In September, before the Chazen Museum of Art began stashing some of its collection to make room for construction, I stopped in to see John Steuart Curry's iconic paintings of the Midwestern countryside. The half-dozen paintings, largely executed during Curry's groundbreaking tenure as artist in residence at the UW-Madison College of Agriculture (from 1936 to 1946), include his portrait of ag dean Chris Lauriths Christensen striding through an experimental cornfield, tie flapping in the wind. It's a stunning painting.
Christensen's face radiates determination and purpose. Clearly, he was a man on a mission, bringing university research and government help to Wisconsin farmers battered by the Great Depression.
And what great help it was. The ag school scored one breakthrough after another to enhance dairy and other farming - everything from vitamin D activation, to bull semen preservation, to fostering farmer-controlled cooperatives.
By this time, Fighting Bob La Follette and other Progressive leaders had transformed state government, regulating highhanded railroads, replacing the crony system with the nonpartisan civil service, setting a minimum wage, establishing worker's compensation, instituting progressive taxation and embracing "The Wisconsin Idea," where university professors would bring their knowledge to the four corners of the state.
Seventy years later, a remarkable turnaround has occurred. Government isn't seen as a savior of the recession-battered citizenry. Instead, government itself has been defined as the problem, and public employees find themselves portrayed as villains for what is deemed to be their recession-proof jobs, Cadillac health insurance and gold-plated pensions.
This hostility will only intensify in 2011.
A powerful Republican sweep this fall has put anti-union conservatives in control of the Assembly and Senate. Gov.-elect Scott Walker, who as county executive clashed repeatedly with Milwaukee County unions, has vowed to make state workers pay for a larger share of their benefits and even suggested essentially abolishing unions by eliminating their ability to bargain collectively.
"Republicans up and down the ticket put a target on the back of public employees," says David Newby, the recently retired president of the Wisconsin AFL-CIO. "They made them scapegoats."
Under fire from all sides, public employees are beginning to feel like public enemies. In talking to embattled union leaders in Milwaukee and Madison, I heard the word "scapegoat" time and again. But their critics say nobody should feel sorry for them.
"Public employee unions are suffering from self-inflicted wounds," says Steve Baas, the government affairs director for the Milwaukee Metropolitan Association of Commerce. "They've resisted the sort of wage and benefit cuts that have become commonplace in the recession-battered private sector."
And the steep price for this, Baas argues, is political isolation. Taxpayers who've endured punishing cuts in their own wages and benefits are beginning to see public employees as "the collective them" and not "the collective us," he says.
The public's anger has been fueled by well-publicized excesses: the Madison bus driver earning almost $160,000 in 2009; the state corrections workers milking overtime to double their pay; and the more than 3,000 Milwaukee County employees collecting lucrative lump-sum pension "backdrops," rising to $1 million apiece for a lucky few.
Nationally, the number of federal employees earning $150,000 or more a year has increased tenfold in the last five years, according to USA Today.
Donald Downs, a UW-Madison political scientist, notes that taxpayers are being asked to support public employees like himself with better benefits, richer retirement plans and sometimes higher salaries than they have.
"The public sector has to be more consonant with what's going on in the country," he says. "We're beginning to look more and more like a privileged caste."
Mordecai Lee, a UW-Milwaukee political scientist and a former Democratic lawmaker, argues that public employees unions manipulate elected officials through political endorsements and financial contributions. He describes their recent contract concessions as "minor givebacks that are nothing like what the private sector has experienced."
Government officials are in "a position of total weakness," says Lee. "I don't see what leverage management has over public labor unions."
In this chilly economic climate, finger pointing is easy. But what's often overlooked is how indispensable unions were in building the American middle class and narrowing the gap between rich and poor.
As I tap out these words, there are no calluses on my hands, in part because I stand on the shoulders of my dad, who long ago was a well-paid Teamster in a steel warehouse. (When he made his daily commute from Kenosha to Chicago he was immunized from speeding tickets by the bumper sticker on his truck: "Police Deserve a Teamster Contract.")
"It was only with the growth of the unions in the '40s, '50s and '60s that the middle class prospered," says Kenneth Germanson, a labor historian and retired steelworkers official in Milwaukee. "Since the '80s unions have grown progressively weaker, and the middle class has declined. That's borne out in every statistical survey you'll find."
Sounding a familiar lament among liberal-minded commentators, Germanson adds, "We have so skewed income distribution in this country that the middle class is dying."
