FRANK EMSPAK KNOWS A THING or two about organized labor. His father was a leader of the United Electrical workers, and he himself was a shop steward in that radical union. Later he became a professor at the University of Wisconsin’s School for Workers, and he’s the founder and executive producer of Workers Independent News.
So when he stops by The Progressive’s office one day in April to speak with my colleague Elizabeth DiNovella and me about where the struggle for workers’ rights in Wisconsin stands, I pay attention.
Emspak says he’s worried that the energy of the historic mass protests in Wisconsin this year may soon dissipate. He says progressive leaders need to do more to shape the “inchoate anger” of the protesters.
“I think we’re in trouble here,” he says.
He’s not the only one. A lot of veteran labor activists and scholars share his concern, as do I.
In February and March, we witnessed what Howard Zinn used to call “the flash of the possible.” In huge numbers, workers and their supporters, across occupational lines, came out to demonstrate against Governor Scott Walker’s assault on the right of public sector employees to collectively bargain.
“The breadth and depth of the solidarity was just incredible,” says Dave Poklinkoski, president of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 2304. “We were all brothers, we were all sisters. People actually meant that. It was pretty powerful stuff.”
But by April, the size of the protests was dwindling, and the energy appeared to be waning.
“You’ve got to make hay when the sun shines, and we soon will be paying the price for not making hay. We blinked,” says Bill Franks, a senior steward for AFT-Wisconsin. “It was a lost opportunity. We had to shut this motherfucker down.” (AFT-Wisconsin was formerly the American Federation of Teachers of Wisconsin, but it has broadened its membership to include other professionals.)
Franks believes that when organized labor had 100,000 people marching in the streets, it should have called for some direct action and possibly a general strike. “You can’t put 100,000 people in jail,” he says. “When you have those numbers, the math is all of a sudden on your side.”
Franks says the labor leadership didn’t know what to do with the power that the outpouring represented. “At the moment when we had some general strike potential,” he says, “the bureaucrats of labor backed off and effectively got in lockstep with the Democratic Party.”
What started as a fundamental challenge to Walker’s power, he says, turned into a narrower effort to recall state Republican senators. “This has already turned into regular electoral stuff,” says Franks.
Early on, you could feel the people power, with the sit-ins at the capitol and huge numbers on the march. People at the grassroots were more willing to get out and protest than some of the state labor leaders. At that time, there was a lot of talk among the protesters about taking direct action. At a meeting in February, the Wisconsin South Central Federation even endorsed a general strike. “We don’t have the authority to call for a general strike,” explains Jim Cavanaugh, president of the federation. “But some of our unions at that point were considering all options, and as an umbrella organization, we wanted to say, ‘We have your back. We’re there.’ ” The federation appointed an ad hoc committee to gather and share information on a general strike, but the interest in that option has faded.
“Since that time,” says Cavanaugh, “most of the unions have gone more towards an attitude of, ‘OK, there ain’t no way we’re going to stop this guy [Walker]. We’ve got to change these guys who are making the decisions.’ ”
Cavanaugh also points out that Walker’s bill makes it easy to fire people who are going out on strike. “Any kind of job action to shut a place down would probably result in a pretty aggressive retaliation,” he says.
Poklinkoski agrees: “Walker is relishing the opportunity to be the next Ronald Reagan should the public sector workers go out.”
Cavanaugh points out that unions are worried simply about how they might “keep in operation” once the law takes effect, since it would prohibit all public employers from deducting union dues from workers’ paychecks.
This threat to the financing of the unions may turn out to be a blessing, Poklinkoski says, because before it was too easy for some union leaders to run the show without much input from their members. Now to survive, the unions are going to have to involve their members one on one. “You need a union with an organized and engaged rank and file,” he says.
The survival of the public sector unions in Wisconsin isn’t guaranteed.
“It’s going to be tough,” says Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of Labor Education Research at Cornell University. But she notes that the situation isn’t unprecedented. “There are unions in states that don’t have collective bargaining,” she says, “and in those states, they are actively representing workers and fighting for their rights.”
Especially after the recent battles, she believes that most public sector workers will want to stay with their organizations. “Public sector workers who are currently unionized still see themselves as union members,” she says. “They’re not going to forget they’re members of unions. Governor Walker probably made more people feel like union members than ever before.”
Just because the state doesn’t recognize you doesn’t mean you’re busted, says Bronfenbrenner. “You can still act like a union,” she says. “You can file OSHA complaints. You can use every regulation you can find. You can slow up the process every way possible.”
Bronfenbrenner believes that the unions must also broaden their appeal. “The labor movement will be able to survive only if it reaches out to its natural allies, like the Wisconsin unions did to farmers,” she says. “They need to go neighbor to neighbor and start talking about issues that resonate with everyone: about how corporations are putting their interests above the people’s interests.”
Bronfenbrenner says the Democratic Party can’t be counted on in this battle. “The leadership of the Democratic Party doesn’t want this fight,” she says, “because it’s a fight that requires stepping too far to the left and risks alienating corporate allies.”
