Union Label & Service Trades Department, AFL-CIO 202-508-3700 unionlabel@unionlabel.org

Wisconsin, Labor, and the Future of America

Jerome Karabel

This is a watershed moment for the American labor movement. Drastically weakened by decades of a corporate offensive against workers in the private sector, the labor movement is now being frontally attacked at its last stronghold: public-sector unions. If the current assault on labor — now being spearheaded by Governor Scott Walker’s push to eliminate the bargaining rights of public-sector workers in Wisconsin — succeeds, it will leave the United States as the only wealthy democratic country with little more than a shadow of a union movement. In a recent statement, Governor Walker accurately, if somewhat grandiloquently, described the stakes: “This is our moment. This is our time to change the course of history.”

Public employees, just 17 percent of union members nationwide in 1973, now comprise half of all union members in the United States. The rise of public-sector unions has coincided — and partially counter-balanced — a disastrous decline of private-sector unions, which now represent just 6.9 percent of all workers in the private sector, compared to 24 percent in 1973 and roughly one-third in 1960. In sharp contrast, public-employee unions now represent 36 percent of all public-sector workers — a figure that goes a long way towards explaining why the right wing has now targeted government workers in an attempt to destroy what is left of the labor movement.

Even the rise of public-sector unions has not, however, been enough to arrest a massive long-term decline in the strength of organized labor. Representing one-third of all workers in the late 1950s, unionized workers had dropped to 22 percent by 1980. Ronald Reagan’s election to the presidency — and his firing of over 11,000 air traffic controllers in the PATCO strike of 1981 — both embodied and reinforced a growing corporate offensive against labor. By the time Reagan left office in 1989, unions represented just 16 percent of all workers, and only 12 percent of workers in the private sector.

With private-sector unions now at their lowest ebb since the early 1930s, the public-sector unions have become the last redoubt of a battered labor movement. While not a substitute for a vibrant union movement in the private sector, public sector unions have been crucial in enabling organized labor to remain a major player in national politics. Without their financial resources and their capacity to mobilize voters during elections, neither progressive candidates nor progressive policies would stand a chance in a money-drenched political system increasingly tilted towards the interests of the wealthy and powerful.

Organized labor is far weaker in the United States than in any other wealthy democratic country; to cite just one example, in a number of European countries the percent of the labor force covered by union contracts surpasses 90 percent and is nowhere less than 34 percent, compared to 13 percent in the United States. Yet the decline of American unions was not inevitable; it was not simply a byproduct of impersonal forces such as de-industrialization and globalization. Canada and the U.S., neighbors with interconnected economies that are subject to many of the same pressures, both had roughly 30 percent of their workers in unions in 1960. But by 2008, Canada still had a similar percentage in unions, while union membership in the U.S. declined by more than half. The difference in the two countries is political: as Seymour Martin Lipset has shown, whereas unions in Canada enjoy more cooperative politicians, a friendlier legal environment, and less hostile employers, American unions have for decades faced an unrelenting corporate assault, aided and abetted by a Republican Party increasingly hostile to collective bargaining.

The consequences of a weak labor movement — and one that is growing weaker by the year — are central to the future of American society. For the first time in American history, rapid increases in productivity have not been accompanied by corresponding gains in wages; at the same time, the minimum wage has lagged behind increases in the cost of living. Inequality, while growing in virtually all the wealthy democratic countries, has increased more sharply in the United States than elsewhere, and the U.S. now leads the advanced world in inequality. The poverty rate in the United States, which was cut in half during the 1960s, is now the highest of the wealthy democratic countries. And according to a recent UNICEF study of child well-being, the United States ranks 20th out of 21 OECD countries.

The societies that rank high in the UNICEF study — and in other studies of social well-being and the quality of life — are almost invariably societies with strong labor movements. This is not a coincidence. For it is the labor movement that is among the stoutest defenders of the social safety net and shared prosperity, and labor is one of the few institutions able to serve as an effective counter-weight to the power of corporations and their political allies in an increasingly marketized global system.

