Forming a union is a lengthy process, and although labor officials say they already see more interest from workers, it's too soon to measure an increase in membership numbers. But there is one indication the battles in Wisconsin are providing a boost for labor.
Working America, an advocacy organization affiliated with the AFL-CIO that provides an outlet for non-union members to support the labor movement, has signed up approximately 20,000 new members since Feb. 15. The group was active in the state in 2008, when it built up the bulk of its membership, which now stands at 65,000. It was inactive for the past couple years, however, and just reopened shop the beginning of 2011.
Joining up with Working America is far easier than enrolling in a union, involving simply filling out a form either in person or online. New members are asked to contribute $5, although no dues are required.
Joining a union, on the other hand, requires holding elections and often battling with management, which may employ all sorts of tactics to slow down or stop the process.
"The increase in Working America numbers provides one of the first real-world examples of what we've seen, which is increased interest nationally and in Wisconsin of supporting workers' rights," said one labor official.
In late February, the faculty at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse voted 249-37 in favor of union representation through AFT-Wisconsin, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers. One professor at the university said Walker's actions galvanized them to form a union.
Story continues below
AdvertisementLabor officials have publicly acknowledged the role that Walker and the fight in Wisconsin have played in their mobilization efforts. AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka recently dubbed the governor "the Mobilizer of the Year," predicting Republicans would suffer politically from their efforts to take away collective bargaining rights.
"Now they're seeing what backlash really looks like," Trumka said. "I promise you this. It's like the old song goes, ‘You ain't seen n-n-n-nothing yet.'"
Working America field organizer Kevin Pape said that in addition to the traditional door-to-door canvassing, the group has been actively recruiting new members at the rallies around the state. Pape said that at these protests, they have had large numbers of people approaching them and asking about the organization. "It's pretty much the easiest organizing you can ever do," he said.
"People are just thirsty for a connection to a labor movement," Pape added. "The effort required to get somebody to join has definitely decreased. This is an avenue to join the labor movement, and they're just jumping at it."
Working America regional director David Wehde said that in their door-to-door recruitment, many people are eager to show solidarity with the protesters but can't make it to the big rallies in Madison. "So when we come by their doors and check in with them about what's going on, they're literally grabbing our clipboards and saying, 'Great! What do I need to do?' That's one group of folks, and that's a level of intensity that is new."
Another growing group comprises people concerned about what's happening and who may have personal experience with the economic downturn. But it's unlikely they would have become involved if someone hadn't come to their door.
"At Working America, we've always been focused on an economy that works for everybody, creating good jobs that you can raise a family on," said Wehde. "People always have been responsive to that. But the interest that people have right now is much more about connecting the dots. They're seeing something happening -- what's happening in Madison, what's happening across Wisconsin with this legislation that is really an attack on workers, and more people get that than we have seen."
Bob Emberger, a retired resident of River Falls, Wis. -- approximately 250 miles from Madison -- told The Huffington Post that he joined Working America earlier this month when an organizer came to his door. Even though he said he didn't particularly like the last union he was in -- the Chicago Bartenders Union in 1960, which, according to Emberger, "represented most of the awful things you've ever heard about unions" -- he believes that collective bargaining rights are important to preserve.
"I have relatives who have told me about how things were before the days of unions, and so I thought that they were pretty important," said Emberger.
Working America has recruited more than three million members in the last seven years, and in 2008, it helped mobilize white working-class voters for the Obama campaign. An AFL-CIO post-election survey by Peter D. Hart Research Associates found 60 percent of Working America's members identified as "moderate" or "conservative."
Polls taken around the Wisconsin dispute show majorities against taking away collective bargaining rights. Additionally, a recent poll by a conservative think tank in Wisconsin showed evidence the enthusiasm gap favoring Republicans in the state in 2010 has vanished.
Huffington Post, Wed Mar 16 2011
Byline: Amanda Terkel
Below, Michael Moore's open letter to his fellow Michiganders:
Friends and neighbors,
The call has gone out and I'm asking everyone who can to take Wednesday off and head to the State Capitol in Lansing to protest the cruel and downright frightening legislation currently being jammed down our throats.
What is most shocking to many is that the new governor, who ran against the Tea Party and defeated the right wing of his party in the primaries-and then ran in the general election as "just a nerd from Ann Arbor" who was a moderate, not an ideologue-has pulled off one of the biggest Jekyll and Hyde ruses I've ever seen in electoral politics.
Governor Snyder, once elected, yanked off his nice-guy mask to reveal that he is in fact a multi-millionaire hell-bent on destroying our state and turning it over to his buddies from Wall Street.
In just 8 short weeks he has:
* Gotten the House and Senate to pass bills giving him "Emergency Management" powers such as the ability to appoint a corporation or a CEO who could literally dissolve town governments or school boards, fire the elected officials, nullify any local law and run your local governmental entity. That company then would have the power to immediately declare all collective bargaining contracts null and void.
* Proposed giving business a whopping 86% tax cut while raising everyone's personal taxes by 31%! And much of that tax hike he believes should be shouldered by-I kid you not-senior citizens and the poor! He says these two groups have not been "sharing the sacrifice" the rest of us have been burdened with. So his budget proposes a $1.8 billion tax CUT for business and a $1.75 billion tax INCREASE for the rest of us, much of it from the poor, seniors and working people-even though the top 1% in Michigan ALREADY pay a lower state tax rate than everyone else does!