The point is even more forcefully made by Mike Langyel, president of the Milwaukee Teachers Education Association, who argues that taxes need to be raised on the rich to support public services, especially education.
"People have to come to grips on how much is enough for the wealthy," the MTEA leader says. "How great a percentage of the country's wealth do they have to accumulate?"
Langyel is old-school left. He thinks the country needs another New Deal "to deal the cards again in a way that is more fair." He thinks it's perverse that people who have so much money "are leading the charge against anyone who has been able to maintain a semblance of a living wage."
But today isn't 1936, and Americans aren't singing "Solidarity Forever."
Back then, when conservatives were ripping into President Roosevelt with the same ferocity they direct at President Obama today, the Gallup Poll found that 72% of Americans approved of labor unions. Today, union approval is at a near record low - only 52% of Gallup respondents had a favorable opinion of unions in 2010.
According to political analyst Walter Russell Mead, "the core institutions, ideas and expectations that shaped American life for the 60 years after the New Deal don't work anymore."
That's a sweeping assessment, but Mead argues that the deregulation of American industry - think of what's happened to bank, airline and telephone industries in the past 35 years - coupled with the rise of international business competition has upended the decades of economic stability underlying what he calls America's "blue model" social contract. That was the world of the baby boom's youth, when people had lifetime jobs, cheap state-supported education, shorter workweeks and early retirement.
The last vestige of this model, Mead says, is "blue government," where lifetime civil servants are protected by "the last truly powerful unions in the country."
But collapse is coming here, too, he warns. The public can no longer support the blue model entitlement programs, while government itself has become "too unproductive, too unresponsive and too expensive to do what needs to be done at a reasonable cost."
Langyel's embattled union is a case in point. The taxpayers will spend $1.3 billion on public education in Milwaukee this year and wind up by most every measure with a badly educated student body of 83,000 mostly poor minority kids. For example, only 6% of the city's black students score "proficient" in fourth- and eighth-grade federally ranked reading tests.
The Milwaukee teachers union, meanwhile, brought a flood of ridicule upon itself this summer when it sued the school district to get Viagra coverage for its male teachers.
Langyel gamely defends the suit, saying Viagra is used to treat a real medical problem. But the timing couldn't have been worse: MPS was struggling with an anticipated layoff of almost 500 teachers, and here was the union asking the courts to order insurance coverage of a sexual aid that would cost more than $700,000 a year.
"Freaking stupid," "just insane," "totally absurd" were a few of the choice words I heard - not from conservatives, but from flummoxed liberals.
Increasingly, unions are blamed for what's wrong with America. A 2009 Gallup Poll found that 51% of respondents felt that labor unions "mostly hurt" the U.S. economy, versus 39% believing they "mostly help."
Today, only 7.2% of private-sector workers are union members - the lowest percentage in 110 years, according to federal statistics. Even more telling, the number of unionized public employees surpassed their private-sector counterparts for the first time ever in 2009, as government workers wearing the union label rose to 37.4%.
In the glory days of organized labor, union wages and benefits set the industry standard even for companies wanting to keep the AFL-CIO out of their shops. Now the opposite dynamic is playing out: With their jobs in jeopardy, union workers are being forced to accept not just wage and benefit cuts but work rules and hiring practices common to non-union shops.
"What choice do they have?" asks Newby. "Workers in the private sector just don't have the leverage they once had."
In fall 2009, members of the Mercury-Marine machinists union in Oshkosh gave up scheduled pay raises and swallowed a seven-year wage freeze and other punitive measures to save their jobs from a plant closing.
This fall, workers at Harley-Davidson in the Milwaukee area and Tomahawk agreed to a seven-year wage freeze, among other onerous terms like the hiring of non-union "casual" employees at substandard pay rates.
Locally, unionized workers at Sub-Zero/Wolfe are fighting - at the risk of seeing their jobs move out of state - a demand for a 20% pay cut and five-year wage freeze at the high-end appliance maker.
For Newby, all this is a symptom of America's industrial decline, the predictable result of free trade agreements that allowed multinational corporations to move plants to low-wage countries.
Exacerbating the problem, he complains, are the illicit anti-union tactics now routinely used by companies to beat back organizing drives, especially the targeted firing of union supporters as a warning to other workers.
A 2009 study of 1,004 organizing drives by Kate Bronfenbrenner, director of research at Cornell University's School of Industrial and Labor Relations, found that two out of three companies broke U.S. labor law in resisting those campaigns.
