By Ricky Baldwin
Ricky Baldwin is a longtime community and union organizer who lives in Urbana.
Anticipating the Janus decision discussed elsewhere in this issue, Central Illinois Jobs With Justice (JWJ) held a public discussion on February 18 in the Champaign Public Library with Cindy Jones, a Wisconsin social worker, and Patricia Rego, Wisconsin nurse. Titled “Turning Lemons Into Lemonade,” the event highlighted the history of recent changes in public sector labor law in Wisconsin, the negative impact of such changes, and how the “Wisconsin case” is of a piece with right-wing attacks on unions at the federal and state levels.
“Right-to-Work” on Steroids
Wisconsin workers have a long and proud history of union organizing. The state’s early public sector labor law became a model for other states, securing strong gains for public employees. Teachers’ pay climbed from $13,700 in 1977 to $29.206 over the next decade. But all progress collapsed in 2010, when Republicans gained control of the legislature and Scott Walker became governor. Within weeks he cancelled all expired union contracts and proposed “Act 10,” which Pat Rego calls “right-to-work on steroids.”
In response, protesters flooded the state capitol daily by the thousands, and all 14 Democratic state senators fled the state to prevent a quorum. Eventually, however, Republicans got around the quorum requirements, passing Act 10 in 2011.
Exempting only law enforcement and firefighters, Act 10 prohibits public employers from collecting “fair share” fees from non-members and dues from union members. Contracts are limited to one year, and every year all the employees covered must vote to keep their union. “It’s not just a majority of those who vote,” Jones points out. “Everyone who does not vote counts as a no!”
With these radical restrictions, many unions went under, and membership overall declined by half by 2015. The Milwaukee Teachers Association alone lost over 30% of its membership; AFSCME, 70%.
The law also restricts what workers can negotiate. Wages are capped at the rate of inflation, measured by the oft-criticized Consumer Price Index (CPI). “And,” says Rego, “each agency employer gets to choose which month’s CPI they will use.” Now, she says, many unions don’t even bother to negotiate wages any more.
Health care and pensions are off the bargaining table entirely. Employee healthcare contributions more than doubled, as did deductibles. Employee pension contributions rose from an estimated average of 5.8% in 2011 to 50% currently. Family child care workers, home healthcare workers under the Medicaid program, University of Wisconsin (UW) faculty and academic staff, and UW Hospitals and Clinics staff are all prohibited from bargaining collectively. Five years after Act 10, teachers’ salaries had fallen by 2.6%, and benefits by almost 19%. The proportion of teachers leaving the profession shot up from 6% to 10% the first year, and still remains at almost 9%. As unions lost influence with school boards, teachers reported prep time cut in half and the quality of education suffering.
Wisconsin also lowered taxes and deregulated industry, in stark contrast to neighboring Minnesota, where Democrat Mark Dayton became governor the same year as Walker. Minnesota took the so-called “high road,” raising taxes on upper-income earners and raising the minimum wage, while continuing to support unions. In 2011 the two states had similar rates of job growth, but over the next five years Minnesota beat out Wisconsin consistently. And Wisconsin’s poverty rate grew faster, from 11.6% to 13.3%, whereas Minnesota rates grew by 1%, then flattened out. Wisconsin’s child poverty rate in particular is twice that of Minnesota’s, and growing faster.
The “Right-to-Work” Muse
In fact, “right-to-work” never had anything to do with any “right” to “work.” Its first salesman, segregationist and oil industry lobbyist Vance Muse, had a history of reactionary political advocacy, opposing women’s suffrage, child labor laws and desegregation. To combat “New Deal” reforms, he founded the Christian American Association in 1936 in Houston, Texas, and promulgated the “right-to-work” strategy.
A central feature of U.S. labor law is “exclusive representation.” Workers who wish to negotiate collectively with their employer must gain majority support among a defined set of coworkers. The union must represent all covered workers equally, and the law allows the union contract to require a nonmember fee for this representation. But by eliminating these “fair share” fees and retaining the “duty of fair representation,” “right to work” laws sandbag the unions, forcing them to drain the members’ resources fighting for the “free riders.” Furthermore, the resulting decline in membership weakens the unions’ ability to win improvements.
Muse’s association networked with Southern oil companies and Northeastern industrialists, and by 1955 almost all the Southern states had adopted such restrictions, including Virginia, Texas, the Dakotas, Arizona, Iowa, Utah and Nevada. Kansas followed in 1958. But for the next three decades only Wyoming (1963) and Louisiana (1976), passed such laws, and over the following 30 years only Idaho (1985) and Oklahoma (2001) did so.
Then the dam broke: Michigan, site of the Great Sit-Down Strike of 1936-37 that made the UAW a major union, and Indiana passed Right-to-Work in 2012; Wisconsin, previously a union stronghold, in 2015; and West Virginia, site of some of the bloodiest labor battles in US history, in 2016. What changed?
John Birch, Jr.
Fred Koch, father of Charles and David, had helped found the Wichita, Kansas, chapter of the reactionary John Birch Society, whose members in turn founded the National Right to Work Foundation in 1968. Then, in 1973, Paul Weyrich started the Heritage Foundation and co-founded, along with the Koch brothers, a Chicago organization that networked large corporations with conservative lawmakers and provided the lawmakers with model legislative initiatives. Known as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), it has affiliates in almost every state, including Governor Rauner’s close ally the Illinois Policy Institute (IPI). The IPI also receives funding from the Mercer Family Foundation, supporters of reactionaries Andrew Breitbart and Milo Yiannopoulos. Recently ALEC promoted laws restricting voter rights, overturning clean air and water protections, encoding harsh treatment of immigrants, and creating more “right-to-work” states.
In 2014 ALEC affiliates published model legislation for “local choice” initiatives to convince localities to opt out of state labor laws and refuse to bargain with unions. Rauner campaigned on the idea and, as governor, spent weeks touring the state promoting it, but got few takers. “Local choice” also flopped in Kentucky and other states.
Switching strategies, Rauner demanded an end to the collection of “fair share” fees from non-union employees under his own authority who are represented by unions. But the comptroller refused to violate the law. Rauner then issued an Executive Order ending the deductions, an order successfully challenged in state court. Within four months of taking office, Rauner’s anti-union initiatives had all failed, including a federal lawsuit claiming “fair share” fees to be unconstitutional.
The federal court, however, did allow three fee payers to proceed as plaintiffs. The lead, Mark Janus, currently earning $71,000, has benefited for years from raises and other benefits negotiated by AFSCME. Janus pays $45 a month in fair share fees. The National Right to Work Foundation and the Liberty Justice Center, an affiliate of IPI/ALEC, provide his lawyers. Janus recently told reporters that although he does not want to pay “fair share” fees, he is not anti-union and that unions are a great benefit to workers!
At the JWJ event, speakers predicted a flood of mailers, TV ads, emails, and other propaganda encouraging union members to “give yourself a raise,” i.e. drop out of the union, once the Court rules. Many workers will likely lose their unions. And though the Janus decision will not enact Act 10-type changes limiting the terms of negotiations, the speakers stated that, “once they get right-to-work-for-less, there will be more to come.” A slew of more restrictive court cases are already in line behind Janus.
Dire as these warnings are, Rego and Jones did discuss strategic responses—from workers defending their own unions and responding to anti-union propaganda to providing solidarity to other unions in need—that can turn “lemons into lemonade.”