* Together with the legislature, introduced over 40 anti-labor bills in just the first two months of this session! They have wasted no time and have caught most people off guard. Much of this is being rushed through right now before you have a chance to raise your voice in objection.
These actions are breathtaking when you realize they will drive our already battered state straight into the ground. What we needed right now was an inspiring leader to help us reinvent Michigan and to find creative ways to create new jobs and lift us out of our economic depression. The rest of the country may call what they're experiencing the "Great Recession," but few argue that Michigan is suffering a "one-state Depression."
I know many of you are filled with a great sense of despair and a justifiable loss of hope these days in Michigan. But you must not let things get even worse. You must stand up against these Draconian measures and this outrageous attempt to rip our democratic rights from us by turning our state over to well-paid hacks from Wall Street and corporate America. They see our state as one big fire sale-and they are licking their chops to get their hands on what is still a state rich in natural resources and industrial infrastructure.
Please show up at noon on Wednesday for our first mega-rally against this insanity. Hundreds of groups are already organizing car pools and buses. You can right now just declare yourself an organizer and get your friends and neighbors committed to being in Lansing. If ever there were a day to call in sick, Wednesday is it (because this IS sick). Students, if ever there were a day to cut class and become a participant in your democracy, Wednesday is it. This event needs to be HUGE-and I believe it will be if you will simply be there and take a stand.
Much attention has been paid to Wisconsin in recent weeks. Well, they got nothing on what's going on here in Michigan. Rick Snyder is Scott Walker on steroids. There's never been what even the AARP calls "an all-out attack" like this on us. Trust me, you will rue the day you sat home and did nothing while thieves posing as politicians stole your Great Lakes State from you.
Don't let it happen. Be at the capitol by noon on Wednesday for the largest demonstration the state has ever seen.
Go Spartans! Go Wolverines! Go Everyone Else In Between!
Dangerous Minds, Tues Mar 15 2011
For the better part of a month, fourteen Democratic state senators denied Republicans the quorum they sought to pass Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker's anti-labor legislation-and, in so doing, provided the time for the development of a mass movement that last Saturday drew more than 100,000 union supporters to the Capitol. The Democratic senators have returned and the legislation has passed.
But Republican poll numbers have collapsed. And they are furious.
Walker and his legislative consigliere, state Senator Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, have now moved to deny the dissenting Democrats the right to participate in the legislative process.
On Monday afternoon, Fitzgerald, who has publicly admitted that he and other Republicans advanced the anti-labor legislation in order to strengten the position of the GOP in 2012 elections, sent a letter to senators that read: "Dear Members: With the return of the Senate Democrats this weekend, questions have arisen regarding Democrat members' participation in Senate standing committee public hearings and executive sessions. Please note that all 14 Democrat senators are still in contempt of the Senate. Therefore, when taking roll call votes on amendments and bills during executive sessions, Senate Democrats' votes will not be reflected in the Records of Committee Proceedings or the Senate Journal. They are free to attend hearings, listen to testimony, debate legislation, introduce amendments, and cast votes to signal their support/opposition, but those votes will not count, and will not be recorded."
In other words, the fourteen Democrats who refused to go along with legislative moves that have sparked multiple lawsuits and raised serious constitutional questions will now be denied their ability to represent 2.2. million Wisconsinites who live in their districts.
This was the latest authoritarian move by Fitzgerald, who last week spoke of having the Democrats arrested and openly discussed expelling them from the Senate as punishment for their dissents. The majority leader's over-the-top actions have led one senior legislator, state Representative Mark Pocan, D-Madison, to begin referring to the Wisconsin as a "third world junta" state that he calls "Fitzwalkerstan."
While that line gets a laugh, the assaults on representative democracy are serious.
"Senator Scott Fitzgerald isn't content with illegally passing a bill which takes away the rights of 175,000 working Wisconsinites and now has expanded his attacks to disenfranchise the voices of 2.2 million more Wisconsin residents and taxpayers," declared Scot Ross, the executive director of the One Wisconsin Now advocacy group, who referred to Fitzgerald's latest move as a "tantrum."
"Considering how the Republicans plan to slash $900 million from our public schools, cut healthcare for 1 million Wisconsinites, raise prescription drug costs for countless seniors, raise taxes on the working poor by $51 million while at the same time handing $200 million in tax breaks for the wealthy and corporate special interests," said Ross. "Senator Fitzgerald might better spend his time convincing his fractured caucus that Governor Walker isn't sacrificing their majority in pursuit of higher office."
State Senator Fred Risser, a Madison Democrat who is the senior member of the legislature, was aghast at what Fitzgerald had done.
"Who does Senator Fitzgerald think he is? Just because his brother is the speaker of the Assembly and his best friend is the governor of Wisconsin does not give him the power to decide who can and cannot vote in the State Senate," said Risser, whose Senate service began before Fitzgerald was born. "His statement that Senate Democrats can no longer vote in committee is the height of arrogance. In my tenure in the legislature, I have never seen any attempt to deny duly elected legislators their right to vote."
The Nation, Tues Mar 15 2011
Byline: John Nichols
In Wisconsin the Governor has stripped public workers of the right to collective bargaining. Tellingly, he exempted those unions that supported him during the election. The rhetoric south of the border has reached such a peak that one deputy attorney general floated the idea of using live ammunition on protesters. "You're damn right I advocate deadly force," he frothed.
