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Labor Strikes Back: The Real Motive Behind Wisconsin Republicans' Assault on Unions

PORTAGE, Wis. — Bob Christofferson's greatest strength as a canvasser is that he looks like a true native of the heartland. He's in his mid-60s, has a white beard and a light Midwestern accent. It helps to seem familiar when knocking on doors in this small, rural town 40 miles north of Madison, where many residents are political fence-straddlers.

Christofferson is a former purchasing agent at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who is now “temporarily retired,” as he said, so that he can focus his energy on helping boot out six Republican state senators in August's recall election. Following a lawsuit and months of protest, the recall is a final attempt by Wisconsin Democrats and union supporters to overturn the GOP majority in the state senate and repeal a measure that stripped public-employee unions of their collective-bargaining rights.

The recalls might be an uphill battle, but it helps that Portage's Democratic candidate, Fred Clark, also embodies a native Badger State ethos.

“He's a farmer and a gun owner,” Christofferson said. “He's not some Harvard lawyer.”

In February, conservative Governor Scott Walker advanced one of the most sweeping changes in Wisconsin history in order to help fix the state’s $3 billion deficit. Along with steep reductions in government spending, Walker proposed to abolish collective-bargaining rights for state public-employee unions. In theory, the measure would allow municipal governments to save money by cutting back on benefits for unionized employees who, without bargaining rights, would have little say in the matter. After the Republican-dominated legislature pushed the measure into law, and after a thus far unsuccessful series of legal challenges by its opponents, the political battle has shifted to the recall effort.

So far, this June morning's door-knocking is a success: Every house greets Christofferson warmly and voices their support for Clark. Clark is running against Luther Olsen, a moderate Republican who voted for Governor Walker's contentious budget bill, even though he initially called it “pretty radical.” To compete in the recall, Clark and many of the other Democratic challengers first had to win the nomination in a July primary, which was forced when the state's Republicans decided to run “fake” Democrats in order to stall the recall election.

“Do you think you'll be voting for Fred Clark, then?” Christofferson asks a 76-year-old man who was out repairing cracks in his driveway.

“Oh yes,” the man says.

“And you know you've gotta do it twice: once July 12 for the primary, and then once again in August. Republicans are running those fake Democrats, and I can't believe they're getting away with it, but they are,” Christofferson adds. 

“I don't see why not,” the man answers. “They've gotten away with everything else.”


What Wisconsin Republicans have “gotten away with,” as he puts it, is one of the most aggressively conservative budgets in the state's history.

The budget, which Walker signed in June, slashed $800 million from public education and $500 million from medical assistance programs. It cut millions in tax credits for poor Wisconsinites while expanding tax credits for businesses and investors. 

“There has been nothing this extreme in my career,” said Democratic state Representative Bob Turner, who has served since 1990. “It's hard for me to believe what's going on.”

Perhaps most contentious is the collective-bargaining restriction, which was upheld in June after months of legal back-and-forth. Under the new law, public-union employees must also contribute more toward their health insurance premiums and retirement accounts. No longer able to negotiate their working conditions, the organizations will only be able to negotiate for wages, and even then, only up to the rate of inflation. 

To detractors, the attack on collective bargaining suggests a deeper, more camouflaged intent: to permanently defund unions, whose generous contributions feed Democratic campaign coffers. 

“If creating jobs and eliminating budget deficits are the issue, collective bargaining does precious little to address these concerns,” said Jay Stampen, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He thinks the collective-bargaining issue is the legislature’s attempt at “getting specific changes made that affect them.”

In other words, Walker's opponents allege his real goal is to permanently hobble the Wisconsin Democratic political network by cutting off its financial resources.

In 2010, Wisconsin’s unions gave nearly $423,000 to Walker's opponent, Tom Barrett, making up 7 percent of his total funding; and just $27,100 to Walker, or .25 percent of his total funds. The trend is echoed on the national scene. For example, the teachers union, the National Education Association, also gives 98 percent of its political contributions to Democratic candidates. For the United Food and Commercial Workers, it's 99 percent; and for the Laborers' International Union of North America, it's 95 percent. The NEA also runs one of the largest SuperPACs, spending unlimited money on Democratic candidates nationally. Millions of union dollars were also poured into support of Barack Obama’s campaign in 2008.


Proponents of the austere collective-bargaining measure say it is a necessary step to bridge the state's deficit without massive layoffs or tax increases.

“We're supportive of the policies in the governor’s budget,” said George Lightbourn, the director of the Wisconsin Policy Research Institute, a prominent conservative think tank. “We have been spending more than we should be. The Republicans came in to balance the budget, and that's what they did.”

Opponents of the Walker budget call it an immoral attempt to balance the state budget on the backs of the working poor. Critics point out that the new enrollment caps on assistance programs, for example, would choke off life-sustaining aid to tens of thousands of low-income disabled Wisconsinites.

“The disabled will be out there to fend for their own,” said Janice Hand, chair of the women's caucus of the Racine Democratic Party. “I think we have a responsibility to support those who can't support themselves.”

Many also contend that the sweeping changes to collective bargaining and worker benefits will significantly hurt middle-income public employees.

Under the new law, public employees will have to contribute approximately 6 percent of their incomes toward their pension programs and pay about 13 percent of their health insurance premiums, an increase many say they won't be able to manage. Starting Wisconsin teacher salaries, for example, hover near $25,000, which is about average for the nation. 

But most of all, union members are spooked by the end of collective bargaining, a practice that all but originated in Wisconsin in 1932 with the founding of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), one of the country's largest and most politically powerful labor unions, then known as the Wisconsin State Employees Association. 

