The coordinated effort by wealthy financiers to eliminate unions has elements in addition to the “opt out” campaign. As the State Policy Network (SPN) and its right-wing allies secure Republican domination of more state governments, they will turn also to laws requiring union recertification elections.
Regulating unions, not corporations
In Wisconsin, for example, the Republican-controlled legislature in 2011 passed Gov. Scott Walker’s union-busting behemoth, Act 10. Much of the reporting on Act 10 called it a right-to-work bill, but it also made collecting union dues more difficult, dramatically limited the scope of collective bargaining, and created a recertification requirement: Each year, Wisconsin unions must now hold an election and convince more than 50 percent of the bargaining unit to vote for representation. Under this system, anyone who doesn’t vote is effectively voting against the union. Simply getting enough members to participate in a vote for the status quo became one of the biggest challenges.
Imagine how many unions we can decimate
SPN affiliates couldn’t be happier with the results. “In 2010, our Network united our intellectual resources, winning messaging and moral support behind Governor Scott Walker’s heroic efforts to bring historic government union collective bargaining and pension reform to Wisconsin,” SPN president Tracie Sharp wrote. “Most Wisconsin public employee unions have lost between 30 percent and 60 percent of their members in the two years since Act 10 went into effect. And this decline has in turn cost organized labor tens of millions of dollars. Imagine the impact this will have when we achieve even more government union reforms across the nation this year!”
Indeed, Wisconsin AFSCME—which once represented almost every state, county and city employee across the state, close to 63,000 government workers—has now lost 90 percent of its membership.
“It decimated our ability to represent local and state government employees,” says Neil Rainford, a Wisconsin AFSCME staff member for 18 years. Union spokesperson Michael Horecki says that the losses were especially bad in rural areas, where “many counties have few, if any, remaining union members.”
After Act 10, Wisconsin AFSCME let its locals choose whether to keep fighting for recertification, and many stopped seeking official recognition by the state as the exclusive representative of government employees. Instead, they decided to fight for workers outside the official system of collective bargaining.
Finding new avenues to support workers
“We’ve developed this model we call the association model,” says Rainford. “It relies on politics and electing people at the local level, and then we negotiate the terms and conditions of employment annually through a meet and confer process. We have been able to place language from our previous contracts into the employee handbook. We don’t have dues, we have fees, which are taken out of member paychecks by local government. Since we operate outside the state system, none of it requires any oversight or involvement from the state.”
Building new relationships with members
According to many in the Wisconsin labor movement, the shift in AFSCME’s approach was born of necessity. Decades of business-as-usual unionism had turned Wisconsin public-sector unions into highly legalistic organizations incapable of responding to the crisis. “The culture that people have known historically is the business model: professional staff taking care of problems, meeting the needs of members and doing the organizing,” says former Wisconsin AFSCME organizer Edward Sadlowski. “The fundamentals of organizing—mapping out the worksite, identifying leaders, building relationships on the shop floor, that kind of thing—were completely missing from most unions’ culture. Without a vision and no plan to move forward, union density plummeted. For too many working people, the union has no relevance.”
Engaged and energized teachers
There is hope amidst the wreckage. In Milwaukee, seven out of every 10 teachers are members of the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association (MTEA), which has won its recertification elections each year. “Most regions are losing members every single month, and every single month our union is holding steady or putting numbers up on the board,” says MTEA vice president Amy Mizialko.
After the Milwaukee school district proposed a 2019 budget that cut classroom spending by 5 percent per student, MTEA launched an aggressive campaign to restore funding. At rallies, MTEA members often chanted, “If we don’t get it, shut it down.” The threat was not idle. The union spent months organizing escalating actions, from town halls to walk-ins, at which teachers rallied outside schools to greet parents and students with signs and information.
At one raucous school board meeting, union members shouted down the board with chants while the union president delivered 3,000 petition signatures opposing the cuts. At another, more than 3,000 MTEA members and supporters picketed outside the central office, then marched into the boardroom behind a drumline. The union asked members to sign a pledge “to do what it takes” to stop the budget cuts, signaling their intent without using the word “strike.” In May, the superintendent announced that the district was restoring the funding by chopping from the top and making cuts to district management instead.
Being a union member is an act of resistance
That same spirit is evident in Iowa, where, in 2016, Republicans scored a trifecta and seized the governorship and both chambers of the state government. The new legislature passed its own variation of Act 10. The law curtailed collective bargaining, capped wage increases unions could negotiate at the rate of inflation, outlawed the deduction of union dues from paychecks, and required a majority of all eligible voters—even those who are not union members, since Iowa is right-to-work—to vote to recertify the union during an annual two-week election.
Even though the law was largely the same as in Wisconsin, the result was very different: 99 percent of unions recertified.
“It really backfired on them,” says Ankeny High School history teacher Nick Covington. In Covington’s local, the Ankeny Education Association, stewards and activists had personal conversations with everyone in the bargaining unit—regardless of whether they were a member. “We had a color-coordinated system for following up with people who were on the fence. We were constantly communicating,” Covington says.
The Iowa activists had a simple message: Being a union member is an act of resistance to the state legislature that tried to take their bargaining rights. It worked.
Teachers in Florida shared a similar message in response to a new law requiring unions to annually prove they have 50 percent membership. Those that do not must organize a recertification election.
Florida teachers’ unions are tapping into rage over the fact that elected officials are making anti-union legislation a top priority in the weeks following the tragic school shooting in Parkland. “All three of the educators shot down were union members,” says Broward Teachers’ Union president Anna Fusco.
“This legislation just proves that these legislators have no respect or value for educators. Their only concern is stripping down and privatizing our schools.”
A petri dish for the nation
Writing in 2017, anti-tax crusader and conservative strategist Grover Norquist, head of the SPN affiliate Americans for Tax Reform, argued that Wisconsin should be a model for all Republican legislatures. He sees union-busting as a way to erode a Democratic fundraising, door-knocking and voting base. “If Act 10 is enacted in a dozen more states,” he said, “the modern Democratic Party will cease to be a competitive power in American politics.”
On this point, Norquist has wide agreement from labor activists. “Wisconsin is the petri dish for the rest of the country,” says Dave Poklinkoski, president of IBEW 2304 in Madison. “This was an experiment. Billionaires and corporations are trying to figure out how they can maintain their rule. Spreading Act 10 on a national scale is their plan to do it.”
“The current onslaught against labor unions is the largest, the best funded and the most elaborately coordinated in U.S. history,” says Sarah Lawrence College historian Priscilla Murolo. “All unions are in the crosshairs.”
Is there hope for labor beyond merely surviving?
As the recent teacher uprising sweeping the nation has shown, workers are not apathetic. Pushed far enough, and when they see a way, they are willing to fight.
The challenge facing many public-employee unions, after decades of demobilization, is to learn how to break away from business-as-usual unionism and enlist their members and the community to resist. And they will have to do this with fewer staff and resources than before.
No one decides our fate but us
The unions that are building a fighting culture are the ones most likely to fare well in a right-to-work environment and to beat back legislative attacks. According to the MTEA’s Mizialko, the best fortification is a strong, member-run union that is constantly in action, building allies in the community and power in the workplace. “No one decides our fate but us,” she says.
Chris Brooks is a staff writer and labor educator at Labor Notes. This article is the second half of an article that appeared in the August 2018 issue of In These Times, published with permission.This story was supported by the Leonard C. Goodman Institute for Investigative Reporting.