In Canada the mood is less lethal but an anti-union wind is blowing. The city of Toronto has petitioned to remove the right to strike from transit workers. The measure ignores the fact that the union has walked out a grand total of 75 days since 1921, but newly elected Mayor Rob Ford says this is only the start when it comes to laying down the law to city employees.
Free market cultists rejoice in these developments. They've waited decades for the right circumstances to marshal their forces against organized labour. Now they make the case that our economic troubles stem not from bad fiscal policy or the chicanery of the financial sector, it's the average working man who is to blame.
They complain that unionized workers make more than their non-unionized colleagues, which is a bit like being astonished that pasteurized milk has less bacteria than the raw stuff.
In a column entitled "Why the Public Sector is Hanging on For All It's Worth" (March 6), Terence Corcoran crows that Canada's private-sector workers don't want unions, pointing out that organizing efforts at Walmart and Toyota have failed. He omits that Walmart shuttered a profitable Quebec outlet as a means of staving off a pro-union vote, while Toyota workers coast on the wages and benefits hard won by the CAW at the Big Three.
Corcoran and others may present more persuasive arguments when it comes to public sector workers except that as Kelly McParland has pointed out in "Unions and Government, a Happy Marriage that Benefits Both" (March 2), the packages politicians decry as overly generous were eagerly dispensed by their own vote-hungry hands.
Governments at all levels claim the larder is bare, forgetting always that they themselves emptied it with ill-considered tax cuts and wasteful spending. Wisconsin was actually in surplus when its union-bashing governor came to power in January 2011, but Scott Walker gave 117% of it away to business in the form of tax cuts. In other cases governments looted the very same pension plans they now say cannot be sustained.
There was a time where lifting up the collective standard of living was a shared and worthy endeavour. Men and women did a day's labour in a safe working environment and enjoyed protection from the capriciousness of their supervisors. In return they earned enough to buy a home, a car, raise a family, take a vacation and enjoy a few years retirement before they died.
But as more and more people slip into economic hardship the new attitude is "if I'm going to barely scrape by why should anyone have it better?" This collective foul mood is manna to grandstanding politicians and indignant businesspeople who have always regarded unions as a type of shakedown operation. Never mind that according to CAW records 98% of collective agreements are concluded without a strike.
Critics claim that unions have outlived their mandate. Children no longer toil in factories and seamstresses aren't burned alive in firetraps. But the union movement didn't just seek to lift people above the status of interchangeable and disposable mules; the intention has always been to use collective power to obtain a portion of wealth that represents the genuine value of labour.
Unions and the working man didn't create the financial meltdown. They didn't invent and market worthless financial instruments. They didn't swindle pension funds or blow up the housing market. They didn't hack away at revenues to the point where government can no longer supply basic services. In short, unions didn't create the dire economic circumstances now being used to justify a wholesale attack on their very existence.
Let elected officials surrender their pensions. Perhaps it's the spoiled brats of Wall Street - whose six figure bonuses have been paid from government funds - who need to wake up to the new economic reality.
The upside to the anti-union endgame is that it may lead to a resurgence of labour solidarity. The sharks may be circling, but they will always be outnumbered by the fish.
National Post, Mon Mar 14 2011
John Moore is host of Moore in the Morning on Newstalk 1010 AM Toronto. Outside of southern Ontario he can be heard at Newstalk1010.com.
Madison police spokesman Joel DeSpain estimated the crowd at 85,000 to 100,000 people, which would top the size of protests in Madison during the Vietnam War.
The demonstration, capping three weeks of public protests, came a day after Republican Governor Scott Walker signed into law a bill to eliminate most bargaining rights for many state government workers.
The state Legislature passed the measure this week after Republicans in the state Senate bypassed a Democratic boycott of the chamber.
The battle in Wisconsin has ignited a national struggle over efforts by several budget-strapped state governments to rein in union power.
Republicans say the measures are needed to gain control of deficit-ridden budgets. Democrats and their union backers say Republicans are ramming through union-busting proposals.
The confrontation with unions could be the biggest showdown with labor since President Ronald Reagan fired striking air traffic controllers nearly 30 years ago.
Protesters on Saturday cheered the Democratic state senators who returned to Wisconsin after fleeing to Illinois for three weeks to try to stall the Legislature's consideration of the measure.
"It's so good to be home in Wisconsin," Democratic Senate Minority Leader Mark Miller told demonstrators, who chanted, "Welcome Home" and "We're With You."
"Our fight to protect union rights has become a fight to protect all our rights -- a fight to protect democracy," said Miller. "You have inspired the nation with your passionate and peaceful protests."
In a statement, Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, instrumental in shepherding the union restrictions through the Legislature, criticized the Democrats.
"It's an absolute insult to the hundreds of thousands of Wisconsinites who are struggling to find a job, much less one they can run away from and go down to Illinois -- with pay," Fitzgerald said.
Restrictions on public sector unions have been introduced in a number of other U.S. states with Republican governors, including Indiana, Ohio, Iowa, Michigan and Florida. Some Democrats see it as the opening salvo of the 2012 presidential election because unions are the biggest single contributors to the Democratic Party.
Reuters.com, Sat Mar 12 2011
Byline: James B. Kelleher
Bagpipes blaring, hundreds of firefighters walked across the street from the Wisconsin Capitol building, stood outside the Marshall and Ilsley Bank (M&I Bank) and played a few tunes -- loudly. Later, a group of firefighters and consumers stopped back in at the bank to make a few transactions. One by one they closed their accounts and withdrew their life savings, totaling approximately $190,000. See a video clip. After the last customer left, the bank quickly closed its doors, just in case the spontaneous "Move Your Money" moment caught fire.