President Obama’s behavior bears her out.
“If American workers are being denied their right to organize and collectively bargain when I’m in the White House, I’ll put on a comfortable pair of shoes myself,” Obama said in 2007. “I’ll walk on that picket line with you as President of the United States of America because workers deserve to know that somebody is standing in their corner.”
Not only did President Obama not put on his picket line walking shoes and come out to Wisconsin to show his solidarity, his administration reportedly refused to allow Vice President Joe Biden to come, even though Biden was eager to do so. The leader of AFSCME, Gerald McEntee, was pleading with the Administration to send him, but to no avail, according to the Associated Press.
The Obama Administration’s arm’s-length approach to labor’s fight-back has been clear in other states, as well. Representative Dennis Kucinich tells the story of a Presidential visit to his home state of Ohio on February 22. Instead of going to Columbus to be with thousands of workers protesting against Governor John Kasich’s assault on collective bargaining, Obama flew to Cleveland, where he was greeted by none other than Kasich himself, and then Obama went to an event to promote small business.
Organized labor spent $300 million to get Obama elected, according to Steve Early’s new book, The Civil Wars in U.S. Labor. Even then, the Obama Administration did not push for the Employee Free Choice Act and instead is promoting free trade deals with Central America, Colombia, and South Korea.
And now when labor’s fate is on the line in Wisconsin and Ohio, the White House can’t even authorize a token visit.
Left to themselves, what can labor unions do if Walker’s bill goes through?
“We’ll be back in a pre-legal situation,” Emspak says, similar to what unions faced in the early 1930s. We’ll need to revive some of the strategies of that period, he argues.
Emspak discusses a whole range of tactics. Workers could “work to rule”—doing the bare minimum that is required of them.
Public sector workers “could stay at work all night” to demonstrate that they are being overburdened.
Or they could all go on break at the same time.
There are a lot of inventive ways, he says, to fight back.
Tracy Suprise, a nurse at the University of Wisconsin who has long been active in her SEIU union, says, “We need to get in your face.” She suggests “fifteen-minute walkouts” or “sickouts.”
Bronfenbrenner says it’s also crucial to “campaign against the corporations that are working with Governor Walker to take collective bargaining rights away,” she says. “You use pressure on the investors and the suppliers and the customers so that the cost of not having collective bargaining becomes greater than the cost of having it.”
To some extent, this is happening already in Wisconsin, with campaigns against M&I Bank and the Johnsonville bratwurst company because their executives gave thousands of dollars to Walker’s campaign.
John Matthews, the executive director of Madison Teachers Inc., played a pivotal role early on in the protests. He and his union (whose motto is, “Collectively We Decide, United We Act”) decided to call for a walkout of teachers. He contacted the superintendent of schools in Madison and told him that he might as well call off classes because the teachers weren’t going to show up. And for four days, they stayed away.
This act of defiance emboldened and inspired demonstrators across the state.
Matthews actually doesn’t believe that Walker is going to get his way on this anti-union bill, even in the short term, arguing that the governor no longer has the support of some of the more moderate Republicans in the legislature.
“I don’t think it’s going to happen,” says Matthews.
Nor is Matthews as concerned about the protests fading. “I think we can regather the large protests pretty fast,” says Matthews, who throughout the spring has been pressing his fellow labor leaders to keep the big rallies going.
But if Walker does get the go-ahead to implement his anti-union law, the teachers in Madison aren’t going to take it lying down, Matthews says. They may walk out on the job again.
“My folks are really popped up,” he says. “They’re ready to go.”
Almost everyone I talked to agrees that the recall effort against Walker, which can’t formally begin until November, could be key. Even Bill Franks says, “That’s certainly worth working for.”
In the meantime, says Emspak, “We need to make the state ungovernable.”
Protesters should dog Walker wherever he goes, just as Vietnam War protesters “made it impossible for Lyndon Johnson to speak anywhere except on military bases,” Emspak says.
This is already happening around the state. “Everywhere Scott Walker goes, the unions will make him feel very uncomfortable,” says Cavanaugh. And it’s not just the unions. It’s labor supporters and progressives and suddenly awake citizens who can’t stand what the governor is doing to this state.
Ellen Bravo, the former national director of 9to5, the National Association of Working Women, who now works with Milwaukee 9to5, believes that tactic is crucial.
Says Bravo: “We have to keep making them scared.”
There may not be many places in Wisconsin where Walker can get a free pass. For instance, on March 12, up in Washburn, Wisconsin, overlooking Lake Superior, Walker attended the Republican Lincoln Day Dinner. He was greeted by about 4,000 protesters who were pointing at him and shouting, “Shame!” Washburn has a total population of 2,117.
If you liked this story by Matthew Rothschild, the editor of The Progressive magazine, check out his story “Accountability in Defeat in Wis.."
Follow Matthew Rothschild @mattrothschild on Twitter
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