Gov. Scott Walker's 2011 law stripping government employees of union rights was only a few months old when workers who build cranes in Manitowoc learned their company was making a stringent new demand in their own union contract.
In negotiations with the International Association of Machinists, Manitowoc Cranes management was insisting that the union drop its so-called union security clause from the contract - language that required every employee who was represented by the union to either join the union or at least pay union dues.
Union negotiators resisted. When they took the company contract offer to the union's 200 members, it was voted down overwhelmingly. The union went on strike.
But within just a few weeks, the company began hiring replacement workers. Faced with permanent job loss - not just the loss of income from a walkout - the union members surrendered after 10 weeks. They walked back into the plant with a contract now devoid of language that had been so important to them they'd gone on strike to keep it.
Welcome to the world of work, post-Act 10.
To some unionists, Walker's success at passing the controversial law eviscerating public employees' union rights was a precursor to a much larger fight over union rights for all workers in the state.
"What we're seeing is an attack on labor across the entire Midwest and across the country," says Phil Neuenfeldt, president of the Wisconsin AFL-CIO. Neuenfeldt points to legislation similar to Act 10 in Ohio, Michigan and Indiana, as well as the successful passage of "right to work" laws weakening private-sector unions in the latter two states.
After Act 10, union activists warned that a "right to work" law would be next here. And when a video surfaced last year in which a wealthy Walker supporter was heard urging the governor to pursue just that policy, and the governor seemed to indicate it was on his to-do list, the idea that Act 10 was the opening bell in a wider-ranging attack on unions seemed plausible.
Walker says he's not interested in pursing a "right to work" law, but Republican state lawmakers are currently trying to rush through another bill that would allow employers to cut hours without negotiating with unions. Senate Minority Leader Chris Larson called it "a clear opening shot at undermining private-sector unions."
But labor expert Frank Emspak says Act 10 wasn't the opening bell so much as simply one more round in a brawl that's been under way for decades.
Public workers were simply the latest targets in a long-running attack on union power and worker rights, adds Emspak, a Madison professor who went from being a shop-floor union member at a Massachusetts General Electric plant to teaching about labor at the University of Wisconsin School for Workers.
The recent flurry of laws weakening public unions has been made possible in large part because private-sector workers and their unions had already been weakened considerably, going as far back as the 1970s, says Emspak.
"It doesn't matter whether it's the public sector or the private sector," he says. "It's really an assault on the democratic process in the workplace. All of these things result in a lessening of the ability of people in the workplace to speak on a level playing field with their employer."
A quick review of recent history supports Emspak's contention.
In the summer of 2009, outboard motor manufacturer Mercury Marine threatened to close its plant in Fond du Lac and move all the jobs to a non-union plant in Oklahoma unless the machinists union representing the 850 Wisconsin workers made major concessions. After initially rejecting the company's demands for a wage freeze, lower pay for new hires and cuts in health benefits, union members turned around and accepted them.
In 2010, the motorcycle maker Harley-Davidson similarly extracted steep concessions at its plants in Milwaukee and up north in Tomahawk. The package, which took effect in 2012, froze pay over seven years, cut several hundred jobs and turned still other jobs into short-term and part-time posts at sharply lower pay.
The trend isn't limited to Wisconsin. After the federal government bailed out General Motors, the company launched the Chevy Sonic - promoted as the first domestically manufactured subcompact in a generation or more. Making it in the United States was a condition of the federal bailout. But one reason the automaker chose to source the car to the union workforce in Michigan - instead of to an overseas partner or subsidiary such as GM Daewoo in South Korea - was that more than one-third of the workers building the Sonic are being paid about half the standard United Auto Workers wage.
That's a result of a 2007 two-tier-wage agreement between the union and the company. But that agreement limited the lower tier to 25% of a plant's workforce. For the Sonic, and the bailout, the union agreed to an exception upping that to 40%.
In the heavily unionized utility industry, a trend is emerging in which companies are pressing unions to switch to health care plans that, once implemented, are no longer subject to union negotiations, says Dave Poklinkoski. Poklinkoski is president and business manager of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 2304 in Madison, whose members include employees of Madison Gas and Electric.
Poklinkoski contends the companies' proffered replacement health plans provide less coverage at greater cost to workers. But that's dwarfed by a much broader agenda, he says: eroding the union's power by taking an important part of the contract off the bargaining table.
"There's an effort to diminish the role and value of the union by limiting its ability to bargain collectively on behalf of its members," he says.
Act 10 didn't end public-sector unions, after all, it just said they couldn't bargain over anything but wages, couldn't negotiate raises any higher than the inflation rate, and needed to hold a vote every year to secure the right to represent their members.