The sedate, old fashioned M&I Bank on the Capitol Square has gained some notoriety in recent weeks. Oddly, a tunnel in the M&I parking garage links to the capitol basement. Dubbed the "rat hole" to the Walker palace, the tunnel was used by Governor Scott Walker to ferry lobbyists into the capitol building to hear his budget address during a time when the capitol was in a virtual lock down in defiance of a court order and after Sherriffs has quit the building refusing to be a "palace guard."
Now the bank is getting caught up in the controversy again. Word is beginning to spread that M&I is one of Walker's biggest backers. Top executives at M&I Bank have long been boosters of Walker. M&I Chief Executive Dennis Kuester and his wife gave $20,000 to Walker in recent years. When you package individual and PAC contributions by employers, M&I is number one -- at $57,000 dollars. The firm apparently uses a conduit to bundle much of its money to Walker. Flyers, webpages, and Facebook sites have popped up encouraging WI consumers to boycott Walker campaign contributors and "Pull the Plug on M&I Bank."
Other banks whose employees have donated large sums to Walker, such as Associated Bank and North Shore Bank may also be seeing their customers soon.
Joe Conway, President Madison Fire Fighters Local 311, explained to CMD that the action was totally spontaneous, but that "economic transparency" was going to be a big theme in the fight ahead. "Groups will be sending letters to Walker's major donors giving them the opportunity to support the teachers, firefighters and police in their community." Conway is well aware that new polling shows that 74% of Wisconsin families support collective bargaining rights for public workers.
Two of these letters are already in the mail to M&I Bank and Kwik Trip. "The undersigned groups would like your company to publicly oppose Governor Walker's efforts to virtually eliminate collective bargaining for public employees in Wisconsin. In the event that you cannot support this effort to save collective bargaining, please be advised that the undersigned will publicly and formally boycott the goods and services provided by your company," the letter says. "However, if you join us, we will do everything in our power to publicly celebrate your partnership in the fight to preserve the right of public employees to be heard at the bargaining table."
The letters are signed by the heads of the Wisconsin Professional Police Association, the Professional Fire Fighters of Wisconsin, the International Association of Fire Fighters Local 311, Madison Teachers Inc., Dane County Deputy Sheriffs Association and the Madison Professional Police Officers Association.
JUST THE BEGINNING
Walker's list of campaign contributors is already in wide circulation on websites like "Scott Walker Watch" and fast-growing Facebook pages like "Boycott Scott Walkers Contributors". These grassroots efforts are backed up by solid names and numbers extracted from the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign (WDC) database, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that tracks money in politics.
The WDC data shows that Walker's major contributors include a diversity of national and state-based firms including Koch Brother Industries, AT&T, Walmart, John Deere Tractor, Johnsonville Brats, Miller/Coors, Kwik Trip, Sargento Cheese, and SC Johnson & Sons (producers of Windex, Glade, Pledge etc). The letter writing effort is being undertaken not to put people out of work, but to encourage workers to let their bosses know it is time to reconsider their support for Walker's newly revealed radical agenda.
Sam Hokin, a Wisconsinite and small businessman who started the Facebook page in the early days of the protest, put the strategy bluntly: "The only thing the Republicans care about is money. The only way you can touch them is through their revenue. They don't care about signs and protesters. They don't care about the opinion of the majority of the people in the state, their bottom line is money." Unions, pension funds, cities and counties and average consumers bank at these banks and support these firms by buying their products and services. They have tremendous clout in Wisconsin's small economy.
GREATEST HEIST IN HISTORY
Wisconsin workers are keenly aware that they are part of a historic push back that is spreading from state to state. After $14 trillion dollars of housing wealth, wages and retirement savings were taken from the middle class during the 2008 financial collapse, workers are being asked to take it on the chin again. Michael Moore put it best: "We aren't broke. Wisconsin is not broke. The country is awash in wealth and cash. It's just that it's not in your hands. It has been transferred, in the greatest heist in history, from the workers and consumers to the banks and the portfolios of the über-rich."
M&I Bank is in the process of being bought by a Canadian bank. It took $2 billion in TARP bailout money from the taxpayers and have yet to pay it back. "They [state Republicans] came in like the Grim Reaper to drive a knife into the heart of labor," yelled Jim Garity at a recent rally. Garity is a unionized Jefferson County Highway Department worker and leader. "But we are going to stand and we are not going to bleed. Governor Walker's plan is to give more money to Wall Street, but we are going to take back our money from Wall Street and put Main Street to work!" Walker's recent moves include over $200 billion in tax cuts for corporations while stripping $1 trillion from Wisconsin schools and local governments.
The "take it back" movement is gaining steam. At the federal level, AFL-CIO, SEIU are joined by consumer groups in a fight to apply a small [financial transaction tax] to damaging Wall Street speculation in order to recoup over $100 billion dollars a year for job creation and other essential needs.
IT'S ABOUT POWER
Walker's collective bargaining bill not only seeks to gut a 50 year tradition in the state where public unions started, but by doing away with automatic check off for union dues he seeks to cripple the the ability of public sector unions to hire employees to organize, grow and be a force in Wisconsin politics. State Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, one of Walker's closest allies in the legislature, admitted as much to FOX News. "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," said Fitzgerald.
