Some ideas on winning the public mind for labor!

Our recent blog, “Is Labor Losing the Battle for the Public Mind” has generated some interesting comments and ideas.

Fortunately, none of them spent time playing the “blame game” on the failure to recall Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, but focused upon how working people and unions should respond to turn the tide.

You can see some of the comments following the blog, including one from my friend David Giffey of Arena, WI, who noted that the voices of those many activists who aren’t union members need to be heard.  He noted that in the last century workers achieved much of their gains through militancy, boycotts and strikes, which seemed have gone out of favor.  To engage the majority of workers in the cause, he said, labor will have to keep its message simple.

Giffey’s call for more inclusivity by labor was echoed by others as well.  Nicholas Hoffman, museum curator in Appleton, was one of many who emailed the author directly with comments.  He called for doing a better job of reaching out to families in rural Wisconsin, who favored Walker heavily.  Those families, too, are facing economic turmoil.

Thomas Martin Sobottke, who writes a regular blog entitled “Struggles for Justice,” wrote:  “I think the labor movement must make any disenfranchised American working person a member of the movement and (then) we go to the streets and demand jobs and a fair wage from those that control them.  Putting down any barrier to union membership and the movement needs to be pursued even further.”

Labor already has the beginnings of efforts to involve workers in nonunion settings, which could be used as the basis for broadening involvement in the causes of working people.  That was suggested by David Newby, president emeritus of the Wisconsin State AFL-CIO, who mentioned the “Working America” coalition that could broaden its activities, and by Ray MacDonald of the Steelworkers, who reminded us that the Steelworkers have an associate member program.  Other unions, we believe, should be working on similar strategies.

UW-Extension School for Workers prof David Nack observed that Democrat Tom Barrett largely dodged the labor rights’ issue in the campaign.  Nack was correct, of course, and his comments echoed the point of the original blog that “labor” may indeed be perceived as a negative to candidates for public office.  (What a sad commentary on the state known for its progressive history involving workers and labor!)

David Riemer, who unsuccessfully ran against Walker for County Executive and is a former top administrator for both former Governor Jim Doyle and Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist, called for the liberal message to focus on economic security, education, and freedom, all of which he said were “American values” that would lure many voters toward more progressive voting.

Thus the tone of nearly all of those who responded recognized the value of greater inclusivity into the mix.  Can that be achieved?  This blogger thinks so as long as all of us broaden our thinking and open our minds.

Finally, Christine Neumann-Ortiz, executive director of Voces de la Frontera in Milwaukee, offers a suggestion on how the process can begin.  She says that unionists can assist in the effort of an independent union to organize Palermo Pizza in Milwaukee.  Many immigrants are involved in that effort, and already the AFL-CIO and the Steelworkers are assisting.  Others may make donations to the cause.  By reaching out to assist other workers achieve their goals – even if it’s not with “my” union – we can again put the labor movement back in the public mind as a “positive force” for all society.

What do you think?  Ken Germanson, June 8, 2012, Milwaukee WI

Is labor losing the battle for the public mind?

As I write this, it has been more than 24 hours since the network declared Scott Walker the winner over Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett in the Wisconsin recall elections – enough time to digest the hurt and to put the loss into perspective.  Don’t despair, this will not be another lament or excuse for the outcome.  There has been plenty of that.

What is critical is what lesson was learned.

The basic message that any labor union activist or sympathizer should take from this loss is: The typical voter cares not a “hoot” about unions or collective bargaining rights.  This fact is shocking to those of us who have battled for years for worker rights.  How can it be that so few care?  Aren’t collective bargaining rights the only thing that frees a worker from the “slavery” enforced by his boss?  Of course, collective bargaining is critical to a worker’s freedom, but so few understand that.

Take the statistics from the exit polling done in the recall vote.  Among persons from union households, 38% still voted for Scott Walker.  That’s nearly four out of 10 who don’t understand that it was through collective bargaining that their households gained income, basic on-the-job rights and benefits.  (Incidentally, 61% of those from nonunion households voted for Walker.)

Even though the loss of collective bargaining rights for public workers fueled the frenzy and furor of the last 16 months, some 60% of voters did not feel such rights were important, or opposed them outright.  How could it be that after all the news coverage and hardwork by thousands of unionists across the state that so few understood or cared about the importance of collective bargaining for workers?  That’s the question that is most bothersome.

Part of the problem is that so few persons today understand labor unions and labor rights.  In the 1950s, when nearly four out of 10 households contained union workers, words like “strike,” “contract,” “scab” and “solidarity” were in everyone’s understanding.   Now, with but 11 percent of workers in unions, there are fewer labor households and less interest in unions.

Unions are hardly ever covered by the media.  It wasn’t too long ago that newspapers in most big cities – including Milwaukee – had fulltime reporters assigned to the labor beat, often with backup from other reporters.  Now the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel in this town has none; in fact it doesn’t even assign one reporter to become a parttime specialist on the topic.   Despite the fact that the State Legislature passed a law making the teaching of labor history part of the state’s educational standards, schools still largely ignore the subject.

The fact is that most people in Wisconsin – and probably even more in many less unionized states – don’t know, understand or care about the loss of collective bargaining rights.

The history of labor means much more than informing people that it was only through collective bargaining that paid holidays and vacations and health insurance became a reality for ALL workers, mainly because of unionized workers exercised their collective bargaining rights.  It must show, too, that such rights are basic to helping free workers from being nothing more than paid slaves and that the loss of those rights could soon doom more and more workers to return to the horrendous and unsafe working conditions of yore!

In an election based largely on worker rights, too few understood anything about those rights.  If Tuesday night’s victory by Walker and his big business cronies proved anything, it proved unions are losing a battle for the public mind.

That fact makes it critical to develop ongoing strategies in public education, and key to that is to continue to study and disseminate the history of labor. — Ken Germanson, June 6,  2012.  Milwaukee WI.

Getting to know the “real” Scott Walker

(A comment by Ann Germanson, wife of the writer of this blog)

Wisconsin voters who narrowly elected Scott Walker governor in 2010 didn’t know that he was planning to “divide and conquer” the citizens he was sworn to serve.   Maybe they weren’t aware Walker came into the office as a representative of the American Legislative Executive Council (ALEC), which for 40 years has been co-opting state legislatures to make sure they pass bills in the interests of the Koch Brothers and other big corporations.

The voters didn’t expect their Republican-controlled state government, supposedly concentrating on jobs issues, would instead be doing ALEC’s bidding by engaging in attacks on unions, public education and social services while enacting burdensome voter suppression rules, aimed at keeping Democrats from the polls.

Now, of course, all these things have been brought to light – notably by Walker himself as he enthusiastically assured “David Koch” in that infamous phone call that Wisconsin would be the “first domino” to fall in ALEC’s campaign to impose complete Republican political control on this country.

All this should be enough to justify a recall election and to remove Walker from office.