For the United States, the implications could not be more clear. The attack on public-employee unions, should it triumph, will remove one of the last remaining obstacles to the untrammeled power of private corporations and the politicians committed to their agenda. This will have dire consequences that will go far beyond union members and their families, for it will shred America’s already tattered safety net and further concentrate power in the hands of the privileged. It is precisely because labor and its allies have realized what is at stake that they have succeeded in mounting a fierce counter-offensive that may nevertheless be repulsed. But whatever the outcome, the battle in Wisconsin may mark not the historic blow to organized labor that Governor Walker had expected to deliver, but the first step in the renewal of a beleaguered, yet still essential, movement.

Wisconsin Gov. Walker Ginned Up Budget Shortfall To Undercut Worker Rights

Wisconsin’s new Republican governor has framed his assault on public worker’s collective bargaining rights as a needed measure of fiscal austerity during tough times.

The reality is radically different. Unlike true austerity measures — service rollbacks, furloughs, and other temporary measures that cause pain but save money — rolling back worker’s bargaining rights by itself saves almost nothing on its own. But Walker’s doing it anyhow, to knock down a barrier and allow him to cut state employee benefits immediately.

Furthermore, this broadside comes less than a month after the state’s fiscal bureau — the Wisconsin equivalent of the Congressional Budget Office — concluded that Wisconsin isn’t even in need of austerity measures, and could conclude the fiscal year with a surplus. In fact, they say that the current budget shortfall is a direct result of tax cut policies Walker enacted in his first days in office.

“Walker was not forced into a budget repair bill by circumstances beyond he control,” says Jack Norman, research director at the Institute for Wisconsin Future — a public interest think tank. “He wanted a budget repair bill and forced it by pushing through tax cuts… so he could rush through these other changes.”

“The state of Wisconsin has not reached the point at which austerity measures are needed,” Norman adds.

In a Wednesday op-ed, the Capitol Times of Madison picked up on this theme.

In its Jan. 31 memo to legislators on the condition of the state’s budget, the Fiscal Bureau determined that the state will end the year with a balance of $121.4 million.To the extent that there is an imbalance — Walker claims there is a $137 million deficit — it is not because of a drop in revenues or increases in the cost of state employee contracts, benefits or pensions. It is because Walker and his allies pushed through $140 million in new spending for special-interest groups in January.

You can read the fiscal bureaus report here (PDF). It holds that “more than half” of the new shortfall comes from three of Walker’s initiatives:

  • $25 million for an economic development fund for job creation, which still holds $73 million because of anemic job growth.
  • $48 million for private health savings accounts — a perennial Republican favorite.
  • $67 million for a tax incentive plan that benefits employers, but at levels too low to spur hiring.

In essence, public workers are being asked to pick up the tab for this agenda. “The provisions in his bill do two things simultaneously,” Norman says. “They remove bargaining rights, and having accomplished that, make changes in the benefit packages.” That’s how Walker’s plan saves money. And when it’s all said and done, these workers will have lost their bargaining rights going forward in perpetuity.

Don’t Get Caught in a Bad Hotel

A flashmob infiltrates the Westin St. Francis hotel in San Francisco and performs an adaptation of Lady Gaga’s song “Bad Romance.” The event was organized to draw attention to a boycott called by the workers of the hotel who are fighting to win a fair contract and affordable healthcare. Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Queer activists put the song and dance together as a creative way to tell the hundreds of thousands of LGBTQ people from all over the country coming to San Francsico in June for Pride to stay out of the boycotted hotels.

To learn more about how to honor the boycott and support the workers visit:

this event was organized by:
San Francsico Pride at Work / HAVOQ http://www.sfprideatwork.org
One Struggle One Fight http://tinyurl.com/OSOFfbpage
The Brass Liberation Orchestra http://brassliberation.org

Filmed by: Regan Brashear, Jeff Boyette, Kesh Singh, Hermez Flores and Jamie LeJeune
Edited by: Jamie LeJeune