While some hold out hope for a general strike and vigorous recall efforts are underway, others remain focused on leveraging the power of the "sleeping giant" to force Walker to back down and to prevent devastating cuts to schools and municipalities. Stay tuned. This fire might be hard to contain.
truth-out.org, Sat Mar 12 2011
Byline: Mary Bottari
Counterpoint: Is an $18,000 pension ‘gold-plated’?: Contrary to right-wing myths, public employees are hardly privileged
For whatever the reason - it doesn't seem to matter much - many from Canada's corporate classes insist public sector unions are a blight, and spend much time and energy mounting their hyperbolic attacks in these pages on an almost daily basis.
The threadbare nature of these arguments is best exemplified in opposition to the labour movement's efforts to expand the Canada Pension Plan as the best way to help Canadians save more for their retirements.
By gradually increasing CPP contributions made by both employees and employers, we could greatly improve retirement security of all Canadians, and help the millions who cannot afford a private retirement savings plan.
Of course, under this approach, Canada's banks and finance industry will lose out on opportunities to charge their exorbitant investment management fees. So in their logic, if it doesn't result in profits for them it must be bad for Canadians, regardless of how many Canadians will be better off with expanded CPP benefits.
Instead of offering solutions for low-income Canadians, it is much easier to falsely portray CPP contributions as a payroll tax. CPP contributions help fund a deferred salary for Canadian workers and supply no revenue to the federal government. Any genuine commentator would be obliged to admit it is not a tax.
When it comes to debating pensions, however, disingenuous arguments are commonplace. Such as corporate Canada's insistence on pointing to public sector pensions as prime examples of union-led extravagance.
The typical public sector pension - for someone who has worked for 30 years - is $18,000 per year. It is beyond any reasonable and objective person on how this can be termed as excessive. Most Canadians sure don't.
An Environics poll conducted in August 2010 shows that 80% of Canadians thought public sector pensions were at an appropriate level or too low. No matter how often the mantra is repeated, few Canadians genuinely believe $18,000 per year is a "gold-plated" pension.
The weak foundation of these pension arguments is little different than the falsities offered in favour of privatizing public services. The Canadian right's new hero of privatization, Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, is similarly trying to cover an ideological position with the façade of protecting taxpayers.
Ford's promises to save untold millions by contracting out services, such as waste and recycling collection, are missing one key element: any conclusive proof it will save Toronto taxpayers one dollar. In fact, a detailed analysis of available data on costs of private waste collection in neighbouring municipalities shows Toronto stands to pay substantially more if waste collection is contracted out.
This, however, is only a footnote in the real agenda of Ford and other attackers of public sector unions, which has nothing to do with saving taxpayers any money at all. It has everything to do with wrestling away the modest power of workers.
The large majority of public sector workers are in health care, schools, social services, and local government. They are mostly women and are far from highly paid. The average annual pay of CUPE members is less than $40,000. To portray these workers as privileged stretches even the most inventive imaginations.
No position, however, is too outlandish for those looking to cast public sector workers as a plague on the taxpayer. Instead of tackling the economic policies which caused the global recession, they take up this diversionary strategy in attacking public sector workers in order to protect economic policies which are great for profits, but bad for working Canadians.
While crying out against the so-called extravagances of public sector worker salaries, benefits, and pensions, they continue to promote extending even more irresponsible and reckless corporate tax cuts to Canada's banks and the oil industry without any proof these cuts provide any of the new jobs or investments they're supposed to generate.
While claiming to be looking out for the best interests of taxpayers, those who attack public sector workers are also taking unjustified aim at our communities - large and small. Canadians are being asked to not only shoulder the deficits, but also to sacrifice the high quality public services we have developed over generations.
It is undeniable that Canada is facing fiscal challenges after weathering the global economic meltdown. Stimulus spending that kept the economy afloat during a crisis created by speculation and fraud has left a public debt.
Canadian governments have a responsibility to ensure all Canadians contribute their fair share to the ongoing recovery. Public sector workers are prepared to do their part, but the responsibility should not fall on their shoulders alone.
High-quality public services are crucial to our economic recovery and help make Canada a great place to live. They are reliable, accountable and are there for all people when they need them most. Public sector workers across the country are dedicated to these principles, and are focused on making our communities stronger for all Canadians.
Financial Post, Fri Mar 11 2011
Paul Moist is national president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees
Now, with Republicans in charge, the state where public-sector bargaining was born is writing its obituary. It truly is one for the history books.
More related to this story
- Wisconsin governor officially cuts collective bargaining
- Wisconsin votes to approve bill curbing union rights
- Wisconsin Republicans strip collective bargaining rights from worker
- Video - Protesters dragged from Wisconsin Capitol
- Video -Michael Moore rallies for Wisconsin union rights
By Wednesday night, Mr. Walker had had enough. He reintroduced the bill's most controversial provisions in a separate piece of non-budgetary legislation to get around the quorum rule. It sailed through the Senate in, literally, five seconds, and through the Assembly on Thursday.
For the American labour movement, this could be its Battle of Gettysburg. Already a spent force in the private sector, unions now face a fight for survival in the public sector as legislators in Wisconsin, Ohio and elsewhere - even Michigan - move to impose new labour laws.
If Canadian unions think that they are immune from the Tea Party politics that have triggered this radical shift, they may be in for a shock. Public-sector unionization rates are 71 per cent here, compared with 37 per cent there, but as the labour fortress of the U.S. North falls, the once-formidable unions of the Great White North may follow.
