Can Progressivism Survive in Wisconsin?

For the first time since Ronald Reagan beat Walter Mondale in Wisconsin in the 1984 Presidential election, the state went red.

How could that happen?  It’s simple arithmetic: lack of voter turnout.

Hillary Clinton could have easily won the Badger State if those voters who could be expected to favor her had turned out.  She lost by only 27,000 votes out of the 2.94 million cast, less than a percentage point.

Now here is the shocking story:  Voter participation in Wisconsin was down by almost 124,000 in the state, compared with 2012.  Turnout was 66.2%, the lowest since 1996.

election-photoHillary Clinton suffered severely from the low turnout.  She received 239,000 fewer votes than President Obama did in 2012, while Trump garnered only 1,500 more than Mitt Romney did.  (There were 150,000 votes for third party candidates; likely most of those voters went for President Obama four years ago.)  Read more.


Why did potential Hillary voters not show up at the polls?  Here are some theories:

Restrictive voter laws.  The Republican-passed voter ID laws were specifically designed to discourage low-income voters, mainly minorities.  The voter suppression strategy may have worked; there were 62,000 fewer voters in minority-rich Milwaukee County, with Hillary’s totals about 40,000 short of Obama’s in 2012.

Over-confidence toward a Hillary win.  Polls leading up to the election showed her winning Wisconsin by four to six percentage points; thus voters who faced inconvenient work schedules, child care issues or other conflicts may not have taken time to vote.  The cutback of early voting hours – by GOP-supported state laws – may have added to the problem.

Lack of enthusiasm for Secretary Clinton.  No doubt the thirty years of constant attacks on Clinton’s trustfulness, whether warranted or not, helped to build voter doubts.  Trump repeatedly called her “liar” and encouraged his crowds to yell “lock her up;” that helped to reinforce in many voters’ minds a most repulsive (though grossly  wrong) image of her.

The Bernie effect.  Bernie Sanders trounced Hillary Clinton in the April Wisconsin primary.  Most of his supporters, we’re sure, heeded Sanders’ call to support Hillary in the general election, but enough found their bright illusions so dimmed that when Bernie failed to get the nomination they either stayed away from voting, cast a third party ballot or failed to get involved.

Secretary Clinton failed to campaign in Wisconsin.  Though several Clinton surrogates showed up, especially Chelsea and VP Candidate Tim Kaine, they could never garner the attention that the candidate herself could have.  A reprise of the Clinton campaign strategy tells us that Bill Clinton strongly urged greater concentration on the white working class voter, but was overruled by Hillary’s campaign bosses.

A weakened Democratic Party effort.  There’s no question that Wisconsin Democrats have become impoverished since 2010.  With the redistricting forced upon the state by the Republican-controlled legislature, most legislative districts have become gerrymandered so severely that Democratic candidates stand no chance; thus the party withers in those sixty or so largely rural counties and never seek to get Democrats on the ballot.  Lack of down-ballot candidates, even in GOP-trending areas, will cut into Democratic votes at the top of the ticket.

A smaller labor movement.  The impact of the 2011 passage of Act 10 ending collective bargaining rights for public employee unions and the 2015 enactment of so-called right-to-work laws was truly felt in this election.  The labor movement (traditional Democratic party allies) has lost so much membership that the state’s level of unionization has fallen below that of Alabama’s.  The result: there were fewer members to encourage to vote for progressive candidates and fewer numbers available to make phone calls, talk it up at the workplace and do door-to-door canvassing.

The impact of these seven factors, plus others not listed here, combined to make a perfect storm to bring about Secretary Clinton’s defeat.  Some of them also affected Russ Feingold’s effort to unseat Republican Senator Ron Johnson.


No one is quite certain just what President-elect Trump will do, or how much he will be able to accomplish.  To progressives everywhere, the prospects are scary.

In Wisconsin, however, it is certain what will happen; it can only be worse for working people, the poor and minorities.  There will be attempts to weaken labor even more, there will be no increase in the minimum wage, there will be cutbacks in life-supporting assistance such as food share and Title 19, and weakening of the health care system.  All that was promised on the day after the election by Republican leaders of the state.  Read more

The 2016 election is behind us and the question is: what do we do now?

First, what we don’t do is to sit on the sidelines in despair, fretting as we watch the Packers blunder through another season, perhaps awaiting a Aaron Rodgers “Hail Mary” to miraculously bring joy to us cheeseheads.