"If you were a public-sector worker today and people would ask you, should you join your union, a lot of people might say, 'What can they do for me?'" Poklinkoski points out. "It's the same in the private sector. If you're limited in regard to what you can bargain for, members will ask that question, 'Why do we have a union here?' It's going on across the board."
In the long arc of history, the right of workers to join unions and bargain collectively over their wages, benefits, hours and working conditions is still young - less than a century old. Labor organizations of various kinds - and worker unrest over the conditions of employment - go back much longer. But not until the 1930s did they come to be treated as part of a fundamental body of rights for workers.
With the National Labor Relations Act - the Wagner Act - in the 1930s, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt legalized unions as well as strikes. The law created the National Labor Relations Board to help oversee the process of unionizing, and outlawed the common practice of firing workers who joined unions or went on strike.
The act reflected a fundamental economic tenet of FDR's economic advisers: giving greater leverage to workers in their conflicts with employers would be better for society and for the economy. It would support the growth of a broad middle class, channeling inevitable class conflict and reducing the gulf between rich and poor. The act paved the way for widespread and rapid unionization of American industry over the next couple of decades.
Union membership peaked at about one-third of the workforce in the 1950s. The rise in unionization also helped sharply reduce income inequality by giving lower-wage workers greater bargaining power with their employers, Emspak and others note.
In 1981, less than a year after he was elected, President Ronald Reagan fired members of the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization union who went on strike. There's no dispute that the strike was illegal (unions representing government workers are not covered by the Wagner Act). But it also sent a signal to private employers.
While federal labor law prohibited private-sector employers from firing strikers (except for cause, such as picket-line violence), a late 1930s court ruling held that employers could hire "permanent replacements" - workers who could take the jobs of people on strike, and who could get the right to stay on the job in place of the strikers even after a walkout ended.
Until the 1980s, the practice was rare, labor experts agree, but after Reagan moved against PATCO, the use of permanent replacements to break strikes soared. Wisconsin, too, experienced the trend, as companies ranging from International Paper in DePere to Patrick Cudahy meats in suburban Milwaukee all used the tactic to thwart strikes. (Cudahy ultimately did survive as a union shop, but only after more than a year in bankruptcy reorganization.)
While the Democratic Party and organized labor have long been close allies, the relationship has been far from dependable. As far back as the mid-1980s, unions sought a law that would outlaw the use of permanent replacements, but failed to win passage even under two Democratic presidents.
The shock that Act 10 sent through Wisconsin unionists reflects the state's long heritage as a labor bastion. Unions got an early and strong hold here. Workers at what would become the American Motors and later Chrysler factory in Kenosha engaged in a sit-down job action that took place in 1933, more than three years before the famous sit-down strikes at the General Motors plant in Flint, Mich., that helped forge the United Auto Workers union. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, one of the nation's largest unions representing public-sector workers, was founded in Madison.
But that may obscure the fact that Wisconsin also has long been home to some employers especially hostile to unions: companies like Allis-Chalmers in Milwaukee and Kohler Co. outside Sheboygan, which had "extremely aggressive anti-labor policies," says Frank Emspak.
Manitowoc Cranes, in public statements during its recent labor dispute, framed the issue of eliminating the union-membership requirement as one of workers' "freedom of choice."
Emspak says the company is part of the state's longstanding corporate anti-union culture. Act 10 may have helped create an environment in which management felt encouraged to make an aggressive move against union membership in the contract, but union-management conflict here is an old story. "There's a part of the private sector labor-relations culture here that has always been extremely anti-union," Emspak says.
Age of cooperation
Yet, for a time in the late 1980s and through much of the 1990s, Wisconsin seemed to be potentially emblematic of quite a different trend: a new, progressive approach in the workplace that would see employers and unions working together.
Harley-Davidson was an early example. When management bought out the Milwaukee-based motorcycle maker in the early 1980s from the conglomerate AMF, one of the first steps the corporate leaders took was to approach unions. They asked for their help in making plant operations more efficient and reviving the reputation of their bikes, which had long suffered under AMF. Although guarded, union leaders and members responded. And over the next two decades, company and union became increasingly allied (PDF) as Harley prospered. When the company built a new plant in Missouri, it agreed to union representation of its workforce from day one.
And Harley wasn't alone. At a growing number of manufacturers, unions and management seemed to turn over a new leaf, putting aside old, adversarial attitudes.
