Historical Look at How Wisconsin Lost Its Progressivism

(Following is an executive summary of a paper presented by Ken Germanson on Oct. 24 at the North American Labor History Conference in Detroit.  The full document is available here.)

It was tragically ironic: the year 2011 marked the 100th Anniversary of the passage in Wisconsin of pioneering, progressive, pro-worker legislation; it also became the year in which one of the most regressive, anti-labor laws would be passed – the infamous Act 10 that virtually ended the right of public employees to collectively bargain. Four years later, in March of 2015, the Wisconsin Legislature passed the so-called right-to-work law, followed by cutting back on the protections of the state’s David-Bacon Act covering construction trades unions.

This paper will seek to put some perspective on how that change occurred; it will seek to explain how a state that passed the nation’s first, lasting workers compensation law in 1911 and also passed the first full-fledged public employee collective bargaining law in 1959 would in 2011 and 2015 take away basic worker rights that would likely result in robbing them of much hope for a rewarding life of work.

Wisconsin had been viewed as a beacon of progressive laws, such as being one of the first to provide for election-day voter registration. National pundits have declared it a so-called Blue State that had not voted for a Republican presidential candidate since 1988.   We will look at how Wisconsin has joined the once-union-strong Rust Belt states like Michigan to become “open shop” states.

There are five basic reasons for the State’s abrupt turn against workers and unions:

  1. The state has a split political personality; historically most of the counties in the state have voted Republican while the more urban, industrial areas have been Democratic. The split has always been there, even though the nature of the two parties has changed through the years.
  2. The flight of industry to the South and later out of the country took away the state’s heavy concentrations of manufacturing bringing about the loss of union membership.
  3. The mobilization of antiunion efforts by big business has grown more intense and effective in recent years, both in their handling of workers and in public education campaigns.
  4. The stealth campaign waged by Governor Walker hid his true anti-worker agenda, making it possible to spring the damaging legislation on an unsuspecting public and labor movement.
  5. Finally, the failure of the state’s labor unions throughout the years to mount an effective campaign to counter the growing antiunionism.

Wisconsin labor, however, is more determined than ever to rebound; its leaders are open to new ideas to make it happen. As one said, “We are awakened. We are like roaches: we will come back.”

(See full document here.)

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Wisconsinites need not be smug about racism in South

For years, northerners, such as those of us in Milwaukee, have always had a superior attitude about our racism when we think about places like South Carolina, where the confederate flag – and its symbols of slavery – for years flew proudly.

We have nothing to be smug about; racism still reigns in the State of Wisconsin.

Just a few examples from some recent personal experiences:

An African-American teacher who lives two blocks east of me in our once historically  white Milwaukee neighborhood  told me that she experienced the usual hateful racist artifacts being placed on her property after she moved in five years ago. It was a next door neighbor who was unmoved by her efforts to keep her lawn mowed and snow shoveled well above the typical standards of the neighborhood.  To be honest, her lawn is much neater than mine.  Finally, she called the police who set the man straight; to his credit, he backed off.

A friend told that he was called a “n—— lover” in an argument with a neighbor on the Northern Wisconsin lake where he and his wife had purchased an older home and were fixing it up. His sin, in the neighbor’s eyes, was that he took a nephew (an adopted nine-year-old Ethiopian boy) fishing.

While our politicians and public officials never use racist terms outwardly, there are still plenty of our neighbors in this state who do so regularly. Some will avoid openly racist terms, but soon their language will be populated with euphemisms that seek to hide their true racist feelings.

Obviously, there’s still a need to attack racism in our community. – Ken Germanson, July 21, 2015.

Mary Burke will bring balance back to state

There’s one simple reason to vote for Mary Burke: she’s the best hope for restoring some semblance of balance to our state.

Governor Walker in a 2012 visit to Janesville (as recorded in the documentary, “As Goes Janesville”) promised a wealthy donor to “divide and conquer.” By and large, he has succeeded in that promise. The state has indeed become more and more divided and much of his regressive agenda has been accomplished.

It is apparent from her campaign and background that Mary Burke will not be pursuing a hard-left agenda. And that is precisely the reason I believe that in this election Mary Burke is just exactly what Wisconsin needs now. On the key issues, Mary Burke is offering a more moderate, middle way.

Governor Walker and Mary Burke both pledge more jobs, a tough promise for either to fulfill. There, too, Mary Burke offers a combination of plans (even some of Republican origin) to meet that difficult job goal. The fact is Wisconsin is a 50-50 state and any governor should lead with the understanding that he or she represents ALL of the state’s citizens. To improve our job picture, we need both sides working together.

Mary Burke is the candidate best suited to bring Wisconsin back to the historic political balance that created good schools, great universities, a solid safety net, adequate infrastructure and preserved our beautiful natural environment.  Ken Germanson, Nov. 1, 2014

Democracy for the Elites

The signs are unmistakable: the United States is sliding more and more deeply into a caste system, not much unlike the Indian system that created a caste of “untouchables.”

An untouchable was unlikely to ever climb out of the hole into which society placed him or her.

Now, this blessed nation which became great during the first 80 years of the last century as it become more and more egalitarian is morphing into a Third World society where the wealthy and favored live in posh gated communities, surrounded by the makeshift houses of everyone else.

Perhaps that is an overblown conclusion; yet I can’t resist thinking such a picture may be in our nation’s future.

It is not only that the wage gap has been growing, sinking more and more families into seemingly hopeless monetary holes, but so has what I choose to call the “Democracy Gap.”