Secondly, what we must do is to stay alert to every action being planned by the legislature, continuing to question issues with whatever strategy that seems to work, whether it is to storm the Capitol with masses of protesters, to write letters to the editor (or to tweet) or to plan for next election.

Thirdly, we must figure out how to rebuild a progressive movement in Wisconsin.  The possibilities include revitalizing the Democratic Party, working through such groups as Citizen Action, Move On, and Wisconsin Now or by building a whole new movement.

To regain Wisconsin, progressives have to figure out how to win in the rural counties; it means reaching out to a heavily white population, while not losing touch with the minorities that are part of the heart and soul of the progressive movement.  Trump won 59 of the 71 counties, and that ratio needs to be reduced somehow.  The state built its now-fading progressive nature on the old La Follette coalition of organized labor, big-city Socialists and rural Progressive Republicans.

This won’t be easy, but it’s necessary to save the state from being destroyed by a single party dictatorship that threatens to make its citizens among the poorest in the nation.  Ken Germanson, Nov. 10, 2016


Secret GOP Right-to-Work love potion

Maybe it was the drag of the long debate, but Republicans supporting the right-to-work law used some weird arguments.

“It’s for your own good,” they said over and over again to the union members and the Democratic legislators who opposed the bill as the debate continued in the Wisconsin Assembly overnight into Friday morning. (March 5 – 6)

Once you weed out the freeloaders, your unions will be stronger because the members who will be left will be dedicated “true believers,” argued another Republican. As that occurs, he said, unions will become more effective and as a result workers will rush to join. And, he added, employers will be eager to sign contracts with the strong unions because they will provide a skilled and dedicated workforce.

You continued to hear Republicans say that unions are “good” and they wanted them to thrive; for a while, it sounded as if they were speaking at a labor union convention.

One Republican let the cat out of the bag, however, when he admitted to seeing how effective his union had been in representing him back in his younger days. Yet, he felt he shouldn’t have been “forced” to join and pay membership fees to cover the costs of providing such help. The ultimate “freeloader!”

So there, unionists, you can close down your rallies around the State Capitol and stand outside to applaud how friendly the Republican legislators can be to you. Just drink down their potion of goodwill and enjoy the results.

If unionists accept such logic, will it not be much like the innocent college freshman girl who was offered a drink made especially for her by a fraternity boy at her first party on campus? The last thing she heard that night was, “Here, drink it, you’ll like it.”

And you know what happened to her!

Ken Germanson, March 6, 2015

A. Philip Randolph legacy in civil rights and labor traced

Norman Hill (left) with Nacarci Feaster, president of Milwaukee Chapter of APRI

Norman Hill (left) with Nacarci Feaster, president of Milwaukee Chapter of APRI

Far too many union members and African-Americans today may never have heard of A. Philip Randolph, not realizing the contributions he made both to the civil rights movement and to labor.

WIlliam E. (Bill) Johnson, retired business manager of Laborers Local 113, received the Milwaukee APRI Chapter's Achievement Award at the event.

WIlliam E. (Bill) Johnson, retired business manager of Laborers Local 113, received the Milwaukee APRI Chapter’s Achievement Award at the event.

Norman Hill, longtime labor and civil rights activist and president emeritus of the A. Philip Randolph Institute, outlined the major legacy that Randolph left upon his death at the age of 90 in 1979.  Hill, of Washington, spoke at a program sponsored by the Institute’s Milwaukee Chapter in April to celebrate the 125th Anniversary of Randolph’s birth.

Hill traced Randolph’s life from his founding and leadership of the Sleeping Car Porters Union, the nation’s first predominately black trade union, and his leadership of the union became a springboard that led him to leave a significant mark on the nation’s civil rights and labor history.  Randolph brought pressure upon President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1940 to issue an Executive Order banning discrimination in defense industries, perhaps the first significant action by the federal government to end such practices.

Randolph today is best known for developing – along with Bayard Rustin – the famed 1963 March on Washington, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. made his memorable “I Have a Dream” speech.  Hill recalled that President John F. Kennedy at first opposed the March, fearing it would become violent and create a backlash against the civil rights movement.  Hill said Randolph persisted and the March was held, its eventual success made possible by the inclusion in the program of both African-American and white leaders, particularly from the labor movement.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964, he said, did not originally contain a job discrimination clause, and it was eventually included when Randolph persuaded AFL-CIO President George Meany to push for it.  The clause banned racial discrimination by both companies and labor unions, with Meany urging it cover unions, many of which then practiced discriminatory behavior and needed to “clean up their own act.”

