On Wisconsin! Birthplace of Labor Rights

It was 100 years ago this year that the state of Wisconsin led the nation into a whole host of reforms for worker rights, becoming the first state to enact a worker’s compensation law, leading in developing unemployment compensation, creating an apprenticeship program and in setting stricter rules in child labor.

These reforms — made possible through the partnership of the Progressive Gov. Bob La Follette, a brain trust of reform-minded professors from the University of Wisconsin and a burgeoning labor movement – soon were imitated across the land.  But it was in Wisconsin where much of this began.

In 1959, the state again proved to be a leader what it became the first to enact a collective bargaining law for public employees that had teeth.

This year, on the 100th anniversary of those early reforms – in the stubbornly frigid winter of 2010 – 2011 – the state again may be leading the nation in a revitalization of the U. S. labor movement.  It all came about because of the November election of an avowedly conservative governor (former Milwaukee County Executive Scott Walker) and a turnover of the State Legislature from Democrats to Republicans, many of them elected with the rightwing Tea Party agenda.

Quite unexpectedly, Governor Walker sent into the Legislative several score of pro-business bills, demanding immediate action (without amendment).  The most radical was a so-called Budget Repair Bill that had a clause that would cripple, if not actual kill, collective bargaining rights for public employees.  Everyone was expecting some of this type of legislation, but his action was so devastating that it was shockingly extreme.

And he wanted it passed within a week, even before he had been in office for a month.

Two dramatic actions occurred almost immediately in response:

The Wisconsin labor movement responded almost instantly, calling for a rally within days to descend upon the State Capitol.  And descend they did, teachers, firefighters, snow plow drivers, social workers, electricians along with their children.   Rallies were astoundingly peaceful, and soon they became the focus of attention throughout the state, eventually the nation and even throughout the world.  Demonstrations were carried on daily, with successive weekend rallies growing in size until well over 100,000 filled Capitol Square on the weekend of March 12.

The second factor was the decision by all 14 Democrats in the State Senate to flee to Illinois in an act to rob the Senate of the quorum needed to pass the Repair Bill.  They held out for over three weeks, living out of a series of hotels just across the state line, thus blocking the passage of the bill.

Both actions worked to stimulate the other, with the Senators emboldened to continue their holdouts, while the crowds in Madison grew.  The supporters of union rights gained purpose, realizing that their actions helped to motivate the holdout, the only action that would stop action by the governor.

Finally on March 10, the Republican leader of the Senate pulled a hurry-up meeting, pulling the collective bargaining measure from the bill and acting on it separately, passing it without proper notice.  Under Senate rules, votes on a Budget Bill required a quorum of 20 senators, but without the Democrats, there were only19 members available to vote.  The Republicans claimed the collective bargaining clause had no budget impact, and thus it could be voted into law with a simple majority.  They called a conference committee meeting with less than two hours notice (when the State Constitution requires 24 hours, except in emergencies) to move the law forward, which they did in less than a minute, leaving the lone Democrat (the minority leader in the lower house) talking to himself.  Within 30 minutes the Senate convened and passed the bill; the Assembly had already approved it.

The action ended the need for the Senate holdout, and the Senators (by then having been given the title of “the Fab 14”) returned to the state, receiving what amounted to a heroes’ welcome the following weekend during the largest demonstration yet.

But the fight wasn’t over.  The Democratic district attorney of Dane County (Madison) filed a suit seeking a court order to declare the vote illegal due to lack of a 24-hour notice for the special meeting.  (It violated the state’s open meeting law, the suit said.)  A few days later, a Dane County judge granted the temporary injunction, halting the anti-union action.

The final disposition of this anti-union law is still in doubt, with final court decisions pending.  The bill could be re-offered, but there now is doubt that there will be solid Republican support.  Many of the Republican legislators found in returning to their home districts that the union support was strong, and in the Assembly four of them voted “no” on the bill.  And, there’s speculation that there may be at least three Republican senators who will vote “no” too, destroying the needed majority on a re-vote.  Thus, the Republican leadership is holding off on a new vote.

The astounding solidarity of Wisconsin’s labor movement – assisted by many persons who felt such a law was unjust and immoral – proved to delay enactment of this strong anti-union law.  The solidarity also showed something else:  that the labor movement was alive and kicking.  Commentators from around the country echoed the words of Michael Moore, the movie producer, who told 100,000 cheering demonstrators on March 5, “You have aroused the sleeping giant known as the working people of the United States of America.”

Time will tell whether the remarkable solidarity of the Wisconsin unionists and their supporters will lead to renewed strength for the nation’s labor movement.  No question about it:  Wisconsin, which historically has been the birthplace of many progressive actions in the nation, again is leading in building a potential new and stronger labor movement.



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