Just the other day, the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Chicago upheld Wisconsin’s Voter ID Law and ruled the law could go into effect for the Nov. 4th election in which Republican Gov. Scott Walker is in a neck-to-neck race with Democrat Mary Burke. Never mind that there likely will be glitches and costs rising from such a quick implementation of the law nor that there has been no major evidence of voter ID violations anywhere, the Court ruled the law could go ahead.

The real impact of the law will NOT be to stop voter fraud, but it will be to disenfranchise some 330,000 Wisconsinites who have no drivers’ licenses or other authorized forms of picture ID. To get them, they’ll have to locate birth certificates – or more likely write to county clerks in their home states and pay up to $20 for a certificate, which can be a bureaucratic morass for some folks, even if they can come up with the money.

(Quick aside: Presumably the law provides some relief for those who have trouble finding the money, particularly if they were born in the state of Wisconsin, but we question the machinery needed to do the checking as required can be set up to work smoothly less than two months before the election.)

Is it not obvious that the principle purpose of this law was to take away the vote of our poorer citizens, most of whom would likely vote Democratic?

Why the three-judge panel of judges failed to see this confounds me. Certainly these bright and learned people could sift through the evidence to see the truth, even if they were Republican appointees. Weren’t they sworn in to be impartial?

Who were these beacons of legal jurisprudence? Chief Judge Frank A. Easterbrook, who wrote the decision, was appointed by President Reagan, being confirmed only reluctantly after the American Bar Association gave him a low rating. Judge Diane S. Sykes, appointed by George W. Bush, is divorced from notorious Rightwing radio talker Charlie Sykes in Milwaukee but appears not to be separated from his ideas, and John Daniel Tinker, of Indianapolis.

Nothing in their backgrounds indicate they have the least bit of understanding of what it is to live on the edge of society, where people often have to choose whether to pay the rent to avoid eviction, to pay the utility bill to keep the lights on or to buy gas in order to get to their minimum wage jobs in the burbs.

This decision – whether it ultimately stands or not – is indicative of the trend that is creating a democracy gap that is forever heading to putting many Americans into the bottom rungs of a permanent caste system.

Other signs are obvious: the sorry story of redistricting in state-after-state where majorities are overruled by cleverly drawn politicos that see Republicans winning the majority of seats in state legislatures and the U.S. House of Representatives, even though the raw vote heavily went Democratic. Also there is the starving of public education in our cities and poor rural area thus depriving the children from struggling families to rise into higher standards of living. Then, our judicial system puts millions of young people – overwhelmingly those of color – into prisons that doom most of them to a life of failure.

The people who make these decisions usually aren’t evil or in a grand conspiracy to create the caste system I’ve imagined. Most care about the future of the United States and maybe even show up at charity functions or make generous contributions to worthy causes. Their problem is: they just don’t understand.

Such leaders grew up in supportive families in safe neighborhoods and attended good schools and chummed around with other bright and cheerful people. Some might even have had summer jobs where they rubbed elbows with “other” people. Nonetheless, they can’t understand why a single mother can’t find time to get her voter ID, much less pay for it. They ask: What’s the matter with “those” people?

How to stop this trend? In the U.S., we still have a political system that retains many democratic protections, even as it more and more penalizes our less fortunate citizens. It means all of us must find ways to to work around these onerous, wrong-headed laws; it means using social media to fill the ether with the need for all to be active; it means registering “everyone” to vote and to assure they get those hateful voter ID cards, using whatever means possible. In short it means getting involved in politics – even though it’s getting harder and harder to believe in the system.

If we fail, will we not be creating a caste system with untouchables? Ken Germanson, Sept. 13, 2014.

Michigan’s lesson for Wisconsin unionists

Make no mistake about it:  We in Wisconsin have plenty to learn from Michigan’s action this week in passing the Right-to-Work (for less) law.

Talk about stealth legislation, this is it.  Not only did the heavily Republican legislature ram the antiunion law through both the Senate and House without a public hearing and with no floor debate, but they even tried to do it hidden from the general public.  It took a court order to require them to open the chambers up, but the public’s presence did little to slow down the ramrod job the legislature did on the Wolverine State’s working people.

Note to Wisconsinites:  Remember how the Legislature’s Finance Committee in March 2011 passed Act 10 without proper notice, as the Republicans voted continuing to ignore Democratic Assembly Minority Leader Peter Barca’s demand to speak.  And in a vote that lasted no more than 18 seconds, the law taking away most collective bargaining rights for Wisconsin’s public employees was passed.

In Michigan, this “Right-to-Work legislation had laid hidden in the woods during the entire legislative session, until December.  Earlier, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder had said it wasn’t on his agenda, which reassured many Michigan labor leaders into thinking that the GOP-controlled legislature would not touch such a change in traditionally heavy prolabor state. Similarly, Senate Majority Leader Randy Richardville previously opposed “right to work.”

Then, come the special session of a lame-duck legislature and both men suddenly are supporting it.

In Wisconsin, Governor Scott Walker, who with the Republican-controlled legislature slammed through Act 10, has also been quoted as saying “right-to-work” was not on his agenda, nor did Republican leadership hint it was in the offing.  Maybe, just maybe, many laborites began thinking, they just don’t want the hassle of demonstrations similar to 2011, and there’d be no such law offered by Republicans.

Let the Michigan experience be a warning: You can’t trust these guys.

Already we know several legislators are circulating a “right-to-work” law in Wisconsin.  What happened in Michigan could happen in Wisconsin! — Ken Germanson, Dec. 7, 2012.