Randolph believed that blacks would never be able to gain equality unless they got involved in politics.  He constantly called for blacks to engage in building coalitions with whites, “since whites were also affected by economic issues,” Hill said.  In 1965, Randolph founded the Institute that bears his name, settings its three main goals to promote voter participation, get black workers active within their unions and to establish a positive labor presence in the community

Thus the Institute provides a link between labor and the civil rights movement, Hill said.

He stressed the importance of engaging in political activity by outlining the anti-worker and anti-civil rights actions that were occurred under four U.S. Presidents that were elected without the support of organized labor.  Under Richard Nixon, he said, the Republicans “southern strategy” was created, a movement that called for a “law and order” agenda that were code words against civil rights.  President Reagan opposed both the voting rights and civil rights acts through appointments of administrators that stifled enforcement and gave a permanent blow to labor by firing the striking air traffic controllers in 1981.

Both Bushes, Geroge H. W. and George W., followed similar policies of appointing anti-worker persons to the Supreme Court or key commissions.

Hill said experiences under such Presidents show the need for becoming more active in political action.

Coalition-building is a vital goal to success, he said, urging the involvement of youth and reaching out to other community groups, including all of the civil rights groups of all minorities, including Hispanics, seniors, gay and other progressive organizations.  In that way, Hill concluded, today’s activists will “fulfill the legacy of A. Philip Randolph and Bayard Rustin.



The myths of R-T-W laws

Myths continue to dominate discussions of the so-called right-to-work laws, as witnessed by letters to the editor and comments from columnists who should seem to know better.

The principal myth is in the name, “Right-to-work,” since the law confers no right to a job for anyone!  It’s an ancient bit of clever marketing by pro-business lobbyists to misname something so as to give advantage in a debate.

Myth No. 2 involves the view that leaders of unions – sitting in far-away seats of luxury – make decisions for the union’s members.  Nothing could be further from the truth: by and large unions are one of the most democratic institutions in our society, where decisions are made through voting, where strikes require extraordinary support and where officers are elected.  (To be fair, there have been situations where unions have acted undemocratically, but such occurrences have been widely overplayed and are now largely in the past.)

Myth No. 3 covers the principle of the union shop, which is often mislabeled a “closed shop” that has been outlawed since 1947.  The union shop merely requires all workers to pay for the right of representation, based on the principle that all workers who benefit from the wages and benefits bargained by the union should pay the costs of such representation.  In addition in “open shops,” where not all workers are members, the union is required by law to represent every worker – union or not – in grievances without discrimination.  Thus, the union must defend a non-member worker who is fired just as vigorously as a member worker.

Myth No. 4 is that unions cause a company to close, as referenced recently in the Hostess Bakery closing in Kansas City.  Recognize that a decision to close up shop is made by management, not the union; in fact, unions have many times worked hard to cooperate with companies to take actions to save firms in financial troubled.  In most cases, mismanagement or failure to keep up with technology is behind company closures.

Myth No. 5 is that if workers don’t like the wages or benefits or the treatment they receive at a company, they’re free to quit and go elsewhere.  That’s like saying, “Don’t let the door hit you on the way out!”  Can the workers have NO say in these matters?  Today, finding a job is not as easy as the letter writer may think.

Myth No. 6 is that somehow companies will flock to Michigan now that it has this slave labor law in place.  Check out the reasons why companies move; far down the ladder are the labor laws.  Far higher up is the ability to attract skilled workers, something that better-paid union workers usually provide.

There have been many myths perpetrated in the labor law discussions, and they should not color the thinking of policy makers in Wisconsin. — Ken Germanson, Jan. 1, 2013

Time to look at truth: Is death near for labor?

Perhaps it’s time for loyal unionists to quit fooling ourselves.  In recent years, many of us have wondered about the future of our unions, but any talk of our unions dying has rarely been tolerated.

You’re only falling into the rhetoric of the anti-union crowd, was the warning.  As we’ve watched the percentage of workers in unions drop to 11% — and less than 7% among private sector workers – most of us have skirted the issue, using cute euphemisms like “strengthening unions” or “rebuilding organized labor.”

