When Wisconsin unions fought back against Gov. Scott Walker’s attack on workers’ rights last winter, they focused on legislative votes and giant rallies in the state capital, Madison. This spring and summer the struggle spread across the state as the labor movement and its supporters battled for control of the State Senate.
Legions of volunteers carried out a petition drive that forced recall votes for six Republican state senators who supported Walker in slashing public worker union rights. Conservative groups retaliated by bringing recall votes against three incumbent Democratic senators. All told, nine legislative recall elections were held during July and August; there had previously been only four state-level recall votes in all of Wisconsin’s history.
Unions and progressives gained some ground but fell short of their strategic goal to change control of the State Senate. Angry voters booted Republican incumbents in two out of six districts, while all three Democrats were retained in office.
“Running in districts that were drawn to elect Republicans, that have consistently elected Republicans for generations, and that all backed Walker last November, the Democrats scored a pair of historic victories,” wrote John Nichols, political columnist for Madison’s Capital Times. Democrats came within a couple of percentage points of winning a third new seat in a district that has been Republican since the administration of Grover Cleveland. But in the end they fell short, and Republicans retained a one-vote State Senate majority.
With Republicans’ margin in the State Senate narrowing from 19-14 to 17-16, the balance of power on many issues is now in the hands of the Senate’s lone moderate Republican, Dale Schultz, who was the only GOP senator to vote against Walker’s anti-union bill.
The recall races were unprecedented in several ways. Never before had one state seen so many sitting elected officials recalled at one time. In the history of the United States, only 13 state legislators have been ousted by recall. All told, an estimated $35 to $40 million was spent on nine state legislative races in small suburban and rural districts. Millions of dollars poured into the state from anti-union groups funded by wealthy right-wingers like the billionaire Koch brothers, inundating the airwaves with negative attack ads. While unions also spent heavily in the recall races, many observers called it “the first post-Citizens United” election, referring to the 2010 Supreme Court ruling allowing unlimited corporate funding of “independent” political ads.
Democrats gained ground in all six Republican districts compared to results in the 2010 midterm election, and they are likely to pursue a statewide recall initiative against Walker next year after he completes his first year in office. Walker, whose poll numbers hit record lows during the protracted fight, has tried to sound more conciliatory in the wake of the recall votes.
Wisconsin was not the only state where new Republican governors began the year by pursuing a hard- right, anti-union agenda. In Ohio, Gov. John Kasich and the Republican-controlled State Legislature passed Senate Bill 5, which severely curtails the collective bargaining rights of public employees.
We Are Ohio, a coalition of labor unions and their allies, responded by gathering 1.3 million petition signatures in an effort to force a statewide referendum this fall to repeal the measure – a massive show of strength, considering that only about 241,000 signatures were legally required. Thousands of opponents of SB 5 paraded through the state capitol of Columbus on June 29, to deliver the signatures to the Secretary of State’s office. “The petitions filled 1,502 boxes that were hauled to the Secretary of State’s office in a 48-foot-long tractor trailer plastered with the message ‘Veto SB 5,’” reported Cleveland’s Plain Dealer.
Over the summer the repeal effort was ahead in the polls by double-digit margins. In August, Kasich and his Republican allies suddenly offered to negotiate a compromise to SB 5, if union leaders agreed to scuttle the referendum. “Repeal the bill, then we’ll talk,” was the response from unions and their allies. The referendum will go forward as scheduled, with a vote on November 8.
Labor organizing has also received a boost on Florida university campuses, as unions responded to a proposal from Tea Party-backed Governor Rick Scott to decertify public-sector unions that have less than 50% of the members enrolled in their bargaining unit. This is a difficult task in a “right-to-work” state like Florida where members of a bargaining unit are required by law to receive the same benefits and protections of a union contract whether they pay dues or not. While Scott’s plan has stalled in the State Legislature, unions have been responding on the ground.
United Faculty of Florida (UFF), which has chapters at 25 universities and colleges in the state, took up the challenge in the spring. The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) sent dozens of organizers from around the country to help out.
PSC Organizer John Gergely joined the effort. He spent seven weeks working with union activists at the University of Central Florida (UCF) in Orlando and helped them develop more effective techniques for one-to-one outreach to colleagues. During Gergely’s time at UCF, the chapter added 110 new members and increased its overall sign-up percentage from 20 to 31%. Chapter President Kathy Seidel told Clarion that this marked the start of an ongoing campaign by UCF to further expand its ranks this semester.
“We’re able to stand on our own now and organize,” she said.
Back in Madison, leaders of the Teaching Assistants’ Association (TAA) at the University of Wisconsin face a similar challenge. The TAA, which played a central role in the prolonged occupation of the State Capitol by union protesters last winter, has lost its right to dues check-off and recently chose not to seek recertification of their 3,000-member local, due to the onerous conditions imposed by Gov. Walker’s law.
TAA activists are currently looking to organize dues-paying members so that the organization can remain viable and find ways to defend and maintain the contractual rights won over more than 40 years of struggle.
ON THE JOB
They are now focused on strengthening their union on the job more than pursuing electoral politics, TAA Co-President Adrienne Pagac told Clarion. “Our power is in the workplace. That’s where we have leverage vis-a-vis our employer,” she said.
“Some of the great moments in US labor history took place before unions had exclusive recognition,” Pagac said. “A union is a union not because of a designation, but because workers come together to fight for something they believe in.”