Organized labor had high hopes that its proposed card-check legislation - it would allow a union to be certified if a majority of workers signed authorization cards - could restore its organizing rights by avoiding tainted certification elections. But even with Democrats controlling Congress and the presidency, business interests beat back card check by portraying it as fundamentally anti-democratic, because no secret election would be involved in union certification.
Labor just couldn't get its story across. It's not at all clear that Wisconsin public employee unions can convincingly tell their story either.
Gary Mitchell, president of AFSCME Local 2412 on the UW-Madison campus, knows what that story should be: "The work we do is important, dangerous and critical to our society. If somebody could make a profit doing this stuff, they would have done it already."
Mitchell, who also serves as a vice president of AFSCME's international board, sighs over the communication issue.
"Does the public understand our work?" he asks. "That's an ongoing struggle for us, because we're not like McDonald's. We're not out there delivering our message every 30 minutes."
The Wisconsin Education Association Council probably does the most focused job of pitching its story to the public: The "every child deserves a great school" tagline has reached meme status. Moreover, the union says outright it's committed to change in education, a popular idea these days.
"We want to be part of the discussion of new ideas," says WEAC spokeswoman Christina Brey.
Milwaukee teachers, on the other hand, fight out of a defensive crouch. Langyel's talk of class struggle and income redistribution is straight out of the '30s playbook and is guaranteed to infuriate the conservative school reformers who despise his union.
The 22,000-member Wisconsin State Employees Union, meanwhile, operates mostly behind the scenes. Under longtime leader Marty Beil, the AFSCME affiliate has excelled at playing the inside political game at the Capitol and has prospered whether Democrats or Republicans run the show.
But when the union does go public, it's something to see.
Last month, Beil made an eyebrow-raising appearance on WHA-TV's Here and Now program. Truculent and ready to rumble, he castigated Gov.-elect Walker for attempting to sabotage the long-delayed 2009-11 state employee contracts even before he took office.
"One of the things we've been telling our leadership and our membership," he told host Frederica Freyberg, is that "it's not time to pull the covers over your heads and pee in your pajamas. We've got to stand up to this guy."
It's a confrontation that Walker would surely love to have. He'd jump at the chance to be the next Chris Christie, the tough-talking New Jersey governor who's risen to national fame battling public employee unions and high taxes required to pay their wages and benefits. Walker has already called for state workers to make a 5% contribution to their pensions and hike the amount they pay toward health insurance.
WSEU's cluelessness about public opinion was graphically displayed following a rare labor victory earlier this year, when the Legislature voted to let academic staff at the UW System collectively bargain.
Rather than launch organizing drives, WSEU and the American Federation of Teachers went the bureaucratic route, filing "unit clarification" petitions, still pending, with the Wisconsin Employment Relations Commission. There would be no union certification elections. Not even card-check campaigns, for that matter. Instead, the unions are asking that the non-union workers simply be assigned to existing represented units.
"It reinforced the worst kind of stereotypes about unions. That they're undemocratic and more interested in dues than representation," says David Ahrens, the former president of the United Faculty and Academic Staff group and a onetime AFSCME staffer.
Beil, in comments to The Capital Times, offered a succinct defense: "I just want what's mine."
How Wisconsin public employee unions get to safer ground is hard to see. Given past performance, there's a real question whether they have the tactical smarts to fend off the union bashers while building public support for their work.
Among the concerned observers is Joel Rogers, director of the Center on Wisconsin Strategy. "Public employee unions have a boatload of assets," he says. "They have tremendous distribution in the economy. They have a critical role to perform. But they're being portrayed as the enemy. And they're not doing very much to prevent it."
Rogers has thought long and hard on a recalibrated labor strategy pitched to the broader public in these difficult times.
Here's what he says: Government unions should be dedicated to improving public programs. They should expose programs that don't work. They should be flexible on work rules. They should see the public as their ally. They should form broad alliances. They should push the giant state retirement fund to invest in clean energy jobs to bolster the Wisconsin economy.
"Public employees should be seen not as the enemy but as the servant of the people," Rogers says. "They should stand up for quality in government, for quality in public services."
Just one problem: The unions he's approached are mostly uninterested in his strategy. "They either tell me 'That's impossible' or 'we're doing it already,'" says Rogers, who thinks they haven't grasped the peril they're in. He's probably right.