Under Gov. Tommy Thompson, the state Department of Industry, Labor and Human Relations (predecessor to the Department of Workforce Development) instituted a labor-management cooperation program to promote the trend. The department embraced, for a time, the views of the Center on Wisconsin Strategy at UW-Madison and its director, Joel Rogers. Rogers spoke of the choice between the "high road" of so-called high-performance work organizations, characterized by high wages, high skills and labor-management collaboration, and the "low road" of low-paying, low-skill, dead-end jobs in workplaces characterized by traditional hierarchies and authoritarian management styles.
Department staff organized tours around the state to highlight exemplary workplaces where, it was said, this new high-performance ethic that promoted mutual respect and cooperation on the factory floor was coming into being. Some big names graced the list of these model employers: John Deere's lawnmower factory in Horicon, Master Lock in Milwaukee, even the Chrysler engine plant in Kenosha, where 60 years before workers had pioneered the sit-down strike. But there were smaller companies, too.
What happened? There's no single explanation, experts say. Emspak points to the growing power of financiers in the economy, especially over publicly traded companies. There, "the key indicator of a company's success was its stock valuation, and anything that increases the price of a company's stock was a good idea." Labor-management cooperation agreements in that context turned from being good business and a civic boon to expendable, costly frills.
At the same time, Emspak says, trade deals that opened up the global economy - starting with the North American Free Trade Agreement, which drastically lowered trade barriers with Canada and Mexico - created incentives for companies to move lucrative jobs to much lower-wage regions of the globe.
And even when they were in place, cooperation programs had a mixed reputation, with union leaders and rank-and-file members often wary.
"Folks saw it as a means to undermine the role and legitimacy of the union," IBEW's Poklinkoski says.
Even when cooperation produced positive results, lurking in the background was always the suspicion that when times got tough, the good feelings wouldn't last. And then, Poklinkoski says, the union often found itself "bringing a knife to a gunfight. Sooner or later, the employer was going to bring out the gun."
The long game
A year ago, activists from the state's labor movement and their progressive allies were enthusiastically collecting signatures to recall Gov. Walker. They were convinced that momentum was on their side, that the governor would get thrown out of office, and that his Democratic successor would begin to reverse the anti-labor sentiment escalated by the governor.
It didn't turn out that way, of course. In the months since Wisconsin voters reaffirmed Walker's election last June, labor activists have continued to explore how they might revive their movement in the public and private sphere.
Neuenfeldt says the basic task of organizing - one of the bedrock skills of union activists - has taken on renewed urgency. Even though it fell short of its objective, last year's recall effort demonstrated labor's ability to mobilize people. "There were 1.3 million people who went to the polls to vote against this guy," he says of the governor. "It shows a growing movement."
Neuenfeldt blames the failure to oust Walker on a financial imbalance that still favors Republicans and pro-corporate candidates. At the same time, he suggests that labor might take comfort in the November victories of President Obama and Sen. Tammy Baldwin, just a few months after the recall defeat.
Neuenfeldt says the labor federation is now turning its attention to building a stronger network regionally, with activist committees across the state to keep up the momentum for activism.
Among the more successful unions at organizing new workers is the Service Employees International Union. SEIU represents a wide range of employees, from building janitors to nursing home workers to medical personnel such as hospital nurses.
Bruce Colburn, vice president for politics and growth in SEIU's Wisconsin health care unit, says the union has focused in large part on low-wage workers and sought to engage them politically, not just around narrow workplace issues. It's a sponsor of Wisconsin Jobs Now, which rallied people against Walker in the recall and focused attention on issues affecting low-wage workers in the fall elections.
Nationally, the union has been targeting fast-food workers in the east and low-wage retail employees on Chicago's Michigan Avenue, Colburn says.
Will things change? Poklinkoski says the fight for worker rights will have to gain the sort of sustained mass movement behind it that took place back in the 1930s. The "Wisconsin uprising" over Act 10 signified that the energy for such a campaign is there, but the forces arrayed in opposition remain formidable. "It's going to take a serious effort to try to turn that around," he says.
It also will take a willingness to play a very long game. Colburn says the low-wage workers SEIU organizes know that.
"Workers understand that it's not going to be easy, and they understand the power out there," he says. "But people see the idea of collective action as something that can improve their lives."
Emspak describes himself as an optimist. "I think people want to have a better life for their kids," he says. "And I think people in this country have a desire to live in a democratic society where they can have meaningful choices about their lives. I think those two factors coming together will lead people to say we need to broaden democracy in our workplace."
Better wages, hours and working conditions are critical to bridging a gulf in society, Emspak says - but there's more at stake.
"It's the ability of workers to speak honestly, without fear, collectively to their employers," says Emspak. "People are now seeing that unless we get together, that doesn't happen. It isn't just a nice idea - it's an absolute necessity."