That great explainer of the differences between the U.S. and Canada, Seymour Martin Lipset, once posited that higher unionization rates simply reflected this country's collectivist mores.
"Canada, by retaining British institutions and Tory values, created a society and a culture that are more statist, group-oriented, communitarian, less individualistic and, ironically, social democratic," the American scholar wrote a decade before his death in 2006. South of the border, by contrast, laissez-faireism, individualism and populism created a hostile climate for unions.
But that analysis fails to account for regional differences within the U.S. After all, union density - the percentage of workers belonging to unions - was and is essentially the same in New York State as in Ontario. But, Norma Rae notwithstanding, the union movement never made inroads into the South.
Barely 4 per cent of all workers in North Carolina - the setting of that 1979 Oscar-honoured movie - belong to unions. In Texas, it's about 5 per cent. It's below 7 per cent in South Carolina, Virginia, Georgia, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Florida.
So it's the South that explains the Canada-U.S. differential. The real divide on unionization historically is not the Canadian border but the Mason-Dixon Line.
In the private sector, that metaphorical line has long been creeping north. Union density among private companies has plummeted to 7 per cent in the U.S. and 16 per cent in Canada.
Now, the demarcation appears about to be erased altogether.
The new Wisconsin law, for example, is sweeping. It ends collective bargaining for state workers, except on base wages. It makes negotiated pay raises above inflation subject to approval by voters in a statewide referendum. It requires unions to hold recertification votes annually and ends the practice of withholding union dues on employee paycheques.
It sounds draconian, heavy-handed and, to some, just plain mean. It smacks more of politics than economics (organized labour remains the biggest source of Democratic funding).
Yet what seems revolutionary in Wisconsin has long been the norm in most of the South. The North is only playing catch-up.
The golden era of private-sector unions lasted from the Depression until the 1970s. The corporate sector in both Canada and the U.S. then was organized along largely oligopolistic lines.
Sure, there was only one phone company and it cost a day's pay to call Mom in Kapuskasing, Ont. But price regulation and the absence of competition allowed for fat bottom lines that enabled companies to provide rising wages and benefits. Their workers unionized in droves to increase their share of the pie (in part to pay that phone bill).
Both sides of the bargaining table would have been content to see this arrangement endure. Why it broke down is the subject of much debate. But Walter Russell Mead of the journal The American Interest offers as compelling explanation as any: Simply put, the forces of deregulation were too strong.
It was not Ronald Reagan who set them in motion. The 1982 breakup of AT&T was the culmination of a process that began a decade earlier. Jimmy Carter, for instance, unshackled the U.S. airline sector in 1978, urged on by Democratic senator Ted Kennedy.
"Anti-corporate liberals rebelled at the way government power and regulation was being used to allow corporations to give their consumers the shaft," Mr. Mead asserts. "The collapse of the regulated economy (plus the rise of foreign competition from developing countries) made unionization unsustainably expensive in many industries."
North American unions, meanwhile, ignored the writing on the wall. They continued to demand ironclad job security, rigid workplace rules and ever-fatter health and pension benefits. Employers gave in until they went bankrupt, or pushed paying the piper far enough off into future to survive a few more years.
While this painful reckoning was playing out among old-guard corporations in the airline, auto, steel and other sectors, a new generation of non-unionized upstarts and foreign transplants thrived. Occasionally, they located in the North. But mostly they set up shop where unions didn't.
"Right-to-work" laws, which prohibit closed union shops, lured foreign and domestic employers alike to the South. While Detroit and Oshawa burned, Hyundai, Honda, Mercedes and Toyota opened auto-assembly or engine plants in Alabama. BMW began building SUVs in South Carolina. Hyundai's sister company, Kia, cut the ribbon on a factory in Georgia.
Southern states were also among those most likely to ban or strictly constrain collective bargaining in the public sector. Indeed, only a tiny percentage of state and municipal employees in the Carolinas, Georgia, Texas and Virginia were ever organized in the first place.
It's a bailout for governments
Not long ago, it would have been unthinkable for a northern governor, even a Republican one, to publicly endorse withdrawing or curtailing the collective-bargaining rights of public employees. Now, many of them sound just like their Southern counterparts - only without the drawl.
Union rights "didn't come down on tablets from the top of a mountain," New Jersey Governor Chris Christie insists. "The union, they protect the worst of the worst. That's what they're there for."
Even in states with Democratic-controlled legislatures, such as New Jersey and California, the conversation has shifted dramatically and public employees have been forced onto the defensive.
The reason is that state and local governments have become the equivalent of a pre-bailout General Motors, spending more and more of their shrinking revenues on concessions to workers while facing back-breaking tabs for future retirees.
Whether public employees deserve the pay and benefits they have wrested from governments is beside the point. States can't pay for them. Estimates of their unfunded health and pension liabilities range from $1-trillion (U.S.) to $3-trillion, depending on the projected returns on pension investments.
It hardly seems fair that public workers are being forced to surrender rights and benefits negotiated in good faith. They are not solely responsible for pushing state and local governments to the verge of bankruptcy.
Unfunded liabilities surged after the 2008 stock-market crash that was brought on, according to Barack Obama and many others, by recklessness on Wall Street. And, for years, states shirked their legal obligations to contribute their share to worker pension funds.
But, fair or not, public employees must give up benefits or pay more themselves to keep them. They have agreed to do that in Wisconsin. But Mr. Walker either doesn't trust them to hold the line or sees an opportunity to eviscerate a political foe. (Likely, it's both.)