Brothers and sisters, it’s time to look at reality: unless matters change soon, the labor union movement (as we know it) may soon be so insignificant as to be nonexistent.  To be sure, we’re not in the grave yet; labor’s influence in the 2012 national election, for instance, was substantial in many ways, and in spite of President Obama’s relatively decent margin, he might not have won without labor’s support that gave the Democratic Party the wherewithal and bodies it needed to mobilize voters, particularly minority voters that were so critical.

If trends continue, the 2012 election may have been labor’s last hurrah.

Harold Meyerson, editor of The American Prospect and Washington Post columnist, writes that the death of the labor movement would be a disaster for the nation as a whole.  In a recent long essay, he argued that liberals in this nation should be reminded of how important the labor movement has been to passing vital progressive legislation and to fostering living wages and benefits for all Americans in the last 80 years.

Thus, the loss of a strong labor movement should be no trivial matter to liberals and all Americans who yearn for a just and progressive society.

Meyerson’s essay is worth taking time to read and digest.  Here are a few high points from the essay:

The weakening of labor in the last three decades has caused wages for all workers to remain stagnate – or to drop.

“ . . . Workers today are better educated and more productive.  What they lack is power!”

Growing employer opposition to unions has made it difficult to expand unionization into the service sector.  Weak labor laws make it easier for companies to stifle organizing.

Massive shift of manufacturing to the anti-union culture of the South weakened traditional blue collar unions.

History of unions opting in post World War II period to “business unionism,” coupled with failure of many liberals to support worker issues, caused labor to lose direction.

As moderate Democrats move to the middle, the causes of working people suffer.

What to do?  Meyerson has a few thoughts on how to turn things around, but agrees there is no easy solution in the offing.  It will take a potpourri of solutions to turn back the forces that seek the death of organized labor, and among them, he argues, are such promising actions as found in many municipalities throughout the nation where “living wage” and similar laws have been passed.  It’s easier to pass such laws in cities where labor remains strong to pass such laws.

Coalition building – that is, linking up with neighborhood groups, immigrant organizations or others – is critical, since labor can’t do it alone.  In an extension of this strategy, Meyerson refers to Stephen Lerner (who ran the SEIU’s Justice for Janitors campaign) who advocates broadening labor’s demands beyond workplace issues and joining with others to urge, among other causes, reforms in the banking industry to better serve the community.

One factor that Meyerson failed to mention is that labor may have lost the battle for the American mind.  In a democracy, the people should have the final say, but the people can make the wrong choice if they are fed with faulty information.

In the last election, President Obama was able to overcome some outlandish myths through a concerted and expensive campaign.  For the labor movement to survive as we have known it since 1935, we will need the same sort of truth-telling campaign.  That campaign must be built on more than rhetoric, and must stem from the instillation of a new spirit of innovative thought, openness and vigor.

Many in labor have begun doing much of what is suggested here; it’s obvious more needs to be done.  And, our liberal friends need to realize how linked their causes are with ours.  Time’s a-wasting.  Act now or the organized labor movement may indeed face a death knell.  – Ken Germanson, Dec. 5,  2012.

Trying new ways is a must for labor

A strong, vibrant labor movement is a must if our nation and its citizens are to thrive.  As the percentage of workers in unions has fallen from a high nearly 60 years ago of 34% to the current 11%, so has the typical income of working families.  The growing gap between the wealthy and all others has grown to unconscionable levels, already damaging the vitality of our economy so needed to keep the economic engine running smoothly.

No one should rejoice in the increasing weakness in the labor movement; traditionally its strength is necessary for everyone to prosper, including the wealthy corporate bigwigs who seek to weaken – or even eradicate – all unions.

That’s why we herald the new weapons that unions have been using to fight back to strengthen their influence and build strength.

The United Food and Commercial Workers Union took a big gamble when it sought to stage a nationwide picketing of Walmart on the day after Thanksgiving.  Some observers think the OUR Walmart effort may have failed, and perhaps the numbers of participants were not as much as the supporters wanted, but it did bring national attention to Walmart’s antiunion practices.  See link.

The chances of a massive demonstration, to be sure, were not high, since in these times when jobs are hard to come it’s apparent the vast numbers of dissatisfied Walmart workers were justifiably scared to publicly show their prounion feelings since they may face retaliation.

Taking on the nation’s largest employer is a Herculean task, but it’s imperative to start somewhere, and the Black Friday effort is a beginning.

