LaborTalk for March 1, 2011

Defensive Solidarity in Wisconsin Is Splendid;
Unions Need a Battle Plan to Win Bargaining

By Harry Kelber

There is reason for jubilation at the enormous response of union members and fair-minded citizens to the attempt by newly-elected Republican governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin to strip public employ unions of collective bargaining rights. In addition to the more than 100,000 who demonstrated at the state’s capital in Madison, there were protest rallies in cities and states across the country.

But these protests are defensive in character and have not deterred Walker and the other Republican governors from continuing their efforts to strangle the unions by denying them bargaining rights and other protections they have held for decades. The added problem facing unions is that the Republicans have increased their control of state legislatures from 14 to 25 as a result of the 2010 midterm elections. Many of these legislatures are already considering anti-union measures.

Wisconsin’s public employee unions may have made a tactical error when they agreed to Walker’s budget cuts entirely and voluntarily without exercising their bargaining rights to propose budget changes. It added to Walker’s contention that bargaining rights for unions were not necessary for the state government to function effectively.

Good Public News, But No Plan to Fight Anti-Union Attacks

There was some encouraging news when Progressive States Network released a letter on Feb. 28, signed by a bipartisan group of more than 270 legislators from 44 states, voicing their solidarity with the Wisconsin state senators who oppose Walker’s attack on union bargaining rights. Also, a New York Times poll shows the American public opposes weakening the rights of public employee unions by a margin of nearly two to one (60 percent to 33 percent).

Speaking on NBC’s Meet the Press on Feb. 27, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka said that Walker’s attacks are not about budgets, because public workers have agreed to the fiscal concessions Walker’s bill seeks. Trumka implied that the Wisconsin standoff was part of a political plot by conservative Republicans and their corporate allies to destroy the labor movement.

While union members were wondering what they should do next, there were no public directives coming out of AFL-CIO headquarters in Washington. One obvious move was to mobilize the members of each of the Federation’s state and city affiliates as the ground troops in the fight to save collective bargaining. There are nearly 500 Councils and 51 state federations throughout the United States,

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Actually, collective bargaining is a negotiating feature that, in its purest form, serves neither party. It merely permits both sides to engage in a give-and -take exchange over wages, working hours, benefits and conditions of employment. Where one party obtains dominance over the other party in negotiations is due to the power it exercises over its opponent outside the bargaining table.

If the Republicans and the new Tea Party legislators can unfreeze their rabid hostility toward labor unions, it should be possible to restore the principles of collective bargaining to what they were supposed to be.—Harry Kelber

LaborTalk will be posted here on March 4, 2011 and on our two web sites and on