“There's no one working in public schools right now who knows what it is to work without collective bargaining in place,” said Christina Brey, a spokeswoman for the Wisconsin Education Association Council, Wisconsin's main teachers union. “We have a lot of members saying, 'I voted for Scott Walker, but I didn't vote for this.' ”

Facing an uncertain future, experienced teachers have been retiring in droves in order to cash in their pensions while they still can. In the small Monona Grove district, for example, 18 teachers have retired, whereas a typical year might see only a handful of departures, Brey said.

“If you're 50 years old and you don't know if everything you've counted on will all disappear, wouldn't you think about retiring too?” Brey said.


Aside from economic uncertainties for their individual members, unions themselves face an unknown future that may include a weakened political voice. 

Republicans currently control both houses of the Wisconsin legislature, and they hold the governorship. But Wisconsin is a fairly progressive state with some of the most generous social protections in the country — programs like Badger Care provide health coverage for families whose incomes are too high for Medicaid. The electorate went Democratic in the last three presidential elections and the 2006 gubernatorial election. In 2010, Republican control hung tenuously in the balance of low Democratic voter turnout, a dismal economy and a somewhat disillusioned populace. That's a risk they're not willing to take again.

“This is an active effort to dismantle the base of the Democratic Party and to make it significantly more difficult for Democratic legislators to win elections,” said Timothy Bauer, a Madison restaurant worker who is not in a union. “This is part of a long-term agenda to decertify unions.”

Timothy Bauer, a restaurant worker in Madison, phone banks for the upcoming recall election.
Timothy Bauer, a restaurant worker in Madison, phone banks for the upcoming recall election.

Decertification is one of two important ways Wisconsin's new law may hurt union membership. First, Walker's proposal means unions must hold yearly membership drives in order to achieve certification, a move so unorthodox the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission says it would “overwhelm” their small staff. Second, unions can no longer automatically deduct membership dues from their members' paychecks, meaning members must now “opt in” to pay their monthly union fee.

Unions are now left asking members to sign up to have their dues withdrawn automatically from bank accounts  a much higher hurdle to clear than automatic paycheck deductions.

“The point is to strip the funding source for labor,” said Peter Rickman, law student and a leader of the Teaching Assistants Association at the UW Madison. “It's going to force the labor movement to operate differently.”

Peter Rickman, the TAA head

Many conservatives welcome the blow to their political adversaries.

“The unions are in a lot of trouble,” said George Meyers of the conservative-leaning Racine Taxpayers’ Association.  “I think they're going to suffer dramatically, but they've had a very strong hold on legislators, and that's not OK.”

In a town-hall luncheon in Madison, Department of Administration head Mike Huebsch said the uproar over the budget is nothing more than anger that the Walker administration “tried to mess with the unions.”

After all, he said, “How can you be angry about a balanced budget?” 

Huebsch hailed the measure as a way of restructuring union membership so that it more closely resembles buying a product.

“If you provide a product people like, people will buy it,” he said. “And some will.”

But many won't. Since a similar bill was passed in Indiana in 2005, the number of dues-paying state employees has fallen to 1,490 from 16,408  less than one tenth of the 2005 membership.

“This is a very well-crafted bill, and they got the result that they intended to,” said Scott Spector, the government relations director for the American Federation of Teachers in Wisconsin. “This was crafted by folks who had a desire to eliminate our voices.”

Wisconsin Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald echoed that sentiment in an interview with Fox News' Megyn Kelly earlier this year: "If we win this battle, and the money is not there under the auspices of the unions, certainly what you're going to find is President Obama is going to have a much difficult, much more difficult time getting elected and winning the state of Wisconsin.” 

Whether Fitzgerald's prediction comes true remains to be seen. (Fitzgerald and Walker's offices did not return requests for comment.)

“The future is either very bright or very grim,” said Joel Rogers, a law and public policy professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

For example, despite their precipitous membership drop, political contributions from Indiana's public sector unions have remained relatively stable in midterm elections since 2002, comprising about 4 percent of the total campaign money. In Wisconsin, union political action committees have donated $62,625 so far to the recall candidates, according to the nonpartisan Wisconsin Democracy Campaign. 

“It's too early to say how yearly recertification and the end to automatic dues deductions will affect the ability of unions to raise money for political purposes. Raising money from members for the purposes of making campaign contributions and financing other election-related activity will now be significantly more difficult,” said Wisconsin Democracy Campaign director Mike McCabe. “What's safe to say is the only reason the Republicans took the major political risk of ramming these changes through is they are betting they will inhibit union political activity in the future.”


At least for now, Wisconsin unions have their vast manpower on their side, and they've employed it to knock on doors and call voters to gin up support for Democratic candidates as the recall showdown looms. The Portage branch of the Wisconsin Democratic Party has union, non-union and disenchanted Republican volunteers, and they make more than 2,000 “contact attempts” with voters each weekend. By the time the elections roll around, they predict they will have reached every voter in the district multiple times.

It's worth noting that the recalls are quite a feat in their own right: To recall a state senator, a group must collect, in a 60-day window, enough signatures to equal one-quarter of the voters in the last gubernatorial election — about 20,000 signatures in each district. Before now, there have been only four people recalled in Wisconsin's history. Now there are nine at once.

“Winning these elections has a more important meaning,” said Rickman, the TAA leader. “This is about creating a new generation of leaders who know how to organize. We are going to win back the state legislature so we can govern with a progressive agenda.”

Rep. Turner, who has received political contributions from unions, thinks the Walker administration's extreme agenda may actually have backfired. From the massive protests in early spring to the well-organized recall effort, Wisconsin's unions have mobilized like never before, and they may thwart Walker’s agenda after all.

“You're not going to kill unions,” Turner said. “People fought and died for these rights. In fact, I want to give Scott Walker a hug, because he's brought everyone together.”

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