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.