Then there is the worker center movement that involves partnering with community organizations to set up sites where nonunion workers may go to resolve disputes with their employers or to gain assistance with personal issues involving basic needs.  In Milwaukee, the United Steelworkers teamed up with Voces de la Frontera, a community organization, in seeking union representation for workers at Palermo Pizza.  Some 350 workers are involved in a strike that began July 1st.

This may be a difficult strategy, too, since the organizing effort faces many odds, particularly due to the fact that many of the workers who are Hispanic have been targeted by the Immigration and Naturalization Service enforcement.  Yet, the strategy shows that labor is building credibility within the Hispanic community and is recognizing that a union needs community support to organize.

Traditional organizing is nearly impossible these days, due to the drop in manufacturing employment, unfair foreign imports and growing unfavorable labor laws.

Regardless of how successful the new strategies will be in the short run, they point to a positive trend among our unions to look for new ways to become strong again.  All of America needs stronger unions and everyone should herald this development. – Kenneth A. Germanson, Nov. 24,  2012. 

Labor movement offers best option for economic equality!

The year 2011 was remarkable for two incidents that foretell the future as people struggle for economic equality in the United States.  The first was the February and March uprising of workers in Wisconsin to preserve their right for public employee collective bargaining as well as to express their general concern with the attacks upon all workers.

Secondly, and exactly a year ago this month the Occupy Wall Street movement energized millions not only in the US but throughout the world.  The Occupy movement was dramatic, and it created the idea of the “99%” of people struggling while the 1% sit in the lap of luxury.  Yet the movement itself has by and large fizzled, much like a spent rocket the day after the Fourth of July.

More than 100,000 fill Capitol Square in Madison in March 2011 rally.

It is apparent the enthusiasm generated in 2011 has gone; few people run to rallies anymore. Why is that?  The people are still hurting (though some minor pockets of relief are developing), but the rich keep getting richer and corporate profits continue to grow.

On the other hand, the Tea Party is alive and kicking, causing just as much malicious mischief as ever.   Meanwhile, polls continue to show that the Tea Party represents but a minority of Americans and that few share the Party’s extreme goals.  Why then does it continue to thrive while the Occupy Movement appears near death?

The Tea Party is still around for one reason: It has a structure.  That was due to its funding base, which includes both billionaires like the Koch brothers and their corporate cronies as well as some duped middle class folks.  It is also due to the fact that several institutional entities exist to collect the funds, make decisions as to how to spend them and generally promote the cause.  It has made is possible for Tea Party leaders to put much effort into politics, electing legislators at all levels who are ideologically committed to their nefarious cause.  

After the Occupiers were chased out of the Wall Street park and the city plazas throughout the nation, the movement lost its only tactic.  There was no institution developed to carry on it work, no political action committees ready to take up the cause.  In effect, there was no phone number, no mailing address or website.  When the occupy sites went empty, supporters had no where to go or nothing to do to carry on the fight.

Of course, that spontaneity was one of the strengths of the Occupy Movement.  It acknowledged the fact that it was a leaderless movement.  Sadly, that was also the cause of its demise.

That’s why the labor movement is so critical for liberals and those who believe in balancing the economic scales.  It is the only institution that exists that has the power and the infrastructure to challenge the corporate-funded power of the right.

To many liberals, however, the labor movement is too rigid, too inflexible and old-fashioned.  These liberals ought re-look at labor:  Fresh and progressive leadership has risen in many unions ridding them of some of their more hidebound practices. Many liberals also decry that labor gets involved in things like the Chicago Teachers Strike, which they may feel was insensitive to the needs of students and their parents.  Well, liberals, whether it is the Chicago Teachers in 2012 or the railroad workers and coal miners in 1946,  working people, will often go into unpopular — but from the view of the workers themselves  necessary (repeat that, necessary) — strikes or job-actions causing lots of wringing of the hands.

Look at the Wisconsin Uprising; it continued to work solely because it had the institution of organized labor to provide the needed infrastructure.  A year after the winter rallies, another huge rally was held in Capitol Square in Madison and thousands were mobilized in the partially successful recall movement.  While being seriously outspent, the recall did dump three senators (enough to control the Senate) while falling short in recalling the governor.

It’s time for all Americans who share the goal of income equality to realize that a strong, vigorous labor movement may be the only hope for wage- and benefit-deprived working people.  Let’s hope our ivory-towered liberal friends realize that, too.  — Ken Germanson, Sept. 15, 2012.