based on parasitism where the public sector parasites are feeding upon their host in the private sector via taxation, but when they eventually kill off the host, then they too, the parasites, shall suffer the same fate. We’re all in this together, but they don’t see it that way.

      Carl Nemo **==

      • hitfan  March 6, 2011 at 8:07 am

        Public sector union employees have it good. I being a private sector worker in information technology have survived several rounds of layoffs during the dotcom bust. I consider myself fortunate to have never been unemployed for a significant amount of time (about 3 months in the past 15 years). It was a combination of luck and hard work that I continue to survive.

        My sympathies probably resemble closely to Carl Nemo when it comes to public sector workers. They remain entrenched and have far better job security compared to the private sector. What they’re really whining about is that they’re afraid of being thrown back into the private sector where they wouldn’t be able to survive for 5 minutes.

    • b mcclellan  March 3, 2011 at 10:29 pm

      It just keeps on tickin my friend.
      Timex watch fobs of greed clock opposition intel,
      and plots potholes where blame to spread runs viral.

      Pop said,
      don’t run over the neighbors dog even if he bites you.

      • Almandine  March 3, 2011 at 10:49 pm

        I remember Augustus – Augie Doggie – a brindle pit bull that belonged to my buddy Steve… weighed about 85 with a head about a foot wide… nice dog but got kicked in the head by a horse and was never the same. Started bringing home halves of other dogs as gifts to Steve. Next door neighbor lost half of his dog to Augie… later found Augie laying in the road in front of the house and did him in with the Ford pickup. Not even Steve could get upset.

      • woody188  March 4, 2011 at 12:50 am

        Oddly, a man in Columbus was just beaten with a baseball bat, shot and killed due to an argument over a dog. This isn’t our father’s America, but this is what we are leaving for our sons and daughters.

    • hitfan  March 6, 2011 at 8:13 am

      Woody: my belief is that there should be no unions in the public sector, and that private sector unions should be strengthened.

      Bus drivers in my city always threaten to go on strike every few years, and basically hold the city hostage because many people depend on the bus service to commute to work, and parking is extremely tight and expensive downtown. I wish that the mayor and city council would just fire them all the next time they do that.

      Even when Scott Walker implements cost saving measures and removes certain provisions of collective bargaining, the Wisconsin public union workers will still have it far better than the private sector workers.

  8. hitfan  March 6, 2011 at 8:17 am

    I also think that Scott Walker should implement his changes for police and fire department workers. I know that it’s politically correct to defer to the police, but they are also extremely well paid (making over $100,000 each excl. benefits because of overtime).

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