Crushing the unions

Suddenly, the Midwest looks like the Middle East

Mar 2, 2011 at 12:00 am

It seems not long ago that we started watching mass protests shake up regimes across the Middle East and North Africa, even toppling Egypt's government. Now we're witnessing protests across the United States in response to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker's attempt to strip collective bargaining rights from state workers. The protests probably won't lead to regime change in Wisconsin, but they have lit a fire under union supporters across the country.

Things have gotten very interesting since the GOP-sponsored bill was introduced in Wisconsin's Legislature. Republicans control the executive office, the House and the Senate in the Badger state, and it seems that they are using the opportunity to force their agenda through. Wisconsin's 14 Democratic state senators fled the state in order to keep the Senate from having a quorum, thus keeping the bill from coming to a vote.

Walker says the state's financial crisis calls for draconian measures. Some say that Walker created the financial crises by cutting taxes in the state. Regardless of the cause, Wisconsin public unions have actually agreed to all the economic provisions of the bill, wage cuts, and paying more for pensions and health care. But Walker's continuing insistence on curtailing collective bargaining rights makes this move look like bald-faced union busting.

"Walker is showing unwillingness to compromise," says John Beck, director of Labor Education at Michigan State University. "He has no intention to negotiate. The fiscal crisis only exists in Wisconsin because he got into office to cut taxes. They actually had a surplus before he came in. It's nothing but an attack on organized labor."

Republicans and their corporate allies have been pretty successful in attacking unions for decades. In 1945, union members made up 33.5 percent of the workforce. Today that number is about 12 percent; however 35 percent of public sector workers belong to unions while only about 7 percent of private sector workers are organized. Those numbers show where anti-union forces see their opportunity. If they can bust the public sector unions, they can effectively smash the union movement.

"A blind man can see it," says Beck. "Unions have already conceded that they're willing to talk about economic concessions. Going after the heart of organized labor is what he's really trying to do."

But why?

"Of the top 10 financiers of the 2010 elections, seven of them were right-wing, the other three were unions — AFSCME, NEA and SEIU," says Beck.

So it looks like a strategy for political domination: Take the financial backing away from your opponent. And if you don't believe that right-wing corporate money backs this move, consider the billionaire Koch brothers.

Charles and David Koch — whose Koch Industries has business interests from oil and petrochemicals to forest products — were principal financiers of Walker's campaign through contributions from their company and secondarily through the Republican Governors Association. A Koch spokesman at this year's Conservative Political Action Conference is reported to have said that their goal was to take the unions down "at the knees." The Kochs are also major Tea Party financiers.

The relationship between Walker and the Kochs was highlighted last week when Ian Murphy, editor of the Buffalo Beast alternative newspaper, prank called Walker pretending to be David Koch. In the recording posted online, Walker sounds like a subordinate reporting to his superior: Murphy, pretending to be Koch, asks, "What's the latest?" Walker goes into a long explanation of tactical plans, and says, "Each day we crank up a little pressure." He also says, "This is ground zero, there's no doubt about it" regarding the fight with unions. When Murphy suggests he bring a baseball bat to a meeting with opponents, Walker says, "I have one in my office; you'll be happy with that."

If there's still any doubt about collusion, note that a Koch front group, Americans for Prosperity, uses to encourage the elimination of labor rights.

As many as 100,000 demonstators in Madison and the flight of Democratic senators has stymied the controversial bill since Feb. 15. On Sunday, protesters won a battle of sorts when they successfully defied a police deadline to vacate the Capitol building by 4 p.m. Meanwhile, Walker refuses to negotiate.

Union supporters nationwide see the fight in Wisconsin as connected to their own fates and have been mobilizing. organized demonstrations in all 50 states over the weekend. In Lansing, Beck reported about 400 or 500 pro-union demonstrators turned out, with about 20 Tea Party counter-demonstrators.

"They said we have to support folks in Wisconsin because that's where the beachhead is right now," says Beck. "They see this as a way station to a much more galvanized and united labor movement."

There is concern in Michigan that — although he hasn't taken on organized labor directly — some of Gov. Rick Snyder's policies will weaken unions. For instance, with our state's economic crisis many municipalities face budget shortfalls. The state has been training some 175 emergency financial managers (EMFs) and the proposed Emergency Manager Takeover Bill would give EMFs the power to void union contracts. As cities, school districts and other municipal entities hit the financial wall, the EMFs will be making their draconian moves across Michigan.

In Detroit, while it may seem a very different situation, Detroit Symphony Orchestra musicians, who have been on strike since Oct. 4, see their situation as connected to Wisconsin.

"To put it succinctly, the DSO is trying to strip the musicians of their right to bargain," says Greg Bowens, a spokesman for the musicians. "It's not in a law like Wisconsin's but you've got to call a spade a spade."

Indeed, DSO musicians have agreed to draconian wage cuts, but not to changes in work rules the DSO insists on. When the DSO canceled the remainder of this concert season, DSO Executive Vice President Paul Hogle was reported in the Detroit News to have said the DSO was considering hiring replacement musicians. The next day the paper back-pedaled, saying that the reporter had drawn "inaccurate conclusions" from an interview with Hogle. However, Bowens says that this past weekend the DSO executive committee of the Board of Directors indeed discussed hiring scabs. "People who were at the meeting told us," says Bowens. (As MT went to press, DSO musicians were announcing an offer to return to work without a contract.)

Certainly the DSO is not in cahoots with Gov. Walker, but they are both part of a move to crush union power using the economic crisis as an excuse. Whenever money comes up short they want to cut expenses, and unions become a target.

"We're still asking the wrong questions," Beck says. "We always look at how are we going to cut our way out of this? We need to raise money to do things that people say need to get done. ... They're beating up on public sector workers, pitting one set of workers against another set of workers."

Maybe they're not looking for alternatives because the agenda is set. It's interesting that 2010 was the lowest year on record for the amount of strikes in the United States since records have been kept. At the same time it was a record year for CEO compensation.

That gives you an idea of the direction we're headed here.