MILWAUKEE (PAI) – The latest twist in the saga of right wing Wisconsin GOP Gov. Scott Walker’s war on workers is a series of media stories, which leaders of the state AFL-CIO and the Milwaukee Area Labor Council have flatly scorned, that the fed has concocted any boycott in Wisconsin aimed at Walker’s policies.

Not only does federal law make calling boycotts tough, but so do internal AFL-CIO rules.  “If we had a boycott, trust me, we would be shouting it from the rooftops,” noted Sheila Cochran, chief operating officer of the Milwaukee council.

Requirements and rules are stricter on unions than on corporations – not just on boycotts, but on every action – from how they support candidates to how they report money spent, how they organize and protest, and even to set up picket lines.

If anything, the requirements escalate in a boycott. A boycott can only be imposed when endorsed by the AFL-CIO Executive Council. Only then will union members be urged “don’t buy”- which means not to use the service or buy products.

So what’s behind the rumors of an AFL-CIO boycott in Wisconsin? The short answer, and the same one that triggered the mass protests in Madison – and around the country – against the Walker-GOP law that killed collective bargaining rights, is: Grass-roots activism.

In other words, union members and like-minded individuals have acted on their own, voting with their dollars against Walker’s politics and policies.

What’s been happening in Wisconsin has gone far beyond the control or even initiation of organized labor, and one consequence is this constant talk of boycotts that unions never started and often spend hours knocking down.

Fury over Walker’s proposals has long moved beyond curtailing the rights of public workers. It has spread beyond unions, public and private, and now encompasses a lot of citizens who never thought twice about unions or politics.

If that weren’t true, the six Republican state senators who will be objects of recall elections this summer would not be so anxious and backpedaling on Walker proposals they long knew about – and the GOP wouldn’t be rushing to pass Walker’s bills before they lose control of the state legislature. Ironically, this has heightened the right wing attack on the AFL-CIO, since they’d like to pretend it’s only unions that are upset.

But actually, unions are about jobs and negotiations, which is why they can remain calm and focused in marches and rallies. Union leaders know the difference between words and sticks and stones.

There is one case where the state fed quite obviously went after a big Walker backer. In late April, it publicly pulled its money out of M&I Bank, whose executives gave even more money to Walker’s campaign than the Koch brothers did.

One journalist told me that, despite denials, “The court of public opinion sees this as nothing other than a boycott.”

He’d better not say that out loud around the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel newsroom. It would destroy the operators of PolitiFacts, who spend much of their time digging out obscure charges few have heard of but probably accept as true – but aren’t.

Let’s start with the busiest complaint on blogs by right-wingers. They didn’t criticize corporations for pasting anti-union slogans on gas pumps, but they claim unions are behind the illegal campaign to plaster anti-Walker slogans on supermarket products. There’s no evidence for that allegation. The slogans apparently mainly targeted a sausage company and cheese company whose owners gave heavily to Walker.

But the slogans were never a union idea – just more people upset by slash-and-burn emanating from Madison, or acting out a fantasy on the internet. It kept unions busy telling overwrought members to stay away from stuff like this – and reminding them to still enjoy brats but look, as they always should, for the union-made ones.

Another warning to stay away involves those online boycott lists, which reflect anger at Walker’s policies, on Facebook and elsewhere. The call was to boycott companies that gave money to Walker’s camp. Lists were provided based on database culling. Unions were kept quite busy warning journalists and their own members away from such ideas because such lists were scatterguns.

Many companies actually give money to both parties. Several companies on the lists employ union workers. Others support union causes. Some of the companies listed have disgustingly anti-union policies, but it’s their behavior, not opinion, that prompts boycotts.

Wisconsin state fed President Phil Neuenfeldt has reminded people that the boycotts weren’t union ideas. He then was at the receiving end of displeasure not just from the right but from some on the left who suggested unions should “attack” businesses that fed Walker.

In one case, unions were slow to speak up, in an instance of overzealous members. A union field representative used his letterhead to urge area companies to put up signs indicating support of “worker rights.” That was fine, but his letter also suggested that “neutral meant no,” – in other words, that lack of a sign would be regarded as a sign of opposition.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees said that was over the top. A company could have a lot of reasons not to put up a sign and shouldn’t be regarded as an enemy because of an empty window. When told what happened, the AFSCME council leaders stepped in, telling members no union ever proposed, encouraged or endorsed that tactic.

This was not the case with the M&I bank action. It was very specific – a union protest, and it came after individuals and other unions had also pulled their money out of Wisconsin’s biggest bank in a public manner, all as a blunt statement of their disgust.

But no doors were barred, no employees who gave to a political party of their choice were targeted and no union member was told to switch banks. In other words, it was not a boycott.

The fed said this was specifically a clever and effective advertisement of disgust, not much different than what newspaper columnists do – or what newspaper advertisers do when they pull ads in disagreement with editorial policy.

Stephanie Bloomingdale, the Wisconsin AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer, spelled it out in a letter to M&I when she and a contingent of supporters yanked the federation’s $105,000 in funds from the bank, which also has branches in other Midwest states.

U.S. taxpayers had bailed out M&I with $1.7 billion in TARP funds, which have not been fully reimbursed as promised. Now M&I promises to repay the government’s TARP cash only after it sells itself to a Montreal bank. That sale would lead to job losses in Wisconsin, and a bonanza for the M&I executives who gave to Walker.

As Bloomingdale pointed out, the TARP rules say executives shouldn’t profit until they pay the taxpayers back, yet M&I is using foreign ownership to reward CEO Mark Furlong and other top executives. “While we sacrifice and work hard to rebuild our state’s economy, you’ve set yourself up for a $24 million personal payday after the bank’s sale is completed. A $24 million payday that you bent the rules to get,” she wrote.  “M&I does not deserve the trust of Wisconsin’s working families.”

If a clear message like that equals a boycott, somebody had better tell Webster’s.


Dominique Paul Noth
Dominique Paul Noth

Dominique Paul Noth for the past decade was editor of the Milwaukee Labor Press and website, He now writes as an independent journalist on culture and politics.