Why Wisconsin's Labor Fight is Crucial

Gov. Walker is in the national vanguard fighting to reverse destructive union gains. By Fred Siegel


Fred Siegel is a senior fellow of the Manhattan Institute’s Center for State and Local Leadership and a scholar in residence at St. Francis College, Brooklyn. He is the author of The Prince of the City: Giuliani, New York and the Genius of American Life (Encounter Books).

When tens of thousands of angry, energized demonstrators gathered in Madison in early February to protest newly elected Gov. Scott Walker’s legislation to roll back the power of public sector unions, the national reaction was surprise at the intensity of the conflict.

But the hostilities had been building in Wisconsin ever since Walker was elected as Milwaukee County executive in 2002 in the wake of the county’s pension scandal, and nationally at least since the mid-1990s, when John Sweeney, leader of the Service Employees International Union, became the president of the AFL-CIO. That was the first time that the national labor federation was led by someone who largely represented government workers and not those in the private sector.

It was a momentous development yet was barely covered in the press. Sweeney’s ascendency transformed not only the labor movement and, through it, the Democratic Party, but in 2008, with the election of Barak Obama as president, it reshaped the very nature of American politics. The confrontation in Madison was the distillation of those changes.

The public’s surprise wasn’t due to inattentive citizens failing in their civic duties. In the past 20 years, the political power of unions has expanded as the number of American union members declined. That’s, in part, because the rising force of public sector unions has been somewhat obscured by the decline in private sector unionists, who are now a minority of organized labor.

The power of government unions raised a new set of issues that, until Madison, were rarely debated. Rather, these momentous changes had been virtually ignored by academics and journalists. And when they might have come to public awareness during the 2008 presidential campaign, the press was too enamored of candidate Obama and too hostile to outgoing President George W. Bush to treat with import the Illinois senator’s deep connections to SEIU.

When Sweeney assumed the AFL-CIO presidency in 1995, it closed the breach in left liberal ranks opened in 1972 when organized labor, then led by George Meany, a former plumber, refused to back the presidential candidacy of George McGovern. Meany and McGovern were at odds over everything from cultural issues to the Cold War.

But Jerry Wurf, head of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which had its origins in Wisconsin, seized the opening to become a key player in McGovern’s 1972 presidential campaign. Public employees have had a growing role in Democratic Party politics ever since. McGovern was trounced by Nixon, but the McGovernites and their public sector allies came to dominate the Democratic Party.

In the 1970s, the public sector unions became a political venue for New Left activists hoping to carry on in the militant spirit of the 1960s. Bitter strikes, says noted historian Joseph McCartin, erupted in San Francisco where the mayor’s house was bombed and water mains sabotaged, in New York where raw sewage was dumped into the rivers, and in Pennsylvania where the AFSCME leader led his members with the charge “Let’s go out and close down this goddamned state.” In Wisconsin, there were no fewer than 50 illegal teacher strikes between 1969 and 1974.

But despite the disruptions and the spectacle of New York City driven to the edge of bankruptcy by the relentless demands of municipal labor, public  unionism continued to thrive. Between 1960 and 1980, public sector jobs grew at twice the rate of private sector work.

The rising power of public sector unions was slowed but not halted during the Ronald Reagan administration. Their political growth, though little noticed in the booming 1990s, resumed under President Bill Clinton, whose 1992 campaign had received an early and crucial boost from AFSCME President Gerald McEntee. Public sector labor, including those who work in closely regulated areas such as health care, made sizable gains under Sweeney and Andy Stern, who led SEIU.

The upshot was that unionized government employees gained increasing power to tell voters how an expanding government would spend its money rather than the other way around. For Democrats, the public sector unions became the party’s electoral machinery. The old standbys — urban political machines and private sector unions — were in steady decline.

SEIU’s biggest gain came not from the picket line but from turning itself into a political force with the Association for Community Reform Now as one of its arms. In California, where the nurses union was already a power, SEIU was aided by a cooperative state bureaucracy as it organized 74,000 home care workers in L.A. alone and 130,000 statewide. This was the single largest organizing drive since the 1930s.