Why not raise revenue instead?
Nearly absent from this debate is any discussion of tax increases. Why is that? Governments still have a monopoly on the provision of most public services, so why can't they charge what they like for them?
It's politics. As Mr. Mead puts it: "Voters with insecure job tenure and [weak] pensions will simply not pay higher taxes so that bureaucrats can enjoy lifetime tenure and secure pensions."
Polls show there is considerable public sympathy for the Wisconsin unions. After all, Americans believe in fair play and usually side with the underdog.
But the longer-term polling trends reveal an unwillingness among voters to foot the bill for benefits the average taxpayer cannot dream of.
"Unions are an alien and strange creature to most people," explains David Kettler, a political studies professor at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y. "American workers do want some kind of representation. It's the union design that has lost its legitimacy."
Facing declining membership, the AFL-CIO, the largest U.S. trade-union federation, is slowly morphing into a lobby group for non-unionized workers. Its Working America unit brings together "millions of workers without the benefit of a workplace union" to negotiate discounts on health and legal benefits. It could be the shape of things to come.
Whether this is to be welcomed is another matter. For the first half of the 20th century, the labour movement was the impetus for progressive legislation whose benefits we now take for granted. The movement's descent has closely tracked the rise in income inequality in the United States and Canada.
But North American labour has played its hand poorly. Instead of adapting to change, it simply turned a blind eye to it. Just as unions often stifled innovation in the private sector - hello, GM - their loss of clout in the public sector could pave the way for better and cheaper public services.
Bringing the great fight north
Canada's laws are vastly more favourable to unions than those in the United States. As it stands, no Canadian government could probably go as far as Wisconsin's Mr. Walker or his Southern counterparts.
But as the political fallout from the introduction of harmonized sales taxes in British Columbia and Ontario illustrates, Canadians' comparatively higher tolerance for taxes is certainly not as high as it used to be. Public-sector unions here should prepare for the coming onslaught.
Listen to Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, who is moving to privatize the garbage collection in the city: "We are doing this so we are not going to go through another 40-day garbage strike. ... We're going to save millions of dollars, we're going to reduce the size of government. That's what people elected us to do, that's exactly what we're going to deliver on."
How many Torontonians and other Canadians agree with that?
In many ways, the impetus for rewriting of the social contract with labour in Canada is greater than in the United States. Most provincial governments are deeper in debt and their citizens more heavily taxed than their counterparts south of the border.
And as Prof. Lipset noted years ago, public antipathy toward unions has often been higher in Canada, presumably because they are perceived to be more powerful than in the United States.
Almost a decade ago, the British Columbia government sought to throw out the collective agreement of thousands of health workers to permit contracting out and end job-security provisions, all in an effort to curb spiralling health-care costs.
This led the Supreme Court, in 2007, to overturn decades of precedent to rule that the B.C. legislation constituted "a virtual denial of the right to a process of good-faith bargaining and consultation." The decision had the effect of establishing a constitutional right to collective bargaining in the public sector.
This might seem like an insurmountable obstacle to Wisconsin-like measures in Canada. But it's more of a technical hurdle than an impenetrable barrier to change. The balance of power has shifted on both sides of the border - not to management or government, but to taxpayers, to consumers and to the politicians who claim to fight on their behalf.
It may not be a permanent state of affairs. The Rob Fords and Chris Christies of this world will not be popular forever.
But when future editions of Wisconsin schoolbooks recount the great labour battle of 2011, they may portray it as the moment the political mores of the South won out over those of the North.
Should we start practising our "y'alls" now?
Globe and Mail, Fri Mar 11 2011
Byline: Konrad Yakabuski
Alberta unions condemn Wisconsin decision to strip collective bargaining rights from workers: Warning issued to Tories and Wildrose - Don’t try this here!
"The Wisconsin decision to strip the ability to bargain collectively from public-sector workers is an attack on their basic rights," says Gil McGowan, president of the Alberta Federation of Labour, which represents 140,000 workers. "More than that, it is an attack on all working families, on the middle class and an attack on democracy."
Representatives of unions affiliated to the Alberta Federation are meeting today in Edmonton and voted to send a donation of $5,000 to the Wisconsin State AFL-CIO to help in the fight for workers' rights.
"Alberta's union leaders realize that this issue is not limited to Wisconsin, or to other parts of the U.S. where Tea-Party Republican-controlled governments have launched attacks on unions," says McGowan. "Here, in Alberta, we have seen right-wing think tanks use flawed and biased research to attack the valuable work done by public-sector workers."
The Tea Party's biggest funders, the billionaire Koch brothers, have significant business links in Alberta. They are responsible for receiving and handling about 25 per cent of the oil sands crude sent to the U.S. and they own Calgary-based Flint Hills Resources Canada.
"Don't expect these guys to stay out of our politics. In fact, they may already be funding the Wildrose Alliance and Tory leadership candidates. We can't know for sure because both parties refuse to reveal their donors. Albertans should demand to know who is funding campaigns and candidates here," says McGowan.
"Today, the AFL executive council has a message for Tory and Wildrose politicians: If you try to implement similar anti-worker schemes here, you'll have a big fight on your hands," he says.
"Unions are particularly important here, because there must be a counter-balance to the power and influence that big business holds over politicians. The Alberta government's problem is not caused by negotiating deals with unions, whose members elected them. The real problem in Alberta is the long list of tax and royalty giveaways to wealthy corporations who fund political parties that serve their interests," says McGowan.
