With the Wisconsin unions refusing to organize a serious fightback, public sector workers across the country came under attack. The Republican governments in Ohio, Florida, and Indiana launched their own bills along the lines of the “Budget Repair Bill.” In Michigan, Governor Rick Snyder passed an even more far-reaching “Financial Martial Law” bill that gives the governor permission to take over local governments seen as too friendly to public services. New Hampshire became a “right-to-work” state, passing measures similar to Walker’s for public and private sector workers alike.
But it wasn’t just Republicans who jumped on the public-sectorbashing bandwagon. In Massachusetts, Democratic Governor Deval Patrick took away public sector workers’ right to bargain over health care. In Illinois, the Democrats went after teachers’ seniority rights, pensions, and right to strike. In Washington State, a Democratic governor, House, and Senate passed draconian budget cuts. The Seattle Times reported: “In the end, the budget made more than $4 billion in cuts, including a 1.9 percent reduction in teacher pay and cuts in social services for the poorest Washingtonians. State support for higher education also was slashed, and students will see large tuition increases. State worker pay was cut 3 percent through unpaid time off.” (5/25/2011)
Had the Wisconsin protests succeeded, it’s likely they would have spread to the rest of the country. Instead, most people saw that the protests had failed and came to the false conclusion that there was nothing they could do. The failures of the Wisconsin unions did real damage to the labor movement nationwide. But with the global economic crisis, we need a strong labor movement more than ever. With the bill in effect, the unions faced a different challenge. No longer faced with the question of how to use a mass movement to defeat the bill, they now had to face the effects of the bill in a state of inactivity. They had to grit their teeth and hope they still existed by the time the bill might be repealed at some future point in time.
Under the bill, the unions came under attack from all directions. They were forced to collect dues by hand, they would have to go through annual recertification votes, and the lack of collective bargaining rights would make it extra difficult to win anything worthwhile for their members.
In the wake of the bill’s passing, the unions focused on dues drives. Exactly what this entailed was different for different unions, but it generally involved convincing union members to give the unions their bank account information so dues could be deducted directly by the union.
It is, of course, important for a union to be able to collect dues; otherwise, it can’t accomplish anything. But collecting dues can’t be an end in itself. A union is supposed to collect dues so it can fight for its members. Having devoted all of their resources to the recall campaigns instead of building a powerful strike movement that could defeat all the cuts and the attacks on unions, the union leadership had now effectively lost their right to strike action. Also, by making the recall and the dues drives the sole campaigns of the unions, they helped confirm the Tea Party stereotype of unions only being concerned with collecting dues money for the Democrats.
This has made it incredibly difficult for the unions to maintain their members. When the unions were fighting in February, they had their most well-attended membership meetings and their best membership drives. There were successful union drives of faculty and academic staff in universities across the state. But when the unions shifted to recalls and dues collection, membership and meeting attendance declined dramatically.
Despite the emphasis placed on dues collection, there was another, far more pressing issue the unions faced in the wake of the bill’s passage. Every year, the public sector unions would have to hold life-or-death recertification votes. These highly undemocratic rules required 51% of an entire bargaining unit – not just of those who actually vote – to vote for the continued existence of these crippled unions. For labor activists hoping that the unions could just lay low until the recalls take effect, this threw a wrench in the plan.
Where possible, it would make sense for unions to recertify. However, the recertification process was stacked against them. When the bill was initially passed in March, the recertification elections would have to happen by the end of April. When the bill finally went through the courts in June, a new deadline was established at the end of December, with the possibility of being bumped earlier if the courts so decided. This activity would also be a huge drain on union resources, taking all their organizing effort. The bill automatically decertifies unions representing faculty and academic staff, whether or not they vote to recertify.
With that in mind, most of the unions opted not to recertify. Statewide, AFT and AFSCME came out against recertification. On the local level, the TAA voted not to recertify at a General Membership Meeting held in the summer, when most of the union’s members were out of town. The leaders of AFSCME Local 2748 made the decision not to recertify on their own, without consulting membership. WEAC came out in favor of recertification, but many of their locals decided against it. The county and municipal unions that signed concessionary contracts were given a temporary stay of execution as a result, and were able to put off discussion longer than the state unions. However justified the unions were in refusing to recertify, the fact that it came to this, especially after the mass movement that preceded it, was nothing short of tragedy.
It is still possible for a union to function without being certified. All throughout the 19th Century and into the 1930s, unions had no legal recognition. Also, in recent years there have been some inspiring union drives in “right-to-work” states. But an effective non-certified union requires an active fighting strategy. It would require building a fighting and active membership that would organize militant struggles rather than negotiating with politicians. This would require job actions from slowdowns and sick-outs up to and including coordinated strikes and workplace occupations. A strike is a strike, whether or not the union is legally recognized. A very well organized strike by a decertified union could even achieve gains for its members that a certified union would be prohibited from achieving.
Unfortunately, the union leaders have completely failed to provide a way forward that could continue to allow the building of strong, effective unions. Scandalously, Bryan Kennedy, President of AFT-Wisconsin, said: “We may just continue to be a membership organization that advocates for all sorts of things.” (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 5/6/2011) This would mean that the AFT would effectively cease to be a union and would become nothing more than a lobbying group for the Democratic Party.
Even those union leaders who insist their organizations will continue to function as unions and to fight for their members cannot be counted on to do so. They missed the best opportunity to struggle when they refused to strike with hundreds of thousands marching in support. How can they be expected to support a strike now that they’re isolated and starved of funds?
The comparison between the situation in Wisconsin and that in “right-to-work” states ignores one key feature. The unions in “right-to-work” states built up their present position from nothing because they were willing to fight. The unions in Wisconsin got to where they are because they weren’t. If the Wisconsin public sector unions continue the way they’ve been going, their membership will continue to decline. By the time the bill is finally repealed, there is a danger many of the unions will have ceased to exist.
It will be up to the rank-and-file members to defend their unions. After all, that’s who the unions are supposed to represent. As radicals in unions in the 1930s explained, “The membership is the union.” In order to save the Wisconsin labor movement, it is vital that organized rank-and-file caucuses be formed in all of the unions that are prepared to challenge the failed strategy of the union leaders. They need to talk to their coworkers and organize them beyond dues collection. They need to go to the communities to rebuild the solidarity they had during the protests. This is what it will take to win.