"Right-to-work" legislation is coming to Wisconsin. Even though few candidates mentioned in out on the campaign trail little more than a month back, it's clear this has been in the works for quite some time.
The rollout has happened quickly in Wisconsin, even if Republicans continue to pretend it's some movement that Wisconsinites are clamoring for. An group with out-of-state funding started pushing for this evisceration of labor rights a week ago, an Assembly legislator says last Tuesday he'll push a bill forward, the state Senate Majority Leader says last Thursday it will be a priority by, and the first radio ads start running over the weekend. This is a well-coordinated campaign -- if you think it happened organically, you might as well believe that living frogs can emerge from a pile of mud.
Even Gov. Scott Walker's position of feigned indifference is calculated. If the passage of this legislation goes well, he can take credit for it in his presidential campaign. If the legislation creates another wave of 2011-level labor strife, in Madison or elsewhere, he can scuttle it and take credit as a peacemaker in his presidential campaign.
Liberals are going to need to respond to this with a similarly coordinated response. Some of those who should be front and center are public-sector employees -- the same people who lost their union rights four years ago.
The reasons why public employees should support their private-sector brethren are many.
On the self-interested side, gutting what's left of labor unions in Wisconsin will only make future elections more difficult for Democrats. The loss of WEAC -- the state teacher's union that is barely a shadow of its former self -- was painful, and the loss of AFSCME would be a death blow to populist interests in the party. Democrats would be forced to be even more dependent on the largesse of wealthy candidates/donors like Chris Abele watering down the message of a party that desperately needs focus.
Second, if the private sector loses union rights, there's hardly a chance for a return to collective bargaining for the public sector. Democrats themselves are never that labor-friendly, and getting them to restore rights across both sections of the workforce would require a future supermajority that would probably need to be assisted by some form of mass action and/or magic.
Finally, and I believe this is the most important reason, it's that support for political allies is simply a necessity. Past Wisconsin labor strikes in the private sector have been accompanied by a disappointing turn out by public sector allies. But when Act 10 came around, private sector unionized employees joined in the protests, and they turned out big.
There's a stereotype out there that teachers and other public sector employees are only out for themselves. I believe that's a myth generated by those who believe that people who work in the public sector should somehow be devoid of all self-interest. Still, this stereotype needs to be dispelled. Whatever form the resistance against "right-to-work" takes, public sector employees should be front and center. Those who still have unions, like teachers in Madison and Milwaukee, and those who have lost them -- pretty much everyone else -- need to join together.
The Democratic Party's identity needs some serious rebuilding, but ideas like equity and solidarity still have some merit. Right now, turning out for another's cause is largely symbolic. But, frankly, symbolic power is all that Wisconsin Democrats have at the moment. Showing up to support private-sector unions or to challenge the state's incarceration disparities shows that we are all in this together. It may not stop the passage of "right-to-work" legislation, it may not change the criminal justice system overnight, but it will build the foundations and partnerships that will transform Wisconsin in the long run.
See you out there.