"This makes the role of unions even more vital. Alberta needs a strong voice to act a counter-balance to the power and influence that big business holds over politicians. Let's not forget that unions have been a major force in improving the quality of life for all Albertans by being the driving force behind the creation of a comfortable, middle-class lifestyle."
- 30 -
Gil McGowan, president, Alberta Federation of Labour @ 780-218-9888 (cell)
Cash-strapped U.S. states have launched an unprecedented assault on unions, argues CUPE's Paul Moist. There is growing evidence that the trend is making its way north of the border.
Workers achieved a major step forward when President Franklin D. Roosevelt passed the Wagner Act, putting in place a legislative framework that allowed workers to join unions without undue intimidation. By 1945, the Great Depression was long over, and the economy - booming due to Second World War production - converted to domestic goals, and an unheralded period of growth ensued. The ranks of unionized workers exploded, and the middle-class U.S. emerged.
This led to the United States' so-called "Golden Age" following the war. Productivity and the economy grew at a strong pace, and workers shared in the increasing wealth - both with rising wages and an expansion of universal public services. Just as importantly, people fought for and won an expansion of democratic, human, and labour rights.
A quick look at history is instructive for us because it stands in sharp contrast to the political response to economic crisis today. Unlike the legislative response of the Great Depression, the current recession has seen an assault on public sector workers across the U.S. The large deficits and debts are the result of an economic crisis caused by an out-of-control financial sector, but the big money is trying to pin the blame on public sector workers.
The political right sees an opportunity to finish off the American labour movement. Private-sector union density has fallen to seven per cent, and the sole sector with significant union density, the public sector, is under attack.
In Ohio, Indiana, Idaho, and Wisconsin, just to name a few, the right wing is mounting an all-out offensive against public-sector unions under the thin veil of austerity.
These assaults are not about curing deficits or managing states' debt loads. They are clearly about a political agenda that has been underway for the past quarter-century, with both legislative attacks and a global trade experience that has decimated the U.S. manufacturing base - all for the purpose of maximizing corporate profits at any cost. Workers' rights get in the way of this agenda, and the political right smells blood.
The agenda isn't about wage freezes or restraint bargaining, it is about eliminating public-sector workers' bargaining rights, as well as ending trade-union political-action efforts.
FDR, in his 12-plus years in office, narrowed the gap between the rich and the poor, and in addition to enacting the modern U.S. welfare state, empowered workers.
His efforts worked and contributed greatly to the most significant economic boom in U.S. history.
The Republicans' current agenda is about building their power at the expense of public-sector workers. It has little to do with fiscal responsibility, and everything to do with cutting off voices of dissent and opposition while paving the way for capital accumulation.
It is a strategy that won't work, but it will test the U.S. labour movement, and will perhaps present a unique opportunity for them to mount a much needed campaign to win over both their membership and the general public to confront the failed and punitive economic strategies of the right.
The attacks on Canada's public-sector workers may not be as bold, but they have started. and they are as deeply rooted in a right-wing ideology as we've seen south of the border.
Under dubious and unsubstantiated claims of saving Toronto taxpayers untold millions, newly elected mayor Rob Ford is moving to establish the beachhead for the Canadian right's own attack on the public sector.
Stripping Toronto Transit Commission workers of the right to strike and moving recklessly ahead with plans to contract out waste collection are top items on the Ford gravy-train hit list.
What's missing from Ford's plans, however, is any conclusive proof that these measures will save one dollar for city coffers.
For example, a detailed analysis of available data on the costs of private waste collection in neighbouring municipalities shows that Toronto stands to pay substantially more for waste collection if it's contracted out.
A troubling aspect of these attacks, whether they are happening in the U.S., in Canada, or anywhere else around the world, is the skewed portrayal of workers.
The large majority of public-sector workers are in health care, schools, social services, and local government. They are mostly women, and they are far from highly paid. Of the over 600,000 members of CUPE, the average annual pay is less than $40,000. It takes a certain amount of gall to portray these workers as privileged.
Gall, however, is something not lacking in the Canadian right. Instead of tackling this country's economic recovery in a responsible and equitable way, they take up a diversionary strategy in casting the public sector as scapegoats while extending even more corporate tax cuts to Canada's banks and finance industry. Corporate tax cuts, which at this point should surprise no one, have not been proven to generate any of the new jobs or investments it is claimed they will.
Attacking the public sector and attempting to foist all responsibility on workers is at best a mistake, at worst an all-out assault on the middle and working classes to consolidate the economic power of the world's corporations and the political influence of the world's right wing. This is not only unfair, it is misguided. More of the same economic policies that caused both the Great Depression and Great Recession may help boost business profits in the short run, but they are a recipe for long-term economic malaise and ever more devastating booms and busts.
These attacks are not only on the workers; they also take unjustified aim at our communities, large and small. Canadians are being asked not only to shoulder the deficits, but also to sacrifice the high-quality public services we have developed over generations.
It is undeniable that governments around the world are facing substantial and at times daunting financial woes after weathering the global economic recession. Stimulus spending has left a hefty debt that, if left unchecked, could plague generations to come.
As governments, however, they must ensure that all members of society contribute their fair share to the ongoing recovery. Public-sector workers the world over are prepared to do their part, but the responsibility cannot and should not be put on their shoulders alone.
The Mark, Wed Mar 9 2011
Byline: Paul Moist, National President of CUPE