In New York, Local 1199 of the health and hospital care workers, an SEIU affiliate, created a political cartel with the semi-private hospitals. Along with the teachers, they took near ownership of state government.

On both coasts, the absence or decline of the old political machine and the decay of the Democratic Party as a grass roots organization created an opening for the public unions. AFSCME, SEIU, ACORN, the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association (its state affiliate is the Wisconsin Education Association Council)  became the vehicles driving the local campaigns for candidate Obama.

With the former Illinois senator in the White House, SEIU’s Stern became the most frequent visitor to the White House. The two men planned how to pass a massive expansion of government in the form of what came to be called Obamacare.

The very methods used to pass Obamacare — transforming one-sixth of the American economy with a parliamentary maneuver — outraged much of the country. Similarly, the substance of Obamacare and the threat of higher taxes to pay for it in the midst of a prolonged downturn and a rapidly growing national debt produced a sharp backlash. The Tea Party and the town hall meetings in  summer 2010 transformed the political climate of the country.

In Wisconsin, which had voted heavily for Obama in 2008, the mid-term election backlash made it one of only two states in which both houses of the legislature flipped from one party to the other. And surging Wisconsin Republicans won a senate seat and the governor’s office as well.

Nationally, Republicans gained an astounding 680 state legislative seats and 20 legislative chambers. Not since 1928, prior to the New Deal, had the GOP held so many state legislative seats.

Wisconsin, which is in the middle of the pack for its number of public employees and its level of school spending, might have seemed an unlikely setting for the bitter dispute that broke out over the growth of government and the power of the public unions. But there was a strong local component to the backlash.

In 2009, led by a weak and unpopular Gov. James Doyle, the Democratic Legislature expanded  the already considerable collective bargaining powers of the public unions by lifting the  limits on teachers raises.

Famed for its progressive traditions and Madison campus, one of the seedbeds of the New Left, Wisconsin is also one of the most sharply polarized states in the country. Dane County and Milwaukee are overwhelming Democratic, while much of the rest of the state is heavily Republican, with some exceptions.

In Illinois, Gov. Pat Quinn won election in 2010 by carrying  only Chicago and its collar counties, while losing the entire rest of the state. But Chicago dominates Illinois. In Wisconsin, it’s the relative balance that made for such a bitter fight.
Conflicts over the size and cost of government have broken out across the land.

Fifteen states have increased public employee contributions to their government pensions. But in deep blue states such as New York and Connecticut, compromise has kept the conflict in check, probably at the cost of meaningful reform.

In New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie has scored noticeable victories in his conflict with the teachers union. But the union’s ham-handed tactics and the Garden State’s fiscal woes and soaring property taxes have made matters relatively easy for Christie, who has yet to make any major structural changes. It’s in the purple states of the Midwest, such as Wisconsin and Ohio, where the conflict has been most intense.

Unlike the reforms advanced in most other states, Walker struck at the very heart of public union power — the checkoff whereby the state collects union dues from its employees and then passes them on to the unions, which in turn use the money to back their candidates for office and to lobby the state or municipality for more spending. In states where checkoff has been ended, such as Indiana, union treasuries have dried up. This is a zero-sum game in which it is difficult to craft a compromise.

When they were in power, the Democrats played hardball with the Republicans. Yet they now seemed shocked to have the favor returned. By placing themselves at the very center of the political arena (five of the 10 largest contributors to congressional and presidential campaigns over the past 20 years have been public sector unions), government workers have taken on a campaign burden that will be difficult to relinquish.

Exercising political power, and not walking the picket line, has been the source of strength for these public unions, and now it is their weakness. They can’t back off, but the costs the unions have imposed on the economy can’t be sustained. There is little reason to assume a quick, clear outcome to this epic conflict. But as long as the recession batters the country, you can bet the struggle will be at the heart of Wisconsin and American politics.